I was grown in sun and soil and sand, on the edge of a small Appalachian town where the houses scatter into fields.
I was privileged to be raised on home-grown vegetables plucked fresh from the dirt. I was taught the power of my own hands to create and cultivate, preserve and prepare.
In high school, I cared very little about the family garden. Sure, the veggies are nice to eat when they're ripe, when you can wander through the garden in July and munch green beans, lettuce, peppers, late strawberries, early tomatoes. But it was a never-ending chore, nonstop from May to October. It brought my mother joy and pride, and it brought me only endless tedium. My sisters and I complained about the job, even as we competed to be the most helpful.
I miss it now, here in my little apartment in the city. I miss the good dirt, under my feet and dusting my skin and cradling my plants. Carrots taste different when they’re freshly pulled from the ground. Here in the city, I have no earth to dig, no deep beds to plant my sprouted potatoes.
It’s this nostalgia that drives me to farmers’ markets. It inspires me to plant basil and mint and lettuce in little pots on my balcony. It pulls me back to my parents’ small organic farm to work the planting and the haying and the harvest.
Dr. Krystine Batcho, a psychology professor at LeMoyne College, calls nostalgia a unifying pro-social emotion that links us to other people. With every listicle that shows us our favorite songs from the 80s or toys from the 90s, people who have experienced those things are bound tighter together.
One of the healthiest forms of nostalgia throughout human history has always been to connect each generation to the next. — Dr. Krystine Batcho
Nostalgia, both personal and historical, has been criticized as romanticizing the past while overlooking the negative aspects of the times in question. However, nostalgia can and has been harnessed as a force for positive, progressive change. As Batcho says, “One of the healthiest forms of nostalgia throughout human history has always been to connect each generation to the next.” (38:05) It’s used to pass down critical cultural knowledge and skills. It’s used to unify marginalized communities. And it’s a force against climate change, as those who remember life before the warmed world work with those who will inherit it.
Nostalgia calls attention to how life has changed in the past century or more. In a blog post for The Nature Conservancy, Matthew Miller described how ecological history, preserved in records and the memories of our grandparents, can spur projects to restore rivers and repopulate vanished fish to damaged watersheds. He highlights the effects of the “shifting baseline”, the idea that our baseline for a situation or condition is built upon what we know in our experience, regardless of what the condition was in our parents’ or grandparents’ time.
Indigenous histories remember a time when North America’s forests, rivers, and grasslands were carefully managed to support the humans who harvested from them and the biodiversity that made them resilient. Now, Indigenous groups are using that knowledge of their ancestral homelands to preserve and renew that health and resilience in the face of climate change.
The Ancient Forest Alliance has used before-and-after photography to raise awareness about the disappearance of old-growth forests in British Columbia, Canada. Remembering these beautiful trees in the face of clear-cuts raises questions about the place of this kind of logging in a world headed for climate disaster.
An Australian website deliberately invokes nostalgia to emphasize how the climate has changed over the reader’s lifetime. It contrasts Australian weather patterns in previous decades with those currently occurring and those projected to happen in the next century if carbon dioxide emissions are not decreased.
Animal documentaries, such as the popular ones narrated by Sir David Attenborough, are beginning to have a shift in perspective. Where previous documentaries have portrayed wild untouched lands and deliberately excluded signs of humans, recent films have included the effects that modern exploitation has had on wildlife and the disastrous results of climate change and habitat destruction.
At the first hint of spring in the city, when the snow has melted and the wind turns warm, I can smell the dirt again. It's faint from little patches around trees on the sidewalk and stronger from the campus lawns. And I feel the earth beginning to come alive, and it pulls me. The bulbs begin to sprout on neighboring lawns: crocuses, daffodils, hyacinths, tulips.
Last winter I bought strawberries from the grocery store, at the request of my partner. They were large and perfectly shaped and tasted mostly like water. I was instantly homesick for June in my mother's garden, carefully stepping through lush green leaves looking for sun-warmed strawberries, brushing off the dirt, and eating the tiny ones and the not-quite-ripe ones because each one was bursting with flavor.
Last winter I bought strawberries from the grocery store, at the request of my partner. They were large and perfectly shaped and tasted mostly like water.
I make the effort, these days, to go to the nearest farmer’s market on the weekends. The convenience of city living gives me access to any produce I want at any time of the year, but I still try to stick to the fruits and vegetables that are in season. I try my hand at preserving what produce I can in my tiny kitchen.
Why do I bother? We need dramatic changes at all levels to stop the climate crisis. There is something every individual can do to help solve the problem; everyone can be an effective messenger to those who trust them, and actions always speak larger than words. Personal lifestyle choices influence policymakers and decrease the amount of carbon dioxide you put into the atmosphere. Added together, the choices of a large group of people can translate to policies, laws, and corporate change to improve our lives at the local, national, and international levels.
Nostalgia can be a driving force. Did you grow up in a small town or a close-knit neighborhood and miss that sense of community? Reach out to your current neighbors, especially those different from you, or join a volunteering project like your local Waterkeeper group (you can even start a chapter if your local rivershed is unprotected!) Does your favorite green space look old and bedraggled from the effects of pollution? Do a garbage pick-up or plant flowers that will attract pollinators.
And when I dig into my locally-sourced potatoes, I can’t help but think that Carl Sagan was right. You do have to know the past to understand the present.
So, why do I bother? Because I value my roots and the lessons they've given me. Because when I freeze produce in the summer, I can make stew in February and it tastes like home. Because when asparagus and spring greens sprout in April, the market vendors are just as excited as I am. I can get food from regenerative agriculture, and be part of a community that supports local small businesses.
Because I don't have a lot of money, but I have enough to buy carrots from the woman who always smiles and throws in an extra one. Because I don't have a lot of time, but I have enough to grow herbs and to make applesauce the way my mother does.
And when I dig into my locally-sourced potatoes, I can’t help but think that Carl Sagan was right. You do have to know the past to understand the present. Our nostalgia must be thoughtful, knowing that it was the mistakes of the past that have produced our current problems. And like seeds in the ground, the actions we take now affect what will bloom in the future. We must plant solutions, communities, compassion, and patience. They will produce good fruits for us and harvests for generations to come.