‘Painting’ the Ghost Forests of the Mid-Atlantic Coast


A stand of trees — some dead, some still clinging to their leaves — in Blackwater Wildlife Refuge on the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland. / Claire Harbage/NPR

We will watch these parts of our image of the world wash away, unsure of what will remain.


By Claire Harbage


Massive stands of silvery trees rise skeletally out of saltwater marshes at the edges of the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, a significant part of the coastlines of Virginia, Maryland, Delaware and New Jersey. A few dead or dying leaves cling to the trees’ branches, but mostly, they are bare.

In contrast, lush forests spread out behind them, trees robed in green leaves and pine needles, still brown with bark, coated with their elegant summer colors.

The ghostly forests of dead trees along the Mid-Atlantic shores are one indicator of a changing climate. Rising sea levels, brought on, in part, by glacial melt, cause saltwater to move into forested areas where it hadn’t reached before. The trees aren’t able to drink in water with such high salt content and are starved of necessary nutrients.

In the Chesapeake Bay, over 150 square miles of forests have died since the mid-1800s because of salt intrusion, according to a recent article in Nature Climate Change. It’s not a new phenomenon, but it is one that scientists are recognizing the importance of now. These ghost forests will continue to grow as the sea level is expected to increase another 1.3 feet to 3.9 feet by 2100.

Deep in a forested area along the Delaware Bay just off Jakes Landing Road in Dennis, N.J., there is evidence of dying trees and spreading saltwater marshes. / Claire Harbage/NPR

After reading about the ghost forests in Popular Science, I was haunted by the image of the dying forests — one of the most powerful visual indicators of climate change on the East Coast. As a photographer, I reached for my camera as a way to explore the issue, but I also wondered how the changing landscape affects how we, and future generations, envision the world through representations we capture in photographs and in art.

The images I made here combine photography and watercolor painting, a reference to the long history of watercolor artists who have painted the landscape. The tradition of landscape painting is often thought of as capturing a sense of the beauty of nature, an idyllic scene.

Here, in the vast dead forests that are continuing to spread, the idyllic landscape doesn’t exist. I wanted to include the realities of this new coastal landscape as one small part of a watercolor tradition.

A dead tree stands in a saltwater marsh in the Delaware Bay near Cape May in New Jersey. / Claire Harbage/NPR

In this process, gum bichromate, watercolor paints are sensitized to light by mixing them with chemicals. The mixture is then painted onto a sheet of paper, which is placed under a negative and exposed to light. This process can be repeated multiple times on the same image, using different colors.

I’m not a watercolorist by any means, but the movement of the brushstrokes, emphasizing the blues representing the rising water and the silver of the forests, emerged as I processed the images. Gum bichromate is one of the few photographic processes in which the creator can evoke a sense of painterliness, and yet the descriptive detail of the photograph still shows through.

Just outside the Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, on the Chesapeake Bay, a large swath of dying trees sits on the edge of a saltwater marsh. / Claire Harbage/NPR

At the end of the process, the exposed paper sits in a water bath. Any particles of watercolor paint that weren’t exposed to light slowly wash away and the image remains.

In the Delaware Bay, forests are giving way to saltwater marshes, many of which are filled with the common reed, an invasive species. / Claire Harbage/NPR

And much like the gum bichromate process, as sea levels continue to rise and the trees along the coastline continue to die, we will watch these parts of our image of the world wash away, unsure of what will remain.


Originally published by NPR, 08.25.2019, republished with permission for educational, non-commercial purposes.

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