A Scientist and an Artist Inspire One Another to See Things Differently

Professor, staff and undergraduate student document forests in crisis for a public photo exhibition.

An ash forest at high tide, Tuckahoe Creek wetland.

Image Credit: Leslie Brice

December 6, 2022 Kimbra Cutlip

Andrew Baldwin stands at the water’s edge surrounded by tall, bare trees and spindly undergrowth that bursts with spring-green leaves. He wears brown muck boot suspenders and leans against a thick tree trunk. Miles from the Chesapeake Bay, Baldwin is in a wetland ash forest on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Linger over this photograph for a moment and Baldwin appears weighed down in thought, his expression troubled, his hand tense and crimped by his side. It is a fleeting moment captured on camera that offers a window into the heart of a scientist coming to grips with the destruction of a unique and wild forest.

This is one of the images featured in an exhibition at Joe’s Movement Emporium, a cultural arts venue in Mount Rainier, Maryland. The exhibit titled, The Ash Forest Project, is meant to raise public awareness for the beauty and fragility of tidal ash forests—wild, inaccessible wetland ecosystems that are being destroyed by a tiny invasive beetle called the emerald ash borer.

“When this photo was taken, we hadn’t been to that site since the year before, and this was the first time we saw signs of ash borer,” said Baldwin, a wetland ecologist with the Department of Environmental Science and Technology at the University of Maryland. “We could see the trees dying back and the canopy really opening up. I remember thinking, ‘wow, this has really happened fast. I was sort of taken aback by it, and I guess I was just processing all that.”

Baldwin and his team are working to document the ecological changes resulting from ash borer infestations and to learn how to preserve and possibly restore forest wetlands affected by ash borer beetles.

The exhibit is the co-creation of photographer Leslie Brice and science journalist Gabriel Popkin. Brice is also the assistant director of the National Scholarships Office at UMD. The collaboration with Baldwin and his team was her first foray into science and nature photography. To capture drone imagery for the exhibit, the team worked with Yazan Aboushi, a senior in the UMD Department of Environmental Science Technology and a licensed drone pilot who has won awards for his environmental documentaries.

Photo: Leslie Brice

American ash trees have no natural defenses against the emerald ash borer, an invasive beetle that kills trees by boring tracks around their trunks, preventing water and nutrients from flowing to the tree's canopy.

Photo: Leslie Brice

Inundated with water, these tidal forests are difficult to access and have resisted development through the centuries. Andy Baldwin works in the Nanticoke River wetland forest on Maryland's Eastern Shore. 

Photo: Yazan Aboushi

A grove of dead, denuded trees can be seen from the air, revealing the extent of ash borer damage along a bend in the Mattawoman Creek, a tributary of the Potomac River. 

Photo: Leslie Brice

Wetland forests are home to a wide array of plants and animals, like this dragonfly captured in Piscataway Park in Accokeek, MD.

Tidal wetland ash forests are strange and wonderous places. Submerged by freshwater twice a day, each tree supports a hummock of life at its base, a small island above the tide line. The inaccessibility of these drenched ecosystems has protected them from development, and they have remained largely unexplored oases in the midst of the heavily populated mid-Atlantic.

Some of Brice’s photos evoke the wonder of these forests, including the image of an insect perched on a leaf, its thin crimson body glittering between two deep green iridescent wings. This is the paradoxically beautiful ash borer at the center of all the destruction. Another photo freezes a hummingbird in place as it sits in a tiny lichen-covered nest.

“Two critical elements of photography are light and patience,” Brice said. “I have very little patience in general, but being in these wetlands, watching and waiting while the scientists took their measurements, has opened me up to a quiet observation that has helped me grow as a photographer.”

Brice said the project has also brought her a new awareness of her role in protecting the environment. “I try to be a good steward of my little space in the world, but I feel a much stronger sense of gratitude and awe, and a tremendous sense of responsibility that I didn't really fully understand before,” Brice said.

The collaboration brought a new perspective to Baldwin as well.

“As scientists, we’re documenting what’s happening, and it can seem sort of dry, and all about the data,” he said, “but when I see this whole effort that Leslie and Gabe did, I see this human, emotional side of it. You know, we don’t always step back and take a moment to look at where we are, and think about the forest this way.”

The exhibit “The Ash Forest Project” is on exhibit at Joe’s Movement Emporium through January 8, 2023.

Brice and Popkin have developed a website for the project where they will continue to document the forests.