Navigating an age of active wisdom

Working with alpine solastalgia I

Re-envisioning my relationship to the mountain world in the face of environmental grief, Part I

Philippe Vandenbroeck

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Vedretta Superiore di Brenta, summer 2022 (Photo: Philippe Vandenbroeck)

Here I want to report on an emerging process of first-person inquiry, centered on my relationship with the mountain world. The process is triggered by grief as I have seen the mountains, and the Alps in particular, change as a result of global warming.

This is not a new phenomenon. Reports of shrinking glaciers have been around for decades. But what we have seen in recent years, and especially during this last, sweltering summer, has made the speed of change starkly palpable. The realisation is not a comfortable one. The mountains are getting drier and dustier. More dangerous too, due to melting ice masses and permafrost. Visually, the consequences are outright shocking. Stripped of their snow cover, glaciers look like fish being brutally pulled from their natural habitat, gasping for air. Psychologically, it feels like a living being dying. For me, conjuring the image of mountains before my mind’s eye used to be a source of joy and comfort. Now it’s coloured with sorrow and foreboding.

I’m talking here about a clear manifestation of solastalgia. The term was coined by Glenn Albrecht (who also suggested symbiocene as an alternative to anthropocene) to label feelings of dislocation and distress as a result of the loss of a sense of place and belonging. The phenomenon is not to be taken lightly. Solastalgia has been a known as a psychologically devastating phenomenon in indigenous communities (such as Native Americans and Aboriginals) who have been forcibly displaced from their home territories, or who have witnessed an irrevocable change in their habitats. In Greenland 4 out of 10 residents experience very to moderately strong emotional responses of fear when they think about climate change. Albrecht writes: “the social and medical epidemics that afflict some Indigenous people can be partly understood as their attempt to relieve themselves of the distress, desolation and pain of solastalgia.

Now solastalgia is spreading into the Western world, beyond people living in geographically contained communities affected by destructive and irrevocable change of their living environment (such as those that see their villages disappear as a result of large-scale open-pit mining). Solastalgia is complemented by “glacier grief” and climate trauma as new lemmas in the dictionary.

How do people work through this? How do they mourn? The experience of ecological grief triggers funeral and memorial rites in different parts of the world. It is also a powerful impetus to artistic creation and activist commitment. Social movements such as the Good Grief Network help people by seeking solace with one another and increasing their sense of agency. A consensus is growing around the understanding that we will need to actively work with this sense of grief to gather the energy and courage needed for the lifestyle and institutional changes to avert societal breakdown.

My personal trajectory is, for the time being, one of first-person inquiry (FPI). There are various ways of going about this. Reflective practice (Schön) and autoethnography are just two amongst many modes of FPI. I’ve been particularly attracted to Judi Marshall’s ‘living life as inquiry’ as a way to question my own experiences while working through a meandering process of personal transformation. It allows me to take mental distance and to engage in emotional, intellectual and practical experimentation while remaining curious to what offers itself as insight. Living life as inquiry is mainly a way of lending a certain quality of attention to our experiences of living through complexity.

I’m also, tentatively, weaving into my first-person inquiry a technique proposed by post-Jungian psychologist James Hillman (1926–2011). It centers on active work with images that are offered to us by our subconscious, either through night dreams or daydreams or accessed via introspection. These are images that resonate with uncommon depth. We emphatically do not seek to understand or explain these images, but to imaginatively increase their resonance. It’s about stepping back so that the images can come forward. Or it’s about talking to the image so that it can talk back. Etymological games, narrative experiments and artistic expression are all ways to engage in this way with resonant images.

Here, for a start, I’m planning a series of three Medium posts on the theme of my alpine solastalgia. The present introduction will be followed by an experimental piece. Going back to some of my earliest memories, I will explore what the mountain world means to me. I will also try to creatively work with some key images. A third post will, I suspect, provide an interim consolidation and identify a few threads to take forward in deepening and reframing a relationship to the mountain world in which there is a natural place for grief.

By way of conclusion I am offering two images. The picture above was taken this summer during a hike along the Via delle Bocchette in the Brenta Dolomites. It shows a tiny glacier that clings precariously to the high slopes of the Cima Brenta (3'151 m asl). The melting water that oozes from this disappearing glacier blackens the rocks underneath. Doesn’t it look like a giant, weeping eye? I made the photo below in 2013, pointing my large format camera downwards to the dry and dirty surface of the Brunnifirn in the Swiss Glarus Alps. The bright straight line is a piece of land art, crafted by covering a tiny slice of the glacier (250 meter long, 6 meter wide) during a 6-week summer interval. The line, running down like a vein, demonstrates the extent to which the snow cover has disappeared in that interval. ‘Eyes and veins’ is an image I might want to take further in my inquiry.

Wandelzeit land art project, Brunnifirn, Switerland (2013; photo Philippe Vandenbroeck)

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Philippe Vandenbroeck

Facilitator @ shiftN ⎹ Post-disciplinary researcher @ Newrope, ETH Zürich ⎹ How to create spaces were life is able to unfold, and is experienced as life?