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Artists, Scientists Capture Ghosts of the Coast

For Halloween, we bring you a different kind of ghost story. And it’s a ghost you’ve likely encountered.

Behind the 100-year-old house in Eastville, Albert “Buck” Kellam Doughty hunches over a table in his workshop. His mastery of the MIG welder gives life to a tiny metal sculpture modeled after the remains of a mighty oak tree that once stood some 70 feet high.

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Albert "Buck" Kellum Doughty inside his fine metal workshop in Eastville.

"I love the old deadwood stands of cedars," Doughty muses. "You know when you’re riding out in the creeks you just see this last little vestige of land that’s hanging on by the last bit of topsoil that’s there, and storm after storm comes and just takes it as the years go by."

The dead trees that used to be in the background of Doughty’s childhood, are now front and center as forests here are dying noticeably faster. Doughty and his wife Helene are among a group of local artists working with scientists to tell the story of how rising seas, more frequent storms and sinking lands are killing coastal forests here, turning them into ghostly omens of climate change.

"These forests can be some of the only really clear signs we can see on the landscape of the salt water coming in," says Cora Johnston Baird, director of the University of Virginia Coastal Research Center.  Baird helped design the collaborative “Ghosts of the Coast.”

She says it’s part botany lesson, part field study, part revelation.  "They needed to know the story behind the subject they were trying to capture. Someone was really interested in roots. So, one of our scientists came in and was talking about how you can tell which way the salt water is coming in by the size of the roots when a tree falls, so the roots start to atrophy on the salty side."

Credit Pamela D'Angelo
Cora Johnston Baird, director of the UVA Coastal Research Center, at the edge of a ghost forest at the Brownsville Preserve owned by the Nature Conservancy.

Along the backroads or “necks” of the Eastern Shore, are clusters of dead pine, oak and cedar trees. Barkless branches reach out to passers-by. They will fall, giving way to marsh grasses and plants that slow down land erosion.

Helene Doughty is a photographer who emigrated here from Paris as a student. The first time she noticed a ghost forest was after Hurricane Isabel.  "As you come off the bridge onto the Eastern Shore there was an area of pine forests that was completely dead," Doughty remembers. "There was some beauty in it but it was definitely death by salt water. And being part of this project, it’s incredible the amount of ghost forests that are here on the Eastern Shore."

Artists also learned ghost forests are not devoid of life. Walking in a ghost forest at the Nature Conservancy’s Brownsville Preserve there are woodpeckers and songbirds. And spiders. Johnston Baird says spiders also show us seas are rising. "Web-building spiders that wouldn’t want their webs destroyed by incoming tides are not going to be found lower down, so they will become less abundant as the ghost forest matures more and more into a wet marsh."

Like Buck and Cora, artist Marty Burgess grew up on the Eastern Shore seeing how bad storms can kill forests. The monster for them - a nor’easter that circles back.  "The locals would call it a back door nor’easter. The nor’easter came by and then it stopped and then it came back. Most of the ghost forests are being created by a hurricane or a really bad nor’easter that brings in a super high tide."

In two of his paintings, Burgess paid homage to a ghost tree on Mockhorn Island, known as Shorty. The tree was a favorite of locals, who would get in their boats and meet there to party.  "Shorty was a cedar tree, Burgess remembers. "And Shorty died, probably ten or 12 years ago but it stood there for a long, long time when the tide went out, I did a painting, you could see the whole root system. It fell over, then they cut it up and they sell the wood down the road."

Click here for more information on Ghosts of the Coast

The exhibit at The Barrier Island Center in Northampton opens in November. Because of COVID-19, viewing hours are limited but the show will be posted online.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.