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A Forest Elegy for the Rapidly Vanishing American Hemlock Tree

Hemlock Hospice is an interpretive trail of sculptures in the Harvard Forest which draws attention to the vanishing eastern hemlock tree.

"Exchange Tree," installation at Harvard Forest, wood and acrylic paint. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Aaron Ellison, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Exchange Tree,” installation in Harvard Forest, wood and acrylic paint. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Aaron Ellison, Salvador Jiménez-Flores, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)

Across the Eastern United States, an invasive insect is killing one of the foundation trees of the North American forest. The hemlock woolly adelgid (HWA) is believed to have arrived on plant nursery stock from East Asia, and is irreparably devastating the eastern hemlocks. While cold weather can curb the insects’ spread, the warming temperatures of climate change have encouraged their migration north through 18 states, from Georgia to Maine. Hemlocks have no natural resistance to HWA, and there is no cure.

“The insect has been in North America since the 1950s, and it only got up here at Harvard Forest around 2009,” Aaron M. Ellison, senior ecologist at the Harvard Forest, told Hyperallergic. “It is taking out our trees relatively rapidly.”

Ellison collaborated with artist David Buckley Borden on a year-long installation called Hemlock Hospice, on view along a two-mile out-and-back public trail in the Harvard Forest. Located about 65 miles west of Cambridge, Massachusetts, the 4,000-acre active research area was founded by Harvard University in 1907. Scientists expect that the hemlock forests of Massachusetts — including Harvard’s — will functionally disappear by 2025.

A tour of <em>Hemlock Hospice</em> led by proctor Jill Fusco, with "Bio Resource Plug" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest (courtesy Harvard Forest Archives, Harvard University, photo by Neil Pederson)
A tour of Hemlock Hospice led by proctor Jill Fusco, with “Bio Resource Plug” (2017) (courtesy Harvard Forest Archives, Harvard University, photo by Neil Pederson)

The 18 artworks on the trail include a “Memorial Woodshed” that frames a recently perished tree, and a “Bio Resource Plug” formed from a trunk, recalling how, along with HWA, hemlocks have been extensively harvested for biofuel chips and timber. Each piece is intended to draw visitor attention to the plight of the hemlock, to witness it vanishing in plain sight, and consider a future when the trees will be gone. Black armbands wrap some trunks, symbolizing a public mourning, while a “Sixth Extinction Flag” marks that the tree is one among many species disappearing from our global biodiversity. Visitors wear specially designed hard hats on a self-guided walk that is navigated with a prepared map, or they can join a guided tour.

"Wayfinding Barrier, No. 2" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, vinyl, hardware, aluminum tape, and recycled ant nests. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Wayfinding Barrier, No. 2” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, vinyl, hardware, aluminum tape, and recycled ant nests. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)

“The first piece is at the beginning of the trail, and its wayfinding barriers are closing the preexisting trail,” Borden explained. “The trees are in such a decayed state that they’ve become a safety hazard. We wanted to set the tone for the tour, and communicate to people that this tiny insect is having a huge impact on the forest, and how we use the forest, in terms of research and recreation.”

Additional art by Borden is on view at the Harvard Forest’s Fisher Museum in the companion exhibition Forest, Interdisciplinary Science Communication. Borden was the 2016–17 Charles Bullard Fellow and artist-in-residence at the forest, and regularly engages with ecology in his practice. His 2016 Hoosic Expedition promoted awareness of the Hoosic River Watershed that stretches between Massachusetts, New York, and Vermont through a proposed interpretive trail and daily digital drawings on its urban ecology, while the 2015 Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem was a year-long investigation involving maps and installations on environmental management and land-use in Wyoming. For the Hemlock Hospice residency, he spent the first months shadowing scientists and researchers, later reflecting on this material in an on-site studio.

“It was really proposed as a science communication project about how art and design can serve science communication,” Borden said. He was particularly inspired by the dioramas in the Fisher Museum, which date to the 1930s and chronicle New England’s forest history. They act as a visual timeline of the precolonial woods being transformed by 18th-century settlement, 19th-century forest clearing, and early 20th-century clear-cutting, as well as erosion, forest fires, and tree harvesting. Created by artisans in the Guernsey and Pitman studio, they’re considered groundbreaking in science communication on conservation. Borden’s exhibition, based on the latest scientific research, propels their story onwards from 2016, and into a future without the eastern hemlock.

“I think the problem we as scientists face, is the way we do things, and the way we communicate information, is not always the most accessible,” Ellison said. “And this is the United States, where there’s not as much of a trust in scientists as there is in other countries. It’s critically important that we communicate this kind of information and try to reach people when talking — whether it’s about climate change or species extinction or habitat change — and we reach them at as many different levels as we can.”

"Widow Maker Sign" (2017), three-color silkscreen print on paper, 12x12 inches. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Dr. Aaron Ellison, and Trifecta Editions (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Widow Maker Sign” (2017), three-color silkscreen print on paper, 12×12 inches. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Aaron Ellison, and Trifecta Editions (courtesy David Buckley Borden)

Indeed, although Harvard released a book in 2014 — Hemlock: A Forest Giant on the Edge — and many scientists are studying the tree’s decline, the disappearance of the hemlock remains obscure to the greater public. Yet it reflects broader issues of climate change, species loss, and global commercialism, like the plant trade, and how these can have longterm local effects. One of the installations — “Wood Shoes” — is a severed stump with two carved footprints, so a person can stand and be the absent tree, and look out at a forest in a constant cycle of life and death. Some of these hemlocks are around 200 years old. Once gone, thickets of almost impenetrable black birch fill in their place. “Fast Forward Futures” is a sculpture of linked pointing triangles that indicate the next phase of such a thicket, which in turn will give way to a new deciduous forest of maples, oaks, and birches.

"Fast Forward Futures" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, and assorted hardware, 4 x 8 x 26 feet. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Dr. Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Fast Forward Futures” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, and assorted hardware, 4 x 8 x 26 feet. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)

“I feel very strongly that we should be mobilizing art in helping to conserve and preserve and protect the environment,” Ellison stated. “Hemlocks are essentially gone, and in some places have been gone 20 years now. It’s something that has been ongoing now for a long time, and it hasn’t gotten the same amount of press as the emerald ash borer, because hemlock is not an economically important tree. But it’s extremely important in terms of its ecology.”

Like hospice care for humans, this art and science project is not solely about mourning, it’s also about acceptance and going forward in constructive ways. The “HWA-Brand Nurse Logs” reference how the fallen hemlocks could, over the following decades, have an afterlife as growing grounds for new trees. Hemlock Hospice is on view through November of this year, so visitors can explore through the seasons, with the installations weathering alongside the waning arbors. As Borden affirmed, “If someone wants to bring the snowshoes and cross-country skis, they can do that.”

A tour of <em>Hemlock Hospice</em> led by proctor Jill Fusco, with "Black Armband Ecology" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest (courtesy Harvard Forest Archives, Harvard University, photo by Neil Pederson)
A tour of Hemlock Hospice led by proctor Jill Fusco, with “Black Armband Ecology” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest (courtesy Harvard Forest Archives, Harvard University, photo by Neil Pederson)
"Double Assault" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, acrylic paint, wood, vintage buzzsaws, and assorted hardware. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Double Assault” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, acrylic paint, wood, vintage buzzsaws, and assorted hardware. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Jack Byers, Aaron Ellison, and Salua Rivero (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
"Hemlock Hospice Forest Lantern, No. 2" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, vinyl, and assorted hardware, 2 x 4 x 5 feet. Collaborators: Jackie Barry, David Buckley Borden, Dr. Aaron Ellison, Tim Lillis, and Lisa Q Ward (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Hemlock Hospice Forest Lantern, No. 2” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, vinyl, and assorted hardware, 2 x 4 x 5 feet. Collaborators: Jackie Barry, David Buckley Borden, Aaron Ellison, Tim Lillis, and Lisa Q Ward (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
"Hemlock Memorial Shed" (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, and assorted hardware. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Mike Demaggio, Aaron Ellison, CC McGregor, Jared Laucks, and Lisa Q Ward (courtesy David Buckley Borden)
“Hemlock Memorial Shed” (2017), installation at Harvard Forest, wood, acrylic paint, and assorted hardware. Collaborators: David Buckley Borden, Mike Demaggio, Aaron Ellison, CC McGregor, Jared Laucks, and Lisa Q Ward (courtesy David Buckley Borden)

Hemlock Hospice continues through November 18, 2018 at Harvard Forest and Fisher Museum (324 North Main Street Petersham, Massachusetts).

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