Have you ever seen a place transformed beyond recognition? Maybe a local lake dried up, or a treasured tree blew down, leaving an empty space where there was once a landmark. Places change. Landscapes transform because of human intervention and events like extreme weather. Not every change needs to be a loss. But some changes are devastating. Why do we grieve for some losses, and not others? Why does it upset us when a stately local tree is cut down near, but not affect us when an area the size of Cyprus is deforested every year in the Amazon?
The common understanding of grief is the deep mental anguish that comes from bereavement. It is something that we all experience at times in our lives and is one of the most difficult emotional experiences. Grief can manifest in different emotional ways, including sadness, melancholia, anger, mania, and other, sometimes unpredictable behaviors.
Loss causes grief. When a person dies, family and friends grieve. When a place changes beyond recognition, the people to whom that place was important can also grieve. One generation might mourn a loss of place, the next might not even recognize what has been lost. Grief appears because of a loss of something that was once present, but also because of the loss of connection: the loss of a network.
Networks exist between insects and flowers, between trees and fungi, between people and places. Networks are intricate. They are connections between multiple entities. When two points are broken, it can take time for them to be reconnected. Sometimes they never are.
All things that are lost were once connections. If someone is disconnected from their environment, they will not mourn its loss. The same is true with people who will not mourn the loss of other people that they do not feel a connection to. Grief happens because of lost connections. Connections formed together are networks.
So I propose a different kind of grief: grief for the network, grief for connection, grief for the links that bind one object to another, be they person, place, or thing. I will explore this different kind of grief here. To begin, I will introduce attachment to place.
It has been nearly fifty years since the first definitions of place were put forward by geographers and sociologists. One of the earliest researchers in this area was geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, who proposed a difference between ‘space’ and ‘place’ in his seminal 1974 paper ‘Space and Place: Humanistic Perspective’. Spaces, Tuan suggested, did not have ‘spirit’, ‘personality’, or a sense of themselves. Places, on the other hand, did. He and other researchers in this area spent the following thirty years trying to uncover what this sense of place is, and how it can be identified.
The theory in this area is vast and disparate: psychologist Maria Lewicka studied over 400 academic papers on this topic, showing that there is an identifiable (and potentially quantifiable) idea of ‘place-attachment’. People form attachments to places for different reasons. In some cases, they have identity relationships such as family homes or memories of events. In other cases, there are historical associations, such as diaspora who attach themselves to a long-lost homeland.
The Irish journalist John Healy wrote No One Shouted Stop (Death of an Irish Town) in 1968, predating the early definitions of ‘place-attachment’. In it, Healy documents how the small town of Charlestown in rural Mayo was losing its identity. He begins with the town’s history, how it was built by a community, and how people bonded over local sporting achievements, events, and natural occurrences. By Healy’s adulthood, young people were emigrating due to financial and political pressures. Buildings were falling into ruin. Healy emphasizes how one hero of the town, a champion handball player, played alone hitting the ball against a wall in the local handball alley, creating the lonely soundtrack of a town that was gradually dying. No One Shouted Stop created a sense of grief for the place.
Healy wrote emotionally, calling both from his broad knowledge as a journalist and from his personal worry at the loss of place. He lamented the loss of his home. And ‘home’ is generally seen as the most important of all places from an individual perspective. The (idealized) home-place has memory (your own memories of growing up), culture (the association between your home-place and its history, art, or myths), and it has identity as ‘home’ (created by you and your family, friends, neighbors). Your home does not have the same identity to another person.
In 2017 I was invited by Charlestown Arts Centre, curated by Louise Spokes, to create an artwork in response to Healy’s book. The artwork, beyond the black stump, references the Australian term ‘black stump’ which demarcates the edge of the ‘civilized’ world. I invited people to participate in making their own place, forming their own identities and memories on the wall of the art center. Visitors came and helped create a collaborative painting together – young and old contributed to the images on the wall.
And then it was removed – the place was destroyed and only the memory remained.
The idea of loss in the artwork was immediate; it represented loss of a creative response – something that was and then was no more. Some of the participants spoke fondly of the day and of their participation, but also regretted the loss of something that was worked on together. By asking the community to create a place, and then lose it, I wanted to encourage this sense of grief.
By immediately destroying the artwork after creating it, loss was inflicted immediately as well. In contrast, when things happen gradually, we often do not notice them, nor grieve them. An example is ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, where people see what they inherited when they were born as normality. So, a person born into a world with no forests would think it is normal that trees grow alone. With climate change, this becomes a major issue, as people begin to see high species extinction rates as the norm, for example, or have no memories of a world where bird populations were much larger. In beyond the black stump, by making the loss immediate, I removed this shifting baseline of long timescales. It plays with the sense of time.
This becomes important when exploring what a place might be, and why we might lament its loss. Writer Robert Macfarlane suggests that this loss is partly a loss of language. In his books Landmarks and his poems in Lost Words, he looks at words that have gone out of use, and how losing these words affects how people attach themselves to places. Again, these losses happen gradually, over time, but Macfarlane makes the point that some events can be more sudden, such as the removal of words like ‘heron’ and ‘bramble’ from children’s dictionaries.
Grief comes in many forms. Grief is a process that allows people to move on and come to terms with loss. Two of the main emotional responses to loss are melancholia and mania. The former is a sadness that prevents mourning; the latter leads to unpredictable and erratic behavior. Solastalgia is another form of grief, tied to loss of place.
People collectively form a sense of place in areas such as parks or forests, applying identity, culture, or understanding to that place. When such a place changes irrevocably, because of a major intrusion like strip mining or forest fires, they can feel a sense of loss, sometimes an overwhelming one.
Loss of place is something that philosopher Glenn Albrecht explores through his concept of solastalgia. Albrecht defines solastalgia in his 2019 book Earth Emotions as: ‘the pain or distress caused by the ongoing loss of solace and the sense of desolation connected to the present state of one’s home and territory’. A similar sense has been described in psychology by Renee Lertzman as ‘environmental mourning’. Examples of solastalgia that Albrecht describes in his own writing include areas where strip mining have eradicated areas of natural beauty and the feeling of loss of the Inuit in Alaska, who are seeing unprecedented ice-melt and associated environmental change.
Solastalgia is a global and all too common phenomenon. In Hawaii, there are plans to build an 18-storey telescope on Mauna Kea mountain. Writer Chelsea Steinauer-Scudder visited Hawaii to speak to those who are protesting its construction. Native Hawaiians are fighting the development because the mountain holds spiritual (and aesthetic) significance for them. They have place-attachment to it through history and culture. The project is being pushed ahead governmentally because of the potential for local employment and research, creating tensions as well as highlighting a disconnect between some people and the place. For the native groups, the fear for the mountain is a fear of a loss of place, a fear for a future solastalgia. They protest because they have already grieved for so much loss of their native areas.
A loss of place can cause feelings and reactions similar to grief. The reactions to grief are varied. Freud described the two major emotional responses that are related to grief, mentioned above: melancholia and mania. The former is akin to solastalgia – a pain that can be physical, and a mourning that causes emotional and physical upset. The latter can have unpredictable results, including denial of the problem, and even compounding it.
Solastalgia can be compared to one of these two states, with an added sense of place. On a societal level, melancholy can be seen in people who suffer anguish and worry over the loss of places, species, or people due to climate change. The Climate Justice movement takes such mourning into account and widens it beyond our direct surroundings. An action in one country can affect the climate in another; human-caused climate change has both human and non-human costs. By acknowledging the complexity of an interconnected world, people can grieve for one another’s loss: for example, when a forest fire happens in Australia it is grieved by people in Mexico.
Networks, Art, Community Building
Solastalgic grief can only manifest if there is a connection between people and places – connections that are established through networks. The place-attachment in the example of Mauna Kea is felt because of a social connection (the network of people), a cultural connection (the history and ritual), and a natural connection (the environment and landscape). These complex associations are all related and the loss of one in the defacement of the mountain is potentially the loss of all connections. It is this complex network of networks that can cause solastalgia if a place is damaged or altered.
While it is easy to understand a large physical transformation to one place, it takes a leap in logic to draw a connection between unsustainable farming practice in one part of the world, and how this causes drought in another. But such an understanding is not impossible: even in the 19th century, scientist Alexander von Humboldt had discovered the seed of such connections in what he termed Naturgemälde. Humboldt’s final work Cosmos explores in detail the connection between all living organisms and is a precursor to the 20th century acknowledgement of a complex network between all organisms.
Artists have been using the idea of connection as a way to counter environmental loss for years. Joseph Beuys coined the term ‘social sculpture’ in the 1970s to describe artworks that brought people together in collaborative acts, usually toward environmental or place-based goals. His works often encouraged planting trees, such as the most famous piece 7,000 Oaks (1982), which led to the planting of 7,000 oaks by volunteers and residents in Kassel, Germany. These are artworks that defy media and that bring people together to think about their world differently.
More recently, other artists have combined the idea of social sculpture with a move toward community sustainability. Artist Anne-Marie Culhane’s A Field of Wheat (2016) was a collaborative place-making process where a local community and policy-makers were brought together to become active stakeholders in a 22 acre field of wheat. The Transition network, which began in 2007, is an artistic project that encourages collaborative community-building practices. Running in many locations, the network develops events, artworks, or local food projects, creating a lasting sense of place for local communities.
Artists like Beuys or Culhane are inspired by the lurking danger of grief and by the need to bring communities together to pre-empt this. They work to create futures. Beuys’ artworks often encouraged tree planting and today forests exist in many countries because of his work in the 1970s. Transition has inspired urban and rural communities to act together to form new places, creating networks where they were eroding. This place-building is a way of avoiding solastalgia and of mitigating grief, by encouraging a network among people, and between people and place.
John Healy’s sense of loss in Charlestown was associated with the (loss of the) network of people that had been there, the loss of people as part of the loss of place. Without people working together, Healy saw that the town suffered and became a shell of itself. Today, Healy’s writing seems prophetic. Charlestown still stands, but whole streets are boarded up, empty plots creating wasteland that form a reminder of a town that once was.
Monocultures, Networks, and Place
As explored above, networks come in all shapes and sizes. A connection between more than two objects arguably becomes a network. They can exist between people, between other organisms, or from one to another.
In forests, trees can communicate warnings to one another in a network often referred to as the ‘Wood-Wide Web’. This is done through the underground networks of ‘mycorrhizae’, which are connections between green plants and fungi. If one tree gets infected with a parasite, it can warn others by sending signals through the fungi, and the neighbors can then produce toxins to defend themselves. The trees and fungi need to develop in tandem, in a healthy environment. The importance of place is not lost here – without a healthy fungal network, trees in forests may die.
In mono-crop forests, this is a problem. The Wood-Wide Web does not establish properly in forests where fertilizers and fungicides have been sprayed, or where there is no diversity of plants and insects. As a result, the forests are weaker and more prone to infection.
To convert this to a human analogy, homogenous societies can create a weakness in social connection. If everyone is moving toward the same goals (such as in hegemonic capitalist expansion), there is no possibility of shifting perspectives. The loss of local shops is an example, which has led to homogeneity between towns. This creates two weaknesses – first, a community network around a place (a shop) is lost. Second, a frailty is created – if the chain shop increases prices, reduces staff, or closes down this can happen everywhere simultaneously. When Virgin Megastores closed their shops across Europe and the US at the end of last decade, this is exactly what happened – jobs were lost simultaneously in many places at once. Like in the forests, the fertilizers and fungicides weaken the defenses.
In Charlestown, Healy described the disconnection among people, and how this eroded social cohesion. The loss of social cohesion through emigration and individualization led to a loss of connection to the place. If people become disconnected, the place also loses its value. As a result of this, the only people who feel grief at the loss of the place are those who were involved in creating it. With shifting baseline syndrome, the next generation will not even remember that this creation took place.
Computer-based networks are relatively young, compared to social groups or forest networks. However, they suffer from similar issues of mono-culture and disconnection. Recently, the Institute of Network Cultures’ Geert Lovink wrote Requiem for the Network, lamenting the end of an idealism in 21st century network technologies. He describes how networks have been homogenized, turned into single streams where information sharing has taken a back seat to commercially driven aims and echo chambers. The social network has lost its social aspect, he and his interviewees posit. Individuals in silos stay disconnected, just like trees in a mono-culture forest. Like in physical places, the loss of the network is a move toward individualism and away from diversity. And like with physical places, most people have forgotten that there is anything to grieve.
Computer programming languages also suffer from this homogeneity: most of these languages are written and executed in English, no matter where the programmer comes from. Such streamlining of language follows Robert Macfarlane’s fears for a homogenized language without nature terminology. Artist and game designer Ramsey Nasser has suggested a better future will come from a broadening of languages in technology. Nasser suggests that homogenization of the English language in programming has a limiting effect on the possibilities of how programs can work and hopes for a future where diversity of language is as valued as the technologies themselves.
Environmental Mourning and Grief
The loss of our communication networks (and their accompanying requiem) follows the loss of our environmental networks. In her book Environmental Melancholia, Renee Lertzman suggests that we move into a mourning period for environments that are lost, which can have a profound effect on behavior. She follows Freud’s aforementioned analysis of grief in two forms: mania and melancholia. In society, the response to the climate crisis is arguably split along similar lines of mania (the election of far-right nationalist politics who deny climate change) and melancholia (the oftentimes fatalistic protest movements built against this).
With melancholia, mourning cannot fully begin because of the grief that is ongoing. Lertzman’s ‘environmental melancholia’ follows this logic, identifying it as grief that is locked in stasis and that needs to be overcome. As with the ‘mania’ of climate denialism, the issue is not coming to terms with its complexity and its enormous consequences. Lertzman repeats the point that loss can lead to unpredictable behavior. ‘It’s people trying to protect themselves, to keep themselves from experiencing the stress that goes along with coming to terms with our situation.’ This anxiety is not due to a self-directed survival instinct alone, but also to a grief for all that will be lost, such as species that will go extinct. Like the artists in Transition or those who have built social connections between communities, Lertzman insists that building connections is key to restoring the health of the environment, as well as the health of our mutual societies.
There is a relatively recent precedent for a population coming to terms with a complex idea. A good example is extinction: today 5-year-olds can explain the extinction of the dinosaurs, but as recently as six generations ago the idea would have baffled educated adults. In the early 1800s, Thomas Jefferson still hoped to find a living specimen of the woolly mammoth. Having found the bones, he believed the animal must exist somewhere and wanted to use it as a demonstration of the enormity of American animals. The idea of extinction began to be debated, with some scientists believing that extinction was not possible as God would not allow it, and others suggesting that extinction would only take place if God chose it.
Elizabeth Kolbert documented the difficulty in coming to grips with this idea of extinction in her 2014 book The Sixth Extinction. She showed how it has affected our understanding of extinction until today, and how people still find it difficult to accept the human role in the ongoing extinction of animals. The difficulty in acceptance can again be seen as akin to mania; a refusal to believe in the loss because of the grief that this could cause.
Extinction highlights loss. And it highlights different forms of loss. For those who lament the decrease in biodiversity and decimation of species, there is melancholia. For those who deny the existence or the importance of these extinctions, there is mania. And again, the difference is in the willingness to grieve. So why do we not grieve? How have we become so disconnected? What has happened to the network between people and place, between people and environment? And can it be repaired?
The first test of the atomic bomb is sometimes suggested as the beginning point of human dominance over our environment. It is significant because it drew together both the idea of human extinction, and the idea that human beings could cause it. Einstein and Freud wrote to one another through the 1930s, at one point acknowledging the threat of radiation to all human life before a bomb was ever detonated, either through the extinguishing of life in war or through the repercussions of a radiated world where children could not be produced. They foresaw the grief of long illness and death, and the potential damage to surrounding environments.
Philosopher and physicist Karen Barad has linked the beginning of the nuclear age with a new perspective of time. Drawing from the book From Trinity to Trinity by Kyoko Hayashi, she creates a connection between the time-being of the atomic age and the identity of place of Ground Zero. Time and place are thus connected, and the ability to grieve appears from the loss of place that Hayashi describes: ‘Standing on the land that speaks no words, I shivered, feeling its pain.’
‘Grievability’: Planning a Future
How we choose to grieve, and whether we are able to, is an ongoing point of relevance, whether grief of place, of network, of community, or of people. In the middle is ‘grievability’: the idea that we want to grieve. If we cannot grieve for our losses, in people, in communication, in nature, we will react with mania, and without reason.
Philosopher Judith Butler explores grief in her 2020 book The Force of Nonviolence. In it, she highlights how important it is to want to grieve for any living organism to form empathy or compassion with those who are affected by violence. Grievability is not just a grief when something is lost: ‘those who are grievable would be mourned if their lives were lost’. She uses violence in the abstract, moving from direct violence (war or aggression) to indirect violence (ignoring the plight of refugees, ignoring the suffering caused by climate change). Both, she argues, are acts of violence. She concludes that by recognizing the need to grieve for any living organism we can move beyond industrial ‘progress’ and into a more symbiotic relationship with one another and with the environment in which we all live.
Loss of place, loss of community, loss of network, loss of connection: each of these losses is not only a grief for something that has been lost, but it is also a would-be mourning for all those things that will be lost. The Hawaiians on Mauna Kea, John Healy in Charlestown, or the socialites in online communities are grieving for a future state, for something that will be lost. This is where the complexity comes in; it is not only a difficult leap in logic to understand the loss that we are currently going through, we also need to believe in and build a future beyond that. How can we grieve for people who are not even born yet? Or for species that still exist but that will not in the future?
Grief seems a relevant point to discuss when dealing with place. The grief for a loss of home-place is pronounced. The psychological distress suffered by those who suffer loss of home, such as after a natural disaster, is long-lasting and as has already been explored, can be unpredictable. John Healy showed emotional and personal suffering in his analysis of the death of Charlestown. Geert Lovink similarly grieves for the online network, as do many of his contemporaries.
To make something grievable, it must have a connection to the person who will grieve. This connection is the beginning of a network, and I posit that a strong network cannot be one thing but must be many things simultaneously. To have a strong community network, we need a strong natural environment. With this, we need a sense of place. To facilitate this, we need to use our technologies to the best of their potential. None of these ideas stand on their own.
A Different Kind of Grief Conclusions
Kielder is a village in the UK that has suffered from rural depopulation and isolation. Originally built as a forestry community, it was described to me by one resident as ‘the remotest place in England’. This disconnected outpost is a good place to test and develop ideas on networked connectivity and the importance of grievability.
In December 2019 I began a project about networks in collaboration with Kielderhead Wildwood Project. The first medium I used was dialogue, speaking to academics, project managers, ecologists, foresters, volunteer planters, teachers, journalists, and others in the community about the place and the potential for a strong network. The strength of the Kielderhead Wildwood Project is its network – there exists a strong, connected core of academics and other professionals. But much of the network is disparate and connecting it is a dialectical artistic project, one that is based in forming community.
To build a network is to build a future. The idea of grievability, of grief in the future tense, requires enough imagination to see beyond today and to create a place that has value enough to be grieved. To establish a future network, we need to grieve our recent past to be able to move on. We need to acknowledge Lovink’s requiem and Healy’s solastalgia. And we need to recognize that we need to grieve, rather than find ourselves trapped in melancholia or mania. Most of all, we need to recognize that every thing that we lose is grievable. No unnecessary loss can be justifiable, whether from disease, pollution, war, or naivety.
Butler highlights the togetherness of people as crucial: nothing can be done alone but only together. Her book finishes with a positive statement, one that should be said to every living thing that anyone holds dear to themselves. This has become my own mantra, and I propose it as the saying to begin a new generation of networks:
Shane Finan is a visual artist and project manager from Ireland. He works with mixed media installation to create interactive artworks guided by place and technology. He is currently developing a series of artworks about networks in a project titled ‘The Wood Wide Web’ (2020). This project has been supported by Visual Arts in Rural Communities and the Arts Council of Ireland.
He has worked as project manager on EU and Irish funded research projects, working at Trinity College Dublin (2014-20), in the area of computer science and emergency management.
He holds a BA in Fine Art (IT Sligo 2008) and an MSc in Interactive Digital Media (Trinity College Dublin 2013).
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