Ghost Forest

Rainforest tree stumps - Angela Palmer's exhibition on the front lawn highlights deforestation crisis.
Ghost Forest - rainforest tree stumps outside the University Museum
University Museum, July 2010 - July 2011

July 21, 2010
Walking home one late Summer’s night, it is a delight to stumble upon these tree stumps from Brazil and further afield. The roots carve into each other and infinitely bend into twisted curves, providing a mesmering road to nowhere for the eyes to follow. The beige hue of the tree bark holds a spectrum of colour tones in the wood, from hundreds of years of growing in a tropical forest. The exotic location gives a visual stimulus when the tree stumps are viewed in bright white sunlight. Equally, the unforgiving rain on this selection of nature’s masterpieces imprints a muddy tone to the wood, giving the outdoor exhibition a spooky echo of English woodland.

The vast girth of these trees is such that even the most committed hippy would struggle to hug. There is a feeling you can't see the wood for the trees because the enormity of each stump is breathtaking, making it easy to scale up the display to get a bigger picture of a living forest. By contrast, the fine detail of the root structure is mind-blowing, as it proves such minute root-tips can support such a gargantuan beast.

The unearthed roots are parked on plinths next to the evergreen Wellington Pine that sturdily carries traditional coloured lights at Christmas. This emphasises the dead nature of these exhibits, offering a reminder that extinction is a permanent status. The story is told of the Dodo, for example, and other, less fortunate species in the adjacent Natural History museum.

The bewitching quality of this collection displayed on blocks on the green outside the museum spells out the danger of working against nature. No one can walk by without walking through the collection of tree stumps. This is at least true during the late night, when I stop by and, ironically, it feels like a living museum.
From July 8th, Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History hosts ghostly ambassadors from the world's vanishing rainforests. Transported from West Africa, the root systems of these vast tropical trees dwarf the visitors walking among them.

Artist Angela Palmer describes the transport of the tree stumps as "a gargantuan task of logistics". In this, she is probably understating the case by several orders of magnitude. Alive, such trees stand 61 metres high (taller than Nelson’s column), and resemble in scale something closer to geology than biology. "Like the nerve endings of the planet", the trunks reveal cross sectional shapes of stars and crescents unlike anything seen in even our largest native forests.

While Palmer admits she was inspired by the statistic that "a tropical forest the size of a football pitch is destroyed every four seconds", the display is more than a doleful reminder of the state of global eco-systems. These trees were sourced from a sustainable timber industry and to reflect this, only three of Ghost Forest’s trees were logged, the rest falling in adverse weather.

There is hope too in the calibre of official sponsors, ranging from ARUP Engineering to Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute. Likewise, the exhibition is touring a number of high profile venues, including Trafalgar Square and at the UN Climate Change conference in Copenhagen last winter.

This said, Ghost Forest evokes the fragile quality of all forests. It’s worth remembering that the UK imports about 85 percent of its timber requirements and is therefore heavily reliant on ‘ghost acres’ of sometimes virgin forest in other parts of the world. More than just a static display, during its 12 months in Oxford, Ghost Forest will become an open-air performance hub for music, dance, theatre and story-telling, as well as a ‘field laboratory’ for academic research.

The Carbon emissions of Ghost Forest have been offset by Oxford’s Climate Care.
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