The tree was an old friend, a daily welcome sight, a haven for wildlife, shade for our yard, a windbreak, a privacy screen, a graceful and beautiful being. I sent a text to our family friend who owns Alpine Roots, a local tree service. His response was, “No, not the hemlock!” He and our son-in-law kindly dismantled the tree and hauled it away - a funeral for a friend. As I look out into my yard daily, I yearn for what was.
Prior to this loss, I had recently read an article about eco-grief, and now I was directly experiencing it in my own yard. Eco-grief, eco-anxiety, eco-anger and climate rage are identified emotions that are being studied in the bereavement category. It’s likely many will experience these emotions as climate change continues. A friend commented the other day about the clearing of some trees going down the front of Signal Mountain. She said, “I hardly recognize my hometown.” Her comment really resonated with me as I felt the same. Another form of eco-grief.
The National Library of Medicine states, “Climate change is increasingly recognized to pose a variety of threats to human health, including mental health and well-being.” Think of those who have been directly affected through a natural disaster or extreme weather event with the loss of a home, damaged crops, or loss of natural space. There may be indirect stressors from the events like difficulty reconstructing the home, fewer food sources, increase in food prices or less recreational places to enjoy the outdoors. These effects can be acute to chronic. Some people will hear about or witness these climate change events and their produced outcomes and begin to suffer the emotional consequences associated with anticipated environmental changes.
The National Library of Medicine continues to say that climate-related non-economic losses have shown that people are subject to intangible harm from climate change like the disappearance of flora and fauna, loss of cropland and living spaces for animals, loss of ways of life, loss of personal identity constructed in relation to the physical environment. Ecological grief is the emotional response to such losses.
The “International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health” defined ecological grief as the “grief felt in relation to experienced or anticipated ecological losses, including the loss of species, ecosystems and meaningful landscapes due to acute or chronic environmental change.” This may be particularly pronounced in those who retain close living, working or cultural relationships with the natural environment such as foresters, farmers, naturalists, biologists, outdoor sportsmen or indigenous people. It’s likely this will be a universal reality.
Solastalgia is a new concept developed by philosopher Glenn Albrecht to give greater meaning and clarity to environmentally induced distress. A blend of the words solace and nostalgia, solastalgia is used not just in academia but more widely, and some U.S. researchers refer to it in their climate change studies. It describes the feeling of distress associated with environmental change close to your home. Another group of researchers refer to it as, “The distress caused by the unwelcome transformation of cherished landscapes resulting in cumulative mental, emotional and spiritual health impacts.” I think all of us can relate to this term with the ridiculous amounts of development going on in our area. The landscape is forever changed.
The National Library of Medicine states, “Climate change-related environmental degradation and loss of species or ways of life can evoke emotional reactions even before its occurrence. Eco-anxiety is a response to impending threats by climate change.” The awareness of the slow moving and fast moving impacts of climate change can elicit feelings of hopelessness, uncertainty, and a type of anticipated sadness. Distress and anxiety ensue. Fear for the current generation and the many future generations becomes a real worry.
I can deeply relate to the term place attachment. This refers to the concept of a place having an acquired personal meaning and can be applied to aspects of the social and physical environment such as a house, neighborhood, landscape or natural environment. Many of us form a deep attachment to places, constructing part of our identity around them. The duration of your eco-grief may be influenced by specific types of attachments. I have lots of place attachments and can only guess that most of us do. It’s truly painful when one of our places is damaged or lost by new construction or severely damaged by storms. It’s not only we humans who suffer; wildlife certainly suffers as habitats are forever changed.
Grief researcher William Worden defined one of the key tasks in a grief process as “the adjustment to a new environment,” while grief researcher Thomas Attig depicted the whole grief process as “relearning the world.” When there is profound change, something is either lost or in the process of going away, grief can help us adjust. Researchers agree that naming emotions is useful practice. When things have a name, they can be more easily understood, and experiences about them can be more easily shared. A BBC article reported that, “At its best, a grief process leads to the revitalization of a person’s energies, to an ability to reinvest meaning in those practices of life. The world is now different and I am different, but there can still be meaning in life.”
The National Library of Medicine agrees that, “As emotional states motivate behavior tendencies, feelings associated with ecological grief could motivate environmental behavior. Some think the ecological loss may give people a sense of hopelessness (it doesn’t make a difference what I do), subsequently reducing the likelihood of active adaptation. However, “research on psychological adaptation to climate change and its relation to environmental behavior has shown that some psychological distress in response to climate change-related environmental problems was positively associated with psychological coping or adaptation which in turn predicted engagement in pro-environmental behavior.”
As we experience this eco-heartbreak, unfortunately, this process is likely to become a more frequent experience around the world.
Let’s not wallow in the grief and anxiety. Identify it, find healthy ways to cope and be the catalyst for change. We have to start making changes and educating our children so they know how to effectively lead this world as generations peel away.
I’m going to replace my lost hemlock, replant the area around it and encourage a new ecosystem to flourish. I have to, for my sanity and for my future generations.
by Tish Gailmard