50 Million Acres

Printeresting is pleased to present this recent project by Brendan Baylor, a talented artist from the Pacific Northwest as part of Ghost. He works across various media including, print, books, installation, and drawing to explore, what he describes as, ‘the liminal space between natural and human worlds’. He currently holds the Hulings Teaching Fellowship in Drawing and Printmaking at Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin. All of the following text is from Baylor’s project statement.


“Vast areas of the lake states, probably totaling over 50 million acres and stretching from Lake Huron in the East to the Red River in the West in Minnesota, had been laid bare through the clear-cutting techniques of the highly mechanized and efficient lumber industry…

In the quest for immediate profits, the reckless and prodigal cutting of the better grades of white and jack pine had left a slash cover on the ground that caused devastating fires, which destroyed the humus in the already poor soil and any saplings that managed to grow. Only stunted bush grew to occupy the ground in time…

By 1907 there were 31.3 million acres of cutover land in the three states: 10.7 million in Michigan, 15.1 Million in Minnesota, and 5.5 million in Wisconsin.”

  • Michael Williams, Americans and their Forests, pg. 233, 234, 236


Growing up in the Pacific Northwest in the 90’s, old growth forest was a major presence, both on the land and in the news. Douglas Fir and Ponderosa Pine covered much of the Cascade Range, and I regularly played under 250 year-old trees in Portland’s public parks. New legal protections for species like the Great-Horned Owl created strife across the state as environmentalists clashed with logging companies and their supporters. For me, old-growth was a visible space of refuge and a symbol of competing priorities on the land.


When I moved to Wisconsin, I noticed the relative youth of the forest here. Where are all the big trees, I wondered? Has it always been this way? In doing research on the history of the Northwoods I was immediately struck by photographs of the bleak landscapes left behind when the logging companies had moved on – aptly named “The Cutover”. When I came across the image of a clear-cut in Northern Wisconsin that makes up the core of this piece, the bleakness of the scene and utter devastation it depicted impacted me. However, the image was only one by two inches and surrounded by text, buffering me from its emotional power. What would this image look like enlarged to a human scale? Can one attempt to recapture what it must have been like to gaze upon these vistas of destruction?


In an attempt to answer these questions, I began to transfer an enlarged version of this historical photo onto 32 one-by-one foot woodblocks. Over a period of four months, I carved all the panels that comprise this four by eight foot landscape using a rotary engraving tool. This process of meticulous scarring mirrored the mechanical thoroughness of the industrial clear cut, rigidly adhering to the mechanical design of the photographic reproduction. These blocks were then printed with black ink in two by two foot squares, accumulating to create an immersive space.


Layered over the woodblock print is the first manuscript page from the 1842 treaty of La Pointe and the silhouettes of 12 species of plant that are currently disappearing from the Northwoods. These three elements taken together examine the way that historical events still reverberate on the present landscape culturally, economically, and ecologically. By making the dual traumas of colonization and capitalism physically present for the viewer, the piece allows for an emotional experience of the great loss that underpins the Northwoods.


In order to print the treaty, I traced over the letters of treaty by hand. Using pencils on Mylar to create a film, the resulting stencil was printed as a silkscreen. The act of tracing allowed me to inhabit the subjectivity of the person who inscribed it. Because this contested document both enshrined native rights and was a tool of colonialism, this act implicates me in both the colonization of the Americas and in the struggle for native sovereignty. This historical acknowledgment helps to position me as both resistant to and implicated in settler-colonialism. It seems obvious that when we are talking about land in the US we are talking about Indian land, but it feels important to say it again and again.


The presence of the rewilding plants allows a glimmer of hope on the devastated land. While the present forest has recovered somewhat, the recovery of the woods is far from complete. A 2006 resurvey of a plant study from the 1950s conducted by UW-Madison showed a number of species of plants are disappearing from our forests. (1) The species of plants I chose to print all come from the list of understory plants that have declined in numbers since the 50s. The only area of the state that has had an increase in biodiversity is the Menominee Forest. Through the stewardship of the Menominee tribe, this woodland was never clear-cut. This indicates that the problem is not simply ecological or economic, but cultural as well.

While our current management practices may result from a stalemate between extractive industry and environmental concerns, they do not represent a holistic view of natural systems that accounts for all the ecological, social, and political consequence of land use. One need only look at the continual emphasis on larger deer herds from the DNR and the measured impact of already overabundant deer populations to see that our current management regime does not allow for non-economic practices and non-human life to be valued. (2, 3)

It is my hope that in making the ecological costs of capitalism and colonialism to Northern Wisconsin clear and tangible, we can begin to question the values we hold and our vision for the future. Do we think that the profits of a few corporations and individuals are more valuable than the very existence of our fellow beings? Are there other priorities besides board-feet of lumber or recreation revenue that should guide our stewardship of the land?

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1. Wiegmann, Shannon M., and Donald M. Waller. “Fifty Years of Change in Northern Upland Forest Understories: Identity and Traits of “winner” and “loser” Plant Species.” Biological Conservation: 109-23. Print.

2. See: “Northern Wisconsin Officials Seek Balance Between Forest Health And Deer Population.” Wisconsin Public Radio. 21 July 2015. Web. 16 Oct. 2015. and “Deer Czar’s Preliminary Report.” Wisconsin Public Radio. 28 Aug. 2013. Web. 16 Oct. 2015.

3. Craven, Scott, and Timothy Van Deleen. “Deer as a Cause and Reflection of Ecological Change.” The Vanishing Present: Wisconsin’s Changing Lands, Waters, and Wildlife. Chicago: U of Chicago, 2008. 273 – 286. Print.

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