Black Forest [29,930,000 tons]

Black Forest [29,930,000 tons] is a land art installation that covers approximately two acres of post-industrial forest on Cougar Mountain, near the city of Seattle. 

From 1863 to 1963, Cougar Mountain and its surrounding landscape were the site of intensive industrial operations based around the extraction of coal and timber. The forests covering the mountain were clear-cut and a vast network of mine tunnels was dug into the mountainside. Rail lines were laid and whole towns sprang up in the wake of these activities.

The coal at Cougar Mountain is relatively energy-poor and the mines here began to lose money. Several times during the first half of the twentieth century, the mines were temporarily closed until the local economy (and later, an emerging global economy) justified the need to extract the mountain’s coal. Suburban housing became a more lucrative use for this land. Ironically, intensive mining made much of Cougar Mountain too unstable to build upon, and the mountain was turned into a 3,100-acre wilderness park.

Today, the forest has regrown and a diverse ecology has repopulated the mountain. There is little to indicate that coal was ever mined here. A few, scattered moss-covered ruins and the occasional sinkhole are the only strong reminders of the mountain’s recent past.

The initial concept for “Black Forest” was developed out of a desire to call out the site’s history in a manner that could not be ignored. I wanted to use the past to provide a vision of the future. This was already something of a geological truth at Cougar Mountain, where sinkholes and denuded soils created in the past influence what the site can sustain and what it is capable of becoming.

The final piece itself is composed of 50,000 lbs of biochar – a charcoal-like material that is nearly identical in appearance to the coal that was mined from this mountain for over a century. However, whereas burnt coal introduces long-dormant matter into the carbon cycle, biochar fixes organic matter in a state that takes thousands of years to decompose.

The sculpture – already being lost to the forest’s growth – is thus part of a long-term process that supersedes any object quality that the piece possesses. In doing so, this intervention repurposes “the outdoors” itself as a sculpture. It is an atmosphere, an emotional effect created through a magnitude of physical presence.

Photographs by Emma Rogers and Eirik Johnson