By Michele S. Byers
At a time of year when most parks are green and lush, the centerpiece of Madison Square Park in New York City is a stand of skeletal trees with nary a trace of green. This bleak, gray landscape is completely intentional.
The dead Atlantic white cedars are part of a unique art installation, “Ghost Forest,” by Maya Lin, the artist most famous for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, D.C.
Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the installation is intended to draw public attention to the impacts of climate change. The 49 towering Atlantic white cedars came from the New Jersey Pine Barrens and were already dying from saltwater flooding when they were razed for the exhibit.
The haunting installation continues Lin’s practice of using bold works to shine a spotlight on habitat loss, species loss and climate change. It also serves as a call to action to the thousands of visitors who pass through the park each day. The exhibition is on view through Nov. 14.
In a documentary accompanying the exhibit, Lin said she got the inspiration for “Ghost Forest” while working in her Colorado art studio.
“I’m looking out the window of my studio and there it is. There is a massive die-off of pine trees because of beetle kill,” she said.
She decided to create a similar scene in downtown Manhattan to symbolize “forests dying all around the world because of climate change.”
Where to find large trees suitable for such an exhibit? Lin was advised to look in the New Jersey Pine Barrens, where Atlantic white cedar swamps near the coastline suffered “saltwater inundation” during Superstorm Sandy in 2012.
Saltwater was pushed inland during the storm surge and was trapped in the ground as the hurricane moved away.
Saltwater flooding means slow death for Atlantic white cedars, which need freshwater to live. By the time the trees were cut for the Madison Square Park installation, they were considered “walking dead” – technically alive, but on the way out.
Ranging in height from 38 feet to 45 feet, the New Jersey trees were “planted” in 8-foot-deep holes bored into the ground at the park, similar to the way utility poles are installed.
Lin hopes the eerie sight of the dead trees will serve as a warning of what the future of forests around the world could be if climate change is not slowed.
Scientists predict that if the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere continues to rise at the current rate, severe storms and coastal area flooding will become more common.
“I hope people will be moved enough to volunteer and help try to stop what’s going on around the planet because of us,” said Lin. “We could do it tomorrow. We could do this today.”
In keeping with the exhibit’s climate change message, the Natural Areas Conservancy, a nonprofit champion of New York City’s forests and wetlands, calculated the “carbon footprint” of the “Ghost Forest” installation and what could be done to offset it.
“A thousand native trees are being planted around (New York City’s) five boroughs, which will more than offset our carbon footprint,” said Lin, adding that the newly planted trees will continue to absorb carbon for years to come.
The dead Atlantic white cedars arrayed in Madison Square Park are not the only trees that have succumbed to saltwater inundation.
“All the coastal forests, not just Atlantic white cedar swamps, close to high tide along the Atlantic coast and the Delaware Bayshore have been slowly dying for about 30 years,” said Dr. Emile DeVito, the New Jersey Conservation Foundation’s staff biologist. “Big storms like Superstorm Sandy hasten the decline due to deep saltwater flooding that goes way inland.
“Ghost trees like this can be observed in tidal areas in more than half of New Jersey’s 21 counties,” he added. “Saltwater flooding threatens over 100 miles of New Jersey’s coastal forests along the edges of tidal marshes.”
In New Jersey, there is a recently launched effort by the Division of Parks and Forests to restore Atlantic white cedar forests, which effectively store large amounts of carbon.
As of 2019, when the effort began, there were only about 20,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar forest remaining in New Jersey of the original 135,000 to 140,000 acres that existed before European settlement.
The state hopes to restore 10,000 to 20,000 acres of Atlantic white cedar forest in the Pine Barrens over the coming decade; the largest Atlantic white cedar restoration project of its type ever proposed in any state.
To learn more about the “Ghost Forest” installation, visit the Madison Square Park Conservancy website at https://madisonsquarepark.org/art/exhibitions/maya-lin-ghost-forest/
For more information about Atlantic white cedars, go to https://www.state.nj.us/dep/parksandforests/forest/Atlantic%20white-cedar.pdf
Michele S. Byers is the executive director or the New Jersey Conservation Foundation. She may be reached at email@example.com