Solastalgia: Grieving Many Paradises Lost

I have a home I love in an environment I am deeply grieving.

I am incredibly privileged to have a beautiful and spacious adobe home in a quiet semi-rural area outside Santa Fe that is home to wildlife including coyotes, bobcats, badgers, racoons, rabbits, snakes, and a variety of birds. As someone who works at home as a writer and energy healer, I cherish the quiet and the distance between houses.

Over the 27 years I have lived in this house, I have made improvements more for the sake of the planet than for economic reasons, as the gains are very long term. The house was already energy-efficient—a passive solar adobe designed so that low-angle winter sun warms the house through south-facing windows and heat is retained in adobe Trombe walls. Solar panels were an investment of the heart since I had the abundance to do the right thing for the planet by net metering and contributing to the grid.

I have nurtured a waterwise ornamental garden, raised beds of edibles, and the wild land around me. I’ve lovingly trimmed the parasitic mistletoe off the many junipers on this land and reseeded eroded areas with native grasses when we have an occasional wet year. This year I judiciously watered the wild land near the house until water restrictions were announced in order to create a buffer zone of vegetation with a bit of moisture in it, and a modicum of green for me to look out on through my floor-to-ceiling solar windows.

Waterwise garden with drought-tolerant salvia, catmint, lavender, and echinacea (coneflower).
Yarrow, catmint, agastache, all colorful and drought-tolerant, but they do need SOME water!

For the past 22 years I have prayed for rain. I have blown the conch shell, shaken the rain stick, beaten the Thunderbird drum, made Tibetan Buddhist smoke offerings and Dakini Tsoks. I have superstitiously washed windows and had the car washed as rain and snow sacrifices. I’ve made playlists of songs about rain, listened to rain on loops, nostalgically looked at videos of rain in past, better years, and created full-sensory imagery meditations intended to manifest rainstorms and rainbows—the sight, sound, and feel of rain, the taste of raindrops on my tongue, and the unique smell of first rain on dry land, called petrichor.

I have blown the conch shell to bring rain. Sometimes it has felt as if it has worked, but not lately.

Solastalgia is the feeling of grief and longing for an environment that has changed around one, perhaps irreparably and beyond recognition. The word was coined in 2003 by Australian environmental philosopher Glenn Albrecht. One can feel solastalgia for a home that has been lost to fire, flood, drought, windstorm, earthquake, volcanic eruption, chemical contamination, mining, or any form of development.

My late cat Omar in a greener, happier time in the late 90s.
(Please note: my cats only go out for closely supervised play. )

Most of these are swift disasters that bring communities and neighbors together to help each other out. Drought, as has been pointed out by many, is an insidious, slowly unfolding disaster. It’s the perfect “frog in the hot pan” metaphor. One dry year is an annoyance and a concern. Perhaps there are water restrictions, or perhaps the land just doesn’t look good and wild animals struggle to find food. A few years of drought becomes alarming for both farmers and home gardeners facing draconian water restrictions as in California this year where in many areas people are only allowed to water once a week.

A multi-year megadrought like much of the American West and Southwest is currently enduring is a five-alarm emergency. It’s cause for long-delayed panic, for emigration of animals and humans, for despair as we watch the grasses dry rather than turn green in the spring, and as we witness neighboring communities not far away as the crow flies—if indeed the crow can fly, or if there are even crows left to fly—burnt and decimated by wildfires.

So many versions of Paradise are now lost. People who lived in the traditional Hispanic villages in the mountains 25 miles from me have suffered not just physical and financial loss, but a loss of a way of life hundreds of years old. Will the forests even regenerate? Some experts say not ever—not even “not within our lifetimes,” but NOT EVER.

How many non-human animals have died in these fires, or lost their habitat and homes? How deeply is the soil burned, enough that it will now repel water if the monsoon rains ever come?

My own solastalgia—so far—takes a more mild form. So far my area is safe from fire and evacuation, though last week a brush fire next to the interstate broke out about 10 miles away by road, four miles as the proverbial crow or raptor flies. Luckily, it was quickly extinguished but it came near houses and closed the only route into Santa Fe for a number of hours.

The data now confirms my suspicion that we are living through an ongoing megadrought that has already gone on for 22 years. It is the worst in 1200 years. So I’m not crazy after all. I really have been alternately whining and praying, and occasionally rejoicing at some respite, for the entire 22 years since the turn of the millennium.

When I moved to Santa Fe in 1994, it seemed a veritable paradise. I escaped the heat and smog of L.A. for a pristine landscape of daily lapis blue skies and four beautiful seasons. I moved to the high chapparal pinon-juniper woodland southeast of town where the foothills of the Sangre de Cristos descend into rolling land. It was an oasis of abundant wildlife. Over the years I have seen bear and pronghorn, and others have sighted mountain lions nearby.

The day I arrived in July 1994 it had barely topped 80 degrees. Most days would dawn cloudless and sapphire blue. A few clouds would gather by late morning as the temperature rose into the low 80s. By mid to late afternoon we would have almost daily thunderstorms, passing swiftly but leaving delightful puddles in parking lots downtown and in rural driveways. Arroyos ran fiercely with water, and the land would green with native grasses. Double rainbows shined nearly every afternoon or evening as the sunset illuminated soft rains against charcoal and alabaster clouds. It truly was the Land of Enchantment.

We still sometimes see rainbows, but they are increasingly rare as we have to have rain to make rainbows.

The rains would let up in autumn and the land would turn to gold and violet as yellow chamisa and purple wild asters bloomed amongst the tall grasses. A teasing dusting of snow would appear on the Sangres and the high altitude aspen woods on the mountainsides would turn to saffron and gold against the most intensely deep blue sky one could imagine.

Farmers and gardeners would harvest. As the scent of roasting chili permeated the city, we would put our gardens to bed and shut off the drip irrigation systems knowing that soon a blanket of wet snow would nurture the land for the coming spring.

Early spring was the least pleasant time of year, in my opinion, as most days strong winds would blow. The trees hadn’t quite leafed out yet, and the land often looked bleak in between snow flurries and occasional spring rains. And then there was the juniper pollen. The junipers would start pollinating in late March and make a lot of us miserable for about a month.

But in early May the fruit trees would burst into flower all at once when the temperatures hit the low 70s, and it would be time to plant. We might still get snow flurries into the first week of May, and the average last frost date in Santa Fe was May 15th. The winds would subside, the lilacs bloom, and the deciduous trees leaf out in that breath-taking spring green color of the first leaves tracing against a blue sky, promising yet another cycle of renewal.

Over the past 22 years, I have seen timing mismatches increase. Some years the apple tree blooms as early as the spring equinox, March 20th, only to be frost-nipped. Some years my lilacs bloom in profusion—albeit a month earlier than they did before the turn of the millennium—and some years, like this year, the buds dry on the bushes before they can bloom.

We are left with a longer watering season rather than a longer growing season. We can’t necessarily plant vegetables any earlier as they could be frost-nipped, though hoop covers and frost cloths can often protect tender seedlings. Watering is tricky in a dry year—most years since 2000—because you have to hand water or turn your drip irrigation on and off because of wild swings between 70 or even 80 degrees and plunges back into freezing temperatures. In 2009 I had a sophisticated roof runoff water catchment system installed to channel water into an underground cistern. This year we had so little autumn rain or winter snow that I topped it off from the expensive community water system before restrictions were announced. At least I have a place to store water if I have to pay to have it trucked in.

The other day I was reminiscing with a friend who moved here around the same time I did. We both dislike extreme heat, and rapturously recalled how it rarely got over the low 80s the whole summer in those days. With almost daily rains the temperatures would plummet into the 50s long before dusk. We needed a jacket or shawl to go to the opera at night, or out for a dinner or a walk. All I had to do to cool the house was open up the windows to get a cross breeze and maybe turn on an overhead fan.

When I look back, it was around 2000 that that the climate began to change quickly and radically. The Cerro Grande fire that destroyed hundreds of homes in Los Alamos and threatened the nuclear lab started from a prescribed burn on a dry windy day in early May. By summer 2001 the house felt hot and stifling. I bought a portable evaporative cooler that I put in front of a window. A few years later the heat became more persistent, lasted for many more days and many more hours in each day. I had a whole-house evaporative cooler installed, and shades covered my floor-to-ceiling solar windows with the beautiful views. By 2018 the system was no longer keeping the house cool enough for me, as I have a history of heat illness and work mostly at home. And evaporative coolers can’t be run on smoky days, which were becoming more frequent, because they work by sucking in outside air and humidifying and cooling it. I had a mini-split heat pump/AC system installed in hopes that it would be energy efficient enough for the solar panels to power it.

We have had a few respites throughout this 22 years of drought. Writer Leslie Marmon Silko (Laguna-Acoma) writes in her book The Turquoise Ledge about how the Hopi sent runners to the shrine of the rain god in Mexico in the spring of 2006. When the summer monsoon rains came in late June, it rained all along the runners’ route. It rained all summer, and into the autumn. At the end of that year we had the deepest snow I had ever seen outside the Himalayas or the Hindu Kush Mountains, three feet in three days. That next spring was gloriously alive.

2006 was a year of abundant rain and snow.
The same land in June, 2022. Desertification seems to have taken hold.

The respites became fewer and farther between. Photos help me remember the wetter years such as 2013. The winter of 2018-2019 saw an abundance of snow followed by spring rains. The wild grasses grew lush and high, and wildflowers bloomed profusely. People who grew up here said that they were seeing flowers they had never seen before and didn’t know the name of.

A respite in May, 2019, the last time we had good rains. A profusion of grass and wildflowers.

Then it was as if the tap shut off. That first miserable year of the pandemic, 2020, we got 6.69 inches of precipitation. It used to be that 12 to 14 inches per year was normal, and from that we created oases. 2021 was not all that much better, a measly 10 inches or so, but it was enough at the right time to cause an overgrowth of grasses, and worse, tumbleweeds.

The summer rains ended abruptly last year and the land began to dry out. Our hopes for winter storms were dashed over and over as storms veered away from us as if the weirdly twisting jet stream was purposely pushing them way too far north. We’ve had only a few inches of precipitation since the beginning of the calendar year, and the land shows it. I’ve read that the vegetation is dryer than kiln-dried wood. The high grasses became dangerous tinder and I had the zone immediately around the house weed-whacked for fire safety. I refuse to have my entire two acres mowed as some people do, as it decimates all biodiversity, deprives non-human animals of cover and habitat, and really doesn’t offer much protection from fire because an ember can fly up to a mile and land on one’s roof.

In early April we had the worst windstorm anyone around here remembers. We’ve always had windy springs but not 75 mph (120 kph) winds. Hundreds of tumbleweeds blew onto this land, I spent hundreds of dollars to have them collected and taken to the dump as it was impossible for one person to do alone. Two fires started on the eastern slopes of the mountains east of Santa Fe—one from a prescribed burn done by the US Forest Service on a windy day, the other a “pile burn” done in the right season, winter, that was thought to have been put out by snow. They converged into the Calf Canyon-Hermit’s Peak fire that has destroyed hundreds of mountain homes and close to 500 square miles of forest and grassland to date.

And people wonder why I am grieving, why I am angry, why I want to flee. In a recent exchange on the Nextdoor site, which was mercifully civil, many of us expressed our observations of the changes and losses. Fewer hummingbirds at the feeders, fewer rabbits due to disease and drought, hotter temperatures, more of a struggle to garden. Residents of 20+ years noticed great changes, and some residents who have only been here a few years noted them as well.

I live in a home I love—in a land I love but am grieving deeply.

Regeneration is a challenge. If it ever rains I will put out seed for native grasses such as blue gramma,
but everything is struggling now. About half the land is bare ground,
\which increases temperatures as it radiates out more heat than greenery.

I have to face the fact that my pinon-juniper woodland is desertifying. People on social media sometimes say, incorrectly, “You moved to a desert.” No, I didn’t. Don’t get me wrong—I value desert ecosystems, can see the beauty of the desert, and can even love visiting on a winter day. I even enjoy the short-blooming intensely colorful cactus flowers native to the land. But I did not sign on to live in a desert, and I am by turns resentful and fervently wishing to regenerate and restore the land to its former state. Try as I might, I just can’t summon the same love for cactus as some of my neighbors exhibit, nor do I want to transition my garden from waterwise perennials to cactus and gravel. To me that would be admitting defeat by climate breakdown.

Cholla cactus can indeed be beautiful for the one week a year that it blooms,
and is an important part of the local ecosystem.
Even the cholla cactus is not doing well this year.

Solastalgia is now recognized in the psychotherapeutic world as an actual condition, but I don’t agree with pathologizing it. I view solastalgia as an entirely rational response to the environmental devastation that we are experiencing on a local and global scale. Nostalgia or homesickness can be cured by going home, but in the case of solastalgia there is no longer a recognizable home to return to. For many of us worldwide, our environments have changed around us with dizzying swiftness. I’m not going to numb myself out of this feeling with anti-depressants and I’m not going to logically talk myself out of it through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, though that might work for some people.

Joan Baez said that “action is the antidote to despair,” and I will cleave to that meme. I will continue writing, showing up in person to gatherings as the pandemic and the coming heat of summer allow, and continue working with others locally and around the world to co-create a different future through learning about and practicing Regenerative agriculture and gardening, green investment of my financial resources, moving towards a more planet-friendly plant-based diet, and buying a plug-in hybrid electric car (if I can ever find one). I will keep doing and creating climate healing meditations and visualizing a co-created miracle, whatever form it might take. I do not accept the premise that the planet is in hospice. I will keep working with others for as long as it takes to reverse climate breakdown and restore balance, or until I leave the planet.

The other night I went into my office and found myself opening a file drawer I rarely look in. My hand went right to a file marked “News Clippings, Environment.” I pulled it out and leafed through the yellowed clippings, mostly from the Los Angeles Times, a few from The Guardian when I lived in the UK. The earliest clipping was from the August 1, 1986 edition of the Los Angeles Times. The headline of the op-ed piece was “Sweltering in the Greenhouse: ­­­­­­­Vast Problem of Earth’s Warming Belongs on Summit Agenda” by James Gustave Speth, then president of the World Resources Institute. What summit was he writing about? The US and the Soviet Union—now there’s a term you haven’t heard in a while—were due to meet in October. This would be a good opportunity for the then Great Powers to discuss the existential threat of climate breakdown, which Speth presciently pointed out we would “probably” start to see in 20 years.

Finding this article made two things clear. First, we, the collective, and especially the powers that make policy, have known about this unfolding tragedy for a very long time. 1986 was the year I started studying energy healing, which changed the trajectory of my life and expanded my spiritual repertoire. Secondly, the fact that I was saving articles on the climate 36 years ago indicates that I have been following this issue for a very, very long time and seen as little progress on it as I have on common sense gun control in the US in the past five decades or so. No wonder I sometimes feel weary, heartbroken, and even dispirited.

Some days it’s hard not to feel hopeless about either of these issues, and a myriad of others. But the solutions are all available right now, if the collective will can be focused both to manifest these myriad solutions and to crumble and dissolve corporate opposition to change and life.

For now, it is one day at a time, a go-bag for the cats in the car, their carriers close to hand, and my own go-bag sometimes in the car and sometimes in the closet, waiting for the rains. For now I cling to the words of a friend who has lived here for decades: “The old-timers used to say that when you hear the first cicada singing that the monsoons will begin in 30 days.” I heard the first loud metallic buzz in my junipers on May 26, so I am counting on the rains starting June 25th and praying for and visualizing an early, strong, and long monsoon to give us some respite while I wait for guidance as to where I can find an environment that will be less of a struggle, and nurture me as much as I nurture it.

Debra Denker is the author of the novel Weather Menders, a cli-fi novel for the hopeful.

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