Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Homesick at Home

A view from my front porch a few weeks ago during a snowstorm.

It’s a balmy 65 today in Baltimore, a good 30 degrees above the average temperature for winter in Maryland. Yesterday reached the 70’s. Outside it smells like wet earth and leaves; it smells like spring and it’s doing funny things to my sense of timing. Something’s just not quite right. It’s like walking out of an elevator and suddenly realizing that you’ve exited on the wrong floor.

This is a minor sensory shock and it will pass come Friday when the temperatures are supposed to dip back down to normal levels again. But what if it changed permanently? How would that impact the landscape and the longterm psyche of the people living here?

Philosopher Glenn Albrecht and psychologist Gina-Maree Sartore are researchers at the University of Newcastle in Australia and they became curious about the impact of man-made environmental change— open-cut mines, natural disasters such as drought and cyclones— on the psychology of a place. Australia is suffering through a landscape-altering drought. It is seeing the death of plant life and the rise of new topographies.

Earth Day, 2007. An aerial shot by Aerofoto of a demonstration on Sandringham Beach in Melbourne, Australia.

Albrecht and Sartore coined the term “solastalgia” to describe a new syndrome they see emerging in humans. Solastalgia refers to the melancholy that can occur when an individual’s surroundings radically change.

"A lot of people start to question their sense of place when the environment around them changes dramatically," Albrecht said in a 2006 press release about the study.

I would extend that definition to include not just environmental degradation, but also architectural destruction. The psychological impact of tearing down buildings in a city neighborhood, for example. Something that once existed is forcibly ripped apart and it can feel like a wound on the landscape, like a death. Many buildings have seen a wrecking ball in Baltimore in recent years, and communities can, on occasion, openly mourn the loss. When a Polish church was demolished last year to make way for condos in the Fells Point neighborhood, community activists and neighbors held vigils outside the fallen structure. Something that anchored their community for decades was now gone and in its place was this:

St. Stanislaus Demolition, Fells Point neighborhood in Baltimore.