This autumn’s dry, crinkly leaves aren’t the only things reaching their final stages of life in Harvard Forest. A mile down a public trail into the woods, a sign invites visitors to explore “Hemlock Hospice,” an art installation that pays its respects to the eastern hemlock. The trees have been dying off across their range, from northern Alabama to southern Canada.
The installation wends its way through a stand of hemlocks that have been stripped of most of their needles by the piercing, sucking mouthparts of the hemlock woolly adelgid, or HWA. This tiny, aphidlike insect taps into the hemlock’s nutrient reserves and leaves dead trees in its wake. The plant trade inadvertently introduced the bug to the United States from East Asia in the 1950s, and it has since spread across 18 states.
“It’s really, really fast,” says Aaron Ellison, a senior research fellow in ecology at Harvard Forest, of HWA’s destruction. In 2009, the pest first showed up in the forest—a 4,000-acre research area owned by the university and located about 65 miles west of Cambridge. Ellison expects all hemlock forests in Massachusetts to be nonfunctional by 2025.
Beyond being a beautiful and iconic tree, the eastern hemlock is what ecologists call a foundation species. This means hemlocks have a disproportionate effect on the structure and biological processes of the surrounding forest community. For instance, the dense shade provided by these long-lived evergreens keeps forests and streams cool. “When hemlock disappears, you have a completely different system,” Ellison says.
During a yearlong fellowship at Harvard, interdisciplinary artist David Buckley Borden worked with Ellison to develop a science-based art project to help communicate the human impact on the landscape and the future of New England forests, the issues surrounding the hemlock’s demise.
Borden created “Hemlock Hospice” using recycled materials from the forest’s research operations. Its large pieces interact with the surrounding forest, forcing observers to consider the ecological implications of the small, voracious intruders. A Hemlock Memorial Shed frames a dead hemlock. Another tree wears a giant black “armband” to signify its mourning. A flag features a silhouette of dying trees, a design that also adorns the hard hats that visitors to the site are advised to wear in case of falling limbs or trees. The Exchange Tree, an abstraction of a fallen hemlock, is strung with ribbons left by visitors expressing their reaction to the installation. So far, its painted limbs carry messages like “I’m sorry for our ignorance,” “In memory of nature’s giants,” and “S.O.S.”
“I care a lot about these trees—most ecologists care a lot about their study species—and I’m watching them die,” Ellison says. “Hospice does care for the dying, but it also helps the living figure out how to keep moving and doing things in a caring and empathetic way.”
But “Hemlock Hospice” isn’t just for those who already have a deep connection to the species. Borden says many people simply don’t know about HWA, and the project is a “prompt to get people into the woods.” To complement the exhibit, Harvard Forest has begun a series of workshops and lectures to “promote reflection, critical thinking, and creativity among scientists, artists, educators, humanists, and the general public,” as well as guided tours.
Despite its somewhat remote location, hundreds of visitors have walked through “Hemlock Hospice” since it opened in early October. The installation will be on display at Harvard Forest in Petersham, Massachusetts, through November 18, 2018.
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