“The Chinese sturgeon, thought to have existed for more than 140 million years, is now on the brink of extinction, according to local media.”
This is from a recent article I found on the BBC, and I couldn’t help but think of how the Yangtze River has already suffered the extinction of the Baiji dolphin, when in 2006 a concerted search failed to find any evidence of a remnant population. Two well-known species likely gone in less than ten years.
I will admit that the Chinese sturgeon has no impact on my life here in Madison, Wisconsin. I highly doubt I’ll ever see one in person (I’ve never seen a live sturgeon native to this area, either). Yet I find myself indignant that yet another of God’s creations will likely disappear for good. Why do I feel this way? So what if it goes extinct?
Like I said, I’ve never “met” a Chinese sturgeon–but I know some of God’s other creatures pretty well. My grandparents have a cottage on the Wisconsin River, about eight miles from the home I grew up in. My family (including extended family) spent the summers on the River just downstream from Portage, Wisconsin, and every day I saw the turtles sunning themselves on the downed logs along the shore. I learned to spot the difference between a floating stick and a turtle head in the fast-moving current–I just had to wait and see if it disappeared below the surface. Once I found a baby soft-shelled turtle on a sandbar and watched it swim around after hatching (I stayed my distance, because I’d also run into the adult version, and they are not the most friendly of species). You could say I grew up on the River–I proudly boast that I am a “river rat.”
I also “grew up” in northern Wisconsin, since our family frequently vacationed and fished in the more pristine lakes and flowages of Iron County. One quiet evening, our fishing was interrupted by loud crashes and splashes near the shore. Expecting to see a moose or a black bear, instead we witnessed three or four whitetail deer playing in the water. Enchanted by their mirth, we watched these normally high-strung animals goof off, chasing one another and acting like little kids in a big puddle.
To say that I care about the Wisconsin River, or for Fisher Lake in Iron County, is a severe understatement! Those places and their plants and creatures are part of my cultural heritage. My connection to them is deeper than golden memories; I have faith that I will continue making new memories and expect these places to always exist. I fully anticipate taking my own family someday to share in the richness of exploring these places. Perhaps we will see deer frolicking and turtles lounging in the summer sun. My family now has a cabin on the Turtle Flambeau Flowage in Northern Wisconsin; the land will stay in our family for a long time I suspect. If, despite my attempts to prevent irreversible change, an iron ore mine hopelessly polluted the cabin lake, I would mourn for this place I know in my heart is “home.”
There’s a vocab word for this: it’s called solastalgia. Originally coined by Glenn Albrecht in a 2004 peer-reviewed article in the journal EcoHealth, he and collaborators began the preliminary study of communities in New South Wales (NSW) impacted by major environmental alteration, most recently by coal mining. From the wikipedia page,
“‘Solastalgia’ is the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment…In both cases, people exposed to environmental change experienced negative affect that is exacerbated by a sense of powerlessness or lack of control over the unfolding change process.”
Community members of NSW were interviewed regarding their understanding of and response to environmental change from open cut coal mining and power station expansion. In addition to negative health impacts from the industry that degraded and transformed their home (diseases from air pollution, soil contamination, water pollution, noise pollution, light pollution, etc.), the distress led to a disruption in their sense of place, of control, and general well-being.
Solastalgia deals strictly with land or environment that is home; in other words, according to the definition, I can’t experience solastalgia as the arctic sea ice continues to melt because it’s not my home. I can’t know what it’s like to lose the Chinese sturgeon in the same way as if I’d grown up along the Yangtze river for 50 years and saw with my own eyes the environmental changes that led to it’s likely extinction. But I am connected to the place God put me. I contextualize my life in the rivers and lakes of Wisconsin, and surely that gives me some connection to rivers and lakes elsewhere in the world. Ched Meyers of Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries said something at the Ekklesia Project Gathering I attended back in July that illustrates the power of connection to a place:
“Throughout my life I’d seen the fragile chaparral and oak savanna landscapes of Southern California relentlessly bulldozed and paved over by all manner of manic unregulated development: suburban tracts and trophy homes, boutique wineries and golf courses and shopping malls, military complexes and industrial agriculture, all animated by transplanted opportunists seeking a fantasy life and corporate exploiters seeking quick profit. Solastalgia. And now we get to feel solastalgia for the planet as a whole…grief just kept welling up in me as I watched those ice sheets collapse [in Years of Living Dangerously documentary]–I have no soul connection to the Arctic. But I have a soul connection to a place. And deep calls to deep.”
Deep calls to deep.
I have a soul connection to a place-the River, the Northwoods-and that’s why I mourn the loss of some fish in China. That’s why I am deeply disturbed by the injustices people experience in places of the world I’ve only seen pictures of, why I am able to care about the Amazon rainforest ecosystem and children suffering in Haiti. Jesus probably experienced this better than anyone–he died for the whole world, even though he never physically left the Middle East. He spent his time with his neighbors, walking or boating to different towns–in short, he invested in and knew his place.
It seems to me that cultivating a sense of place is perhaps one of the best ways to love as Jesus loves. I’d go so far as to say that it is impossible to deeply care about creation, like the Chinese sturgeon, or people, like those suffering from the Ebola outbreak, without caring deeply for our own God-given place, whether that’s in inner-city Chicago, Manila, or rural China. And when we consciously work to love the people and place God has put us, we’re in a position to steward creation better.
In the end, the news story about the likely extinction of the Chinese sturgeon actually makes me ache to hop in a boat and spend time on the River; to care deeply enough for my neighbors and the people God put in my life that I will notice if they are missing. Why do we miss the decline of so many species and places and people all over the world? Perhaps because we have no soul connection to the place God put us.
Where has God placed you? How might you cultivate your connection to your “place”-ment?
Listen to Ched’s plenary talk HERE.