Trees Talk Back in Maya Lin’s ‘Ghost Forest’


The trees are deep in conversation across the street from my apartment in the Bronx on a sultry summer day. Trees, science tells us, are social creatures, and we do some of the things that we humans do, at least when we’re doing our best. They exchange health tips, weather news. They nurture, protect and support each other. They also support other beings: birds, insects, us. They live sensible lives. They produce the perfect hash.

Unlike us. In a universe that revolves around it, the karma we generate through competitive greed, thoughtless waste, and targeted evil is killing the world around us. We are at war with the planet and everything on it, including trees.

Artist and architect Maya Lin started her career reacting to a war. The 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a blade of black granite, commemorates a “foreign” war that became lodged in American soil, becoming a civil war and dividing the nation. Its new installation “Ghost Forest” The exhibition, which is on display until November 14 at Madison Square Park in Manhattan, is also commemorative. A monument to the sky of an ongoing war against everything we call nature.

Is “to counter” a very active phrase? Some people do not know that human-induced climate change exists. Others underestimate its weight. Still others – a new US president – dismiss it as fiction. Until the protests got really loud, pictures of the My Lai massacre leaked, and the guys we partyed with in high school came home in body bags, in the early stages of the Vietnam War, we ignored or belittled in different ways.

Now, as then, it is difficult to maintain ignorance and denial. Temperatures are rising, coasts are flooding, fields are shrinking. All species—four-legged, winged, winged, and rooted—are suddenly MIA, and the casualty list is growing. Yet public protest against climate degradation in the United States is still sparse and lukewarm, so every resilient gesture feels so important, like the “Ghost Forest.”

Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, the “Ghost Forest” is basically a reconstructed, damaged piece of nature. Lin brought 49 adult Atlantic white cedar trees, each about 40 feet tall, from Pine Barrens on the New Jersey coast to Manhattan and planted them in the middle of a bosky Madison Square Park. They make an odd display in the context of the park’s arboreal luxury because they are leafless and clearly dead or dying.

As a result of climate change, they were harvested from a habitat where saltwater seeps in. Salt water is poison to trees; rots them from the inside. The cedar trees that were too sick to save had now been cleared from their original homes in the park to make room for the regeneration effort.

Although Lin was trained as an architect – He recently redesigned the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass.. — his most memorable public work is sculpture, and he painted the natural world as both a medium and a theme. At the Storm King Arts Center 60 miles north of Manhattan in 2009, a low 11-acre landscape of packed earth and grass, gently tumbled hills created forms inspired by ocean waves and the surrounding Hudson Valley mountains. .

“My interest has always been in shaping the world,” he wrote in his autobiographical book “Limits,” published in 2000. “This drive has shaped all my work.”

Since that book came out, the focus on planetary survival has sharpened dramatically. Intersecting with other social justice initiatives, climate justice is – certainly in Europe – among the frontline activist movements of the 21st century.

If “Ghost Forest” isn’t technically activist art – much closer to the “environmental art” of an earlier time, like “Wave Field” – the stark image of terrestrial loss is driven by the same urgency as climate justice resistance.

However, it takes a few minutes for the full image to be saved once you enter the park. Seen from afar, the transplanted cedars blend into the larger wood texture. Then the tonal contrasts begin to dissolve: the trunks of the park’s living trees are loamy brown and black; those of the cedars, a dry grey-white. (This difference was immediately apparent when the installation opened in May, before the park fully leafed out, and will likely happen again when summer arrives.)

Another contrast: while standing under the park’s established trees, look up and you’ll see a dense green ledge to keep the rain out; While standing under the cedars, look up and see the open sky. The leaves they once had are long gone and the branches seem to have been shaved off. Only a few remained, like slender, protruding arms.

There’s no doubt that Lin designed “Ghost Forest” as a symbol of a deep wound. But another image also emerges: an image of sociability, a community of personalities, a community of spirits.

He carefully choreographed the placement of the cedars to produce it. A few are lined up in rows like cathedral columns. But most are in asymmetrical groups, the equivalent of conversational clusters, the kind you can find at parties and neighbor gatherings, and the kind that wild trees actually form to communicate and share nutrients through their surfaces. roots.

Also, the “Ghost Forest” project comes with what Lin calls “advocacy components.” He arranged for a thousand trees to be planted in the fall in five boroughs to offset the carbon used in moving the cedar trees to Manhattan. Also, “What’s Missing?”, which tracks the disappearance of plant and animal species. It has an online database called (Search website,, “last memorial”).

But what’s most impressive about “Ghost Forest,” and therefore most politically influential, is the way it personalizes its subject matter. Without emotionalizing or metaphorizing it, he presents trees as living, breathing, dying kindred beings and karmic companions that I lovingly observe from my Bronx window and which John Ashbery celebrates in these lines from one of his early poems. , “Some trees”:

These are great: each
Joining a neighbor like conversation
There was still a performance.
arrange by chance

To meet until this morning
accepted by the world
with him, you and me
suddenly what trees try

To tell us:
they’re just there
It means something; soon
We can touch, we can love, we can explain.

Maya Lin: Ghost Forest

Until November 14, Madison Square Park, Manhattan; 212-520-7600;


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