Homesick, Still at Home
By Tina Antolini
The New York Times published an article yesterday titled, “As the Mountaintops Fall, a Coal Town Vanishes.” It discusses the devastating effects of mountain top removal mining, in this case, on Lindytown, West Virginia. In our 2010 Fall Season, we visited Lindytown for the Appalachia Rising episode and discussed in great detail the toll that the town, and the surrounding area, had taken and continues to take as a result of mountain top removal mining.
The thing that really stood out to us at SOTRU, was learning of the passing of Lawrence Richmond who so graciously invited us into his home and spoke to us during the recording of the episode. Rest in peace Lawrence and our deepest sympathies to the Richmond family.
Radio Producer Tina Antolini’s post from October of 2010, about her time in Appalachia seemed appropriate to share upon hearing this news:
We all know what it’s like to be homesick—that bittersweet pang of longing for a place so familiar it feels part of us. Estranged from it, at certain moments it seems almost as if we are estranged from ourselves. But what’s it like to feel homesick when you’ve never left home? When, instead, your home has changed around you?
I’ve been thinking about this because of a fascinating article in this week’s New York Times Magazine, called “Is There an Ecological Unconscious?” Most of it is about the burgeoning field of ecopsychology, a new set of ideas that attempts to marry ecology and mental health. However, the article begins by looking at the phenomenon of “Solastalgia,” which, as the term’s creator, Glenn Albrecht, tells the article’s author, Daniel Smith, is:
“… a combination of the Latin word solacium (comfort) and the Greek root –algia (pain), which he defined as “the pain experienced when there is recognition that the place where one resides and that one loves is under immediate assault . . . a form of homesickness one gets when one is still at ‘home.’ ”
Albrecht is thinking about this in relation to the residents of the Upper Hunter Valley in Southeastern Australia. This once lush pastoral area, full of dairy farms, has recently been thrown into a kind of crisis by the arrival of open-pit coal mining. Albrecht witnessed a profound sense of disorientation among the residents, as the landscape they knew changed around them.
Reading about this, I couldn’t help but think of SOTRU’s recent trip to Appalachia, and our look at communities affected by mountain top removal (MTR) coal mining. MTR is a form of surface mining that basically involves blowing the peak of a mountain off to get at the coal seams beneath—a far more efficient way of extracting coal than using human labor to burrow into the mountain and get at it from beneath. Some of the impacts that MTR is having on this region are physical, tangible: towns have been stripped of residents, streams have been filled with rocks and detritus from the pieces of the mountain that have been removed, houses have been covered with a thin film of black dust from coal processing plants. But Albrecht’s idea of solastalgia made me think about the emotional impact of MTR, the less visible effect a radically changed landscape might have on people whose families have made their home in these mountains for generations.
This is part of what SOTRU was trying to understand in the heart of southern West Virginia: the way people’s sense of themselves and their community has been transformed by this particular mining practice, the way in which a disruption in our sense of place can trigger an even deeper disruption within us.
Or, as Smith writes, “As our environment continues to change around us… how deeply are our minds suffering in return?”
I remember standing in 85-year-old Quiny Richmond’s bright yellow kitchen in the now nearly abandoned hamlet of Lindytown, West Virginia. Quinnie and her husband, Lawrence, make up the last family left—all the other residents of Lindytown were bought out by the coal company running a massive MTR operation just on the other side of the ridge. Everything Quiny does in her kitchen—cooking, doing the dishes, having a cup of coffee—she keeps one eye on the window. From there, she can see a giant boulder, poised to roll down the ridge towards her home with a big enough dynamite blast. Beyond the obvious anxiety of that, what is it like for Quiny to go out to her vegetable garden and have the town around her empty, the houses vacant? To go visit her husband’s family cemetery, which is now ringed by the surface mining operation, the once familiar setting of tall trees and rolling green mountains replaced by desert-like mesas? It must feel like being homesick, only steps from home.