Solastalgia–a pining for a lost environment or a state of homesickness when still at home. This word is derived from solacium (“comfort”) and algia (“pain”) and coined by Professor Glenn Albrecht in Australia in his research in Environmental Studies. He has been studying Australian farmers displaced by climate changes that have rendered their land and homes uninhabitable dust bowls. Their despair is losing not just their livelihoods but more emphatically, the familiarity and solace of surroundings lasting for generations of family members. They become lost souls at home.
It is easy to dismiss talk of “home” in this modern day as sentimental hogwash. When we can travel globally in a matter of hours and via computer can arrive in anyone’s backyard, living room or even bedroom, “home” seems an outmoded concept.
Yet human beings thrive on predictability, stability and familiarity. When home no longer resembles home, when the birds no longer sing as they once did, the native flowers no longer bloom, the trees no longer move in the breeze, where can we seek solace and comfort?
We are homesick right in our own back yards, if there is still a back yard left to dwell within.
As a child, one of my favorite books was Virginia Lee Burton’s “Little House”, written in 1942, about a cottage built sturdy out in the countryside to last for generations of one family.
” The Little House was very happy as she sat on the hill and watched the countryside around her. She watched the sun rise in the morning and she watched the sun set in the evening. Day followed day, each one a little different than the one before… but the Little House stayed just the same.”
As the years go by, more houses are built near by and then a town surrounds the cottage, and finally it is engulfed in the noisy, smelly, sooty, smoky city.
Eventually a great-granddaughter finds the Little House and moves it out far into the countryside to become “home” once again.
Voltaire reminded us to cultivate our own garden and more recently, Joni Mitchell observed: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.” How many live somewhere that looks like it did 20, 60, 100 years ago? How many would recognize our childhood homes if we drove by now? How will our children remember “home”?
I have found one cure for solastalgia — create home where you are and where your people might be for generations to come. One of the most effective ways is to plant bulbs, bushes, flowers and trees. Again and again. This cure is as old as Johnny and his appleseeds or the French fable “The Man Who Planted Trees” about the shepherd who restored an entire valley by planting acorns.
It has to do with restoring life on the land. Home is more than just the boards and doors and windows and fireplaces. It is the earth we steward and the care we provide.
Solace is available for the homesick because of the capability of our hands and hearts.
“Tell me and I forget,
teach me and I may remember,
involve me and I learn.” ― Benjamin Franklin
An advantage to driving the back roads across the country is seeing authentic rural America minus chain restaurants and gas stations. Remarkably, there are shells of old abandoned buildings still standing, sometimes just barely, bearing witness to the ways things used to be done.
The one room school house has been left behind in this day and age of easier transportation allowing children from as far away as fifty miles to be bussed daily into large school districts. Educating large numbers of children together in same-age groups may be more cost-effective and more efficient, but does it enhance learning? I’m not sure there is clear evidence of a benefit when you look at the sad drop-out rate prior to graduation and dismal standardized test scores.
The one room school house of yesteryear became the center of small communities, serving as the gathering spot for holiday programs and meals, voting in elections, as well as public meetings where important decisions would be made. There was community pride and honor within those doors. It was the great equalizer among families from diverse economic, ethnic and faith backgrounds; the one room school brought them all together under the same roof.
This kind of classroom environment would be a challenge for any teacher, particularly the scarcely trained single women of 17 or 18 who were placed in these settings. But with older children helping the younger, the responsibility for education didn’t fall solely on the shoulders of the teacher. Students became teachers themselves out of necessity–they were involved and thereby learned.
Both my parents were in one room school houses in rural settings until high school. Both went on to college and became teachers themselves. I remember as a child visiting the remnants of my mother’s schoolhouse sitting at a crossroads in the rural Palouse hills of eastern Washington. Now only a foundation exists, but what a foundation it laid for children of the wheat farms like my mother and her descendents. Two generations later, our three children are teaching or plan to teach as a life long career.
The two schools pictured here are still standing, most likely abandoned over seventy or more years ago. It was grand to see them last week on our travels. I could almost hear the bell clanging announcing the start of the school day, the chatter and laughter of children as they entered the large room, and feel the warmth of the pot-bellied stove on a brisk autumn day.
Surely the exercise of education in these little schools was challenging, full of gaps and flaws. The teachers were not always skilled enough, the children unruly and the multi-age classroom chaotic. But the existence of these humble little buildings meant there was a community commitment to the future and hope for a brighter tomorrow. Even though the schools have now been left behind, standing empty and abandoned, the promise they represent is still worth celebrating.
Sometimes you just don’t know what you had until it is gone.
Douglas County, Washington abandoned schoolhouse in a wheat field, photo by Marilyn Wood
“Education, then, beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men — the balance wheel of the social machinery.” — Horace Mann
“you don’t know what you got till it’s gone” Joni Mitchell from They Paved Paradise