solastalgia

The oak tree in my head

solastalgia dan kvitka

‘Solastalgia’ by Kate MacDowell. Photograph by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

US-based artist Kate MacDowell creates luminous sculptures out of porcelain, startling juxtapositions of human body parts with finely detailed plants, birds and other nonhuman animals.

MacDowell is deeply concerned about the current environmental crisis. In her artist statement, she explains the thinking behind her intricate work:

In each case the union between man and nature is shown to be one of friction and discomfort with the disturbing implication that we too are vulnerable to being victimized by our destructive practices.

The piece at the top of this post is a response to the word ‘solastalgia’. Coined by the philosopher Glenn Albrecht, solastalgia refers to a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s like being homesick – but when you’re still at home. I wrote about it in more detail in my last post.

In a TED talk, Albrecht uses MacDowell’s work to illustrate what he sees as an ancient drama playing out in the minds of humans. It’s the conflict between the urge to create and the urge to destroy, and in his opinion it’s reaching a crisis point as humans impact the planet in ways they never have before.

MacDowell’s sculpture shows a koala and a variety of native Australian plants inside a human brain. Albrecht says it represents ‘this idea that there may be a koala sitting inside of our heads asking questions of us about urban growth, urban development, pushing into a koala habitat’.

Albrecht is Australian and it’s fair to assume that for him the koala may have a particular emotional resonance grounded in its ‘Australianness’. He made me wonder about the equivalent of a koala for a British person.

What has enough emotional and cultural resonance to sit inside our heads and ask awkward questions about what we’re doing to the more-than-human world?

I found an answer on holiday in Scotland a fortnight ago. We spent a day at the Taynish Nature Reserve in Knapdale, an area of steep valleys and sea lochs in Argyll and Bute.

loch oaks

About 75 per cent of the reserve is wooded, and the signs of woodland spring were all around us: more primroses than I have ever seen in my life, along with violets, wood anemones, sorrel and even the odd early bluebell. The scale-descending song of willow warblers repeated over and over; there was the sawing call of great tits, and occasionally a woodpecker drummed.

primroses

violets sunny

wood sorrel

lichen

Pollen analysis shows that there has been woodland on this peninsula for at least 7,000 years, and the tree that dominates is oak.

oak tangle

oak rainforest

tall oaks

Part of the reserve runs alongside Loch Sween, and wandering towards the shore I turned a corner and was startled to discover a ‘poet’s seat’, not marked on my tourist map.

poet seat

Beside the seat was a little box with the Alice-in-Wonderland-like instruction: ‘Lift Me’.

lift me

Of course I did. Inside the box was an anthology of tree poems, Into the Forest, edited by Mandy Haddith. The section on oaks starts with a short, powerful piece by the Gaelic writer Aonghas MacNeacail.

duir leaf

duir

These lines brilliantly capture the unique place that oak trees hold in the British imagination. MacNeacail’s is a gloriously Scottish angle, but the oak is also deeply significant in Wales and England, a symbol of strength and courage, worshipped by our ancient forbears, star of many a story about our history, and popular today on pub signs, coins and company logos.

I left Loch Sween and the ancient woodland wondering whether a British version of MacDowell’s sculpture might feature an oak tree, something that could stand in the imagination for all the myriad parts of the more-than-human world that are threatened by our drive to growth and expansion, a drive that can destroy even those things we love most.

In particular, I thought of my 150-year-old friend Vernon Oak, one of 17,500 street trees earmarked for felling Sheffield City Council in a bid to save money on road maintenance. I wrote about Vernon here  and Vernon kindly gave me an interview here.

2017-04-23 08.15.08

Venon Oak

If any good can be said to have come of the killing of healthy street trees in Sheffield, it’s that many of us have become more aware of the trees we may formerly have taken for granted.

I notice trees everywhere now in a way I didn’t before. I’m learning to identify them from bark and bud, as well as leaf, reading about their biology, grieving when I hear of other felling projects, such as Network Rail’s destruction of thousands of trees in a bid to stop leaves falling on train tracks.

After I got back from Scotland, I went to visit Vernon. Spring is so late this year and Vernon was only just beginning to put on leaves, a lovely, gauzy promise of the full foliage to come.

vernon 2 May

I remembered a recent conversation with some of Vernon’s neighbours, women who live within sight of this magnificent tree and have been campaigning against the felling plans for more than two years now.

They spoke of Vernon as of a friend, commenting on how late the leaves were emerging this year compared to last, worrying about the tawny owls that used to call between Vernon and some mature lime trees in the next road. Six of those limes were felled a few weeks ago.

RIP Duchess Lime

Instead of a mature, healthy lime tree, residents of this road now have a traffic cone

Kate MacDowell has also created a sculpture called ‘Soliphilia’.

soli dan kvitka

‘Soliphilia’ by Kate MacDowell. Picture by Dan Kvitka. Used with permission

Soliphilia is another term coined by Glenn Albrecht and he defines it as

the love of the totality of our place relationships and a willingness to accept, in solidarity and affiliation with others, the political responsibility for the health of our earth, our home.

In MacDowell’s sculpture, the juxtaposition of the human hand and the leaves is not jarring or shocking as many of her other pieces are. Instead, there’s a sense of flowing and unity. It reminds me of these women, and of others who have responded to the Sheffield tree crisis with love and creativity, as well as with anger and tears.

And now, a wonderful, new creative project is bubbling up in Sheffield, something that has come from listening to the oak tree in our heads. Full details in my next post!

Many thanks to Kate MacDowell for help with the post and for permission to use the photographs of her sculptures. More examples of Kate’s work can be seen on her website: www.katemacdowell.com

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Of street trees and solastalgia

I heard a story this week of an old man and a cherry tree. The man was near the end of his life and could no longer go outside. He had visitors and he could watch television, but what anchored him most securely in the world beyond his home was the cherry tree by his window.

His son, Paul Meadows, wrote:

Often he would just sit and watch as the birds would come and go. The tree’s shadow would move around the room, climbing the walls, tracing shapes, marking the passing of the day, and the depth of shadow would change with the brightness of the season.

And of course there was the brief glory of the soft pink blossom.

The tree was a real thing, in the real world, that he could really see. It wasn’t on TV, it wasn’t a second-hand experience of the changing world, and it wasn’t something he found difficult to do.

A few days later, I went to visit some of the most famous cherry trees in my home city of Sheffield. It was damp and drizzly: fog on the hills and a raw, scouring edge to the air. But the trees on Abbeydale Park Rise were blooming as if in defiance of the weather: deep crimson shading to pale pink against the blank sky.

Last year I came to this street on a very different day: storybook spring, with bees buzzing all over the trees.

Abbeydale Park Rise view

 

bee

cherry tree unchopped

The weather wasn’t the only thing that was different this year. Compare the picture of the tree above, taken on 28 March 2017, with the one I took on Wednesday:

cherry-tree-chopped.jpg

Amey has been here, the company that is locked to our council in a £2.2 billion PFI deal that will see 17,500 trees, most of them healthy, destroyed for no other reason than that it is cheaper for Amey to fell than to save. (I have written about this in previous posts, and there is excellent background information here.)

I went out to join campaigners on a couple of days in January, when crews of contractors were trying to fell in the road. These trees are not only famous for their blossom: every December, people come from miles around to see the fairy lights that residents hang in them. For some, it is simply ‘Christmas Street’.

It was nothing like Christmas on the freezing mornings when we were guarding the trees. The air was tense and heavy. People were talking in whispers. One apologised for calling a fellow campaigner – her neighbour – by his Christian name. ‘Sorry,’ she said. ‘I forgot we shouldn’t identify each other.’

Later, a woman was arrested for refusing to move away from a tree. Eventually the contractors gave up, but they came back and back and on one occasion lopped the branch from the tree in the picture, and several others in the road as well. Protestors stopped them from taking the rest.

For the people who go out day after day to defend our trees, the attrition can be severe. Just round the corner from the cherry trees is Chatsworth Road, which used to be an avenue of magnificent limes. Six have now been felled, all healthy.

People were in tears when they came down. One woman had been out every day from 6.30am to defend the tree near her house. This is what is left now:

RIP Duchess Lime

Recently, a campaigner posted on the tree defenders’ Facebook page that he had been to his GP about symptoms related to anxiety. He thought they were set off by recent fellings, including those in Chatsworth Road. He went on

The GP (a very nice young man) told me that he has been treating multiple patients adversely affected by tree fellings and that his colleagues are too. This made me wonder how many GPs are caring for tree scandal casualties, across Sheffield and beyond? Many key campaigners I know have been very severely affected. And the number of folk in Sheffield suffering from stress, anxiety, depression & adrenal exhaustion specifically related to the unnecessary fellings of greatly loved, street trees – well, it must be staggering.

The Australian philosopher Glenn Albrecht coined a word for this kind of desolation. He called it ‘solastalgia’, a form of ‘psychic or existential distress caused by environmental change’. It’s similar to being homesick, but whereas homesickness can be cured by going home, there’s no cure for solastalgia. Pressures on the environment, such as climate change or – as in the case of Sheffield – so-called ‘development’, can alter a landscape so radically that ‘the home becomes unhomely around its inhabitants’, as the writer Robert Macfarlane has put it.

Albrecht has worked with people facing dramatic and catastrophic changes to their homes: the inhabitants of Upper Hunter in New South Wales, for example, where some of the biggest machines in the world are turning a landscape that used to be compared to Tuscany into an open cut coal mine extending over more than 500 square kilometres.

But Albrecht also recognised that solastalgia can afflict people whose homes are changing in less obviously dramatic ways. In a TED talk, he spoke of the importance of a relationship with ‘a tree outside your window’.

Which brings us back to Paul Meadows’ dad. Paul told his story in response to a student who wanted to know why trees were so important to Sheffield. Comparing his dad’s severely restricted life to that of the cherry tree, he wrote:

The small movements, the small changes, are like a living clock, and that can remind you that you are alive too.

Street trees are quotidian landmarks that punctuate both the space and the time in which we pass our everyday lives. To rip them out, as our council is doing, is to destroy not only the tree, but also something profoundly important to the identity of our city and to those of us who call Sheffield home.

There are ways of fighting solastalgia, and these ways have been evident in Sheffield for a while, actions that bring hope alongside the distress. Sunday, for example, will see a ‘blossom party’ on Abbeydale Park Rise, with music, pizza, and the chance to make art.

More on these acts of creative resistance in a future post!