Tunnels made by an elm bark beetle scar a dead elm tree. (Mary Gillham Archive Project/Creative Commons)

The Language of Catastrophe

On how to discuss the death of giants

FIVE YEARS AGO, DUTCH ELM disease finally killed what may have been the last remaining English elm grove in the United States. Planted more than two hundred years ago at an estate that is now Woodlands Cemetery—a West Philadelphia haven where I sometimes go to read and think—the Seven Giants reached ninety feet. Sometimes a man would park his car in the elms’ shade and practice his saxophone; whenever he’d make a mistake—which was often—he would stop playing and curse loudly and kick the car. What entertainment for the trees in their autumn years! Now they loom as monolithic shark-gray amputees, more morbid than any of the graves at their roots.

Dutch elm disease hitchhiked to the United States from Europe and was first identified in Ohio almost a century ago. Within decades, it spread to both coasts and killed millions of trees; by a miracle, the Woodlands elms were spared—until, all of a sudden, they weren’t. Why now? No one seems to know. What is certain is that a changing climate has warped the travel paths, breeding cycles, and population dynamics of the bark beetles that spread tree diseases.

When a meteor lands, we call it a meteorite. When a tree dies due to climate change, should we make another name for it? Should there be a new language for this off-kilter world? When mackerel, the traditional catch of West African and Spanish fishers, show up in Iceland, are they still mackerel? Are pelicans that glide over the Schuylkill River, at least five degrees north of their historical habitat, still pelicans, or must we translate them? What are the words to express a world circumscribed by climate catastrophe?

Now they loom as monolithic shark-gray amputees, more morbid than any of the graves at their roots.

Every day spells a new normal, requires our hearts to learn an endless vocabulary. Last summer, I waited and waited in vain for the linden tree to bloom outside my study. The previous summers, the city was awash in lindenscent, and slow bees worked hard on the other side of the window screen. A cold spring day can kill early buds, and lindens will stay barren for a year or even two. But I don’t remember a cold spring day. Then why did the linden withhold her blossoms? The tree speaks no language I can translate.

In Russian, my mother tongue, mourners say about a great misfortune nyet slov, “no words.” In 1939, the Soviet secret police arrested the Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband and daughter—he would be shot and she would spend sixteen years in the gulag, but Tsvetaeva would know neither of these tragedies because she would hang herself a year later, two months after Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Shortly before her suicide she wrote: “My difficulty . . . is in the impossibility of my goal, for example, to use words to express a moan: nnh, nnh, nnh.”

Post-Holocaust writers contended with the inadequacy of language by displacing it or displacing themselves within it. Elie Wiesel broke away from the German language and chose to write in French and English; Paul Celan broke the German language itself to unbesmirch it for poetry. The Russian word for a German, which used to describe all Western foreigners, is nemets, from nemoi—“mute, incapable of speech.” A speechless person is a stranger, as we are strangers in this new world we are making. What is this silence? What is the moan for the die-off and displacement of the sixth extinction? It is beyond a lost language—it is a language yet unfound. “The twentieth-century prose no longer cuts it,” warns the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin. At the cemetery, I walk past the grotesque obelisks of the dead elms, aphasic.


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Anna Badkhen is the author of seven books, most recently the essay collection Bright Unbearable Reality, which was longlisted for the 2022 National Book Award. She has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Barry Lopez Visiting Writer in Ethics and Community Fellowship, and the Joel R. Seldin Award from Psychologists for Social Responsibility for writing about civilians in war zones. Badkhen was born in the Soviet Union and is a U.S. citizen.