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  • Introduction:Ecological Grief
  • Stef Craps (bio)

Now is a time for grief to persist, to ring throughout the world.

—Timothy Morton, Ecology without Nature, 2007, p. 185

Marybeth Holleman's poem "How to grieve a glacier," published in ISLE in 2019, starts by noting the difficulty if not absurdity of the process the title promises to guide the reader through. After all, as a non-human entity, a glacier is an unusual object of affection: "It's not something you can hold in your arms. / You can't rock with its image in a blanket / and keen away the nearing pain" (Holleman, 2019, p. 441). Even so, the speaker insists, "I do love this blue-white giant, / and grieve its leaving," though she admits that her grief is mingled with excitement at witnessing the sublime spectacle of glacier calving: "I thrill to watch / thunderbolts of ice crash into azure seas" (Holleman, 2019, p. 441). Painfully aware that "it is leaving, abandoning us / to what our kind has created" and that "its gift of rarified water / will only bring more sorrow," as sea-level rise caused by climate change-induced glacier melt is expected to have dramatic consequences for many coastal areas around the world, she cannot help being struck by the terrible beauty of the unfolding environmental tragedy: "Yet it is a gorgeous deterioration" (Holleman, 2019, p. 442).

Also in 2019, the New Yorker published an article by Lacy Johnson titled "How to mourn a glacier" that addresses the same problem identified by Holleman, albeit in relation to a glacier that is no longer in the process of retreating but that has disappeared altogether. What occasioned the article is the official demise of the Okjökull glacier atop Iceland's Ok volcano, which was marked with a memorial ceremony and the installation of a memorial plaque warning of the impact of climate change at the site of the former glacier in August 2019. Attended by "about a hundred scientists, activists, [End Page 1] dignitaries, farmers, politicians, journalists, and children" (Johnson, 2019), the event was widely reported in the media, and photographs of the plaque even went viral. The funeral for Okjökull was echoed by a similar ceremony for the Pizol glacier above Mels in eastern Switzerland, which has also been lost to global warming, one month later. A scientist familiar with the Pizol glacier who attended the ceremony in which it was declared dead was quoted as saying: "It is like the dying of a good friend" (Baynes, 2019).

The same analogy is used by journalist Dahr Jamail in The End of Ice: Bearing Witness and Finding Meaning in the Path of Climate Disruption, which also came out in 2019. This nonfiction book follows Jamail's journey to the frontlines of climate change—from Alaska to the Great Barrier Reef via the Amazon rainforest—chronicling the catastrophic consequences of the loss of ice for both nature and humans. Apart from providing plentiful scientific information, The End of Ice testifies to the emotional and spiritual turmoil the author experiences as he confronts the evidence of climate disruption across the planet. Jamail explains how the book arose from his realization of "the need to share my grief with others about what was happening to nature." In the concluding chapter, he likens his experience of witnessing environmental collapse to the intense moments he spent at what he thought was his friend Duane's deathbed: "Reflecting on what is happening to the planet, I realize that the intimacy I shared with Duane when I thought I was losing my best friend is the intimacy we should have with the Earth." Venturing that, "[i]n an analogous way, we may be watching Earth dying," he is suggesting that regaining an intimate connection with the natural world could help us to begin to know, love, and care for the planet.

The various cultural responses to the experience of environmental loss described in the preceding paragraphs indicate that the question of how to grapple with climate or ecological grief is very much in the air these days. There is indeed a growing awareness that environmental degradation is taking a toll on people's mental and emotional...