An architect by trade, Maya Lin goes back to her roots with “Ghost Forest,” an installation commissioned by the Madison Square Park Conservancy for the leafy Flatiron park. Not wood but the tree itself is the pillar of this exhibition, for which forty-nine ashen Atlantic white cedar trees, a species once not only native to but plentiful in Manhattan and East Coast region, are sown into the earth. Culled from the infamous and haunted pine barrens of New Jersey—a site which is currently undergoing major deprivation in the necessary natural resources for tree growth—they were slated to be cleared before being transported to Manhattan. The grove of trees, beautiful and bare, haunts the present as both punishment from the past and specter of the future: “Ghost Forest” refers to a weather phenomenon wherein massive expanses of forest are killed by extreme weather events stemming from climate change.
Nearly fifty feet tall in height and straight-bodied despite being twisted and gnarled along the knots in their trunks, the dead trees form a copse beneath which New Yorkers and tourists mill, slumber, and seek shelter from the summer heat. One would need to crane one’s neck nearly all the way back to notice the trees’ lifelessness; few do. Between the cobwebbed shadows cast by its bare branches, the appearance of the trees is ever-changing: a spattering of luminous sunlight plucks select trees out of dimness like fingers on harp strings. Accompanying the silent trees is an arresting and quite literally haunting soundtrack of displaced species native to the deciduous forests of Manhattan, courtesy of the Macaulay Library sound archive of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. In it are woven the repetitive, rollicking, and trilling sounds of species which departed or were chased out five centuries before, ranging from bottle-nosed dolphins to bald eagles. Listen closely and you will hear the glittering cry of the wood thrush, the mournful roar of the American black bear, and the almost siren-like keening of the packs of gray wolves which used to roam in droves.
The displacement is doubled: Madison Square Park is located on the ancestral homeland of the Lenape Delaware people, who were displaced and forced to relocate before Manhattan even had its current name. Newly planted, the Atlantic cedars look like strangers beside the nearly century-old gingkos and oaks nearby, transplants onto Manhattan like so many of us who claim it as home. The grasses which surround Lin’s planted trees will soon give way to the less hospitable temperatures of New York in November, when the exhibition will close—a microcosm of the larger and more menacing changes our planet as a whole barrels toward. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Maya Lin, Ghost Forest, 2021. Courtesy the artist and Madison Square Park Conservancy. Photo: Andy Romer