Being Homesick When You’re Home

Last October I visited the hometown of my mother in the highlands of West Sumatra. It was the small town that has become the highlight of my childhood. A place where I spent numerous holidays swimming in the lake in the morning, treading the warm blue water brought forth by the volcanic activities beneath the ground, having the adventure of my life. A place where I caught a half-conscious fish with my bare hands, collected a pocketful of small mussels used in local cuisine with my bare feet, breathed the air sweet and fresh with my city-kid’s-tired respiratory system.

Solastalgia is a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, a philosopher and a Professor of Sustainability in Murdoch University. The word comes from the Latin solacium(comfort) and the Ancient Greek algia (pain). It’s defined as the homesickness one gets when one is still at home. It’s when you are home but things are unfamiliar and you are estranged from it.

The word strikes too close to home (pun slightly intended) when I arrived last October. The bus that took me there went over the hills that surrounded the lake town. From the apex, a spot the locals called Embun Pagi–Morning Dew in English, one should have been able to have a breathtaking, bird’s eye view of the lake showing off its azure glow and the tiny Bagonjong houses crowding up its shores. It was this splendid first impression that inspired the first president to come up with this pantun to say about the lake,

Jangan dimakan arai pinang, Kalau tidak dengan sirih hijau. Jangan datang ke Ranah Minang, Kalau tidak singgah ke Maninjau.
Do not eat arai nut, If not with a green betel. Do not come to Minang lands, If you do not stop at Maninjau.

I didn’t see it at all. It was all a thick haze. When the bus drove through the 44 hairpin bends that kept all drivers on their toes, the lush forest of the hills gave me some solace. At least it wasn’t these trees that were burning.

Driving by the lakeside, one would notice the many karambas, a sort of fish farms, dotting the surface of the lake. The water seen from afar was still its old beautiful blue, but severely degraded in its quality. The lake was unable to sustain the tens of thousands of fish farms, water so depleted of oxygen, even the fish died on a large scale each year. And should I state the obvious? Nobody swam in the lake anymore.

No breath of that fresh air anymore. There were no clear warm water in the lake anymore. The pieces my childhood’s fondest memories are just that, memories.

The irony was that I might have caused all that. And maybe you did too.

Our consumption might have fueled the fire that ravaged the peat lands of Sumatra and Borneo. Our consumption might have pushed the karambas that filled up the lake’s surface way over its capacity too. Our way of life, in other words, might have threatened the very thing we loved (let me spell it out for you; that’s our home).

I was never much of an environmentally aware person. I just felt this solastalgia so deeply I just have to know why things happened the way it did.

I think what happened is the Tragedy of the Commons. Humanity as a whole might be in the face of a tragedy because each of us act like the earth has infinite resources and capacity to supply our endless desires and impulses. It does not. That thought hasn’t occurred to me until recently.

Does it have to take all of us to feel solastalgic first about our home?

I sincerely hope it doesn’t because it involves destruction of a magnificent place and a degree of pain witnessing it with your own eyes. I sincerely hope it doesn’t because it’s one of regret and you must know it too, regret tastes so bitter. Because I could have, would have, and should have, done something about it had I known.

Being Homesick When You’re Home

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