The Pentacrest larch, embracing grief and taking action

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

Sometime during the night of Sept. 9 and 10, a tragedy befell the community on the University of Iowa Pentacrest. The beloved old European larch fell to the winds brought by a wicked thunderstorm. The larch had survived the 1998 straight-line winds and suffered damage from both the 2006 tornado and 2007 ice storm. It provided shade for many during the Iowa City Jazz Fest and other Pentacrest performances. It had entertained generations of students and kids with its long, low branches that were easy to climb on, though many on campus tried to discourage it. And it was a daily companion to many who regularly traverse UI’s central campus. But on this night, it succumbed to the ravages of time and weather.

I saw the fallen larch early on the morning of Sept. 10 as I walked from the bus to my office in Jessup Hall. My eyes widened and my spirits dropped as, from a distance, I saw the tree lying flat on the ground. I audibly said, “Oh no.” Before I went to work, and before the remains of the tree would be gathered and taken away by university personnel, I walked over to the larch to confirm my grief and to pay my respects. A number of others also stopped, almost all expressing incredulity and sadness.

While we can’t precisely say the larch was toppled because of climate change (and the university arborists acknowledge that the tree actually was not healthy), the violence and greater frequency of ice storms and thunderstorms in more recent years — storms that were the immediate cause of the larch’s demise — are certainly due to climate disruption. And in this age of accelerating climate change, grief is an emotion and process that we must all embrace.

Environmentalists, from scientists to activists to artists, are now calling on us to confront the reality that climate destabilization and other environmental calamities have already caused great losses and will continue to do so — and we need to grieve those losses. In 2005, philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined the word “solastalgia” to describe the distress we feel by environmental change. The American Psychological Association reported in 2017 that, as summarized by Peter Kalmus of Yes!, “climate change is causing stress, anxiety, depression and relationship strain. The psychological weight of climate change can lead to feelings of helplessness and fear, and to climate disengagement.”

That day, and for several days following, our community — and even many beyond our community who knew and loved the larch — poured forth with an astonishing cascade of sorrow. Social media lit up with pictures of the fallen tree followed by virtual gasps and wails, and all three of our local newspapers carried stories of the downed Pentacrest stalwart. Clearly this particular tree had been beloved by many throughout the years, and its loss triggered real emotional pain.

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

I loved the larch not just as a daily landmark in my comings and goings during the workday, but also for the inspiration it offered me. In an essay in my book Under a Midland Sky (Ice Cube Press, 2008), I wrote how the larch, with its unique characteristic of color-turning needles that fall in autumn, “dances across borders, lives its existence through transitions while it appears to be an evergreen. It challenges our conceptions, the straight-line boundaries we draw around our lives and the world outside us.” The encompassing bower of this particular tree — so full and welcoming before the ice storm left only one large branch on its bottom ring — also reminded me of childhood, suggesting “a retreat, a quiet place to read a book, a home for runaway 5-year-olds,” as I also wrote earlier.

In my own mind and heart, and clearly in those of many others, the grief over our fallen friend was real. This is a kind of grief we all need to tap into and express on a larger scale as well, not just for an individual being that has departed from our world. Kalmus’ “climate disengagement” is the greatest danger of solastalgia, so we cannot wallow in anxiety. We must push that feeling into the process of grief, as so many of us readily did when we lost the Pentacrest larch.

When we lose beloved family members and friends, our grief moves us forward. We acknowledge, experience and honor our emotions as well as our lost ones, and then we integrate the loss into our lives as best we can. As meteorologist and environmental writer Eric Holthaus says regarding climate change, “After decades of delay, the scale of changes that are necessary will force us to rethink everything. To put in the changes necessary, we have to be able to connect our emotions to our actions. We have to process our grief. We have to somehow move through it, and we have to do all that together.”

Grief is not hopelessness. It can seem like it in the moment, but it is essential to moving forward, to making the best world amidst loss. In knowing, acknowledging and feeling what we have lost, the future of our world can be brighter than despair. We know what is gone, and we know we cannot get it back. But our efforts to mitigate climate disruption can make of this wounded world a much better place. We cannot disengage from our obligations to the earth.

So let us acknowledge our anxiety and fear over what we have lost and what that loss portends. Then let us move from solastalgia to grief to action. And in order to keep engaged, even during the grieving process, we must keep up the fight to literally save the world. As we approach the season of giving — and as we help guide you in your giving in this issue of Little Village — I encourage you to support our local and state environmental organizations as one important way past solastalgia, through environmental grief and toward a better world.

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

Taking (climate) action

Local groups and nonprofit organizations fighting to protect the environment

Thomas Dean also addressed environmental grief with some similar words and ideas in his essay “Loss” in Tallgrass Conversations: In Search of the Prairie Spirit, co-authored with Cindy Crosby (Ice Cube Press, 2019). This article was originally published in Little Village issue 274.

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