For the Love of Trees

Maya Lin’s art and call to action

| 10 Nov 2021 | 12:08

Walking beneath the russet brown canopy of New York’s estimated 4-5 million trees, watching leaves drift and flutter, is an autumn ritual and joy. But it’s one that visitors to the current exhibition at Madison Square Park won’t find. Instead, they’ll encounter Maya Lin’s “Ghost Forest,” a site-specific artwork comprised of 49 tall, slender Atlantic White Cedar tree trunks. They offer a place to rest one’s back, a bit of shade — and a powerful message.

Lin catapulted into everyone’s consciousness in 1981, when, as an undergraduate at Yale, she bested more than 1400 professionals with her powerful design for the now-revered Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington. Since then, she’s worked as a designer, an artist and a social and environmental activist whose sculptural works incorporate natural elements, sites, and even the earth itself. Lin has built hills and valleys, landscapes and vistas celebrating nature. Here, she has built a dead forest – or more accurately, she’s appropriated one to highlight the devastating effects of climate change.

“As I approached thinking about a sculptural installation for Madison Square Park, I knew I wanted to create something that would be intimately related to the Park itself, the trees, and the state of the earth,” Lin writes in her artist’s statement for the work. “Throughout the world, climate change is causing vast tracts of forested lands to die off. They are being called ghost forests; they are being killed off by rising temperatures, extreme weather events that yield salt water intrusion, forest fires, and insects whose populations are thriving in these warmer temperatures.”

To accomplish her vision, Lin located and transported a copse of expired trees from the Pine Barrens in New Jersey. They had died due to salt water in their soil after Superstorm Sandy in 2012. Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Chief Curator of the Madison Park Conservancy, points out in the audio tour available online that Lin is “borrowing” the trees. She intends to return the wood for building purposes or to be turned into mulch. Also, as part of the exhibition, 1000 new trees are being planted in the city in partnership with Natural Areas Conservancy. Lectures on climate change have been presented. Carnegie Hall has curated musical performances, and the Cornell Ornithology Lab has collaborated on a soundscape incorporating sounds of birds and animals native to the region.

“Very Little Time Left”

While there’s beauty, grace, and pathos in the installation, there’s also urgency. Lin wants her audience not just to think and feel, but to act.

“We have very little time left to change our climate, change emission patterns, and how we live within the natural world. I wanted to bring awareness to a die-off that is happening all over the world. I also feel that a potential solution is through nature-based practices — changing our forestry practices, reforming our agricultural and ranching practices and increasing our wetlands. These nature-based solutions can potentially offset and sequester over fifty percent of the world’s emissions and would help protect and ensure that the Earth’s biodiversity is increased and restored.”

“The Overstory,” the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Powers, awakened many to the miracles behind the bark and rooted in trees. In “Woman Waving to Trees,” New York artist/poet Dorothea Tanning wrote, (autobiographically, one imagines with a smile) of

“that woman waving up

to the branching boughs

of these old trees. Raise your

heads, pals, look high,

you may see more than

you ever thought possible,

up where something might

be waving back, to tell her

she has seen the marvelous.”

In “Ghost Forest,” Maya Lin has created a moving monument to help us envision, embrace and protect the marvelous.

“Walk into this work and stand in its center. Linger and weave through its perimeter. You’ll experience the central and implied tension in the work. “Ghost Forest” is visually stark and emotionally meditative. It’s beautiful and haunting. Looming and claustrophobic,” states Kamin Rapaport. “The trees are the material and the message.”

“Ghost Forest” By Maya Lin

Madison Square Park, organized by Madison Park Conservancy

Through November 14th