Death has been on my mind. Minding the end times reverberates at many scales—global, personal, physical, spiritual. Solstice pulled me out among the winter whispery grasses and low trees on my land. Science predicts the devastation of the two-needle piñon, the keystone species of my home states and places. Yellow needles, polka dots of beetle holes, and skeletal branches take increasing portions of my awareness. Indeed, this impending die-off is part of why I choose to live where I live, so that I can be present with the dying. I promise them my witness and reverence. (Elder 2021)
The term “nostalgia” comes from Greek words nostos (“return home”) and algos (“pain”). First coined in the late 1600s, the term was used in medicine to describe people (especially soldiers) suffering from an acute longing for home (Matei 2017). For nearly 200 years nostalgia was treated as a brain disorder with symptoms including melancholy, malnutrition, brain fever, and hallucinations (“Those were the days” nd, para. 5). More recently, the environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht has been credited with coining the term “solastalgia,” which he and others have described as “the pain or distress caused by the loss of, or inability to derive, solace connected to the negatively perceived state of one’s home environment” (Albrecht et al. 2007, S96). Related to homesickness and nostalgia, Albrecht et al. distinguish solastalgia as focused on those who may not be directly displaced from home but may nonetheless feel dislocated, especially by the global effects of climate change:
People who are still in their home environs can also experience place-based distress in the face of the lived experience of profound environmental change. The people of concern are still “at home,” but experience a “homesickness” similar to that caused by nostalgia. What these people lack is solace or comfort derived from their present relationship to “home.” (S96)
Galway et al. (2019) further refine the concept, noting that—unlike related terms such as ecological grief and eco-anxiety—“a key theoretical aspect of solastalgia … is an explicit focus on place: solastalgia is a place-based lived experience” (2). Put more simply, solastalgia might be understood as a kind of homesickness felt by those who are physically at home but feel nonetheless displaced or distanced from the comfort of that place.
Albrecht et al. (2007) categorize solastalgia as a somaterratic illness, meaning it occurs at the intersection of body (soma) and earth (terra) where a person’s mental health is “threatened by the severing of ‘healthy’ links between themselves and their home/territory” (S95). In 2020, Albrecht and his coauthors updated his concept and reinforced that while solastalgia remains a place-based and embodied state, it also exists within a socioeconomic and political context; rather than an inevitable and hopeless resignation, solastalgia “is an emotional state that can be countered and overcome” (20). They argue that countering solastalgia—in addition to recognizing and processing it as a human emotional experience—can be done through deliberate personal and community action to change corporate, social, and political realities.
Grappling (or Not) with Climate Change
As part of the evolving notion of solastalgia, Albrecht (2020) has proposed a new way to re-story the future: the Symbiocene, which he describes as
a period in the history of humanity on this Earth, [which] will be characterized by human intelligence and praxis that replicate the symbiotic and mutually reinforcing life-reproducing forms and processes found in living systems. This period of human existence will be a positive affirmation of life, and it offers the possibility of the complete re-integration of the human body, psyche and culture with the rest of life. The path to avoiding yet more solastalgia, and other negative psychoterratic Earth emotions that damage the psyche, must take us into the Symbiocene. (102)
For Albrecht, then, as well as for the many grounded activist networks orienting their work around the frameworks of hope (Solnit in McQuilkin and Chakrabarti 2020) and joy (Intersectional Environmentalist), there is a pathway out of the deep, often anticipatory pain that many of us are feeling as we consider our personal, communal, and inter-species existential futures as well as our impacts on ecosystems around the globe. As Albrecht suggests, that pathway includes intentional efforts to positively re-story human existence among other forms of life.
Yet, for many of us living in the first quarter of the 21st century, the solace of “home” is undercut with anxiety and—for many more—grief. A report co-produced by the American Psychological Association, Climate for Health, and ecoAmerica (Whitmore-Williams, Manning, Krygsman, and Speiser 2017) notes that effects of climate change can “induce stress, depression, and anxiety; strain social and community relationships; and have been linked to increases in aggression, violence, and crime” (4). Yet, Galway et al. (2019) help to establish that, even if “physical health implications of climatic and environmental change are increasingly well documented, … the emotional, mental, and spiritual health implications remain understudied” (1-2). Further, Richard Louv warns that “if climate change occurs at the rate that some scientists believe it will, and if human beings continue to crowd into de-natured cities, then solastalgia will contribute to a quickening spiral of mental illness” (in Galway et al. 2019, 1).
Despite the psychological effects that climate change has and will continue to have, it appears there is substantial reluctance to talking about this topic. A 2018 Yale/George Mason survey, for example, found that 65 percent of participants say they discuss global warming “never” or “rarely” (Leiserowitz et al. 2018, 16). Psychiatrist Lise van Susteren adds, “It’s culturally acceptable to talk about all kinds of anxieties, but not the climate” (in Scher 2018).
At this point we feel it is important to note that, among scholars and public-facing voices, the phenomenon of climate anxiety has been critiqued as “overwhelmingly white:”
The prospect of an unlivable future has always shaped the emotional terrain for Black and brown people, whether that terrain is racism or climate change.…Exhaustion, anger, hope—the effects of oppression and resistance are not unique to this climate moment. What is unique is that people who had been insulated from oppression are now waking up to the prospect of their own unlivable future. (Ray 2021 para. 6)
While acknowledging this important critique, we argue that solastalgia—within the context of the Symbiocene and embracing its relationship with grief and hopeful action—is a concept that remains worth interrogating, and we believe folklore can fill an important gap in present cultural engagement with climate change.
A Place for Folklore
This is a time of change, death, and, perhaps, an opportunity for rebirth. This is a time when we need folklore to help us process change that is in many ways beyond the scale of rationalization. Owens (2022), for example, argues that folklorists can help U.S. communities address climate-related human migration by driving conversations about how to sustain collapsing cultures, how to welcome newcomers in recipient communities, and how to determine priorities for preservation efforts. And, as Alvarez (in Ober 2020) notes, “Folklore is often the harbinger of cultural change; folklorists and cultural reporters can track shifts in beliefs and habits with great efficiency.” Her research has illustrated that “many of the first people to notice significant changes in patterns of pollination, the temperature in bodies of water or the variation of patterns of wildflowers in certain zones affected by drought were actually ‘the folk’ who lived, walked and knew these places intimately.” Folklore can serve functions for recording and documenting change, creating or capturing adaptive guidance, and offering narratives for emotional and psychological engagement with solastaglia.
Not only does solastalgia capture deep grief (one both reflective of the current moment as well as anticipatory of increasing change, destabilization, and loss of familiar experiences of our surroundings), but it also has been documented across a range of cultures and communities, including the Erub Island and Torres Strait Indigenous communities (McNamara and Westoby 2011). Recognizing the ways in which their cultural identities are connected to their biophysical surroundings, women in the Erub Island community have “an intrinsic synergistic relationship [that] connects the health of islanders and the wellbeing of their land and sea country” (234). Even as this community faces accelerating, destabilizing changes that affect their traditional and embodied methods for reading the land/seascape, their millennia-long histories of adaptive co-evolution with nature—many captured through folklore practices—may provide insights and strategies that can inform a global move towards the Symbiocene.
Across cultures, folklore’s focuses on storytelling and on documenting place-based expertise and local ways of life offer many pathways through which students (and others) can engage with the social, personal, and economic impacts they are experiencing during this period of worldwide death, displacement, and loss of connection with “home.” The activity below offers options for engaging individuals and groups with themes of grief and solastalgia as well as possible adaptation through re-storying and active engagement needed to move forward. Our conception of “re-storying” draws on Positioning Theory’s concept of storylines as semi-stable constructions through which individuals take up and negotiate social positions. Re-storying, then, is a process by which people intersubjectively create new social possibilities for themselves and others (Davies and Harré, 1990).
In line with the call for submissions for this special issue, we believe the educational activities we describe illuminate how “remembrance of the deceased [can offer] an entry point to learning about identities, histories, and communities through traditions, rituals, and culture” (Helmsing and Varga 2021, para. 2). Especially in educational settings where climate change is often presented as science separate from embodied and local experience, we believe that framing climate change in terms of death, loss, and remembrance can help collapse the felt distance between global climate impacts and the internalized, embodied, local grief implied in the term solastalgia.
Because human and environmental health are deeply interconnected, there is a strong correlation between witnessing effects of climate change and an increase in traumatic stress. The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the American Psychiatric Association, among others, have described the threats that climate change poses to mental health; experiencing and anticipating environmental destruction or loss, along with the physical impacts of climate change, likely increase traumatic stress for all people, and most acutely for those most vulnerable and marginalized (San Mateo County Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative 2019).
Because of the close association of climate change and trauma, teachers should realize that exploring these concepts—even using a re-storying framework or symbiotic action approach—carries the potential to trigger or reveal participants’ trauma responses or prior experiences. Using a trauma-informed approach, however, can strengthen students’ educational experience and create a safe environment for learning, documenting, and re-storying to occur. Some primary trauma-informed educational strategies that apply to these activities include cultural humility and responsiveness, social emotional learning, and empowerment and collaboration (San Mateo County Environmental Literacy and Sustainability Initiative 2019).
The activities described here are additionally informed by the “Lead with Listening” guidebook from the Climate Migration Project (Climigration 2021). This guide invites facilitators to slow down, be extremely mindful of language choices and cultural context, and acknowledge the challenging emotional, psychological, and personal relationships that are bound up in exploring loss and death within our home places.
Rick Fisher is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of English at University of Wyoming. He also directs UW’s Communication Across the Curriculum program, meaning that he values and promotes the use of writing as a form of learning across disciplines. He holds a Ph.D in Literacy Education and an MA in Composition and Rhetoric. His recent research has focused on disciplinary literacy, writerly identity, and student transitions to post-secondary education. ORCID 0000-0002-8080-2817
Maggie Bourque holds a BA in Philosophy and Theatre Arts and an MS in Natural Science Education and Environment & Natural Resources. An alumnus of the Teton Science Schools graduate program in place-based education and field ecology, her scholarship and teaching is at the intersections of interdisciplinary environmental education and place studies. As Associate Lecturer in the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Wyoming, she teaches across the environmental studies curriculum and works with students, faculty, and communities to explore the integrative and complex relationships among people and place. ORCID 0000-0001-5846-0200
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Journal of Folklore and Education, Common Ground: People and Our Places https://jfepublications.org/journal/vol-5
Nina Elder, Solastalgic Archive https://www.ninaelder.com/solastalgic-archive
Nina Elder, Inspiration and Adaptation: Art in the Anthropocene https://npnweb.org/nina-elder-essay
Amanda Gorman, Earthrise https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xwOvBv8RLmo
Maya Lin, What Is Missing https://www.mayalinstudio.com/memory-works/what-is-missing
Intersectional Environmentalist https://www.intersectionalenvironmentalist.com
The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/music/2021/oct/28/the-greatest-songs-about-the-climate-crisis-ranked
Campbell, When Climate Change Comes for the Fairy Tale Forest https://lithub.com/when-climate-change-comes-for-the-fairy-tale-forest
The New York Times Magazine, The Decameron Project https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/07/07/magazine/decameron-project-short-story-collection.html
San Mateo County, Environmental Literacy and Trauma: An overview https://sites.google.com/smcoe.org/smcoe-environmental-literacy/resources/curriculum-andinstruction/smcoe-model-efs-curriculum
What is folklore? https://whatisfolklore.org
Louisiana Voices Sense of Place https://www.louisianavoices.org/Unit4/edu_unit4_lesson3.html
Cultural Perspectives on Place worksheet https://www.louisianavoices.org/Unit4/edu_unit4w_cult_per.html
Spirit of Place Worksheet https://www.louisianavoices.org/Unit4/edu_unit4w_spirit_of_place.html
Old Crow Medicine Show. James River Blues https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gp0V5v7w4jQ