Honoring Trees

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

IT FEELS A BIT SICK to write this, but ecological disasters can make for great science. When it became clear in 2003 that the hemlock woolly adelgid would soon ravage Harvard Forest’s eastern hemlocks, ecologist Aaron Ellison helped design a study to predict what the tiny tree-killing insect would do to the forest’s ecology. To mimic the adelgid’s effects, Ellison and his colleagues girdled a group of hemlocks and measured the trees’ vital signs as they starved. As the adelgid has colonized the Petersham, Massachusetts, forest in the years since, Ellison and his colleagues have kept questioning, measuring, analyzing. Publications—the lifeblood of science—have owed.

But watching the forest sicken and crumble has taken a toll that no record of peer-reviewed papers can assuage. “I can get myself really worked up, really bitter about this,” Ellison says. He found little of comfort in his ultrarational, data-obsessed scientific world. Only in 2015, when he happened upon a landscape-themed art exhibit at the Innovation and Design Building in Boston, did he see a path toward healing. The artist, Cambridge-based David Buckley Borden, was there. He and Ellison talked. Borden came to Harvard Forest for a year, and the two worked on making meaning out of an ecological tragedy. They borrowed a concept from a vastly different professional realm—end-of-life care—and created a first-of-its-kind art exhibit, Hemlock Hospice.

I met Ellison and Borden on a sunny but shivery November day. Both are big men, but the similarity ends there. Ellison’s curly hair explodes from his head and face, and his close-set eyes bug out a bit when he alights on a subject he feels passionately about, which is often. Borden’s hair and beard are close-cut and neat, and he metes out his words carefully. A hundred years ago he would have donned flannel, grabbed a crosscut saw, and hoofed into the woods.

We three hoofed into the woods with only cameras and notebooks. The lightest dusting of snow lay on the ground. Less than a mile in, we were confronted with a “Trail Closed” sign beside the main path. The sign accomplishes several things, Borden explained. Aesthetically, it establishes the exhibit’s visual language: bright whites, yellows, and reds against the forest’s muted browns and greens. Practically, it warns—not just of the now-hazardous side trail, where dead trees may fall, but of a future made perilous by human actions. Ethically, its materials, reclaimed from discarded equipment, encourage a light environmental footprint. Experientially, it breaks the pleasant forest stroll, foreshadowing unsettling things to come.

Down the trail, we came upon an odd object that I didn’t notice until I was viewing it sideways through a gap in the trees. After some moments, the interleaving white and yellow lattices locked conceptually into place: an insect body with outstretched wings. I backed up to where it would have first come into view, had I been looking. Now it resembled something more technological, less natural: a spaceship touching down? From yet a third angle, it was a ladder leading skyward. The piece evokes in one go three aspects of the adelgid’s story: a landing, a living, and a launching.

Ellison and Borden want to empathically reorient us to this much-maligned “invasive” insect. It didn’t ask to be kidnapped from Japan and dropped in Virginia. Once there, like any immigrant, it merely made the best life it could; warming winters have now supercharged it into a forest killer. Nearby, a pair of red-painted rotary saws were emblazoned, one with the ever-rising global temperature record of the industrial age, the other with a blown-up detail of the adelgid. They invited us to consider our role in this story: as agents of species movements, as agents of climate change, as agents of forest destruction going back to the dawn of civilization.

Borden and Ellison had to tackle the problem of the eastern hemlock itself. A healthy hemlock might be the world’s most beautiful creation, a living waterfall of green, surely not improvable by any artist (or scientist or writer). An adelgid-killed hemlock is, by contrast, a freak: a tall, tapered spike ringed by perpendicular spikelets, a medieval torturer’s instrument magnified and planted in the ground. Fallen, the dead trees balance at uncanny angles. What good, what beauty can be salvaged from this? Borden has abstracted and stylized the fallen hemlock shape by attaching yellow-painted fence posts to a tree trunk. He has invited visitors to leave messages on blue flagging tape—the same kind adorning hundreds of the forest’s researched trees—to evoke a Japanese-style memorial shrine. The flags uttered in the biting wind. One read, plaintively, “I’m sorry for our ignorance.”

The exhibit, for all its pathos, is not without humor. A “hemlock data stick,” perched end-up on a stump, lifts to reveal a grey-painted plug inserted into a carved groove—the instantly recognizable USB attachment. The incongruity of mundane technology in this sublime natural setting coerces a welcome laugh. “My work is similar to a Morrissey song,” Borden explains. “The content is terribly depressing. But the delivery doesn’t need to be depressing.”

It also reflects reality. Harvard Forest’s “wired woods,” with eight thousand volts owing under its rutted roads, may have yielded more data than any other forest. Those numbers, too, become art; affixed to a shed that contains research equipment, a graph carved into wood shows how the hemlocks’ sap ow plummeted during the tree-girdling experiment. More than a decade later, killing those trees still haunts Ellison: “They were looking at me every time I went out in the forest, saying, ‘you’d better get some good data out of this.’”

As his career has matured, Ellison has found himself drawn to make explicit the relationships that underlie his science: relationships between trees, between species—tree and understory plant, tree and insect, tree and human—and among the humans who study or draw succor from the forest. The last of these is Hemlock Hospice’s domain. Ellison long ago realized he could not save the hemlocks; the adelgid’s fecundity, mobility, and hunger would inevitably win the day. But perhaps he could provide solace, fortitude, and guidance for the humans who, for better or worse, must forge ahead.

Gabriel Popkin is a science and environmental writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, Science, Nature, and elsewhere.


  1. A general comment about articles in Orion Magazine: When are they written? Am I missing the date somewhere? I read a great one by Wendell Berry not long ago and really wanted a context for it.

  2. That’s great. I just planted three hemlocks in my yard in NW Indiana–what can be done to keep them healthy?

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