An indigenous pocket forest is taking shape in the former parking lot next to Manayunk Timber. (Nick Jaramillio/Billy Penn)

A parking lot is being transformed into a thriving indigenous forest at Manayunk Timber, and will feature a new gate entrance with sculptures from internationally renowned wood artist Roger Wing.

“The forest that they planted is a poetic metaphor for what’s going on here,” Wing told Billy Penn. “So much of what happens in the forest is unseen to our eyes. It’s the microbes, the animals that come out at night, the seeds, the germination in the soil, and the changing of the seasons.”

A project from the team behind Manayunk Timber, Philly’s only sustainable sawmill, the burgeoning forest has benches where the public can sit and appreciate the surroundings, or enjoy a bite from the new bread shop next door.

Manayunk Timber owner Steve Ebner decided to transform the former parking lot a year ago. At first, he wanted to plant an orchard.

The plan changed when John Cox, a local wholesale florist, introduced him to the Miyawaki method, a technique developed by Japanese ecologist Akira Miyawaki to cultivate fast-growing native vegetation. Cox also gave Steve a book on “pocket forests” that showed the method could be replicated on smaller plots of land.

A typical Fairmount Park forested area has about one plant every square foot, per Cox. The plot at Manayunk Timber is about 3,500 square feet, so Ebner calculated it would need about 3,500 plants to become a mature forest. Currently, it has around 250, he said — a work in progress. 

The project so far has cost around $30,000, Ebner estimated, which included tearing up the concrete, building a “rubble wall” out of the broken-up concrete, putting in the topsoil, and buying tree specimens. 

Native tree species already planted include cedars, hawthorns, red oaks, maples, witch hazel, winter king, American beech, honey locusts, hornbeams, and buckeyes. 

One of the gate posts for the Manayunk Timber forest, in progress in Roger Wing’s studio. (Nick Jaramillio/Billy Penn)

Sculptor Wing, who is based in West Philly, hopes his contribution by creating a notable gate will help make the forest a hub for landscapers, designers, and developers who share Manayunk Timber’s commitment towards sustainability.

“What I do is help amplify their mission by making art,” Wing said. “It gives people an entry point to find out what’s going on here at Manayunk Timber.”

By wintertime Ebner hopes to start cultivating the “undergrowth,” adding small trees and low-lying plants like shrubs and mosses to enrich the soil and provide food and shelter for small animals. Eventually, the 70-year-old entrepreneur wants to open a bookstore. 

He’s ready for his daughter Rebecca to take over the urban sawmill business. “She’s the future of the company,” Ebner said.

“I hope this forest shines a light on what’s possible for what was: a non-used, ugly, concrete area,” Rebecca added.

So far the forest has been a hit. Ebner’s newest tenant, the wholesale bakery Dead King Bread, just celebrated the new location with an open house and live music. Tables, chairs, and a fire pit was set up in the forest for attendees.

Manayunk Timber daughter and father duo, Rebecca and Steve Ebner. (Instagram/@manayunktimber)

Wood that predates William Penn

This is the first time Wing gets to carve pieces from Manayunk Timber. As a sustainable sawmill, it only processes wood from fallen trees or reclaimed antique beams.

For the gate, Wing is working with timber salvaged from an 150 year-old warehouse. The wood survived a fire, giving it a blackened rippling surface wherever it was charred. “It’s almost too beautiful to cut into,” the sculptor told Billy Penn. 

Wing came to Philly in 1997 to enroll at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He’s been invited around the world for his artistic skill, from sculpting marble at studios in Italy to carving ice for competitions in China. Since 2017 he’s been making art at his studio on 40th and Westminster in Mantua.

Carving has become something of a personal religion for Wing, an act of reverence towards trees for their gifts and age. The salvaged timber he’s working with for this project came from trees in “first-growth” forests where they had never been logged. 

Sculptor Roger Wing at work on one of the posts for the gate to the Manayunk Timber pocket forest. (Nick Jaramillio/Billy Penn)

This means the wood could be up to 800 years old.

“The wood I’m working with predates William Penn, and any European contact with this region, or the eastern seaboard,” Wing said.

The posts for the forest entry will feature carvings of a stylized female figure and an abstract design. The post-and-lintel style gate is expected to go up sometime this winter.

“Manayunk Timber has become this nexus for people interested in sustainability, forest ecology, and making ourselves better stewards living with the forest,” Wing said. “Rather than dominating the entire ecosystem, we can live within the ecosystem, as part of the whole.”