Using Emacs in a local Nix environment

13 April 2020

In this blog post, I explain how to use Emacs in a local Nix environment for all modes, without needing mode-specific configuration.


Recently, I was trying to get haskell-mode in Emacs to work inside a (local) Nix environment, à la nix-shell. I use Nix to manage my Haskell dependencies1. Those dependencies aren’t installed globally (or rather, aren’t in my $PATH), and I don’t want them to be installed by Cabal, so building the project and running GHCI should happen inside a Nix environment.

With haskell-mode, you can run the function haskell-process-load-file to run GHCI inside Emacs. If you set haskell-process-type to 'cabal-repl (or 'cabal-new-repl), GHCI will use Cabal to manage dependencies, but it will run cabal in your $PATH, or the program specified in haskell-process-path-cabal.

Wrapper script

So I created a script with the following contents:

args=$@
nix-shell --run "cabal $args"

…, and set haskell-process-path-cabal to the path to the script.

This works quite well, but isn’t very elegant.

Wrapper function

Then I discovered the haskell-mode option haskell-process-wrapper-function, which ‘wraps or transforms Haskell process commands (…)’, according to the documentation. The documentation even contains an example value which makes the process commands run inside a nix-shell (simplified a bit here):

(setq haskell-process-wrapper-function
      (lambda (argv)
        (list "nix-shell"
              "-I"
              "."
              "--command"
              (mapconcat 'identity argv " "))))

This is works well, and is a lot more elegant than the script above. But it only works for haskell-mode: when I want to run Python with packages managed by Nix inside Emacs, I’ll have to search python-mode for an option similar to haskell-process-wrapper-function. And when I want to use yet another language, …

lorri and direnv

So I tried to find a general solution, and found lorri. lorri integrates direnv with Nix. With lorri, you don’t need nix-shell anymore, since direnv automatically changes your path, and lorri automatically builds your shell environment. (See the lorri demonstration.)

The direnv home page explains how to install a direnv hook into your shell, but you can also add direnv to Emacs: the emacs-direnv package adds direnv support. It’s as simple as adding the following to your Emacs configuration (if you use use-package):

(use-package direnv
  :config
  (direnv-mode))

If you now visit a file in a directory where lorri is initialised, your environment variables will be updated, and you can run all sorts of processes (haskell-mode’s GHCI, python-mode’s REPL, eshell, etc.) inside a Nix environment.

direnv changes the environment variables (such as $PATH) that were generated by lorri in a local directory. Because your $PATH is changed when you visit a file in that directory, there is no need for any mode-specific Emacs configuration.


  1. Read how to do this in the Nixpkgs manual.↩︎