Sliding Along the Nostalgia Continuum

This 5TF is thinking about: protecting Indigenous medicine, repatriating trees, hermit crab societies, nostalgia for nostalgia, and what it means to trust.

Sliding Along the Nostalgia Continuum
Photo by Volodymyr Hryshchenko / Unsplash
Welcome to this week’s edition of 5 Things Friday, a weekly roundup of random interesting things culled from the internet and my brain.

This week, I present to you…

5/ These ways to change your mind.

Last week I shared a piece called "Mental Illness is Not in Your Head," by Marco Ramos, in which Ramos critiques two books on the history of psychiatry, claiming that these books “reveal that U.S. psychiatry, across its history, has been dangerously susceptible to hype and ‘cool,’ ranging from enthusiasm for brain dissection in the 1890s to the fanfare surrounding neurotransmitters and genetics a century later.” In the article, he expresses skepticism over “the undulating history of psychiatric hype and crisis” and cautions us against the next trendy wave: psychedelics.

Unlike Ramos, I am genuinely excited about psychedelics’ ability to heal, but I do share his side-eye for exploitation and appropriation. As he tells us, “Companies are already using similar tactics to isolate patentable compounds from psychoactive botanicals that Indigenous communities have used for centuries, raising ethical concerns about how the burgeoning psychedelic industry perpetuates Euro-American exploitation of Indigenous knowledge, plants, and land in settler colonies.”

A recent Netflix documentary called How to Change Your Mind has confirmed both my excitement and my skepticism.

The documentary is based on a book of the same name, and follows the author Michael Pollan’s explorations of four mind-expanding substances, and their possible uses in conjunction with psychotherapy: LSD, Psilocybin (found in mushrooms), MDMA, and Mescaline (found in peyote).

While I appreciated the context Pollan provides on all these medicines, and while I loved hearing the stories of people whose lives have been changed by them, I was disappointed with, among other things, his treatment of the history of psilocybin: he glosses over the fate of María Sabina, a famous curandera from an Indigenous village in Mexico who, in 1955, was badgered by a rich white man (R. Gordon Wasson, a J.P. Morgan Banker and amateur mycologist) to introduce him to the mushrooms she used in sacred Mazatec rituals. This opened the floodgates to her hometown and led to it being overrun with white hippies.

image credit: Netflix

Her great-grandson explains: De acabo ellos llegaban más y más, porque querí medicína. Pero ellos no lo respetaron. “All of a sudden more and more of them were arriving, because they wanted the medicine. But they didn’t respect it.”

image credit: Netflix

Her own people then turned against María Sabina, blaming her for what happened—for the profound effects on their town. As Pollan narrates, they “burned her house down, her family was subjected to violence. And she died destitute.”

image credit: Netflix

“She suffered tremendously as a result of introducing the world to the magic mushroom,” he says, as if this was some sort of willing sacrifice for the greater good. “But her legacy would live on.” He moves into a segment with Paul Stamets, a middle-aged white man and one of the most famous advocates for mushrooms today. Ironically, Stamets later says in the segment, he found out in the 70’s that these exotic mushrooms that could supposedly only be obtained by overrunning a remote Indigenous village in Mexico…were growing everywhere. You “could literally go into your backyard,” he says. “It was a big revelation that these magic mushrooms grow all around us.”

Pollan frames María Sabina’s story like this: “The story of how mushrooms were rediscovered in the West of the amazing stories in the history of psychedelics.” I would say that it’s a tragedy. Pollan approaches this medicine with a distinctly Western point of view, researching the tragic history of it, considering the degradation of a Indigenous village and religion to be a necessary step to its introduction to Western society, and considering it legitimate once synthesized, tested, and used in clinical settings by Western professionals.

The first three episodes of the documentary—on LSD, psilocybin, and MDMA—are adapted from Pollan’s book, while the last episode, on peyote, is a new addition. I braced myself for this last episode and was pleasantly surprised when he interviewed Indigenous people for it, prodded and questioned the ethics of using their medicine, and actually came away with the conclusion that he, as white person, should not use peyote, a sacred plant that takes 15 years to grow, and whose narrow strip of native land, stretching from the US to Mexico, is in danger of being poached.

I had a feeling that Pollan’s book was written before 2020 (pre-White Guilt Summer, as I sometimes call it), and that the peyote chapter was filmed afterwards. Sure enough, the book was published in 2018 and the documentary came out in 2022, just a few weeks ago. It shows in the treatment of peyote versus the treatment of sacred mushrooms.

That said, if you are interested in these topics, I still think that this documentary is a good watch. This doc wants us to expand our minds, and I just hope we are all able to expand beyond the confines of white Western psychiatric capitalism, too.

4/ This endeavor to “repatriate” trees.

Meet Diana Beresford-Kroeger, a “scientist raised in the ways of druids by Celtic medicine women” who writes about “the wondrous capabilities of trees” and who “has also cultivated an arboreal Noah’s Ark of rare and hardy specimens that can best withstand a warming planet.”

image credit: Nasuna Stuart-Ulin for The New York Times

This NYT profile describes her upbringing:

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger was orphaned at 12. Her father, an English aristocrat, died under mysterious circumstances, while her mother, who traced her lineage to ancient Irish kings, perished in a car crash. Dr. Beresford-Kroeger was taken in by a kindly if neglectful uncle in Cork, and spent her summers with Gaelic-speaking relatives in the countryside.

There, under the tutelage of a maternal grandaunt, she was taught ancient Irish ways of life known as the Brehon laws. She learned that in Druidic thinking, trees were viewed as sentient beings that connected the Earth to the heavens. She was also versed in the medicinal properties of local flora: Wildflowers that warded off nervousness and mental ailments, jelly from boiled seaweed that could treat tuberculosis, dew from shamrocks that Celtic women used for anti-aging.

As a university student a few years later, Dr. Beresford-Kroeger put those teachings to the scientific test and discovered with a start that they were true. The wildflowers were St. John’s Wort, which indeed had antidepressant capacities. The seaweed jelly had strong antibiotic properties. Shamrocks contained flavonoids that increased blood flow. This foundation of ancient Celtic teachings, classical botany and medical biochemistry set the course for Dr. Beresford-Kreoger’s life. The more she studied, the more she discovered that the symbiosis between plants and humans extended far beyond the life-giving oxygen they produced.

“Every unseen or unlikely connection between the natural world and human survival has assured me that we have very little grasp of all that we depend on for our lives,” she wrote in her most recent book, “To Speak for the Trees.” “When we cut down a forest, we only understand a small portion of what we’re choosing to destroy.”

Deforestation, she continued, was a suicidal, even homicidal, act.

Dr. Beresford-Kroeger now lives south of Ottawa, on a 160-acre parcel of land that she’s carefully cultivated:

Outside the house, her treasured trees grow, all climate-change resistant to varying degrees: the kingnut, a blue-needled fir and a rare variant of the bur oak. She began creating her arboretum after learning that many key tree species prized by First Nations people for medicines, salves, oils and food had been razed by colonizers centuries ago.

“These trees have fed the continent before in the past,” she said. “I want them available there for people in the future.”

Over the years, she painstakingly tracked down, across the continent and beyond, rare seeds and saplings native to Canada. “I thought, ‘Well I’m going to repatriate these trees,’” Dr. Beresford-Kroeger said. “I am going to bring them back to here, where I know they’re safe.”

She also knew if the “repatriated” plants and trees were shared far and wide, they’d no longer be lost. She and Christian began giving away native seeds and saplings to pretty much anyone who asked. Among the tens of thousands of recipients were local Hell’s Angels, who roared up to their doorstep to collect black walnut seedlings, wanting to grow the valuable trees on their property nearby. “I put them in the back of their motorbikes, their Harley-Davidsons,” she said. “I thought I’d die of a heart attack. But they were very nice to me.”

3/ This passionate rant on behalf of hermit crabs.

Did you know that hermit crabs, despite their name, are not loners, but rather have incredibly complex social structures?

Hermit crabs are usually considered disposable, simple, easy-to-care-for pets, meant for small children and elementary school classrooms.

Did you know that they can live for up to 30 years (or longer) in the wild, but in captivity they usually die before 1? (I had no idea!)

I went down an internet rabbit hole the other day after belatedly posting the transcript for my Cancer season podcast. I chose a photo of a hermit crab for the cover photo, because even though a “true” crab is usually the symbol for Cancer, I felt like hermit crabs are very Cancerian, considering that they are so homey that they literally carry their homes on their backs! Plus this lil guy was so cute, how could I not feature him?

Little Home
Photo by Ahmed Sobah / Unsplash

In wanting to learn about hermit crabs, I came across this passionate Redditor’s post, urging people not to underestimate the needs of hermit crabs, and trying to dissuade others from keeping them in captivity:

r/TrueOffMyChest - Quit buying fucking hermit crabs.
2,367 votes and 142 comments so far on Reddit
Most people will only buy one, you need multiple of them because they have complex social structures, usually living in groups of up to a thousand, and they are surprisingly intelligent animals who have evolved to function in a society.
They absolutely love to climb and are amazing at it. I once had a crab escape by sticking his legs into the glue in the corner of the tank and going straight up vertically. They also need places to hide or else they will get stressed.
Deep sand needs to be on the bottom of the tank to dig in and bury themselves when they molt…Molting means they will disappear for months at a time and you won't see them, so many new owners will dig them up or throw them out within the first few weeks of owning them. If the sand isn't deep enough they will put off molting for as long as possible before they are forced to do so above land and die. Molting is when they shed their exoskeleton and grow a new one. They are very fragile in this time, and other crabs will eat them so you need to separate them from each other.
They need A LOT of space as they grow. They usually travel all over in their lifetimes free to climb and roam and generally just be idiots.
My favorite fact, they are not quiet. They can scream like a hurt puppy and tend to hit their shells on everything. In the middle of the night. They'll scream when they are mad, unhappy, out of food, out of water, or got themselves stuck doing something dumb.

Turns out these lil buggers are more complicated than people give em credit for. As this scientist explains,

The name “hermit” does not rouse images of a complex social life, particularly not one involving the commotion of social aggregations, intergenerational inheritance of homes, and life-or-death competitive struggles. And yet, hermit crabs—terrestrial hermit crabs, in particular—exhibit all this and more…We humans are sometimes apt to overlook diminutive invertebrate organisms, letting large, charismatic vertebrates, such as primates and birds, absorb our attention. Yet it is often the tiniest organisms that provide the most exquisite systems for exploring nature and answering fundamental scientific questions…

In contrast to many other social organisms, which associate with close kin, terrestrial hermit crabs socialize with nonrelatives…By the time an immature crab first arrives on land, it is…far from any of its relatives, encountering instead only an assortment of non-kin. Moreover, because the abundance of terrestrial hermit crabs on short stretches of beach often measures in the hundreds of thousands or even the millions, each crab is but a stranger within a vast crowd. What then is the source of these crabs’ sociality? It’s not the vagaries of the external world…No, the sociality of terrestrial hermit crabs is something they have imposed upon themselves.

2/ This Gen Zer’s thoughtful reflection on never-ending experiences.

In the piece "Nostalgia for Nostalgia," Alexandra Fiorentino-Swinton writes about what it’s like to grow up in a world steeped in social media and constant documentation: This way of existing does not leave room for finality, for hard endings, for distinct chapters of life, for leaving certain places and relationships behind.

Previous generations may have thought of their “high school friends,” “college friends,” and “work friends” as belonging to separate stages of their lives, but today’s young adults remain vaguely in touch with everyone all the time:

Rather than with a bang, everything seems to end with a series of whimpers: your ex-whatevers may stop liking your posts or “soft-block” you if your relationships get really dire. But even then, data networks in the form of social media ask us to retain as much of our ephemeral web of frayed relationships as possible, in the hopes of one day being able to turn them into social, cultural, or even economic utility. I am fed connection, or at least “staying in touch,” on platforms that persuade me that the arduous upkeep of these loose ends is the key to success and happiness. But hanging on to bygone relationships has begun to feel like a substitute for personal growth.

This, she writes, bleeds into media depictions of youth culture as well. She contrasts 80’s teen movies, like The Breakfast Club, (movies that “were nostalgic for every moment as it happened — every kiss was immediately fodder for a story to tell the grandkids, every adventure was wistfully completed, and every friendship was hallowed”) with the movies and TV shows of today:

In contrast to the “analog era” movies that featured encounters with “hard nostalgia” — idealizing youth as a bittersweet place of departure, as something that is over just as it’s happening — my experience of youth media is one of continuity. Movies and TV shows today account for continuing digital connectivity in their use of equally weighted character perspectives, stop and starts of individual storylines, and a default industry-wide push (granted the viewership numbers) toward a stream of sequels and reboots. In popular entertainments marketed to me, stories are supposed to go on forever — bolstered by endless spin-offs and fan extensions. Some of my favorite franchises like the Avengers and Star Wars have spent recent years trading on their own history, with callback upon callback creating a feedback loop out of their legacies. An entire cottage industry has emerged out of finding nostalgic and referential easter eggs in these kinds of films, reifying the iconic nature of what came before as it is continuously brought into the present. They survive on the commodification of their own history — and so do we, in a social sphere that mirrors the entertainment sphere: in ongoing curation, narrativization, and calculations of value in an algorithmic setting.
The Breakfast Club

Overwhelmingly, today’s entertainment media and social media landscape encourages a kind of constant shallow nostalgia that isn’t healthy or generative:

What defines new relational stages today, given they’re always mixed together with old ones on platforms eager to keep you engaged? How do you mark a new “era” when you’re keeping tabs on the day-to-day lives of hundreds of people who will never tangibly occupy your day-to-day life again? Maybe I’m just a sucker who doesn’t know how to click the unfollow button, but the fact that I’d hardly considered it before now is the result of a certain tentativeness that has been ingrained in my relationships and experiences since I first accessed social media — a refusal to be the one to close the door on the past, and the fear of missing out on the possibilities that may still lie behind it.
This coercion to extend every adventure as long as possible — the nostalgia continuum — is the connective tissue fastening past experiences to the logic of the “feed,” which cuts the flow of experience down into atomized parts that are readable to tech platforms, enshrines chapters in life to make them rankable, interactable, and presentable to you over and over again, usually in a nostalgic form. Platforms often act as though they are the narrator of your life, like the writer in Stand By Me. Experience is organized for the user, who is supposed to live the past as the present. Beyond social media, this new form is fortified by popular culture in a never-ending string of sequels and reboots, memories that bleed through their temporal endings. But under the rule of the nostalgia continuum in hyper-connective social media culture, none of these memories live in a silo, and are instead constantly revisited and revised.

The nostalgia continuum consistently threatens my ability to move on and out of a blue-light tinted past, and it makes definitively turning the page on any “chapter” in life nearly impossible. In absorbing the lessons from ’80s cinema, I understand that you can’t really appreciate an era in your youth except from a temporal, and ideally a physical distance, and the pressure to do so persists over a digitized social sphere, where this sense of distance is eradicated and memories are never given a chance to breathe into the past.

1/ This reminder to “trust.”

I drew from this lil deck called “Affirmators!” to share a message with you:

My guides say: “Trust is cultivated over time, and this includes self-trust. We think that there is a distinct difference between blind ignorance and trust that is deep and true. To ‘trust’ does not mean to swan-dive into the arms of the universe; nor does it mean to be wholly independent, reliant on no one but yourself and your own wits and grit. It means that you are a being that understands the complexity and the flow of nonlinear time, surrendering to this fact while also accepting that your body must deal with the trappings of linear calendars and 3D needs. It means that you trust in your guides and your wise and well ancestors, while also owning your free will. It is a delicate balance, much like this cute little bear is balancing on this delicate tightrope here. Be the bear, dear ones!

Wishing you a beary trustful weekend,