In 2003, an Australian philosopher named Glenn Albrecht coined a term, Solastalgia, to describe what is a familiar feeling for many today:
Solastalgia: noun. From the Latin solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain). “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home’.”
Solastalgia could result from a natural disaster, development, or anything that drastically alters a landscape. Much of Albrecht’s research focused on areas in New South Wales, Australia that have been ravaged by many consecutive years of drought associated with changing climate and areas in NSW subjected to large scale open-cut coal mining. Solastalgia emerged from Albrecht’s attempts to describe the specific kind of depression that set in amongst the population there, leaving a person homeless of soul regardless of shelter overhead and perceptually and emotionally adrift with all familiar patterns and personalities stripped away.
But solastalgia is something reserved for those who have had a home. During this time of pervasive, standardized development, the phenomenon I fear most is not solastalgia but the inability to feel solastalgia. Many people now are born homeless, even when sheltered, clothed, and fed. The standard approach to economic development reduces the diversity of observations, learning, cultural transmissions potential in one’s personal developmental context.
During high school I would hike up to a place called The Bald Spot, a bare rocky outcrop along a forested ridge overlooking the valley where I grew up. There was a rough trail about a quarter of the way up to the top and a spot where that trail began to dissolve into forest. The sun came down from a clear blue sky one mid-afternoon, the first time I climbed to The Bald Spot. As I came around the bend the trail widened, the grass reach above my knees, and the forest swallowed the trail.
A fox was standing in the sun square with me in the trail. For a lingering instant, we assessed each other before he bounded off into the grasses. Nearly every time I visited The Bald Spot I would catch a fleeting glimpse of one of their lithe bodies darting into the grass like spirits slipping between worlds. I would wander far off the trail trying to find their home, hoping that just one time we could sit together with no running involved. Of all the places I wandered growing up, few places enchanted me more, few places are sewn as intricately into my memory.
One day in college, I returned with my partner of the time to visit and share this place. We found that the area had been deforested, fenced, and cookie-cutter houses, a development called Mountain Ridge, now spread across the slope. We stood atop a great heap of dirt piled by excavators and I tried to find my way from there to where the foxes had lived until I realized that that place no longer existed. I realized it, but I could not feel it. What I felt was violent anger and then sadness. I felt my memories leaving me already like heat lost to winter cold outside an open door.
I chose the title of this piece because the day I found the red foxes were gone is the closest I have felt to the day that Billy Coleman, in Wilson Rawls’ Where the Red Fern Grows, lost the beloved Coonhounds he raised from pups. Billy finds Old Dan mortally wounded and Old Dan’s companion, Little Ann, dies of grief a few days later. As well as companions, Old Dan and Little Ann defined Billy’s experience of discovery of the land around him and through that discovery matures emotionally to another stage of life.
The difference in Billy’s story is that the land remained and would embrace him through his next stage as well. In my case, I can never return to that spot. In the bottom left of the old satellite photo above, you can see the dirt path where I entered the forest. In the top right you can see The Bald Spot. The forest in this satellite image was replaced by Mountain Ridge.
On the left is the development plan that replaced the forest. On the right is a picture of the kind of houses that were built. The standard development of the kind that replaced the path to the The Bald Spot cannot be differentiated from any other standard development. I could be in California, Minnesota, or New Jersey and there is no distinguishing one place from another. The forest was the place of foxes, the built environment was increasingly a placeless place.
The comedian Lewis Black described this kind of phenomenon of a place that is no place as the “end of the universe:”
“There sits a Starbucks and directly across the street from the exact same building as that Starbucks there is another Starbucks. There is a Starbucks across the street from another Starbucks. And ladies and gentleman that, is the end of the universe.”
One feature of this kind of development is that every structure is design around cars, constraining of inhabitants to the car for all needs. Studies by city planner Bruce Appleyard show that children who primarily driven around cannot draw maps of where they live. Worse yet, when they do draw maps, they indicate information such as danger but, unlike children who walk or bike around, do not indicate detailed and emotional relationships or connections with specific places they move through.
I was fortunate to be able to wander freely for miles around my childhood home along streets, yards, and forests. My mental map of this area was keen, and marked not just by static landmarks, but by experiences with personalities like the red fox family. Implicit in those experiences was ecological knowledge of the relationships through which any place comes be a place with all its particular qualities and an emotional connection with those relationships.
We had to drive to anything beyond that realm, the grocery for example. And my memory, to this day, of that driven landscape is poor. I know which turns to make, but if I drew a map of the places a move through, most of it would look a lot like those children’s. As a result, I did not grow up with any ecological sense of connection to food, clothes, or any other product that made my life tick.
When that impaired sense of one’s context and place reaches one’s doorstep,perhaps a new word in addition to solastalgia is required, a word that describes never having had a home and not even knowing it. I feel my childhood occurred just before this tipping point, when towns center had already shifted to vapid strip malls, but at least there were the foxes.
Anyone who has spent time working their own garden knows that their memory of that place is infinitely richer and more evolutionary than of any mall or lawn they have visited 1,000 times. Leaf miner insects prefer dock leaves, dock puts out tawny plumes of seeds that color the late-summer landscape, crackers can be made from the seeds, the smell of crackers baking, the taste of the crackers and what was one them… Memory of the place is supported not by a person’s presence in that place alone, but by the relationships present for the person to experience and interact with and memory of oneself is contained in and supported by those experiences.
Memory being the well of relationships within us is therefore at the root of empathy and compassion. These places like Mountain Ridge are part of a landscape that cannot remember and therefore struggles to love or progress. These places are the emptiness at the core of psychopathy. I say psychopathy because they are vicious cycles in which a sense of relationship is lost. Appleyard’s studies show that in addition to distance, parents restrict child mobility and choose to drive them in part because of traffic. They then contribute to more traffic. This is a runaway positive feedback loop that has been progressing for decades. Pick nearly any aspect of the lives, products, or landscape in non-places like these and you will find a vicious cycle of similar make.
Later in Black’s routine, he reaches this inevitable conclusion:
“What I wonder about is the gentleman who stood in the empty building and looked across the street at the Starbucks and then turned to his wife and kids and said, ‘ You know, I have a vision. I am going to build a Starbucks right here’….I wonder who are the people who would need a Starbucks across from a Starbucks? What demographic could it possibly be? I’ve thought about it long and hard and I mean no harm by this, but it must a community filled with people with Alzheimer’s.”
There are dozens of other syndromes and such, in addition to Solastalgia, used to described the processes or symptoms of memory and knowledge of relationships dissolving: nature deficit disorder; Ecoanxiety; Ecoparalysis, Eco-Nostalgia; Global Dread. But there are also propensities we have to create rather than erode life — e.g., biophilia or solaphilia — and systems of design — e.g., permaculture or open source ecology — that harness this form of intelligence. The only route to embracing these propensities, it would seem, is breaking these vicious cycles of excising relationships and replacing them with virtuous cycles of creating relationships. And that will require, at least, some foxes.