Ideas that Stay


I recently read a few pieces with ideas that will stay with me. The first two aren’t easy to read. In fact, they’re pretty devastating, and they’re written by two of the finest writers of today. Ta-Nehisi Coates has an extremely long piece (think novella) tracing the history of black families, poverty, and incarceration. It’s worth the time. Helen’s piece is much shorter, and it’s about the environmental change that we can witness within our lifetimes.

The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration by Ta-Nehisi Coates

A serious reformation of our carceral policy—one seeking a smaller prison population, and a prison population that looks more like America—cannot concern itself merely with sentencing reform, cannot pretend as though the past 50 years of criminal-justice policy did not do real damage…. One class of people suffers deprivation at levels above and beyond the rest of the country—the same group that so disproportionately fills our jails and prisons. To pull too energetically on one thread is to tug at the entire tapestry.

Dead Forests and Living Memories by Helen MacDonald

Increasingly, knowing your surroundings, recognizing the species of animals and plants around you, means opening yourself to constant grief. Virulent tree diseases hit the headlines, but smaller, less visible disappearances happen all the time.

In her essay, Helen mentions a concept called solastalgia, which I thought was evocative. Here’s a piece by the person who coined the term, going into some depth about it.

The age of solastagia by Glenn Albrecht

Solastalgia, simply put, is “the homesickness you have when you are still at home”.

And along with that, I read a little bit about nostalgia and the history of the term, which is quite fascinating. In the late 17th and early 18th century, it was thought to be an actual medical ailment, a contagious disease.

When Nostalgia Was a Disease by Julie Beck

Swiss physician Johannes Hofer coined the term in his 1688 medical dissertation, from the Greek nostos, or homecoming, and algos, or pain. The disease was similar to paranoia, except the sufferer was manic with longing, not perceived persecution, and similar to melancholy, except specific to an object or place.

Though Hofer is credited with naming nostalgia, it existed prior to that. During the Thirty Years War, at least six soldiers were discharged from the Spanish Army of Flanders with el mal de corazón. The disease came to be associated with soldiers, particularly Swiss soldiers, who were reportedly so susceptible to nostalgia when they heard a particular Swiss milking song, Khue-Reyen, that its playing was punishable by death.

Currently, I’m reading Wilderness and the American Mind by Roderick Nash, which thus far is presenting a fascinating history of American conceptions of wilderness, beginning with etymology (“wild” is a contraction of “willed”, so wilderness is “willful” land). Although Helen’s piece is heartbreaking — thinking of the biodiversity we’re losing every day — I am glad (once again) to live now and not, say, 200 years ago, when nature was still seen as an adversary and dominion as a goal. (In the West, that is, which is where I grew up and my main frame of reference.)

What have you read recently that will stay with you?

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