Guest commentary: ‘Solastalgia’ as a catalyzing force for action |

Guest commentary: ‘Solastalgia’ as a catalyzing force for action

Karen Koenemann
Guest Commentary

I peered outside our living-room window to see a thick haze hanging over the hills of Missouri Heights. A thin outline of Mount Sopris could be seen in the distance; her fine, distinct contours masked by the haze.

This was Day 27 of the Lake Christine Fire, which was started by two individuals firing illegal tracer rounds at the local shooting range, near the town of Basalt. The fire was still burning on Basalt Mountain, approximately 4 miles away, and the smell of smoke permeated our house. I was relieved that I was able to take a four-day weekend to bask in the cool, clear air in the high alpine of southwest Colorado.

The oppressiveness of the daily high temperatures, haze and smoke had been weighing on me for weeks. The physical health effects of the fire were easy to understand; sinus irritation, difficulty breathing and watery eyes were some of the symptoms from the increased particulate matter in the air.

I knew, however, that there was another element to that weight, a grief felt when I looked out and saw beautiful Basalt Mountain on fire. Recognizing fire as an important part of the ecosystem didn’t alleviate the pain I felt in my heart as I saw majestic trees die and a displaced bear wander through a local hay field showing signs of stress.

Earlier in the summer, I attended a conference where I heard the term “solastalgia” for the first time. Coined in 2004 by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian philosopher and professor of sustainability at Murdoch University, it is a combination of the Latin word “solacium” (comfort) and the Greek root — “algia” (pain). Albrecht defines it as “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.’”

After talking with folks throughout the Roaring Fork Valley, I realized that many, including myself, were experiencing solastalgia. People spoke of their sadness in seeing the forest in flames, worry about dehydrated and displaced wildlife and ash in our waterways. There isn’t a lot of research around the impacts of wildfires, or on a larger scale, climate change on psychological health, but it is an emerging field, and necessary in what might be our new normal.

One of the few studies recently published was in the Canadian Journal of Public Health, and it looked at the effects of prolonged wildfire smoke on mental health in the community of Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, Canada. The lead researcher, Warren Dodd, noted that “wildfire smoke is particularly frightening because it feels emblematic of larger environmental issues. It’s connected to things which might happen in the future.”

Another article published in the April 2008 issue of the journal Nature noted that there is a close connection between people, place and identity, and when the landscape changes, people feel alienation and disconnect from that place. Ashlee Cunsolo, a co-author of the article, states, “The land connection is so much a part of who people are, that when it’s disrupted through things like climate-induced wildfires, or loss of sea ice or severe storms, that people’s sense of identity shifts with that sense of place.”

Although solastalgia captures grief at the state of our immediate surroundings, and a melancholy for the future, this state can be a call to action. The interconnectedness of our individual health with the health of our environment allows us to create a more meaningful and deeper relationship with the natural world around us.

There are many agencies within our communities that have taken this relationship as part of their mission and are actively addressing ways to prevent negative human impacts to the environment, as well as creating resiliency strategies to help community members weather physical and psychological impacts to their health.

Solastalgia, acknowledged, can be a catalyzing force for taking action on climate change rather than a source of despair. The path forward is up to us.

Karen Koenemann is the Pitkin County public health director, a role she has had for a year and a half. She holds a Master’s degree in geography, and she studied how human activity affects or is influenced by the environment, and how that relationship impacts the health of both.