Easter is this coming weekend. Growing up, Easter stands out in my memory not just for the egg hunts and pastel colors but also for the weather.

I remember being a little kid and my mom wanting to dress me and my siblings up for church in our cute Easter outfits. These outfits were intended to look springy, but I was always cold in them when I went outside. Spring might have officially been on its way, but it was still kind of cold outside.

I have similar memories of Halloween. It seems like Halloween was usually the first night of the fall when it really started to get cold in Georgia. As a kid, my friends and I would walk the neighborhood, trick-or-treating, all the while freezing our asses off in our thin, polyester costumes.

But it hasn’t been that way for at least a few years now. It doesn’t start getting chilly in the fall here until well into November, and spring started earlier this year than I can ever remember.

We’ve gotten to the point where climate change is now undeniable for many people simply because they can actually perceive the climate changing. Whether or not they properly attribute the “why” of the climate changing is another question, but it seems like there’s certainly been a major shift in the narrative around climate change, at least in that sense, in the past few years.

And while my mind still isn’t made up as to whether that’s a good or a bad thing, I am also perceiving the changes, and it’s causing me to have strange new emotions that I don’t know how to process.

That funny feeling

I came across the word “solastalgia” a few years ago when I was still making my podcast, Stories for Earth. It’s a relatively new word that sounds like something from The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, but—while I suppose it would fit right in there—that’s not where it comes from.

Solastalgia is the specific type of sadness you feel at seeing your environment or home degraded. It’s a word that was born from a desire to offer sorely needed new language to capture the complex feelings people have about climate change and ecological destruction in general.

To describe it just as a kind of sadness or melancholy would be insufficient; the connotation of solastalgia is that of uneasiness. It’s a feeling in your bones that something is deeply wrong, and it’s closely tied to climate anxiety.

If you saw the (for me) pandemic-defining Bo Burnham Netflix special Inside, you heard a reference to it in one of the last songs, “That Funny Feeling.” (Phoebe Bridgers also released a great cover of it.) The song is kind of about everything, but there are a few lines in the third verse that stuck with me because they immediately made me think of solastalgia:

Total disassociation, fully out your mind

Googling “derealization,” hating what you find

That unapparent summer air in early fall

The quiet comprehending of the ending of it all

(If you haven’t seen Inside yet, make sure you’re in a good headspace before you sit down to watch it. It’s fantastic and hilarious, but it is also very, uh, real.)

I’ve been having lots of feelings of solastalgia lately with the extremely unusual early spring this year. (Thanks for nothing, Punxsutawney Phil.) If you’re a sensitive person, maybe you’ve been feeling this way too.

Pair that with the head-spinning cognitive dissonance that comes with hearing people talk about how nice it feels outside, and you’ve got a recipe for some really weird, squirmy feelings. No, it does not feel “nice” outside, I want to tell people. It should not be 75º in February—that’s fucked up!

A home you can’t return to

The etymology of solastalgia comes in part from the word “nostalgia,” which, of course, is that sort of sad, sort of comforting feeling you get from revisiting something very familiar to you, be it a place, movie, song, smell, person, etc. I think the “sola-” part of the word comes from “solace,” which is taking comfort in something in spite of a bad situation.

I’ve heard some people saying recently that Gen Z is the “nostalgia generation,” I guess because things are pretty shit right now and it’s comforting to indulge in old things or things from your childhood that bring you comfort. But unlike nostalgia, solastalgia isn’t comforting.

The bittersweetness of nostalgia stems from knowing that you can’t ever return to the way things were before, but you can still sit with artifacts of fond memories that take you back—seeing your favorite cousin for the first time in years, hearing a song that helped get you through high school, the smell of your grandparents’ home. It’s sweet because you still have a piece of it as a reminder, but it’s bitter because you can’t have the whole thing.

Solastalgia, to me, is a twist on this phenomenon. You can’t ever return to the way things were before, and the artifacts of fond memories you had are disappearing. That’s why the feeling is associated with anxiety, grief, disorientation—you have an urge or desire to revisit a fond memory or place, but you can’t. It’s the frustration of a strong emotion, bottled up with no where to go.

I feel this in certain ways:

  • When I take a road trip and there are no splattered bugs glued to the grill of my car
  • When stores start putting out Christmas displays in the fall but it’s 80º outside
  • When it’s February but the dogwood trees are blooming
  • When I no longer see fireflies blinking on and off in a summer field at twilight
  • When I notice the absence of a whip-poor-will call I remember hearing regularly at evening as a child
  • When I hear that peach farmers in South Georgia are having to pivot to growing citrus fruits because the winters are getting too warm to grow peaches

Of course, it’s worth noting that people like me starting to experience this feeling is a product of privilege, like so many other unpleasant experiences. Black and indigenous people are all too familiar with these kinds of feelings and many more that I can’t begin to comprehend.

Yes, it still sucks, but that can’t be where I let my relationship with the feeling end. Solastalgia demands action. It’s an alarm bell sounding from some of the oldest parts of our brains telling us, “Turn around! Danger ahead!”

Putting down roots

In 2022, I read Jenny Odell’s masterful book How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy. It’s hard to pinpoint one particular thing you could say this book is “about”—it’s about late-stage capitalism, technocratic panopticons, climate change, Bartleby the Scrivener, Thomas Merton, the Hippie movement, federated social media platforms, the age of polycrisis, and generally feeling like a meaningless slug trying to work through all of it.

If you haven’t read this book, do yourself a favor and check it out.

I resonated with a lot of this book, but one thing that really stuck with me was Odell’s emphasis on bioregionalism. Maybe it’s a fancy-sounding word, but bioregionalism is what it sounds like—forming a deep and intimate relationship with the bioregion you live in.

Rather than nationalism or patriotism, which compel people to forge culture at least in part through dedication to a nation, political party, or country, bioregionalism compels us to forge culture in part through our relation to the land. Can you name the plants and animals you share your home with? Do you know when certain flowers bloom or how much it tends to rain at a given time of the year? Would you know if any part of this delicate and complex system became out of balance, unhealthy?

This is what bioregionalism is all about—paying attention. And when you think about it, it really seems silly to give something like this a name. After all, isn’t that how humans lived for most of history? In fact, it probably wasn’t until very recently—say, the past hundred or so years—that humans stopped living like this, at least in many so-called developed countries.

In a North American context, the Indigenous scientist and writer Robin Wall Kimmerer wrote in her excellent book Braiding Sweetgrass:

After all these generations since Columbus, some of the wisest of Native elders still puzzle over the people who came to our shores. They look at the toll on the land and say, “The problem with these new people is that they don’t have both feet on the shore. One is still on the boat. They don’t seem to know whether they’re staying or not.”

Kimmerer urges North Americans of European descent or otherwise to unlearn the colonist mindset and to embrace an indigenous mindset. For a country like the United States, which prides itself on being a nation of immigrants, this doesn’t mean appropriating Native American cultures—rather, Kimmerer means people need to learn how to become indigenous to a place in their own way.

This is worthwhile for many reasons, but I bring it up here as a suggested response to solastalgia. It may seem counterintuitive considering that some of the people most prone to feelings of solastalgia are those who already feel more connected to the land, but I think one of the ways to work through this feeling of extreme uneasiness and disorientation is to renew one’s commitment to living in close relationship with the land.

Pay attention to it. Learn about it like you would a loved one. Fall in love with it.

Near the end of Greta Gerwig’s 2017 film Lady Bird, a conversation between Lady Bird and a nun at her Catholic high school goes like this:

The nun: “You clearly love Sacramento.”

Lady Bird: “I do?”

The nun: “You write about Sacramento so affectionately, and with such care.”

Lady Bird: “Well, I was just describing it.”

The nun: “Well, it comes across as love.”

Lady Bird: “Sure. I guess I pay attention.”

The nun: “Don’t you think maybe they are the same thing—love and attention?”

If nothing else, we might be here to bear witness. Yes, it is painful. Yes, it is heartbreaking. But if we are ever to do anything meaningful about it, we must first learn to love intensely. Has anything ever forged a stronger bond?