Maya Lin

Maya Lin on planting a ghost forest in Manhattan

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest, 2021. Photo: Andy Rome.

On Earth Day, Maya Lin and I stood in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park surrounded by dead trees. The artist and architect had just completed Ghost Forest, an installation of fifty lifeless cedars cleared from New Jersey’s Pine Barrens, where rising sea levels and salt-water infiltration now threaten the woodland ecosystem, slowly rotting trees from the inside. Tragic figures, the cedars remain standing as they perish. A soundscape composed by Lin and the Cornell Lab of Ornithology activates their stillness with the vocalizations. of cougars, wolves, beavers, and whales once native to Manhattan Island. Ghost Forest will remain intact, while the surrounding foliage changes from spring to summer and eventually fall, through November 14.

WHEN I WAS FIRST APPROACHED by Madison Square Park Conservancy’s curator, Brooke Kamin Rappaport, more than eight years ago to consider creating a temporary work for the park, I had difficulty imagining what I could do. I rarely do short-term, outdoor works—my environmental works tend to be massive in scale and to read better within the topography after years of growing in and becoming a part of the landscape. But I was intrigued and challenged by the idea of making something in Manhattan.

I approach each work by responding directly to the site, and I knew that I wanted to establish a dialogue with the trees that surrounded the park’s Oval Lawn. At first, I considered introducing a willow walk that you could pass through on foot, comprising living willow trees that would later be transplanted, which would have minimized the artwork’s impact on the site. But as I was finalizing the idea, I couldn’t help but look out on the forestlands in southwestern Colorado, where my family spends our summers and where you can see the effects of climate change in the ever-increasing number of groves of dead trees, the casualties of beetle infestations resulting from the warmer winters. I have been following this sad phenomenon, termed “ghost forests,” around the world—whether caused by droughts, forest fires, insect infiltration, or salt-water inundation from rising seas, all the products of climate change. I envisioned bringing such a ghost forest to Manhattan and allowing the installation to be in place for six months to bear witness to seasonal changes within the park. 

I needed to find a grove of trees that had been victims of climate change as close to Manhattan as possible. The Pine Barrens of New Jersey was a place that I had been fascinated by ever since reading about them in a book by John McPhee. And so local foresters working with the conservancy found a stand in the Pine Barrens that had been inundated by salt water from a nearby estuarine river and that was in the process of being cleared as part of a restoration effort.  Each tree we selected had signs of salt-water rot but was still alive and therefore not in danger of being too brittle for a six-month install. We are effectively borrowing the trees for the installation; afterward, they will be recycled into building materials and tree mulch.

Maya Lin, Ghost Forest preparatory sketch, 2019.

The trees are totemic sculptures, each one with its own character. Once we installed the first, it determined where the next would go; from one grew the constellation of the remaining forty-eight. I’ve learned over the years that making art that looks natural is extremely difficult. I avoided a set pattern and instead created different amounts of space between the trunks, the only limitation being the need for each tree to have enough room to be affixed beneath the soil. It was crucial that the installation feel organic, not regulated or designed. At the same time, I didn’t want the forest to get lost within the local flora of Madison Square Park. The scale of the living trees is actually quite majestic. If the trees in Ghost Forest were too small, they would have looked miniaturized in relation to the living trees in the park; if they were too large, they would have appeared to be fighting visually with the existing trees. During our preparation, we actually brought out tall poles to mock up different possible heights of trees, and I felt the height of between forty-five and fifty-five feet seemed to create the right dialogue and tension between the living and dead trees.

Each tree is a monument to climate change. The project has an advocacy component, which we are using to talk about farming, forestry, degradation, and development. I’m also matching the amount of carbon used in installing the forest by planting a thousand trees around the city. Over ten years, we will actually offset what it took to create the 5.3-ton piece by a factor of ten. Global warming is one of the gravest threats we face, and as an artist and an activist I don’t want to just make you aware of its dire consequences; I want to offer real solutions.

Our kickoff public event was a panel discussion on nature-based strategies to combat climate change, and we will continue to explore these issues in other programs throughout the project. Reforming our agricultural, ranching, and forestry practices and increasing protection of both our land and waters could offset between 50 and 90 percent of our current emissions as well as protect and restore our biodiversity. After the horrific actions of the last administration, we simply don’t have another four years to waste.