In the summer of 2018 I traveled with my family to Cathedral Pines in the Chequamegon-Nicolet National Forest to see one of the few remaining stands of old-growth pine trees in Wisconsin. In the early 1900s these conifers were spared from logging through the efforts of Lucy Rumsey Holt, who persuaded her husband, president of Holt Lumber Company, to leave this parcel of land intact. She brought her children to the pine forest to read scripture and pray, and she felt a sacred presence among the trees, their trunks reaching toward the sky like columns in an arboreal cathedral.
When we arrived at the site, a church youth group was just departing. The children and teens were literally tumbling out of the trees—two somersaulted into the road right in front of our vehicle. As the dust from their bus settled and the sound of children’s voices faded away, the volume of the forest seemed to rise.
The trail leads through increasingly sparse understory plants to a hilltop, where the tallest and oldest pines bury their roots in a dense carpet of brown needles. The space between trees is open, their lower branches long since shed, and the living canopy filters sunlight overhead. We sat among the trees on rustic benches hewn from giant trunks, and on the ground, soft with pine needles. We were mostly silent. It felt a bit like being in church.
The watercolor drawings that comprise Cathedral describe species of trees and shrubs that currently populate Wisconsin’s northern forests. The fractured nature of the compositions alludes to the parceling out of natural resources, like timber, and the history of logging that continues, much-reduced, even today. Screenprinted illustrations of trees that climate models project to become more prevalent cast shadows over the underlying forest scene. The names of individual species are listed in a key that also includes biblical verses, selected for their references to trees. Perhaps Lucy read some of these same words to her children during their bible study sessions a hundred years ago. The verses also reference a complex religious history, advocating for both the domination and reverence of the natural world. These opposing narratives continue to inform the discourse surrounding land management today.