GLENN Albrecht loves words. As an internationally renowned environmental philosopher, he has spoken and written millions of words. And Albrecht has invented words.
He is best known for "solastalgia". Albrecht created that word so people could put a name to the distress they feel when they see their home environment being changed for the worse.
"Small-scale local disruption of lives has always been distressing, but we didn't have a word for it in English," Albrecht explains, as we dine in Maitland on the banks of the Hunter River. "We've now got large-scale disruption of people's lives locally, regionally, and globally."
That word was born here in the Hunter, when Albrecht was a lecturer at the University of Newcastle. He came up with "solastalgia", having observed the impact of open-cut coal mining on people's lives, and on the environment, including the very thing flowing past us.
Not that he always calls it the Hunter River. He prefers another word. Coquun. That is an Indigenous name for the river. He has studied and written about the Coquun.
"I've always had an interest in the environmental history of the Hunter River, and that's its geology, its Aboriginal history, its colonial history," he says. "And when I look out here, I see it all. I see the layers of history are embedded in the river itself, the journey of the river [that] takes us to Newcastle."
We're not just looking at the Coquun. We're having lunch in it. Coquun is the name of a restaurant in the Riverlink building, and we're dining on food inspired by Indigenous culture, including paperbark-steamed makurr (fish) and sparkling juice made from Davidson's plum.
"We're rediscovering the Coquun in a restaurant called Coquun," Albrecht declares, as he gazes at the sluggish olive water and begins to talk about his own journey of discovery through life.
GLENN Albrecht was born on March 5, 1953. The day Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin died, he adds.
"Something horrible died, and something good came into this world!"
He grew up near the banks of another river, the Canning, on the other side of the continent, in Perth.
Words were part of his upbringing, with his mother, Thelma, very keen on crosswords and Scrabble: "So if you ever took Mum on, she'd give you a really difficult time with words."
Another great love Glenn inherited from his mother was for nature. He spent a lot of time exploring the river's banks, the paperback swamps, and wandering in the bush. The self-described "nature boy" developed a love of birds and set up aviaries in the backyard. At one point, he had 120 birds at home.
The teenager became a junior member of the WA Naturalists' Club, mixing with well-known environmentalists such as Vincent Serventy and Harry Butler, so "I'd immerse myself in learning from these gurus of the natural world".
Yet Glenn would head into the bush not just because of his interest in birds.
"I received a lot of racial abuse for being dark skinned in a white, working-class suburb," he recalls. "And sometimes I think my attempts to disappear and get into the bush and away from everything else was my way of being myself."
Glenn's father was from Sri Lanka. Tony Albrecht and Thelma Edwards had met in a sanatorium in WA while both were being treated for tuberculosis. Glenn Albrecht believes his father was physically and mentally scarred by the disease and the treatment.
"I think that just stopped him from being an outdoors kind of a person," Glenn says. "He used to joke about it that those horrendous scars were from a shark attack when he was a lifesaver."
Glenn Albrecht was 16 and was preparing to study at university for a career in ornithology when his father took his own life.
"It still sits there as something completely illogical and completely crazy," Albrecht says of his father's suicide.
"So I've had to build a world that makes sense to me around it."
The loss and upheaval in the teenager's life had him rethink his future, as he tried to find meaning in what he was experiencing. Instead of pursuing a science degree, he steered towards sociology and philosophy.
"It took a long time to get back on track again, in terms of my own mental strength and being able to think about what's really significant about all these events in my life. How do I make sense of it? So the shift to philosophy makes a lot more sense when you know what happened."
For his PhD, Albrecht was researching "organicism in western philosophy", which is basically the idea that the world, and the way it functions, is like a natural organism.
To complete his doctorate, Albrecht moved to Newcastle in the early 1980s. Along with his wife Jillian, who he had met at a Perth garbage dump - "I think we were both recycling" - and stepdaughter, Sarah, Albrecht trekked across the Nullarbor.
The family lived at Wallsend, and "we soon realised we were in coal country". They were in an old miner's cottage, with coal trucks rumbling past. But Glenn could still pursue his ornithological passion. There was "the most amazing birdlife" in nearby wetlands, until they were filled in.
Albrecht's connection to local bird life intensified in the mid-1980s when he became a founding director of the Hunter Wetlands Trust. In turn, that led to many more people becoming interested in birds, when the wetlands centre opened at Shortland.
In a way, the journey to "solastalgia" began in earnest through Albrecht's love of ornithology, when he and Jillian bought a historic lithograph of a regent bower bird.
The artwork was created by Elizabeth Gould, the artist wife of publisher and zoologist John Gould. The famous British couple visited the Hunter in 1839 and 1840, and the bird depicted in the lithograph had been seen by the Goulds near the mouth of the Hunter River.
"I suddenly realised this rich ornithological history, and my love of birds, became part of environmental history," he says.
The Albrechts retraced the Hunter journey of the Goulds as research for a book on the British pioneers' time in the valley.
Glenn Albrecht quickly learnt that much of the "open and park-like scenery" John Gould had described was disappearing into deep holes.
"The trips to the Upper Hunter took me through the worst of Singleton's and Muswellbrook's coal mining areas, and it's not slowed down or stopped, it's just got bigger and, in my view, worse.
"So all of a sudden, my discovery of solastalgia as a concept was a lived experience, made poignant and powerful by my understanding of what this place was like ... versus what it's like now and what it's transforming into."
What also brought home solastalgia were the experiences of many other Hunter residents. Albrecht was working at the university, where he was involved in establishing the uni's first environmental degree.
As an "activist academic", he was also participating in environment protests and writing about issues such as climate change. As a result, he was contacted by people living near mines in the valley.
"Nobody was interested in the story they were telling about the collapse of their physical and mental health in the face of the collapse of what they call home," he recalls.
Albrecht and two university colleagues, Nick Higginbotham and Linda Connor, did more than 100 interviews with Upper Hunter residents about their loss of a sense of place. But that feeling still needed a name.
"It was first created at the dining room table at 16 Dunblane Close, in New Lambton Heights, which is where Jill and I were living at the time," Albrecht says. "We jointly created the word 'solastalgia'."
With a dictionary, a thesaurus, and the Concise Oxford Classical Dictionary on the table, the couple ploughed through all manner of linguistic variations, until Glenn referenced the Latin root of the word "solace", and combined it with the Greek "-algia", meaning "pain" or "suffering". A brew of other etymological connections was thrown in, with words such as "desolation" and "nostalgia". And it all boiled down to one, meaning-packed word: Solastalgia.
More than describing a feeling, Glenn Albrecht reckons, these words are filling a need in our language: "We should have had more attention being paid to this in the English language, but it appears we have not. Otherwise, 'solastalgia' wouldn't have made it as a concept within our language."
Albrecht's straddling of environmental issues, philosophy and language took him back to Perth for about five years as a Professor of Sustainability at Murdoch University. It also gave him the opportunity to care for his mother. They lived in a home in the bush called Birdland. As the name suggests, it was surrounded by birdsong and filled with jazz music.
After his mother died in 2014, Albrecht left his full-time job at the university and returned to the Hunter. He and Jillian bought a small property at Duns Creek, which they have called "Wallaby Farm".
The couple wanted to create a rural idyll and be more self-sufficient. What's more, Albrecht says, "if I'm going to write about the psychoterratic, I actually need to be in a place where I can openly confront what's going on outside my door."
Albrecht now calls himself a "farmosopher", who is "a gardener who contemplates the meaning of life and being while cultivating the soil and tending to the lifeforms we know as fruit and vegetables."
On Wallaby Farm, Albrecht has experienced the best and worst emotions from observing the environment. There's the joy of seeing the wildlife, including 140 species of birds. But there's also the heartbreak of watching plants shrivelling and birds dying due to heat.
"In five years at Wallaby Farm, I have seen climate change in action," he asserts. "The time frame in which things are happening now is so much faster... and it seems to be getting worse."
Albrecht has turned his experiences and impressions into more words. He has written a book, to be published in May, titled Earth Emotions: New Words for a New World.
He explains that in the book, he explores big ideas and global issues, while also opening himself up, sharing aspects of his own life: "People won't read me if I just write bat-shit boring academic publishable stuff."
In the book, Albrecht offers some debate-inducing ideas, including the likelihood of a world war of the emotions. That conflict would be between the "earth-supporting, earth-nurturing emotions" and those that are "out to destroy the earth".
"This is not a war that can be won by military and industrial means," he argues. "This is a war of our emotional and psychological make-up as human animals, and it's in relation to our tenure on this earth."
He predicts one of the battlegrounds will be in the Hunter Valley, where the coal economy and environmental issues collide. Dwindling water supply, rising sea levels and extreme weather conditions, Albrecht says, will hit the Hunter very hard.
"It's almost impossible for me to contemplate how anyone of goodwill and intelligence can say, 'Yeah, we need more coal, because jobs are important'. The greenies have got a bumper sticker that says, 'No jobs in a dead world'. Well, it's true."
Albrecht warns if we don't make major shifts in the way we live, many of us in the Hunter could be "climate change refugees before the year 2100". In his bleaker moments, he forecasts some Novocastrians will have to move to higher ground at Cessnock, because their homes will be underwater.
But he is "relentlessly optimistic" humans will make changes. And he embraces being part of the change, throwing in his own thoughts and words. Albrecht is particularly looking forward to the day that "solastalgia" becomes a redundant word.
Glenn Albrecht has other reasons to be optimistic. He enjoys listening to the playing of his his acclaimed cellist son Anthony and reading his daughter Claire's poetry.
And there's life on the farm, where he relishes bringing in the produce and flowers to Jillian, "who knows what to do with them".
In a world feeling pain and uncertainty, Glenn Albrecht knows where he belongs.
"This is home," he says, as he gazes at the Hunter River/Coquun.
"I could make myself at home elsewhere, but this is a powerful place for me."