Solastalgia: Sadness Upon the Assault of Our Natural World

14 January, 2021

Climate change manifested in the melting of the oceans (Photo: Getty Images).

Cli­mate change man­i­fest­ed in the melt­ing of the oceans (Pho­to: Get­ty Images).

Danielle Haque

Water is essen­tial to life—it shapes and reshapes our land­scapes. It con­tours our bod­ies and our worlds. It is also essen­tial to our cul­tures: We use it to cleanse before prayer, to bap­tize, and to wash our dead. We imag­ine water as an eter­nal and renew­able resource, yet pol­lu­tion and over­ex­ploita­tion of our water resources mean that water is not tire­less­ly resilient. Cen­turies of mil­i­tarism and colo­nial­ism cre­ate waves of eco­log­i­cal dis­as­ter that con­tin­ue to break in the form of emi­nent domain, coastal ero­sion, frack­ing. In a world deeply wound­ed by colo­nial­ism and rot­ting with racism and ever-increas­ing eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty, art and poet­ry about water help us remem­ber and embody the mag­ni­tude of water to life, map­ping encoun­ters between aes­thet­ics, pol­i­tics, and the landscape.

“I’ve con­tem­plat­ed whether there’s a cru­el­er sce­nario,” writes poet Nathalie Han­dal, “not being able to see the sea but con­stant­ly dream­ing it, or being able to see the sea but being for­bid­den to reach it?” Han­dal is not using the sea metaphor­i­cal­ly: The sea is not a stand-in for home or a sym­bol for eter­ni­ty. Han­dal means that Pales­tini­ans are pre­vent­ed, through check­points, polic­ing, and bor­ders, from see­ing and touch­ing the sea. They are blocked from its resources and its plea­sures. When Pales­tini­ans can access the sea, it is still reg­u­lat­ed by the Israeli state. For those in the West Bank, the sea is acces­si­ble only via the acqui­si­tion of a pass and entrance through Israel. For Gazans, access is lim­it­ed via reg­u­la­tions imposed upon them by the Israeli state – for exam­ple, while Israel recent­ly expand­ed the dis­tance fish­er­men from Gaza could trav­el into the ocean to 15 miles, it is fre­quent­ly restrict­ed to a much small­er distance. 

More than just being blocked from the sea, in their dai­ly lives Pales­tini­ans liv­ing under set­tler-colo­nial­ism face dai­ly water inse­cu­ri­ty. The World Bank reports that nine­ty per­cent of res­i­dents in the Gaza Strip do not have access to safe drink­ing water. Accord­ing to the Unit­ed Nations, san­i­ta­tion and water con­di­tions in the Gaza Strip are unsus­tain­able. The UN fur­ther stress­es that the Israeli state demol­ish­es Pales­tin­ian rain­wa­ter col­lec­tion cis­terns and diverts water resources, includ­ing ground­wa­ter, from the occu­pied West Bank. Issues of water sov­er­eign­ty extend beyond nation­al bor­ders: the many mil­i­tary inter­ven­tions of the Israeli Defense Forces into South­ern Lebanon, includ­ing its 18-year ille­gal occu­pa­tion, were moti­vat­ed in part for con­trol of the Litani Riv­er. In 2006, Israeli bombs did sub­stan­tial dam­age to Lebanese water infra­struc­ture. In 2013, a World Bank report explained that, “A large major­i­ty of those liv­ing in Lebanon only have access to water for a few hours per day. The lit­tle water they do receive from pub­lic infra­struc­ture is gen­er­al­ly per­ceived to be of poor qual­i­ty. Those who can afford it, resort to expen­sive bot­tled and tanker water.” 

Exploit­ing resources and cut­ting off water access mark a dis­tinc­tive log­ic and prac­tice of occu­pa­tion which fos­ters life for some and expos­es oth­ers to harm and death. Some trau­mas are so severe, so pri­mal and ele­men­tal and blunt, that they resist easy aes­thet­ics: they trou­ble the symbolic. 

Art about water is often metaphor­i­cal: sig­ni­fy­ing rebirth or free­dom or thirst itself. Nathalie Han­dal’s writ­ing, how­ev­er, like so many oth­ers writ­ing about Pales­tine, often resists the sim­ple metaphor and instead direct­ly reflects the real­i­ties of dom­i­na­tion through water occu­pa­tion and access to dimin­ish­ing resources. For her and oth­ers, water is not a only sym­bol for life, but also embod­ies bru­tal expo­sure to suf­fer­ing and death.

Graphic courtesy of the  Food and Agricultural Organization  of the United Nations.

Graph­ic cour­tesy of the Food and Agri­cul­tur­al Orga­ni­za­tion of the Unit­ed Nations.

Through all the var­i­ous ways art is mar­ket­ed and reviewed in the Unit­ed States, Arab Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture is exclud­ed from dis­cus­sions of envi­ron­men­tal writ­ing, with writ­ers like Han­dal being read nar­row­ly in terms of race, reli­gion, con­flict, and migra­tion. Geopol­i­tics, con­flict, and repres­sive regimes can over­shad­ow the envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ters they cause, mak­ing the bios­phere into an ancil­lary con­cern. Dis­con­nect­ing land and water from these issues dis­miss­es Arab Amer­i­can artists from dis­cus­sions on cli­mate change. Con­verse­ly, we too often use “envi­ron­men­tal” to ignore the human work­ings in the dev­as­ta­tion of peo­ple and places. Human actors set the stage for who suf­fers the most from envi­ron­men­tal disasters—and human actions. 

In lit­er­a­ture, the cli­mate cri­sis and its atten­dant dimin­ish­ing of nat­ur­al resources is often addressed through appeals to the impend­ing sur­vival of our chil­dren, dwelling on dystopi­an futures and images of human­i­ty’s cat­a­stroph­ic demise. In The Great Derange­ment, the nov­el­ist Ami­tav Ghosh asks why cli­mate change presents such a chal­lenge to seri­ous lit­er­ary fic­tion: He believes that the cli­mate cri­sis is also a cri­sis of imag­i­na­tion. In his book Slow Vio­lence and the Envi­ron­men­tal­ism of the Poor, lit­er­ary and envi­ron­men­tal schol­ar Rob Nixon describes this same nar­ra­tive chal­lenge in terms of “slow vio­lence.” Unlike spec­tac­u­lar­ly vio­lent events, these are the kinds of creep­ing, slow-mov­ing calami­ties that almost resist descrip­tion: expo­sures to tox­ins and ris­ing sea lev­els, long-term drought and the incre­men­tal extinc­tion of local flo­ra and fau­na. Unlike bold images of some­thing as cat­a­stroph­ic as the August 2020 Beirut port explo­sion that incites strong reac­tions, there is a chal­lenge in cap­tur­ing the trau­mas of water pol­lu­tion, demo­li­tion waste, and haz­ardous chem­i­cals. Some writ­ers have attempt­ed to cap­ture such dev­as­ta­tions, help­ing read­ers empathize with the slow-mov­ing envi­ron­men­tal vio­lence of set­tler colo­nial­ism and racism. 


Haque's   Interrogating Secularism   frames its argument around the literary work of such writers as Khaled Mattawa, Toni Morrison, Laila Lalami and Mohja Kahf.

Haque­’s Inter­ro­gat­ing Sec­u­lar­ism frames its argu­ment around the lit­er­ary work of such writ­ers as Khaled Mat­tawa, Toni Mor­ri­son, Laila Lala­mi and Moh­ja Kahf.

Pales­tin­ian Amer­i­can poet, Rasha Abdul­ha­di (they/them) does so by inhab­it­ing our moment instead of mourn­ing our future. Their book of poet­ry, Shell Hous­es, is rich with nat­ur­al imagery, pep­pered with deer, insects, sheep. Abdul­ha­di jux­ta­pos­es poet­ry about the Nak­ba with poems such as “Mon­soon on Dinè,” about the chang­ing cli­mate and Nava­jo land. By doing so, they finds nar­ra­tives of con­nec­tion between Israeli occu­pa­tion in Pales­tine and occu­pa­tion of Native lands in the Unit­ed States. They warn us, “we beat and bruise and break what sus­tains us dai­ly.” In their poem, “is Pales­tine,” Abdul­ha­di uses Pales­tine as a metonym for harm. Pales­tine, they tell us, is in every “drop of water from the Diné nation used to pump/ the coal slush that lights up Las Vegas” and in every “arrest of a Black man, woman, or child in Atlanta.” In the poem, Pales­tine cor­re­lates with racism and Native dis­en­fran­chise­ment else­where. In polit­i­cal spheres cli­mate change is often pre­sent­ed as a cri­sis fic­tion, a made-up con­spir­a­cy meant to cor­ral us, par­al­lel­ing the unbe­liev­able sta­tus of Pales­tine and Native land, as places and events ren­dered invis­i­ble in his­to­ry and on maps. Because poet­ry offers up rela­tion­al and imag­i­na­tive pos­si­bil­i­ties, read­ers can under­stand the poem’s mul­ti­ple land­scapes as linked through the vio­lence done to the peo­ple liv­ing upon them, but also as con­nect­ed through water’s plan­e­tary cycle, join­ing us through the atmos­phere and underground.

Aus­tralian philoso­pher Glenn Albrecht coined the term “solastal­gia” to describe “the pain expe­ri­enced when there is recog­ni­tion that the place where one resides and that one loves is under imme­di­ate assault (phys­i­cal des­o­la­tion). It is man­i­fest in an attack on one’s sense of place, in the ero­sion of the sense of belong­ing (iden­ti­ty) to a par­tic­u­lar place and a feel­ing of dis­tress (psy­cho­log­i­cal des­o­la­tion) about its trans­for­ma­tion.” Solastal­gia is the lin­ger­ing sor­row of Abdul­hadi’s work. It is place being swept out from under one’s feet, being dis­placed in the place you are. It is the ocean that can be seen and not touched. It is a mourn­ing for the present.

Solastal­gia can take anoth­er form: reg­u­lat­ing the earth to a lux­u­ri­ous wor­ry of the West, a long­ing that can­not be artic­u­lat­ed else­where. “She dreams of shout­ing from/ a high place, her voice cas­cad­ing down/ wild rivers,” Lisa Suhair Majaj writes of a woman who wants the free­dom to love place but is denied. “Do Arab women do things like that?” the audi­ence asks. “We have so many problems!/ — our iden­ti­ty to defend, our cul­tures under siege./ We can’t waste time admir­ing trees!” These writ­ers chal­lenge assump­tions about who gets to enjoy the for­est, who can wor­ry about envi­ron­men­tal dis­as­ter, who can dive into the sea. In this way, writ­ing about inva­sion and occu­pa­tion is writ­ing about cli­mate change. Writ­ing about sur­veil­lance and racism is writ­ing about cli­mate change. 

In the mid­dle of her book of poet­ry, Inva­sive Species, Egypt­ian poet Mar­wa Helal inserts a scan of an arti­cle from the Lud­ing­ton Dai­ly News describ­ing the US Depart­ment of Nat­ur­al Resources adding to the list of inva­sive aquat­ic species. Helal’s poems are col­lec­tive­ly about her expe­ri­ences of immi­gra­tion and sur­veil­lance by US bureau­cra­cies. Inva­sive species works as a metaphor for how the US imag­ines its immi­grants as threat­en­ing and preda­to­ry, a nui­sance impos­si­ble to erad­i­cate. Nes­tled under the arti­cle is anoth­er piece about vol­un­teers apply­ing to be hosts at Michi­gan’s state camp­grounds. The con­trast between offer­ing hos­pi­tal­i­ty on shared land (albeit stolen land) and mon­i­tor­ing non-native species is stark. A few pages lat­er, Helal entreats us to zoom in and zoom out and includes anoth­er arti­cle, from Ecol­o­gy, about native fish diver­si­ty mit­i­gat­ing the effects of inva­sive fish species: Native rich­ness helps the invad­er more eas­i­ly incor­po­rate into the aquat­ic environment. 


In her book   Invasive Species   poet Marwa Helel uses water as a metaphoric vehicle for speaking about borders.

In her book Inva­sive Species poet Mar­wa Helel uses water as a metaphor­ic vehi­cle for speak­ing about borders.

That Helal’s illus­tra­tions are fish is telling. Aquat­ic species often arrive via the bal­last water of ocean­go­ing ships, con­comi­tant with the move­ment of peo­ple. Inva­sive species can be acci­den­tal­ly smug­gled con­tent, plants that attach to boats and ideas to peo­ple. Because oceans and rivers are con­nect­ed by deltas and water­sheds, there are no bar­ri­ers to move­ment. While bor­ders on land can be rein­forced, there is hubris in think­ing we can draw lines on the sea. She lat­er refers to her­self as an inva­sive specius sapi­en of “no nation a fish an ocean puls­ing between its jaws and caught.” Though she uses water as a metaphor­ic vehi­cle for speak­ing about bor­ders, the poem’s title itself is lit­er­al: “Invan­sius specius sapi­en reflects on the con­se­quences of syn­thet­ic aper­tures.” It refers to a radar sys­tem used by sci­en­tists to map ocean envi­ron­ments and by the mil­i­tary to sur­veil and tar­get, track­ing oil spills and pin­point­ing weapon deliv­ery. In the same way Abdul­ha­di uses water both as metaphor and lit­er­al­ly, Helal does the same here: the actu­al sur­veil­lance of the aquat­ic land­scape for mil­i­tary use metaphorized into a com­men­tary on peo­ple as bor­der­less sea crea­tures, alien life­forms try­ing to sur­vive in an alien ecosystem.

There is a dan­ger in col­laps­ing strug­gles into a mono­lith. It is not enough to say we are sep­a­rate and sim­i­lar, but rather, these writ­ers say: We are deeply inter­twined. The his­tor­i­cal con­texts are dif­fer­ent and there are pow­er dif­fer­en­tials even between var­i­ous strug­gles, but shared expe­ri­ences of set­tler colo­nial­ism, envi­ron­men­tal racism, and slow vio­lence link move­ments for sov­er­eign­ty. Lines on maps cut across ecosys­tems with­out regard for life; bor­der walls dis­rupt ani­mal migra­tion and ecosys­tems as well as cre­at­ing avenues for migrant deaths. These phe­nom­e­na are all relat­ed: a car­tog­ra­phy of patrolling life itself.

All of the these writ­ers engage with water in its var­i­ous shapes and its var­i­ous func­tions, map­ping them­selves onto bod­ies of water, map­ping the water cours­ing through bodies. 

As Han­dal’s poem’s Let­tera Lir­i­ca, Jerusalem illus­trates: 

Because I see the shape
of your shad­ow in every city
Because you are on the edge
of every body of water
Because your lan­guage is tilt­ed
towards the world
but you’ve kept some sen­tences
well-hid­den
Because some words togeth­er
can fright­en lone­li­ness
like the lagoon mov­ing aside
for the sea

—Nathalie Han­dal

For these artists, words and water—memory and history—mirror each oth­er as psy­choso­cial isomorphs.