Language, Nature and the Great Remembering

Language, Nature and the Great Remembering
Published: Apr 27, 2019
Having spent her life in a small rural area now challenged by encroaching suburban sprawl, the author asks what it takes to protect the heritage of the land she loves — and how to deal with a recent bout of 'solastalgia.' One answer, she discovers, is in words that express how our imaginations 'get' various sorts of perceived magic in our natural surroundings.

A river runs through the Caledon Hills, hopefully for a long time. [o]

BELFOUNTAIN, ONTARIO — I had fun at my mum’s funeral. She was 94 when she died last July as the result of a fall. Known to her friends as Do or Dodie, she was a kook in all the best senses of the word, so we celebrated her craziness as we buried her in the cemetery next to the big old red-brick St. Cornelius Catholic Church. It’s perched up high on the First Line East, overlooking the massive humpbacked drumlin in the Forks of the Credit. Now both my mum and dad have one of the best views in all of Caledon, a beautiful rural area outside Toronto where I’ve lived for most of my life.

Soon the last of my mum’s long time friends who live nearby will die too. That will leave me and my generation to do the remembering.

When I refer to the Fifth Line or Five Sideroad, most people give me a blank stare. Their memories don’t date back to the time before Bob (I forget his last name) stripped the lines and sideroads of their numbers. He exchanged them for names that occasionally recognize the very speculators (let’s call them what they really are.) who have systematically been buying up Caledon’s prime agricultural land to reap the economic rewards that will follow their stripping the topsoil and dividing some of the finest farmland in Canada into postage-stamp-sized building lots.

I’m not sure whether he issued his projection as a warning or with a how-exciting-is-that! tone to his voice.

The ongoing transformation of my hometown makes me solastalgic, and I’m glad my mum is no longer around to witness to it. Solastalgia is a term coined by Glenn Albrecht, an Australian academic. He defines it as the distress that results when people are subject to environmental change in the place they currently call home. Albrecht makes the point that solastalgia differs from the more familiar “nostalgia,” which implies melancholy for where one used to live.

Not all of the changes that have taken place over the last half-century in Caledon are bad: I like meeting friends and enjoying a latte in Belfountain’s Higher Ground Coffee Co. or picking up a thin-crust pizza at Spirit Tree Estate Cidery. And it’s really nice that there’s a liquor store in Caledon East. My dad had to buy his spirits where he worked, about 50 kilometres away.

But I’m not deaf to the stream of commuter traffic that roars down our rural roads with no concept of sharing the space with pedestrians, equestrians, dogs or wildlife. I feel the relentless pressure of row upon row of cookie-cutter houses as subdivisions creep ever closer to Caledon’s rolling hills and forested river valleys. 

So what of Caledon’s future? Where are we headed? Is there relief in store for my solastalgia?

A fertile vision of suburban bliss includes essential lawn foods (1958). [o]  

Nick McDonald is the President of a planning company based not far from Caledon, though it’s unlikely he had set foot here before being hired to study the community’s population trends. At a town-hall meeting, he advised that because of rapid growth in the Greater Toronto Area, Caledon should prepare for a ten-fold increase in its population to 500,000 residents from its current 60,000. Since I was unable to attend the meeting, I’m not sure whether he issued his projection as a warning or with a how-exciting-is-that! tone to his voice. But I fear the cautionary addendum that capped off his pronouncement. He said, “We should keep in mind how much can be physically accommodated here [in Caledon].” I don’t think he was worried about having enough space for deer and foxes, fields, forests and open vistas such as the one my mum now enjoys. In other words, I doubt his concern was for nature. Maybe he’s never walked along a quiet country lane or spied white-tailed deer, ears twitching, in spring when the young buds on the maple trees give the forest a soft green hue. It’s possible that McDonald doesn’t know what a fen is, or that endangered Jefferson salamanders live in vernal ponds, or what binder twine is used for. And I’d bet he has no idea Winston Churchill Boulevard used to be the Sixth Line West where I grew up.

Consider his language: “We should keep in mind how much can be physically accommodated here.” McDonald makes it sound as if he’s referring to the square footage of a warehouse as opposed to the soaring cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, the kames and kettles of the Oak Ridges Moraine, the flat agriculturally rich Peel Plain, and Caledon’s plethora of villages — a handful of which have not yet been flattened, widened, stripped of their trees and now need speed bumps to calm the unimpeded stream of commuters who live in or pass through Caledon en route to offices and factories in neighbouring urban areas, including Toronto. McDonald doesn’t ask “how many,” but “how much.” Does he mean how much humanity can we cram into Caledon before it overflows our borders and slithers into adjacent municipalities?

George Monbiot, the author of Heat, a best-selling book about climate change, disparages the state of our language about conservation. In his opinion, the word “environment” is especially problematic. Monbiot writes, “ ‘Environment’ is a term that creates no pictures in the mind.” For this reason, he prefers the more vivid “natural world” and “living-planet.” I concur with him and have long resisted calling myself an “environmentalist.” Personally, I like the term “natural landscape,” though I recognize that referring to myself as a “naturalist” may be misinterpreted.

"Forty percent of British youth used to play regularly in “wild places” — only 10 percent do so today." Intertwined roads by Hubert Blanz. [o]

Some argue the term “conservation” is problematic. The objective of “conservatism” is to conserve, to stick with the status quo, which is often not what people who revere a given natural landscape want. While the status quo in Caledon seems better then what’s in store, my goal runs more toward Robert Macfarlane’s definition of nostalgia. The author of the 2015 bestseller Landmarks, he takes the idea a step farther than Albrecht. Macfarlane says that if one is nostalgic, he or she “laments the prevailing state of things and agitates for change.” While I suffer from solastalgia, my longings for Caledon are shaped by nostalgia too. I lament chlorinated drinking water and agitate for more nature and fewer cul-de-sacs.

With publication of A Once and Future Land, the follow up to The 100-Mile Diet, J.B. MacKinnon has emerged as one of this country’s great nature writers. He dwells upon the need for memory if we are to protect nature. Harper’s Magazine quoted MacKinnon: “If you know that whales belong to Vancouver’s past, then it becomes possible to imagine their presence in the future. If you aren’t aware of that history, then the absence of whales will seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact.”

The word èit refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn.”

And therein lies the risk in Caledon. With more than half the municipality’s population of 60,000 already living in places that look a lot like neighbouring Brampton, a sprawling, seemingly heartless urban area, our collective memory as well as our language is already tending toward suburban. Crescents and ubiquitous Tim Horton coffee shops “seem perfectly normal — natural, in fact” when “nature” consists of a dandelion-free, fenced-in bit of mown grass.

Children and youth whose main form of entertainment involves a cellphone may soon become part of a startling statistic regarding British children. Whereas, a generation ago, according to research undertaken for Natural England, 40 percent of British youth played regularly in “wild places,” only 10 percent do so today. And whereas 16 percent of children a generation ago preferred to play indoors, some 41 percent now opt for this alternative as a child’s bedroom is no longer where he or she is sent to be punished, but is, instead, an entertainment centre.

"I don’t think he was worried about having enough space for deer and foxes, fields, forests. . ." or reptiles who dwell there, like the Eastern newt. Photo by Tony Paine [o].

Couldn’t happen in Canada you say? Maybe not. After all, Canada abounds in wilderness. Our country comprises unbroken stretches of trees so vast they’d be impossible to imagine for the average Brit who seldom escapes Birmingham or Sheffield. In Canada, we have lakes and rivers and mountains as well as the longest coastline in the world, one-fifth of the world’s fresh water and wildlife that eat people. But the truth is that though Canadians may identify with this wilderness, they seldom walk in or explore it. Many admit to being afraid of nature. I wonder: How can you know Caledon if you have never explored the massive moss-covered limestone boulders adorned with rare walking ferns as you hike to the legendary Devil’s Pulpit, or if you have not looked out from atop the Oak Ridges Moraine as a red fox steals its cautious way over the hummocky terrain, or cooled your weary feet in the area’s Humber and Credit rivers?

In Landscapes, Macfarlane admires the Gaels for the localized and eloquent terms they use to describe their landscape. When given a copy of Some Lewis Moorland Terms: A Peat Glossary, Macfarlane learned of some 120 terms used specifically for the Lewis Moorland, including rionnach maoim, which means “the shadows cast on the moorland by clouds moving across the sky on a bright and windy day,” èit, which refers to “the practice of placing quartz stones in streams so that they sparkle in moonlight and thereby attract salmon to them in the late summer and autumn,” and teine biorach, which is “the flame or will-o’-the-wisp that runs on top of heather when the moor burns during the summer.”

English has a tough time competing with Gaelic for its poetic rhythm, but that shouldn’t stop us from developing our own versions of rionnach maoim, èit and teine biorach. After all, the Isle of Lewis is part of Scotland and “Caledon” is an endearing name from the northern wilds of the British Isle.

The Cheltenham Badlands are a distinctive feature of the Caledon Hills. [o]

How about “sapat,” which I suggest is the final drip of lightly yellow maple sap that freezes overnight at the end of a metal tap; or “releaf,” the act of removing the leaf through which a spring ephemeral flower such as a trout lily or bloodroot has grown such that its leaves are restricted and unable to unfurl; or “webtears,” the phenomenon seen on autumn mornings when the sun reflects the dew on the spider webs that have been woven overnight in a field of Queen Anne’s Lace or goldenrod; or “clisp,” the delicate layer of opaque, sometimes patterned ice that caps small potholes in your driveway after its been broken by the family car to expose open water that then freezes overnight.

In The Guardian, Macfarlane wrote, “The natural world becomes far more easily disposable if it is not imaginatively known, and a failure to include it in a literary regard can slide easily into a failure to include it in a moral regard.” This idea — that we need language and imagination and stories if we are to protect what we love — is expressed in more practical terms by the American farmer and essayist Wendell Berry. “To defend what we love,” he wrote, “we need a particularizing language, for we love what we particularly know.”

Creating our own glossary of terms — our own particularizing language — may not be enough to save Caledon from the combined forces that have resulted in my case of solastalgia. But it would be a start as my generation loses our parents and their memory of how things once were. ≈ç



NICOLA ROSS is a biologist and author currently fulfilling her dream of being a literary adventure travel writer, while also publishing her series, Loops & Lattes Hiking Guides. She is the author of seven books; her articles have been published in, among many others, The Walrus, Globe and Mail, explore, Mountain Life.


This article was first published in The Journal of Wild Culture on September 17, 2017.




Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Nicola. I was wondering what you think people living in increasingly overcrowded cities should do? I ask this not to try to catch you out, but as a genuine request for advice. I am an "average Brit who seldom escapes Birmingham", the city where I live in a cramped houseshare not far from the inner ring road. I have been considering moving to a more rural location where I could afford to rent my own place, and where the improved air quality would likely add years to my life. At the same time, I don't want to be the cause of someone else's solastalgia, nor do I want to destroy a beautiful thing through the using of it. What do you think I should do?

Tue, 10/03/2017 - 16:52

I think where and how we live is as much a function of our attitude as our location. There is plenty of beauty in the vast majority of towns and cities. You can look for it in your community or the park you frequent, and you can also create it in your own space. I suppose the problem for me is the change that has taken place; it’s the imposition of urban values.

Years ago, I read a great piece in an American magazine called the Utne Reader. It talked about what a community needs to be tribal. Things like a great meeting place. Some green space where you can breathe, etc. We can’t all live in a rural environment as I do and, frankly, most people would hate living out here in 'the sticks' as we often call rural areas in Canada. There are no services, no buzz and you need a car to get anywhere. You have to commute to work.

So, make a point to get out of town regularly or walk in a park. Join a hiking group or go on historical tours. Find the quirky places in your community that will make it feel like home.

Go regularly to your local coffee shop and know the serving staff by their first names. Get to recognize other regular patrons. Make your home home. Wave at folks you recognize when they drive by. Visit your neighbours.

And if that doesn’t work, or doesn’t appeal, then move to a village rather than a suburb.

Nicola Ross
Thu, 10/05/2017 - 12:36

Thanks for sharing your perspective Nicola! I don't doubt that it is possible to live well in cities if you can afford to (ok, if you don't mind breathing toxic air). And for years I believed that the lack of space, quiet, and calm that comes with housesharing could be made less stressful if only I just changed my attitude... But I imagine that for most people it's economics that is driving them to colonise formerly rural places within commuting distance of big cities. Or more specifically, who has money and who hasn't.

Sun, 10/08/2017 - 12:12

This is an interesting article that lightly brushes on an even more interesting topic: the relationship between language and perception. Native American languages are very different, grammatically, from English. It's been many years since I studied the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, but that would be a good place to start. Inventing words in English to describe the heart-felt concerns of the author won't work, unfortunately. The problem is far more difficult than that. A serious study of our economic system is part of the solution. There is a reason that Native American economies are based in community and that their languages are mirrors of their economies. Marx wrote copiously about what he termed the 'base' and the 'superstructure'. He was right.

Wed, 07/11/2018 - 15:29

Submitted by Cynthia Pappas (not verified) on Thu, 11/15/2018 - 11:55


Beautifully written. The author clearly knows, in the deepest sense of the word, this place she calls 'home'. I love the Wendell Berry quote, and the idea of particularizing a language of place. Thank you.

Cynthia Pappas
Thu, 11/15/2018 - 11:55

Submitted by Kim Meismer (not verified) on Thu, 11/15/2018 - 17:10


I live in Montana where we, too, suffer from solastalgia. My town is quickly rushing in to becoming a city, and it frightens and enrages me all at the same time. I empathize with the author. The most appealing part of this piece is the lighthearted acknowledgement of the serious issue of overpopulation in the world. She emphasizes the fact that the previous generation is dying off, which opens an opportunity for the normalization of crowded human populations. This is dangerous, as it allows for the subtle neglect and disappearance of nature. I enjoyed reading this piece.

Kim Meismer
Thu, 11/15/2018 - 17:10

Submitted by Jean Lukesh (not verified) on Fri, 11/16/2018 - 14:08


I was inspired by your opening line about having fun at your mother's funeral. That reminds me so much of my mother's funeral visitation celebration (something I intend to write more about). My mom was a wonderful woman with a great sense of humor...until Alzheimer's robbed her of it during her last dozen years. Ironically, that very personal human/physical (and memory) loss makes a good starting point and analogy to the loss of place as neighborhoods, communities, environments and so on are changed or ravaged by various factors — and sometimes by people who do not understand the core situation. Solastalgia indeed! I have a new word (actually several new words after reading your essay). I like the use of new and local words used in your essay and found your explanation of yours fascinating. Thank you so much for sharing!

Jean Lukesh
Fri, 11/16/2018 - 14:08

Submitted by Sandra Earl (not verified) on Fri, 11/16/2018 - 18:56


Three parts of this writing resonated. The first paragraph, describing the memorial for an older woman by her daughter, sets a tone that acknowledges a breadth of time that carries with it memory. I wonder sometimes though whether using our elders as "keepers" holds true anymore — at least for a society where many thoughts and customs have been lost and many never be retrieved. The second was the questioning of the use of language, and how it impacts on enlarging or diminishing our capacity to be lured in and engaged. Third, the connection between the imaginative quality that enlarges our compass of the world in which we live, and as a result, how that quality can amplify the moral questions that emerge from such an exploration.

Sandra Earl
Fri, 11/16/2018 - 18:56

Submitted by Gwen Gino (not verified) on Fri, 11/16/2018 - 20:53


Solastalgia is what I'm suffering from and didn't know 'til I read this evocative essay. I am reminded of the prairies I played in as a child, the trees I climbed, the rocks I overturned. I feel such sadness for today's child, alone in her room with a phone.

Gwen Gino
Fri, 11/16/2018 - 20:53

As a child, I experienced a sense of displacement when my family moved from a urban village to an industrial suburb. From playing outdoors catching shrimps behind the rocks in the stream which flowed from the tin mine, I read piles of Enid Blyton’s on the couch in our fourth floor flat’s living room.
And now, 50 years later, my granddaughter who lives in a railroad apartment on Manhattan’s UES only gets to pick acorns from fenced-in trees on the sidewalks and admires flowers which grow around their roots.

Noor Badarudin
Sat, 11/17/2018 - 21:24

Submitted by Liv (not verified) on Sat, 11/17/2018 - 20:28


It took me a long time to realize that not everyone thinks as this author and I do. When I was younger, I thought that each person needed nature to feel alive and whole, and understood that consumerism would last only so long before all that was priceless was gone and we would be left with deserts and ugly buildings as monuments to a once great planet. But for some reason most believe that what is is forever, and cannot fathom one hundred to two hundred years from now. I watch as those around me throw things away, as if it would go into a black hole, never to effect themselves or the earth. And I can only pray that there is a movement that accomplishes this, a pendulum that swings so far and wide that an essay like this becomes mainstream — rather than placed in a little wisp of a website lost within sub-culture.

Sat, 11/17/2018 - 20:28

Submitted by Glen Harris Miller (not verified) on Sun, 11/18/2018 - 01:41


I really enjoyed this story and was surprised to hear that Canada's wildlife was also being moved unwillingly from natural habitats so that new subdivisions can overrun beautiful places.

Glen Harris Miller
Sun, 11/18/2018 - 01:41

Submitted by Sarah Larson (not verified) on Mon, 11/19/2018 - 16:50


Exactly. For me this well written essay sparks a question. With whom does the responsibility for teaching newcomers to a place the language of that place; that is, the language that is indigenous to its prioritized culture and built on preserving the nature of a place?

Sarah Larson
Mon, 11/19/2018 - 16:50

Submitted by Debra L Fein (not verified) on Tue, 11/20/2018 - 21:27


I like the way this is presented. It's human and relatable, not some dull diatribe about the natural environment. Thank you for that.

Debra L Fein
Tue, 11/20/2018 - 21:27

Submitted by Ray Zimmerman (not verified) on Wed, 11/21/2018 - 21:37


"The Universe is made of Stories, not Atoms," so said Muriel Ruckeyser in her poem "The Speed of Darkness." I would hope that we also discover that the landscape has value beyond the cash value placed on it as real estate. You describe a lovely natural area.

Ray Zimmerman
Wed, 11/21/2018 - 21:37

Submitted by AJP (not verified) on Mon, 11/26/2018 - 00:09


If the author is feeling "solastalgic" for a suburban community she grew up in just a few decades ago, I wonder how "solastalgic" the First Nations people who lived on the land felt when they were pushed out and the first roads, quaintly named with numbers, were laid down across their land.

Mon, 11/26/2018 - 00:09

Submitted by Glen Harris Miller (not verified) on Thu, 11/29/2018 - 16:48


I read this story twice. I feel the author's loss of her mom and the loss of surrounds that are so familiar. This is a good argument for how change is good for some, but bad for others.

Glen Harris Miller
Thu, 11/29/2018 - 16:48

Submitted by Marina Marinopoulos (not verified) on Fri, 11/30/2018 - 09:29


Fantastic first line, Nicola! That’s what I’d like too, for my funeral. I also really enjoyed the definition of sostalgia, a word I didn’t know. As I did the rest of the article. Thanks.

Marina Marinopoulos
Fri, 11/30/2018 - 09:29

Submitted by Eithne O Halloran (not verified) on Sun, 12/09/2018 - 06:02


I love this essay and I really sympathise with the author's plight. She has identified that lack of connect that even people who live in rural areas now have with the natural world. People don't seem to realise that the roads, power lines, concrete sidewalks, houses, apartment blocks and so on weren't always here. People are under the illusion that the natural world existed millennia ago, or in places far away, that are of interest only to adventurers and 'environmentalists'. I love this writer's eye for the ordinary beauty in nature; she has managed in an increasingly urbanised world to keep her connection with foxes and leaf buds and puddles — the ordinary magic that has been lost by so many. I look forward to cracking the first 'clisps' this winter.

Eithne O Halloran
Sun, 12/09/2018 - 06:02

Submitted by Julie A Kortidis (not verified) on Tue, 12/11/2018 - 09:20


I enjoyed learning new words in this essay. However, a thought that continued to haunt me while reading it was this: "And whereas 16 percent of children a generation ago preferred to play indoors, some 41 percent now opt for this alternative, as a child’s bedroom is no longer where he or she is sent to be punished, but is, instead, an entertainment centre." While I agree that this statement reflects the current state of affairs, I am old enough to remember when this was not the case and what precipitated the change: when it became unsafe to allow children to play outside, not unsafe because of the natural world but rather by child-kidnappers and sexual predators. Children began to disappear from the sidewalks and yards. Children used to walk home from school, whereas today it is a rarity – they ride the bus, get picked up by a car, or are left at school-care until the parent picks them up. This did not begin because children wanted to play inside, rather it was unsafe for them to be available for a stranger to pick up.

Julie A Kortidis
Tue, 12/11/2018 - 09:20

Submitted by Aman Mama (not verified) on Sun, 12/23/2018 - 16:32


Reminds me of my childhood and where I grew up, a rural mountainous densely forested part of Southeastern Oromia, in Ethiopia. Nice to read about Caledon and Ontario for people who don’t know much about Canada. Thanks, Nicola!

Aman Mama
Sun, 12/23/2018 - 16:32

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