NYC’s Ghost Forest Speaks To Ecosystem Restoration



There’s just one month left to view a towering grove of spectral cedar trees in New York City’s Madison Square Park, whose bare trunks and spindly branches speak not only to the Halloween season but to the ravaging effects of climate change on woodlands. Ghost Forest, an art installation by Maya Lin derives its name from the eponymous natural phenomenon: vast tracts of forestland that have died off due to extreme weather events as well as sea-level rise and saltwater infiltration.

To create the installation, Lin worked with the Madison Square Park Conservancy to source dead trees from a restoration project in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, a vulnerable site that has suffered severe deprivation. Atlantic white cedars, which were once plentiful on the East Coast, have dwindled to a population below 50,000 acres due to past logging practices as well as threats posed from climate change. The 49 cedar trees installed in the park were all slated to be cleared as part of regeneration efforts.

In the park, visitors can wander through the trees, which are interspersed in a dense cluster and stand 40′ to 45′ high. The installation brings the dire reality of dead woodlands to an urban audience and encourages a consideration of nature-based practices that can protect and restore the ecosystem.

According to the Conservancy, here are two things we can learn from the unique regional ecosystem in the Pine Barrens: Ghost

  • Overdevelopment of land negatively impacts forests. Pine Barrens are ecosystems composed of stands of oak and pine trees. Maintained by cycles of rejuvenation, they depend on periodic fires to maintain forest diversity. In healthy forests, recurring burns enable new pines to sprout and also eliminate invasive species that have not coevolved with fires. When fires are suppressed for long periods of time, oaks predominate, outcompeting existing pines, which changes the foundations of the forest. Overdevelopment of land in the Pine Barrens and efforts to protect human property have resulted in fewer natural fires. Thus, urbanization has begun to upset the delicate cycle that preserves the health of the forest.
  • Water filtration is necessary for a healthy ecosystem. Pine Barrens are also unique because of their low nutrient, acidic, sandy soils. Silica sand in these soils leads to quick drainage, which allows water to pool in underground aquifers. The silica sand filters the water, often releasing iron that gives it a reddish tint and high acidity. Despite this, these aquifers contain some of the purest water in the world. Pine Barrens are especially at risk for environmental degradation because contaminants like petroleum can easily penetrate the soil and destroy natural filtration systems.

The Conservancy further points out that reduction in natural fires and disruption of water filtration are not specific to the Pine Barrens. They affect local communities throughout the U.S. Poor land management threatens plant and wildlife diversity across the country. Urbanization and irresponsible building practices reduce the amount of wild land each year. In unique ecosystems like the Pine Barrens, human influence can be even more extreme.

According to the news release, “Prior to development, the land that is now Madison Square Park was home to plant communities similar to those of the Pine Barrens––before the city grid, swamps, forests, and savannas covered Manhattan. Through this exhibition, we sought to bring Madison Square Park back to its roots and to highlight the importance of native plants and their role in preserving a healthy ecosystem.”

The exhibition is on view through November 14, 2021 and culminates in the fall with the planting of 1,000 native trees and shrubs in public natural area parks throughout each of New York City’s five boroughs, a partnership with Natural Areas Conservancy. For more information, visit here.

Sky Photo Credit: Maya Lin Studios

Other Photos: Andy Romer