Trees and climate change are intricately linked in the story of climate change. Trees are great carbon sinks—a 40 year old tree can store as much as 1 ton of carbon—although the exact amount varies by species and climate.
And trees are what created the great coal seams that run through the heart of the United States and many other countries around the world. Coal is simply 300 million year old trees. And inside the coal, all that carbon that trees sequester was stored safely away, underground, until we humans started digging it up to use as fuel.
Trees and coal are two things that define the state of Wyoming. Wyoming produces 39% of the coal used in the United States, 387.9 million tons of the stuff. It is also a state with vast forests, many of which are being decimated by bark beetle infestation, made much worse by climate change (because temperatures no longer get cold enough to halt the beetles spread).
Artist Chris Drury was commissioned to make a sculpture for the Wyoming Art Museum, and he picked these two features of the state to form the basis of his work: a large spiral made from trees and coal. His work, Carbon Sink: What Goes Around Comes Around connects trees to coal, making the connection between what is above ground with what is below, and draws the viewer into the vortex at the center of the spiral. In a description of his piece, the artist said he “wanted to make that connection between the burning of coal and the dying of trees. But I also wanted to make a very beautiful object that pulls you in, as it were.”
Marion Loomis, executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association was “offended” by the sculpture, saying of the University of Wyoming who supported the work, “They get millions of dollars in royalties from oil, gas and coal to run the university, and then they put up a monument attacking me, demonizing the industry.”
Chris Drury, the artist, said his work is not political. But it is a good reminder that while fossil fuels might indeed pay the bills for the lifestyle we’ve created for ourselves, those same fossil fuels are making this planet uninhabitable for us and many other species. The pollution, the habitat destruction, and the CO2 we release when we use coal will eventually destroy us if we don’t stop.