Copses of Corpses

Uneasy Synecdoche and Nonhuman Suffering of Climate Change

December 23, 2015

Karen Holmberg

This post is the final in a series on the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP21) held in Paris, France, from 30 November to 12 December 2015.

The suffering of trees suddenly bothers me. As a child, I had a close friendship with a tree. I did not anthropomorphize him in the least; he was already the cognizant creature he was, and I was honored he would listen to me. He never spoke back, mind you, but I knew he understood. We had different languages but communication, of course, is more than verbal. I would hug his trunk and feel a sense of calm after telling him my stories. I visited for many years after leaving home. We lost contact at some point as adult life took over my mind. More recently, I have written a grammar of trees drawing on random thoughts from other trees I’ve met. I suppose it’s an attempt to find a language that could allow me to speak a bit more with my childhood tree friend. I regret that we’ve have lost touch.

I sometimes flip through the book Mount St. Helens, by Frank Gohlke, in wonder at the terrible beauty of the photos. The images show the volcanic landscape after the 1980 eruption in stunning black and white. Great forests lay flattened by the force of volcanic eruption. It’s cliché to say that the massive trees look like matchsticks but they do, so it is the easiest way to describe their fractured bodies. The mountain, seemingly so strong and permanent, blew itself apart. Most certainly, the mountain, too, is alive; the destruction of that eruption was its agency and choice. The trees, though, were mowed down in a violence that came unexpectedly and without chance for escape. They had no choice. I have a sense of great sorrow for the trees from the photos—copses of corpses.

On Halloween this year, I unexpectedly came across the carcass of a tree that died in a terrorist attack. Much press has gone to the Survivor Tree from 9/11, but a cast bronze sculpture by Steve Tobin is a memorial to a tree that did not survive. The 70-year-old sycamore gave its life and in doing so shielded St. Paul’s Chapel. Its stump and roots, excavated after the disaster, were cast in bronze. The organic, hidden portions of its life are now more permanent but lifeless after that terrible, terrible day. We all become homegrown terrorists in our implicit contributions to climate change, no? That could be the vantage of the forests. Global warming could kill off vast swaths of the world’s trees due to droughts we create, and the United States is particularly susceptible to this threat within our own borders. During the COP21 discussion, forest advocates pushed for the prioritization and protection of trees by international climate law. As part of a side event post-COP21, REDD+ addressed the vast importance of trees as terrestrial storehouses of carbon, energy, water, livelihoods, and biodiversity as well as food, fuel, shelter, and medicine for the world’s poorest people. Deforestation actively speeds global warming, hurting the poor and nonpoor alike. It certainly hurts the trees.

My newly surging empathy for trees is a selfish one. Trees are a synecdoche for us. I suddenly wonder that we might each be saplings on the slope of a Mount St. Helens grown larger than our imaginations. I’ve long known that both literally and figuratively the poorest of the poor work inside the volcano. The luckier portions of the global population may feel removed from such dangers. We face impending environmental challenges, though, that very well may thrust us all within a volcano of our own making and engulf all other landscapes. A woman at COP21 was photographed hugging a piece of glacial ice. The ice was brought by Olafur Eliasson for Ice Watch from Greenland as an artistic intervention. That hug takes tree hugging to a new level. And it should. Unlike the trees, we do have choices and we can make changes. In a worst-case environmental scenario, I’d still like to have a tree friend with whom to confide my fears. Perhaps a hero sycamore to sacrifice itself as a shield would be a good thing.

True, there is a chance I over-anthropomorphized my childhood tree friend. That’s a harmless and childlike thing to do. We have all, though, collectively and anthropogenically created a climate supervolcano that has the capacity to flatten us, which is for certain far less forgivable. Don’t fool yourself. It won’t be as beautiful as a Gohlke image.

Karen Holmberg
considers herself an archaeologist with a volcanology fetish. She holds a PhD from Columbia and has taught at Stanford and Brown. She is currently a visiting scholar at New York University where she is working on a book about the history and future of environmental disaster considerations.

Cite as: 
Holmberg, Karen. 2015. “Copses of Corpses: Uneasy Synecdoche and Nonhuman Suffering of Climate Change.” EnviroSociety. 23 December.

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