A Better Place Forest
BY DAVID FLETCHER & LAUREN EWALD
Better Place Forests began as a start-up in 2017 when a group of college friends dreamt of an alternative to typical American cemeteries. Instead of traditional models, they imagined a conservation system of tree sponsorship that preserves, restores, and manages large areas as memorial grounds.
Fletcher Studio was selected to design the country’s first such space, a 40-acre site on the Mendocino Coast. The master-planning scope of work for the property included: comprehensive design of structures, spaces, trail systems, wayfinding and signage, furniture, lighting design, and habitat restoration. The studio acted as the prime consultant and assembled a unique collaborative team of design and technical specialists, including forest ecologists, architects, artists, designers, ADA consultants and civil engineers. The design of America’s first conservation memorial forest created a challenge of extremes: designing a spiritual setting with a nearly-invisible touch, along with moments of distinct intervention.
We organized our approach in two key ways. The first was focused on the forest itself, by identifying which areas could accommodate different scales of interventions and which areas needed to be restored or protected in-situ. The second was focused on the interventions themselves, and how the materials would be used at each location. Each element was selected for its capacity to collaborate with time and invite the weather, forest, and meadows to alter components through moss, lichen, water, rust, and patina.
While the initial ‘ask’ was to realize a site-specific solution for the Point Arena site, the team built an adaptive framework capable of responding to the unique qualities of future sites.
Designing an experience that’s more about the land than its constructed elements requires a certain discipline. And since forests are continually evolving our design restraints must also work in concert with entropy. The evolution of a forest must mean that new materials and objects must invite time to be an active collaborator.
The team worked toward a highly calibrated approach that began with deep respect of the existing landscape. We then developed broad site organizational systems and sequences of experience, punctuated by specific interventions aimed to choreograph and cultivate a ceremonial relationship to hallowed ground. We asked how sensorial experiences in nature can help visitors recall memories and stories of those who have been lost.
Better Place Forests developed a burial technique that takes cremated remains and comingles them with natural materials to be neutral and not disrupt the soil chemistry and microbes, allowing an additive introduction of human remains to integrate with the existing ecosystem. The act of depositing ashes directly into a protected landscape has a simple poetry—merging ritual, memorial, and forest conservation. Within these protected forests, families choose trees to mark the place where they’ll spread their loved ones’ ashes over generations.
The experience of the place is governed by procession and movement through five experiences focused on memory and memorial: arrival, orientation, threshold, reflect, and gather.
ARRIVAL AND ORIENTATION: VISITORS’ CENTER
A guest’s arrival means that they are coming to visit, and perhaps even confront, powerful memories of beloved family and friends. This tenuous, and perhaps even frightening, first step requires a reassuring degree of permanence and stability while also opening out into the dynamism of the forest beyond.
To arrive at the site, individuals and families first turn onto an entry road descending into the site and arrive at a visitors’ center, designed in collaboration with Openscope Studio. A pathway of pentagonal concrete pavers leads to a small bridge in front of the building. Sited at the crest of a second hill, this singular building is a place of orientation on the threshold between public space and the transition into a more private experience of memory and memorial. The deck and two small meeting rooms provide space for families to gather for ceremonies or to meet with forest stewards. Within the ever-changing forest, the materiality of the visitors’ center conveys a reassuring sense of permanence—that it always has and always will sit on this site. A deep, folded Corten steel roof shades and protects the building. The steel will weather naturally, along with the locally-harvested and milled redwood decking and siding. Carefully-oriented redwood fins screen the glass-enclosed meeting rooms while capturing views outward. Amidst this place of reassuring permanence, it was key to also invite the forest in and provoke the idea of immersion and suspension, allowing tension between solidity and levity. As such, the visitor center was designed with a portal in its center and a bridge that leads to a promontory, framing the forest, that is situated on axis with the center of the memorial meadow. The overlook is suspended above the forest floor, a critical moment of levitation that initiates a sequence of sublime experiences for each visitor. First the visitor is floating above the forest, an observer of the ecology, separate from the sacred spaces beyond.
THRESHOLD: MEMORIAL MEADOW
After visitors are welcomed at the center and given digital and analog maps of the property’s trails and spaces, they descend down the hillside; the topography is sculpted to conceal the memorial spaces beyond. Just as one recalls memories and feels the emotions of the past and present, a full reveal is never complete or comprehensive, but unfolds and reveals itself slowly in fragments and pieces. This three-fold strategy of framing, threshold, and invitation modulates and becomes a patterned experience as one moves through the landscape. In this way, our design strategy aimed to develop a physical and natural lattice of ceremony and the experience of memory across the senses.
As the visitor becomes immersed in the forest, and a part of the forest—an extension of its living structures, the topography slopes down and gives way to a meadow. The physical opening up of the landscape mirrors the emotional opening of memory. As the expanse of recollection opens both physically and emotionally, guests encounter a memorial design by Andrew Kudless nestled in the meadow. A series of cast-concrete benches, inscribed with the names of family members and placed to recall a tree’s growth rings, reverberate through a meditative walking path whose worn edges are infilled with regionally endemic creeping and self-sowing plants. The center of the memorial is sited on-axis with a view of the sea, representing infinity and serving as a metaphor for memories’ unique capacity for unboundedness and compartmentalization. The memorial site also marks a point of individual and collective reflection through physical grounding and outward inspection of place.
REFLECT AND GATHER: MEMORIAL FOREST
Where the visitors center and the memorial meadow act as critical thresholds inviting immersion into and within the landscape itself, the inhabitation of memory must also invite reflection and allow for moments of gathering. Passage through the visitors center and memorial meadow also serve as thresholds to enter into the deeper, and more involved, acts of memory—reflection on past and future, and gathering with others and of oneself. Passage through these spaces is necessary before entering the hallowed ground of the memorial forest. Here, the interventions become more ephemeral and insert themselves subtly. The forest has a mix of Redwoods, Pines, Madrones and Oak trees through which an abundance of old ‘skid’ roads, originally established for logging, were repurposed as the main routes through the forest, while tributary trails branch off into more secluded and intimate spaces.
Visitors walk over creeks, through ferns and rhododendrons, to find their loved ones’ tree. Each journey through the forest is personal, the routes along tributary trails compacted with footprints, and later returned to the forest floor with new mossy growth. The trails are named after flora and fauna found within the immediate forest, displayed on simple sign posts that will weather with time, becoming a part of the forest itself as materials fade and lichens overtake the wooden, man-made constructions.
An enduring marker, which needed to be both permanent and subtle so as not to clutter the forest, is placed at each family’s selected tree. After multiple studies, we found inspiration in the very signs that demarcate our own cultural organization of forests—survey markers. At the base of a tree, one will find a bronze survey marker that is inscribed with a number, the person’s name, and a quote. In this sacred forest each tree represents the life of an individual, a couple, or a family; any cultural or familial meaning that is assigned by its human occupants. Where immersion into the forest and the transition into deeper recollection and thought means that the scale and type of materials falls away to foreground the forest, it is at the critical encounter with a loved one’s tree that a discrete, physical marker grounds a visitor and concretely expresses the placement of remains to be taken up by the forest.
From the root base of the tree, then looking up to the sky through a network of branches to the canopy of the trees above, one feels immersed in this sacred space. The forest captures the identity of our communities, our families and our homes—each a network, an ecology of its own—while representing individual life. There is an innate sense of belonging, and beauty in being a part of this habitat now, a memorial that will outlast one’s stay.
This network of trails and openings flows with the land, and the design seeks to shepherd and choreograph that flow. Every detail, from the landscape and architecture to the signage and memorial markers, works to establish a quiet and reverent human experience through feedback between human and non-human life. While each forest cemetery implemented by the Better Place Forest has a unique character, the underpinning vision remains: to preserve and honor the transcendent beauty of the landscape and ultimately the people who choose this forest as their final resting place.
LAUREN EWALD is the Studio Director for Fletcher Studio and a registered landscape architect in California. She has acted as the design lead for a range of projects and advocates for meaningful community engagement processes. She has a Master in Landscape Architecture from Kansas State University, 2013.
DAVID FLETCHER is the founding principal of Fletcher Studio. He has practiced in landscape architecture for 30 years and has worked on the planning, design, and construction of projects ranging in scale from regional watersheds to furniture design.