Monday, 4 August 2008

Global Solastalgia

People in the front line of environmental change are now telling their stories of distress in the face of unwelcome disturbance to their homes. The Inuit of the Arctic Circle now use the word, “uggianaqtuq” to liken the weather to a once reliable and predictable old friend who is now acting very strangely. Solastalgia is a new concept in the English language I have developed to help explain the distress that comes from the lived experience of such unwelcome environmental change to a person’s sense of place.

As case studies the regions of Appalachia and the Hunter Valley of Australia have much in common. Both places were once seen as places of great beauty where humans could live in harmony with their bioregion. The Hunter Valley was once described as “the Tuscany of the South” while Appalachia has been praised in poetry, music and dance:

From The Bridge: The Dance
by Hart Crane

I took the portage climb, then chose
A further valley-shed; I could not stop.
Feet nozzled wat’ry webs of upper flows;
One white veil gusted from the very top.

O Appalachian Spring! I gained the ledge;
Steep, inaccessible smile that eastward bends
And northward reaches in that violet wedge
Of Adirondacks!—wisped of azure wands,
Excerpt taken from:

Martha Graham named her ballet ‘Appalachian Spring’ after the lines from Crane’s poem and Aaron Copeland’s famous music for the dance is known by this title. In her Blood Memories, Graham said that her choreography
… is essentially a dance of place. You choose a piece of land, part of the house goes up. You dedicate it. The questioning spirit is there and the sense of establishing roots.
(Martha Graham, Blood Memories: See )

Despite the rich natural and cultural histories, both places are now being transformed by the simultaneous processes of large scale coal mining and climate change. In response to the double pressures of ecosystem distress and a climate that is beginning to act in hostile and unpredictable ways, many people are experiencing solastalgia, a feeling of existential distress about negatively felt change. These people are feeling a kind of homesickness yet they are still at home. As your home is being desolated, that which once gave you solace is now giving you solastalgia.

There is no more graphic illustration of how people respond to a shift or change in the environment than with the case of mining. Mining literally takes your environment away from you; it undermines your sense of place. In Appalachia, mountain tops are removed; in Australia, the land becomes scarred like burnt flesh, new mountains of spoil and waste are formed while massive voids are carved out of the land.

As if this physical desolation was not enough, the climate, under the influence of global warming, is also becoming unpredictable and it is on the move. In coastal eastern Australia, you would now have to live about 150 kilometres further south than your present location in order to experience a climate similar to that of only 50 years ago. Earlier and warmer springs in the USA and Canada have already changed the sense of place and many species are moving their range further north and into higher altitudes. In order to stay in their home, some of the residents of our ecosystems are packing up and moving further north or south … depending on the hemisphere. Yet we humans remain rooted to the spot and wonder what is going on? For those sensitive enough to notice and bear witness to these unwelcome changes to well-being and sense of place, this addition to Healthearth will show that they are not alone and that solastalgia must be defeated in the simultaneous restoration of human and ecosystem health.

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