The Ghost Forest – Out of the Ashes

Sarah Grew

2021 - Ongoing

In the fall of 2020, huge wildfires raged on the west coast of the U.S., our sky turned yellow-gray from smoke, it rained ash and left all living creatures unable to breathe. I mourned the loss of forest lands. My desire to create something out of the ruins led me to collect ash from the fires. I then realized I could create carbon prints, transforming the charred wood into recorded images of the forests themselves. After extensive research and experimentation, I am now making prints from the ash of many wildfires with visits to more fire sites in my plans. Invented in 1855, the carbon print is considered the most archival of all photographic printing processes with an estimated life of 10,000 years. Carbon does not fade. Instead, in my hands, the burned remains of the trees become photographs, in hopeful anticipation of the natural regeneration after fire. My process and its resulting prints, with their frilled edges and torn emulsion echo the way natural fire cycles can surmount devastation to provide nutrients to the soil, force a pinecone to disperse its seeds, or shape the landscape, in contrast to the extreme intensity and size of the fires that are now common. The photographs show us the beauty being lost to human negligence and the climate crisis.

Printed as lantern slides, the forest memory is held captive on sheets of glass accentuating both the fragility of life and our precarious position due to climate change. The images shift depending on whether you see them from the shiny side or the emulsion side of the glass. Sometimes, the photograph is only partially captured, like an unfurled piece of ash floating up from the fire. This is the Ghost Forest – Out of the Ashes. When installed, the Ghost Forest moves photography off the wall and into the middle of the room. The photographs on glass hang from the ceiling on pairs of cables that suggest the outline of the trees. The viewer is invited to wander through observing all stages in the life of a forest; small understory flowers, current and historical logging, dappled light in the trees as well as the aftereffects of fire. The images included here present a partial view of The Ghost Forest – Out of the Ashes as it hangs in my studio and some close-ups of individual forest memories.

My intention is to transform the devastation from the sick panic of needing to evacuate to one of beauty with awareness. In the U.S., there have been an average of 70,000 wildfires each year for the last 10 years, 90% of them caused by humans. As the earth gets hotter the fires rage, turning into uncontrollable conflagrations with devastating effects rather than part of a natural cycle. On completion the Ghost Forest will have 70 trees, each photo worth a1000 fires.

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  • The Ghost Forest. Partial view. Ash, emulsion, glass, metal. Dimensions variable, photographs themselves range from 10cm x 20cm to 51cm x 61cm (4" x 6" to 20" x 24"). 2021

  • After a fire, park rangers mark trees near roads and campsites with caution tape that reads "Killer Tree". One month later, these trees were still standing and still smoldering in their cores sending up plumes of smoke.

  • A burned-out car next to a burned old growth tree. The hubcaps on the car melted into little pools of aluminum on the forest floor.

  • In an oak forest when the winter rains come the ground gets so saturated that the water pools creating temporary wetlands this provides habitat for migratory birds.

  • The deeply furrowed bark of an old growth Douglas Fir, or Psuedotsuga menziesii. The Douglas Fir can live for more than 500 years and when not logged by humans, its thick bark develops the ability to withstand fire, protecting and shielding younger trees. The fires that burn hottest are those where the forests have previously been logged by clear cut and all the new trees are the same age.

  • The Ghost Forest. Partial view. On the gallery floor the names of the largest fires in the past ten years are entwined in the cable roots.

  • Oxalis carpets parts of the forest floor with its clover leaves in dappled light.

  • On the beach arrive a few fallen branches and burned trees that have travelled down the rivers to meet the sea.

  • The swirled bare branches of burned lodgepole pine in the high country. Lodgepole pines are well adapted to natural fire cycles. Their pinecones will only open and to release the seeds after burning. Often lodgepoles are the first tree to come back after a fire.

  • Western red cedar shatters when it burns at a high enough temperature. Indigenous Americans of the Pacific Northwest would carefully burn out the core of a cedar to make their long ocean-going canoes.

  • Two ferns. Sword ferns look like little hummocks after a fire but often their bright young fronds are some of the first signs of post-fire growth.

  • Ghost tree.

  • Poison Oak often springs up after a burn and later forms thickets at the edge of the woods. Its flowers provide nectar for insects.

  • Ponderosa pine branches against the sky. Ponderosa pines are sculpted by recurring fire events. In a fire they lose their low branches while those high in the air survive. The conflagrations we have now are so hot the trees no longer have a chance.

  • Alder bark and Fireweed. Alder is a deciduous tree with smooth bark that grows near the water. Fireweed booms in the spring for the first years after a fire.

  • In the late 19th century, the western US was logged extensively. These men are proudly standing on the stump of a redwood tree 23 ft in diameter, showing off their logging… and their hunting, a dead bear cub is propped up on the logs.

  • In the temperate rain forests of the Pacific Northwest branches are covered in green moss and lichen. In black and white photographs, it appears the trees are covered with fur. Climate change and humans have brought fires to these thick forests.

  • The Calypso Orchid or Lady Slipper is one of only a few orchids native to the western forests.

  • Does a falling maple leaf make a sound if there is no one to hear it in the forest?

  • The Ghost Forest. Parial View. An invitation to come wander in the Ghost Forest and watch its ashes disperse.