The pain of loss stemming from a natural environment under pressure.
Whenever somebody asks me where I am from, the first thing I say is “The Black Forest”. I could start with Germany, or even Europe, but it’s always the forest. I grew up right next to it, my kindergarten was literally in a hut in the forest and I have probably spent more time climbing trees than I have on slides or carousels. In summer, when my mother wanted to make jam, she would take us to pick berries; in winter, we would go sledding on the hill in the neighboring village. As I grew older, I sneaked out at night to drink beer with my friends in the forest, and when I walked home after a night out I always walked under the trees instead of across the street, because I felt safer in the knowledge that no people were around.
When I come back, a lot of these things are still the same. Some have changed because I have grown up. Others have changed because the world is changing, and not always for the better. When you know what to look out for, the consequences of global heating are almost omnipresent. Last summer, I went blueberry picking with my family again. We had to leave early, around eight in the morning, before the sun went up to its zenith, because even in the shady areas of the forest, where the berries grow, it would have become unbearably hot.
We went by car, five of us in a little blue bus, holding the buckets for the blueberries and looking outside the window, the trees flying by us on the narrow, curvy road. The green is still dense and dark, but every now and then, we could see nests of brown, dead spruces. Dryness and bark beetles are causing the trees to die, conservationists are warning that the aesthetic of the forest is going to change irrevocably if nothing is done soon. As we arrived, we walked through a field of purple flowers known as police helmets. In Europe, they are an invasive species, endangering many of the local plant populations. The blueberries grew between moss, which plays an important part in the ecosystem, filtering rain and providing a habitat for small animals. Many of the native species are threatened too, endangered by pollution and rising temperatures. The Black Forest has not adapted to the long, hot summers and dry, snowless winters of the past years, and it shows.
The German language is incredibly precise, so we have a word for that kind of thing: “Waldsterben”. The killing of a forest as a result of pollution and environmental changes. But there is also another, new word that fits to describe what is happening, not only to me, but to the rest of the world: Solastalgia. It describes the feeling of distress due to environmental destruction, the feeling of nostalgia for a home that no longer exists, because it has been destroyed.
In a mild form, it is what I am experiencing, and is no doubt what the people of Australia or Amazonia are experiencing. Solastalgia is silent springs, because great parts of our bird populations have been lost, it is seeing a meadow that you used to play in as a child make room for a new shopping centre.
I grew up sensitive to environmental issues – my parents never had a car, avoided plastic bags wherever possible and I took my first flight at the age of fifteen. I was always aware that our environment is something that deserves protecting and I was always aware that natural beauty was being lost in some parts of the world; that coral reefs were dying and species going extinct. I was always aware that growing up meant losing things in one way or another. I just somehow never actually expected it to happen to my own home.
It is true that I am still one of the lucky ones. My home is not burning, like so many are in Australia, or flooded, like in Indonesia. My home has not literally been wiped from the face of the earth by hurricanes like those on the Bahamas. I simply look out the window and realise that it is not the same, that the memories I made as a child, ice-skating on ponds are irretrievably gone and it is unlikely that I will ever recreate them with my own children. I am one of the lucky ones, because I have lost a sentimental feeling of safety and connection to the place that I grew up in, and not also my shelter or my life as so many others have already.
I believe that in a way, we are all going through the five stages of grief concerning the climate crisis. Denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I think it is important to acknowledge that grief and the pain that comes with losing the natural beauty around us. In a way it makes it easier for me to understand why climate denial is still a thing. But if our earth is truly dying, we are now at a point where we need to treat it with kindness and compassion, where we need to turn this grief and this feeling of loss into what motivates us to keep on going. We have to demand better, from ourselves and from others. Most of all, we have to demand it from governments and economists who are still stuck denying and bargaining their way out of a crisis that sooner or later will cost all of us our homes.