What Sustains You?


By Hilary Smith, Sustainability Resource Center

What sustains you? Beyond the basics—sleep, healthy food, the people around you— try to get a little more specific. Is it your grandma’s spanakopita, your best friend’s home brew? Sleeping in on a Sunday? The apples you get from that one specific vendor at the farmers market?

What sustains you?

For me, it’s visits from a neighborhood cat, who curls up on the porch outside our front door and meows until she gets a belly rub. It’s the translucent trails of snail ooze that crisscross the sidewalks and linger just long enough to catch the eye of an early morning runner. It’s a friendly bus driver, my favorite shampoo, a few self-claimed half-hours of solitude and meditation. In other words, it’s the simple things.

Snail ooze! One of the wonder-inspiring experiences that sustains this author.  Photo: wonderopolis.org

Photo: wonderopolis.org

During an exercise in one of my Environmental Humanities classes last fall, students partnered up and took turns asking each other, rapid-fire, for a full five minutes: “What sustains you?” After each answer I gave, my partner asked me again, “What sustains you?”

Answers were instinctual and came quickly at first, then trickled off, became more personal, and required some internal digging.

free hugsAt the University of Utah Farmers Market last fall, I asked students the same question. Their answers were rich, varied, specific: Scuba diving. Hugs. Vegetables. Coffee. Baths. Mimosas. Puppies. Public transit. The sun.

Photo: redbeansandlife.com

Photo: redbeansandlife.com

I asked friends and family, too, and answers were similar: Laughter with grandkids. Quiet faith. Traveling. A walk in the woods. New babies. Pasta. Nature. Organizing things.

The exercise, and the list of answers it generated, made me think. Working in the field of sustainability, writing and tabling for environmental organizations, living in the midst of eco-crises that sometimes make the future seem hopeless—it becomes important, elemental even, to sustain oneself through the fight.

Author and activist Bryant McGill. Photo: simplereminders.com

Author and activist Bryant McGill.
Photo: simplereminders.com

Author and human rights activist Bryant McGill, in “Simple Reminders: Inspiration for Living Your Best Life,” echoes this basic truth of activism.

“Taking care of yourself is the most powerful way to begin to take care of others,” he writes.

Exploring what sustains us personally can also help us extrapolate to bigger questions of sustainability. So many of the things that sustain our bodies and minds—real food, breathable air, drinkable water, freedom to think—are  building blocks of sustainable agriculture, sustainable communities, and healthy, wild, autonomous ecosystems.

Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams. Photo: newdimensions.org

Utah writer Terry Tempest Williams.
Photo: newdimensions.org

Utah-based writer Terry Tempest Williams often writes about this connectivity between the human experience and ecosystem-level phenomena, between body and landscape. In “Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place,” for example, she highlights the connections between toxic atomic fallout and cancer in her family.


Ask yourself: What sustains you? What keeps your body whole, your mind sharp? What do you need in order to be your best, to share your skills and talents?​​ Take note of your answers, and perhaps ponder these questions: How would you feel if what sustains you was taken away? How do your own answers relate to broader issues of ecological or social justice? Is what sustains you in line with what sustains the planet? 

what sustains you

Hilary Smith is a graduate student in Environmental Humanities and a graduate assistant for the Sustainability Resource Center.

One response to “What Sustains You?

  1. Pingback: A Soundtrack for Sustainability | sustainableUTAH·

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