Letter to the editor: Larix decidua, in memoriam

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Iowa Citians awoke on Sept. 10, 2019 to find the long-standing European larch on the University of Iowa Pentacrest had succumbed to a thunderstorm the previous night. — Thomas Dean/Little Village

By Christine Hayes Ralston, Iowa City

In the early morning hours of Sept. 10, 2019, the world lost a treasured, tired friend. The European larch tree, of Iowa City, was uprooted in a storm that claimed two other campus trees. She didn’t so much die as she was ripped from the earth that fed her.

Nothing can survive absent nourishment.

The moon that night was waxing gibbous; she missed standing beneath one last full moon by just three days.

There is always something the dead just missed.

The European larch on the University of Iowa Pentacrest, Aug. 11, 2012. — UI Facilities Management

Standing 40 feet tall, this deciduous conifer offered shade, offered respite, offered joy, offered air to hundreds of thousands of Iowans. Generations of children tested strength and balance on her gracious southern bough. Worn smooth by hands, feet and the 90 degree angle between knee and shin, she appeared the arboreal manifestation of Samuel Beckett’s determined hopelessness. But it seems we can only love a thing in our own way for so long before it loses its ability to do just that. To go on.

The larch was a landmark. A meeting place. A refuge, a playground, a wonder. Mostly though, she simply was.

There is such beauty in the fact of her.

There was such beauty in the fact of her.

So what remains? Those who loved her best will learn saudade: the presence of absence. And on a bare patch of exposed earth in front of Macbride Hall, her absence is palpable.

The larch was preceded in death by many family and friends, including neighbor trees destroyed by Iowa City’s 2006 tornado. She is survived by nearly 8,000 campus trees, including seven siblings — four that live nearby on the Pentacrest, two just north of Hillcrest, and a lone sibling near the edge of Parking Lot 14.

The beloved European larch endures an ice storm on the University of Iowa Pentacrest in 2010. — photo by Douglas Jones

Though larches like her can live for nearly 700 years, she died far too soon, a mere child who did not survive her first century.

There will be other trees. There will even be other European larch trees. And yet. Her singular life provided unique shade. Clean air. Space to sit, both under and within. Another tree can provide these things. Another tree will. But it won’t be the same.

After death, nothing is ever the same.

Whether this particular September storm was made worse by human action is hardly arguable. But my, how the larch went: in a storm of fury and light and sound.

Of goodbye.

The world was a better place with her in it.

Tread lightly.

The remains of a fallen Pentacrest tree, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. — Jav Ducker/Little Village

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  1. This letter’s writer, too, is “a landmark. A meeting place. A refuge, a playground, a wonder.” Thanks for sharing this, friend.

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