Solastalgia and the tree shepherds

There is a kind of long-term shock that comes with the realization that the landscape around one’s own home is being altered beyond recovery. Psychologically, after all, a landscape is a permanent thing — hills and forests and paths are unchanging things to a child, and even when one moves away in adulthood they are assumed to remain protected, inviolate. Increasingly, of course, this assumption is wrong: the relentless spread of housing developments, roads, and shopping centres means that many people in the industrialized world face a high probability of losing the landscapes they remember as children. To some extent the shock lies in the simple unexpectedness of the change.

But the shock has a second aspect to it. Though a person’s ownership rights end at the buried metal stakes marking the edges of his property, the definition of “home” is not so easily to delineate. Home is a mental construction, and can easily include both a family’s house and the far-off hillside that the parents gazed at, cups of tea in hand, upon rising each day. Accordingly, the hillside’s destruction under the teeth of mechanized shovels can be disturbing in the same way (if not with the same intensity) as if hoodlums had broken into the house when the family was away on holiday, smashing up the furniture and spray-painting obscenities on the walls.

This phenomenon is well-described in a thought-provoking essay on “eco-psychology” in last week’s New York Times Magazine. Daniel B. Smith begins the piece with a compelling description of the plight of the residents of the Upper Hunter Valley, a beautiful horse-breeding and wine-growing area in Australia’s New South Wales, now blighted by air and water pollution brought on by the expansion of export-driven coal mining operations. Smith observes that the residents were “anxious, unsettled, despairing, depressed — just as if they had been forcibly removed from the valley. Only they hadn’t; the valley changed around them.” Glenn Albrecht, a professor of sustainability at Perth’s Murdoch University, coined the term solastalgia (from the Latin for “comfort” and the Greek for “pain”) to describe “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault.” A homesickness afflicting those still at home.

Though Albrecht uses a neologism, the phenomenon itself is neither new nor confined to academic journals. J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, published over half a century ago now, is suffused with its author’s love for the natural environment of Middle Earth in all of its particularity and locality — from the domesticated hills and fields of the Shire to the hostile wild dignity of Eriador and the Misty Mountains — and with an equally pervasive mood of sadness for the impending or actual losses that threaten it. Of all of Tolkein’s races, the Elves have the most fundamental connection to nature, and they are forever burdened by the knowledge that they are destined to one day depart Middle Earth. “The love of the Elves for their land and their works is deeper than the deeps of the Sea,” the Elf queen Galadriel tells Frodo, “and their regret is undying and cannot ever wholly be assuaged.”

Indeed, though the epic plot reaches its climax with Frodo’s arrival at the Cracks of Doom, it is after the destruction of the great ring and of Sauron’s earthly power that some of the story’s most poignant moments occur. With victory celebrations and the long journey home from Gondor behind them, Frodo and the hobbits finally return to the Shire — only to find it horribly altered.

The travellers trotted on, and as the sun began to sink towards the White Downs far away on the western horizon they came to Bywater by its wide pool; and there they had their first really painful shock. This was Frodo and Sam’s own country, and they found out now that they cared about it more than any other place in the world. Many of the houses that they had known were missing. Some seemed to have been burned down… Worse, there was a whole line of ugly new houses all along Pool Side, where the Hobbiton Road ran close to the bank. An avenue of trees had stood there. They were all gone. And looking with dismay up the road towards Bag End they saw a tall chimney of brick in the distance. It was pouring out black smoke into the evening air.

It is a vision of industrial and urban “progress” in a place that should know nothing of the sort. And as the hobbits draw closer to Frodo’s ancestral home at Bag End, the scene only gets worse:

It was one of the saddest hours in their lives. The great chimney rose up before them; and as they drew near the old village across the Water, through rows of new mean houses along each side of the road, they saw the new mill in all its frowning and dirty ugliness: a great brick building straddling the stream, which it fouled with a steaming and stinking overflow. All along the Bywater Road every tree had been felled.

“New mean houses” is a powerful little phrase, connoting as it does a sense of cheapness and ugliness, and simultaneously one of callousness and narrow-mindedness — the sort of spiritual impoverishment that comes with the pursuit of wealth over all other values. Ironically, however, the corruption of the Shire is the work of the disgraced wizard Saruman — now known to his henchmen and the Shire hobbits by the mobster-like name of “Sharkey” — who is motivated not by money but by vengeance and spite. By playing on the greed of a few of the locals, he has inflicted on the Shire a smaller-scale — but more personally wounding — version of the industrial destruction he previously inflicted on the land around Isengard.

Once it had been fair and green, and through it the Isen flowed… It was not so now. Beneath the walls of Isengard there were still acres tilled by the slaves of Saruman; but most of the valley had become a wilderness of weeds and thorns… No trees grew there; but among the rank grasses could still be seen the burned and axe-hewn stumps of ancient groves. It was a sad country, silent now but for the stony noise of quick waters. Smokes and steams drifted in sullen clouds and lurked in the hollows.

Tolkein himself was quite open in describing the roots of this story line, and although he ends with yet another of his reminders that his novels are not to be treated as allegories, the fact that he devoted the final words of the second edition’s Forward to the topic of environmental damage indicate its importance in his heart:

‘The Scouring of the Shire’… has indeed some basis in experience, though slender (for the economic situation was entirely different), and much further back. The country in which I lived in childhood was being shabbily destroyed before I was ten, in days when motor-cars where rare objects (I had never seen one) and men where still building suburban railways. Recently I saw in a paper a picture of the last decrepitude of the once thriving corn-mill beside its pool that long ago seemed to me so important. I never liked the looks of the Young miller, but his father, the Old miller, had a black beard, and he was not named Sandyman.

After Saruman’s final defeat, Frodo’s servant and friend Sam Gamgee begins to heal the Shire with the aid of a box of earth he had been given by Galadriel in Lothlórien. It has been pointed out by environmentally-oriented literary critics that the theme of “stewardship” is woven throughout Tolkein’s depiction of the relationship of sentient creatures to Middle Earth itself — a virtue exemplified by the tree-shepherding Ents of Fangorn Forest — and that this theme is in turn undergirded by Tolkein’s deeply-held Catholic faith. There is indeed something particularly powerful in the thought that the world has been given to us to take care of, and something particularly distressing in the realization of how greatly we have failed in this charge. In this sense, it seems that the concept of solastalgia doesn’t go quite far enough, for lying beneath our personal anguish at environmental loss, perhaps, are feelings not just of anxiety and depression, but of guilt and shame too. And these are emotions that can be assuaged only by making things right again.

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