‘Odd, eerie and haunting’: behind Maya Lin’s Manhattan ghost forest


In Manhattan’s bustling Flatiron District, 49 coastal Atlantic cedars – each around 40ft tall, leafless branches grasping at the sky – tower over Madison Square Park’s usually flat, grassy plain. The spectral forest, a new installation by the artist and architect Maya Lin, looms like a jarring holdout from winter – barren, save for smattering of lichen on each trunk, a stark contrast to the verdant six-acre park’s late-spring growth and the clean lines of the skyscrapers overhead.

The urban forest recalls the island’s pre-city past as a dense woodland teeming with birdsong and animals larger than rats, and stands as a sort of slow-rolling funeral – the 49 trees, all about 80 years old, are still technically alive but will die completely within about two years, the victim of saltwater tree rot from rising sea levels in New Jersey’s coastal Pine Barrens region.

Lin’s Ghost Forest, hosted in the park until 14 November, takes it name from the ecological phenomenon in which large swaths of woodland are killed off at once by rapid environmental degradation, be it invasive species or saltwater inundation as sea levels rise. Coastal cedars such as the 49 Lin calls her “gentle giants” used to abound on the eastern seaboard, but habitat loss and climate change have hemmed the species into now just a mere 50,000 acres.

As an architect, Lin, 61, is most widely known for her memorials, works which convey loss at mass scale through stark, graceful minimalism: the circular fountain-cum-timeline for the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, or the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a solemn gash in the earth lined with black stone and over 58,000 names whose aesthetic still moves viewers to silent contemplation four decades on. (The monument made Lin an overnight star in the architecture world when, as a 21-year-old senior at Yale, she beat out 1,420 proposals for the commission in 1981.)

Maya Lin - Ghost Forest

With Ghost Forest, Lin has constructed a striking, meditative memorial to biodiversity loss and the ecological ravages of climate change, a literally dying shadow of Manhattan’s wooded past that also lends itself to a midday stroll or picnic.

“Technically what I’m drawn to in history is accurately remembering the past, because it’s got to teach us a different future,” Lin told the Guardian. “But the problem is if we don’t accurately remember the past, how can we help reinvent and define a different future?”

The use of towering trees as material is a full-circle moment for Lin, who grew up surrounded by hilly woodlands in Athens, Ohio, in the state’s eastern Appalachian region (her parents were both professors at Ohio University). As a child, “my playground was the backwoods,” she said. The imposing otherworldliness of trees, in particular, inspired Lin’s earliest faith in the sanctity of the natural world and the urgency of environmental preservation. “Because I was surrounded by woods – and it was magical, the oak trees were towering – I could be found as a high-schooler, as a grade-schooler, at a parking lot of Kroger’s and AMP petitioning to save the whales and boycott Japan,” she said.

Lin’s formative years in the 60s and 70s were shaped by the burgeoning environmental movement, a value system of conservation inextricable from her professional work as an architect. Her political consciousness was “all about: can we be gentler on nature and the natural world”, she said, “and then in my art, it’s always been about getting you to pay closer attention to literally what’s under your feet”.

Lin’s work has long melded art with architecture and sustainable design, from the undulating ripples of Wavefield at Storm King to, most recently, the $120m overhaul of Smith College’s Neilson Library – originally designed in 1893 by Frederick Law Olmstead, the chief architect of Manhattan’s Central Park – unveiled earlier this year.

Since 2012, Lin has run a multi-site project she considers her final memorial: What Is Missing? a shape-shifting digital tribute to biodiversity and habitat loss which provides oft-missing shape for what development and climate change hath taken away – a map pinpoint for the extinction of Florida’s Dusky Seaside Sparrow, for example, or a crowd-sourced memory of dwindling butterfly populations off the coast of Maine. Ghost Forest is a temporary, grounded offshoot of sorts for What Is Missing?, though on a much shorter timeframe than Lin’s preferred window. “Oftentimes when I put an earthwork in, I say, ‘Give it a few years. And then, give it a hundred years,'” she said.

Maya Lin - Ghost Forest

Lin originally intended to install a grove of willows in Madison Square Park, which could then be replanted elsewhere. But the several years required for healthy growth fit neither the bounds of the exhibition nor the urgency or pace of forest death. She shifted focus in the summer of 2018, after witnessing large die-offs of ponderosa pines around her home in south-western Colorado. “Literally one year there will be a hint of rust in the needles,” she said. “By the next season, the entire stand has died off.”

Back on the east coast, numerous arborists, scientists and ecologists pointed Lin toward the Pine Barrens, a coastal region about 100 miles south of the city, decimated by the singular disaster of Hurricane Sandy in 2012 and longer-term saltwater inundation as a result of climate change. The park’s 49 trees (originally 50 – one was deemed too dead upon arrival in New York to be safely replanted) were slated for private removal to provide regenerative space for new forest growth, and meticulously inspected to prevent insects and other threats to the greenery in the park. The trees were delivered via flatbed truck in the middle of the night, and arranged (eight feet deep into the ground, two feet more than standard telephone poles) by Lin according to the tree’s individual “personalities”, size and the jigsaw of sprinkler and electrical lines.

As opposed to the large-scale earthworks of a past generation of artists, which used the land as canvas, Lin “did not transform these trees”, said Brooke Kamin Rapaport, the deputy director and Martin Friedman chief curator for the Madison Square Park Conservancy, who helped shepherd Lin’s vision. “There’s not a manipulation here. This is bringing a natural material directly,” as the trees are “the medium and the message of the work, which is extraordinary”.

Throughout the project, Lin and her team have tracked their carbon footprint, with the hope of more than offsetting the cost of the project (5.3 tons) by planting more than 1,000 trees and shrubs, in partnership with the Natural Areas Conservancy and the Madison Square Park Conservancy, throughout the city’s five boroughs. Ghost Forest will also spur a number of public programs and collaborations, including a soundscape in conjunction with the Natural Areas Conservancy and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, which reproduces the natural sounds of wildlife once common to the area.

The forest is also accompanied by numerous resources for nature-based solutions to climate disaster through What Is Missing? “I didn’t just want to talk about, ‘Hey, this is happening,’ without offering solutions,” said Lin.

As passersby in the city happen upon the spectral grove probably unaware of its environmental significance, Lin said she hopes the 49 trees slipping from life offer pause as “something odd, eerie, and haunting” and also a call to action. Whether through the specter of dead forests itself or its offshoots – a concert on the Madison Square Park green, QR codes to resources nearby, the larger What Is Missing? database of stories – “maybe I can get you to shift perceptions,” she said.


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