In Maya Lin’s ‘Ghost Forest,’ the Trees Are Talking Back

On a sultry summer day the trees across the street from my Bronx apartment are deep in conversation. Trees are, science tells us, social...


On a sultry summer day the trees across the street from my Bronx apartment are deep in conversation. Trees are, science tells us, social beings and do some of the same things we humans do, at least when we’re acting our best. They trade tips about health, news about weather. They nourish, and protect, and support each other. They support fellow beings too: birds, insects, us. They live sane lives. They generate excellent karma.

Unlike us. In a goes-around-comes-around universe, the karma we’re producing — through competitive greed, unthinking waste and targeted malice — is killing the world around us. We’re at war with the planet and everything on it, trees included.

The artist and architect Maya Lin began her career with a response to a war. Her 1982 Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, a blade of black granite slashed into American soil, commemorates a “foreign” war that became an internal one and divided the nation. Her new installation, “Ghost Forest,” on view in Madison Square Park in Manhattan through Nov. 14, is commemorative too. It’s a sky-reaching memorial to a war in progress directed against everything we call Nature.

Is “directed against” too active a phrase? Some people simply don’t know that human-sourced climate change exists. Others underestimate its gravity. Still others — a recent United States president — dismisses it as a fiction. In not dissimilar ways, we ignored or downplayed the Vietnam War in its early phases, until protests got really noisy, pictures of the My Lai massacre leaked out, and guys we’d partied with in high school came home in body bags.

Now, as then, cluelessness and denial are hard to sustain. Temperatures are climbing, shores are flooding, fields are shriveling up. Entire species — four-footed, winged, finned and rooted — are suddenly M.I.A., and the casualty list is growing. Yet, in the United States, public protest against climate breakdown is still sporadic and tepid, which is why every resistant gesture feels crucial, as “Ghost Forest” does.

Commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, “Ghost Forest” is basically a reconstituted patch of damaged nature. From the coastal Pine Barrens of New Jersey, Lin brought to Manhattan 49 full-grown Atlantic white cedars, each around 40 feet tall, and planted them together at the center of a bosky Madison Square Park. In the context of the park’s arboreal luxe they make an odd sight, because they’re leafless, and clearly dead or dying.

They’d been harvested from a habitat infiltrated by salt water, a result of climate change. Salt water is poison for trees; it rots them from within. Sick beyond saving, the cedars now in the park had been cleared from their original home to make room for a regeneration effort.

Although Lin was trained as an architect — she recently redesigned the Neilson Library at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. — her most memorable public work has been sculpture, and has drawn on the natural world as both a medium and a theme. In 2009, at the Storm King Art Center, 60 miles north of Manhattan, she created, from packed earth and grass, an 11-acre low-rise landscape of gently swelling hills, the forms inspired by ocean waves and the surrounding Hudson Valley mountains.

“My affinity has always been toward sculpting the earth,” she wrote in her autobiographical book, “Boundaries,” published in 2000, “This impulse has shaped my entire body of work.”

Since that book appeared, the focus on planetary survival has sharpened dramatically. Climate justice, intersecting with other social justice initiatives, is — in Europe, for sure — among the 21st century’s frontline activist movements.

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

Still, it takes a few minutes, once you’re in the park, for the image to fully register. From a distance, the transplanted cedars blend into the larger arboreal fabric. Then tonal contrasts begin to sort out: The trunks of the park’s living trees are loamy browns and blacks; those of the cedars, a dry gray-going-white. (This difference was immediately striking when the installation opened in May, before the park had fully leafed, and probably will be again as summer turns to fall.)

Another contrast: Glance upward while standing under the park’s resident trees and you see an overhang of green, dense enough to keep off rain; look up while standing under the cedars and you see open sky. Whatever foliage they once had is long gone, and their branches seem to have been shaved away. Only a few remain, like thin sticking-out arms.

There’s no question that Lin intended “Ghost Forest” as an emblem of profound injury. But another image comes through too: an image of sociability, of a community of personalities, a congregation of spirits.

To produce it, she has carefully choreographed the placement of the cedars. A few line up in rows like cathedral columns. But most are in asymmetrical groupings, the equivalent of conversational clusters, of a kind you might find at parties and neighborly gatherings, and of a kind that trees in the wild actually form for purposes of communicating through their surfaces and the sharing of nutrients through their roots.

In addition, the “Ghost Forest” project comes with what Lin refers to as “advocacy components.” She has arranged a fall planting of a thousand trees throughout the five boroughs to offset the carbon used in moving the cedars to Manhattan. And she maintains an online database, “What is Missing?,” which monitors the disappearance of plant and animal species. (She calls the website, whatismissing.org, the “last memorial.”)

But what’s most moving — and, for that reason, most politically effective — about “Ghost Forest,” is the way it personalizes its subject. Without sentimentalizing or metaphorizing, it presents trees as the living, breathing, dying relatable beings and karmic companions they are, ones I observe, with love, from my Bronx window, and ones that John Ashbery celebrates in these lines from one of his early poems, “Some Trees”:

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chanceTo meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees tryTo tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.


Maya Lin: Ghost Forest

Through Nov. 14, Madison Square Park, Manhattan; 212-520-7600; madisonsquarepark.org.

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