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Climate change: When the tree of life is felled

04 December 2020

Rituals of marking loss help process the devastation of breakdown, says Panu Pihkala

Sirpa Päivinen

The destruction of ancient forest at Hvitträsk, in 2015

The destruction of ancient forest at Hvitträsk, in 2015

WHEN I think of my climate grief, I see many shades of sorrow, but also a range of other emotions. Grief is a conglomerate, a matrix, a bundle of threads. “The important point is not to achieve, but to strive,” the pioneering conservationist Aldo Leopold wrote more than 50 years ago.

The fate of a certain forest taught me a lot. In Spring 2015, an ancient coniferous forest near to Hvitträsk, a famous mansion built by Eliel Saarinen and his colleagues, was suddenly clearcut by the government.

The forest was already ancient when the architects built their home more than 100 years ago, and the pristine nature of the place was an important reason for their selection of this setting.

Lots of spruce and pine trees, wide canopies of dark green moss, and a steep descent into a clear blue lake. Saarinen and a few others were buried in the forest because of its beauty and significance. Since the mansion had been a state-owned museum for decades, both travellers and locals liked to spend time in this wood.

I read the news at home and was shocked. I had spent much time in this forest, and knew about its significance both as an ecosystem and for people. I was on paternal leave with my two-year-old; so I packed him and my bike on to the local train and went to investigate.

I am one of those relatively phlegmatic Nordic persons, shaped by the cold winters and safe childhood environments. But this time I truly felt moral outrage and eco-anger.

Almost all the trees had been cut down. The heavy machines had ruined much of the blueberries. The devastation extended almost to the gravesite.

The state officials tried to explain that the trees were dangerous for people, since they were so old, but this wasn’t actually true; a biologist analysed the stumps and pointed out that only one or two were unhealthy.

They had just wanted to cut down the forest, to make a bit of profit and to follow their standard procedures for forest “management”.

The next day, I decided to organise a public lament for this woodland. The mere suggestion of a lament of this kind had a political dimension to it, since it is not customary in Finland — a country greatly dependent historically on forest industry — to publicly mourn trees, even ancient ones.

But I did my best to focus on grief in the lament, since I firmly believe that grief rituals should be about expressing emotions, not places of agitation.

The political message will carry itself through implicitly. In a drizzle, 30 people showed up. The local church musician joined me and played cello from a van, to protect the instrument from rain.

We constructed a rough altar of cut-down tree branches, which we set to a shape of a cross which leaned on a large tree stump.


THERE were no official structures for such a ritual available; so I had to be creative. I used practically all the elements of a funeral ritual. The Bible lessons talked about trees and grief.

Instead of throwing sand on a coffin, I touched the stump as a symbolic act of saying farewell and praying for transcendental life. In the case of the forest, life after death would follow in the form of new trees, but it would take decades. People expressed their grief and paid their farewells to this much-loved wood.

Some participated in singing and in touching the ground, some decided to stay still, and all reactions were explicitly allowed and endorsed. Catharsis happened, even though all righteous anger did not disappear. That wasn’t the purpose, either.

Afterwards, people spontaneously gathered on the yard of the mansion and started discussing future actions to prevent something like this from happening again. The main Christian magazine in Finland ran a story about the lament and information about it spread.

Hvitträsk forest taught me many things. First, that anger and outrage can motivate action. Second, that it is possible to organise public rituals for ecological grief. I could apply my experience and skills as a pastor to ecology-related rituals. I found the work of Joanna Macy, which provided more education on these matters, as did the theologian Steven Chase’s work.

Macy’s four-phase model of encountering difficult emotions starts from acknowledging gratitude, which I started to include more explicitly in my workshops; in Macy and Brown’s book Coming Back to Life, there was a vast array of rituals, activities, and practical tips, including weeping practices.

Chase applied old Christian contemplative spirituality to various emotions related to nature, which gave further ideas. He even gave instructions for writing laments related to ecological damage and extinctions.

Later, I adapted this experience to the work of organising rituals related to climate grief. That is more difficult, since climate grief is, currently, mostly transitional grief and anticipatory mourning. It is easier to mourn and to organise rituals if there is a specific subject, either a body of a creature or a lost place.

But various kinds of rituals, or ritual-like events, related to climate grief have still been possible, and they have helped many people. We humans are bodily creatures, even though in Christianity we’ve often forgotten that. Being present with other bodies, or “bodyminds”, affects us holistically.

Sometimes, the body helps the mind. In grief rituals, it is very important that people can move their bodies in the ways that they feel suitable.

I read more about theories of grief and grieving practices. I lifted up the idea that acute climate-related loss could be encountered by rituals, if there were people who had prepared for that.


LATER these kinds of rituals were organised for the grief that people had because of the forest fires in Australia and Amazon.

For transitional and anticipatory grief, I wondered about the possibilities of adapting some of the seasons and days from the church year. Why not days and seasons for climate grief? Or for climate-related gratitude? I’ve been musing about Autumn Equinox as a theme day for ecological grief and climate grief.

The symbolic and physical aspects of that season would support the content, and it would fit inside the “Season of Creation” theme weeks that many congregations follow. The work of North American writer and activist Trebbe Johnson provided further ideas and support.

She advocates for encountering wounded places and giving space for the development of spontaneous “guerrilla beauty”: perhaps, say, in the form of a bird constructed from natural materials amid a devastated place.

Rituals need thresholds and it’s useful if these are physical, not just spoken instructions of setting aside a time; that’s why various churches and temples have special entrances, such as portals or gates.

Johnson recommends setting these for rituals of ecological grief. Even a branch, which is set as a threshold, can function as a transitional element. These kinds of symbolic elements can be used also in city surroundings, for example by setting a colourful band of cloth as a threshold into a ritual space on a city square.

The books by the grief specialist Francis Weller provided further ideas and encouraged even more ritual imagination. I noticed that, in addition to specific rituals, there can be permanent memorial places which help people to encounter their ecological grief and climate grief.

The Monument to the Passenger Pigeon in the United States is one example, and the Mass Extinction Memorial Observatory in Britain is another. On a local level, there can be set aside places for climate grief.


REGARDING symbolic architecture or design, there are several options here, but I’ve found elements of transitiveness important: perhaps near a sea or river shore, or next to a place which is changing because of climate breakdown. Even buildings or industrial areas can function as such symbolic settings.

The emotion of solastalgia (Glenn Albrecht’s neologism: desire for solace + nostalgia + desolation) — homesickness even though you are still living at home — can be addressed by such places.

My second book about eco-anxiety focused on the wide scale of various ecological emotions. There’s several of them that need rituals or public acknowledgements, and many of them can be linked with grief processes. Despair is one, anger is another. In some climate-related rituals, public acts or “performances” focus on ways to channel anger constructively.

This often happens in climate demonstrations: people can use their anger for embodied action, in a non-violent way. The fact that this is done together strengthens the impact, but the downside is that these events can further intensify the lines between “us” and “them”.

Sometimes, both grief and anger can be processed in a single event, but this requires careful preparation. Questions related to despair and hope are nearly always present in endeavours related to the ecological crisis. My strategy has been to advocate a “tragic hope”.

I do not lie when somebody asks whether I am optimistic about the future. But I do not endorse collapse language either, because its psycho-spiritual consequences are difficult to tell. Many people are already despairing enough.

I believe that the way forward is from genuine emotional support and further recognition of dark ecological emotions, so that we can build resilience. My own climate grief is in a kind of acceptance stage. There is joy in life, even in the midst of these very difficult global ecological circumstances.

A deep sadness about the future persists, but it does not command the whole of life. There is still deep meaning in this pilgrimage.


Dr Panu Pihkala is an adjunct professor of environmental theology in the Faculty of Theology at the University of Helsinki and a postdoctoral researcher in the HELSUS Sustainability Science Institute. He is also a Lutheran pastor.

This is an edited extract from Words for a Dying World: Stories of grief and courage from the global Church, edited by Hannah Malcolm and published by SCM Press at £15.99 (Church Times Bookshop £12.99).

Listen to interview with Hannah Malcolm on the Church Times Podcast.


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