‘I Call Them My Gentle Giants’: Why Artist Maya Lin Planted 49 Towering Cedar Trees in the Middle of New York City
The installation, which Maya Lin said carries a sense of mourning, has taken on added meaning since the death of her husband in January.
In a scene that seems ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel, a wooded forest has sprung up overnight in the urban jungle that is New York City.
A warning about the dangers of climate change, Ghost Forest takes its name from the phenomena of the same name. Around the world, trees are dying because of insect infestations and rising sea levels, which can leave trees drowning in saltwater.
The work features 49 Atlantic white cedar trees from the Pine Barrens of New Jersey. There, some 100 miles south of Manhattan, large swaths of decades’ old costal forests are being lost to salt water inundation.
“I call them my gentle giants,” Lin said at the opening of the exhibition, the trees having been carefully planted amid a tangle of electric utility cables and sprinkler lines buried beneath the park’s lawn. “I wanted you to feel like you’re wandering through something intimate.”
As a public art installation, Ghost Forest is somewhat of a departure for Lin, who remains best known for her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., but has also created monumental earthworks like the undulating Wavefield at Storm King Art Center in New Windsor, New York.
“I don’t do temporary works,” she said. “I’m pretty slow. I’m very site specific—I like to connect you to the land under your feet.”
So when Madison Square Park Conservancy chief curator Brooke Kamin Rapaport asked her to conceive a project for its public art program back in 2013, it was a while before an idea took root. Initially, Lin wanted to work with living trees, but realized planting them would take years to have the visual impact she was envisioning.
“It was stumping me,” Lin admitted, before catching and apologizing for the unintended pun.
It was in 2018, during her annual stay in Colorado, that Lin encountered stands of rapidly dying Ponderosa pine trees, sparking the idea for the work. She called Rappaport: “Could I bring a ghost forest to downtown Manhattan?”
The piece presented numerous logistical challenges. Bringing in trees that had sickened due to infestation was out of the question for obvious reasons. And then there was the issue of public safety.
The project, announced in November 2019, was originally set to take place last summer, featuring a grove of dying cedar trees that have been in decline since Hurricane Sandy in 2012.
But with a year’s delay, Lin had to find new trees, to ensure she was using green wood that wouldn’t rot or risk become a safety hazard. One of the 50 80-year-old trees initially earmarked for the installation was nixed at the last minute when inspector found that it was already beginning to decompose.
Luckily for the project—if unfortunate for the Pine Barrens—there was another set of trees that showed signs of saltwater tree rot from an overflowing river. Removing the entire stand, which would have died in a year or two, had the added benefit of allowing newly planted cedars to get the light they need to grow.
Debuting as New York City looks to rebound from the pandemic—as well as in the wake Lin’s own personal loss, with the death of husband and noted photography collector Daniel Wolf of a heart attack in January—Ghost Forest has also taken on added meaning since its initial conception.
“We’ve all shared in this pandemic. You can’t not think or look at these in a different way than a year ago. That does become part of the piece,” Lin said. “There is a sense of mourning.”
“There is a parallel between a global pandemic and climate change which is also a global threat to humanity,” she added. “By 2100, 50 percent of all species may go extinct due to climate change.”
The trees arrived on site last month, before the leaves had begun to bloom in the city, and will remain on view until they fall again in autumn. “They will bear witness as the park goes from spring to summer and fall,” Lin said. “They’re sentinels.”
Each trunk was buried eight feet at its base, two feet deeper than recommended by a consulting engineer. Foresters snapped off all the lower branches and any limbs that appeared even slightly insecure, adding to the stark, spartan appearance of Ghost Forest.
“Each tree, I realized has a distinct personality,” Lin said. “When I put each tree in, it helped me determine which its neighbor should be.”
The making of Ghost Forest will be the subject of fall exhibition at the nearby Fotografiska museum, featuring preparatory sketches and materials as well as photographs of the installation process and finished work.
The project also has an audio component, with a soundscape featuring bird songs from endangered and extinct native species composed by Lin in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in Upstate New York.
But what Lin is perhaps most excited about is the public programming about the intersection of art and ecology, which will feature climate activists and experts on topics such as wetland remediation, forest restoration, and other conservation efforts.
“I didn’t want to talk about [climate change] without offering solutions,” Lin said. “I do believe there is hope we could turn this around.”
Lin also kept track of carbon emissions related to the project over the past three years, including her own travel and the work of landscape contractors. The resulting 5.3 tons of carbon will be offset thanks to 1,000 trees and shrubs being planted across the city in the fall.
“[Those plants] will absorb 60 tons of carbon over the next ten years,” said Lin. “Nature-based solutions can offer some really positive emissions reductions and also protect species.”
See more photos of the installation below.
“Maya Lin: Ghost Forest” is on view at Madison Square Park, between Fifth Avenue and Broadway and East 23rd and 26th Streets, New York, May 10–November 14, 2021.
An exhibition about the making of the work will be on view at Fotografiska, 281 Park Avenue South, New York, September–November 2021.
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