In the Era of Climate Migration, What Will “Home” Mean?

In modern American parlance, the meaning of “home” is entangled in real estate. In young adulthood, I learned that to be a “grown-up” was to buy your own house, even if it left you with a crippling mortgage that would devour most of your earnings. The idea lies at the core of the American Dream, that postwar fantasy that exerts a stubborn influence on our culture no matter how outdated it becomes.

But home can have another meaning altogether, one of meaning and identity, as emotional space, as a relationship with the place around you. Black essayist and scholar bell hooks has written movingly about that sense of home. Her grandmother’s home, in rural Kentucky, was full of belongings in both senses of the word, beautiful and personal objects and also a profound connection to history, meaning, and identity. “Her house is a place where I am learning to look at things, where I am learning how to belong in space,” she writes in the book Belonging: A Culture of Place. “In rooms full of objects, crowded with things, I am learning to recognize myself.”

As a student at Stanford University, bell hooks worked on shedding her accent: “It was a way to avoid being subjugated by the geographical hierarchies around me which deemed my native place country backwards.” At the same time, she was homesick, longing for the Appalachian countryside. “In my mind and imagination I was always returning to the Kentucky hills, to find there a way to ground my being.” But so many factors had conspired to estrange her from the land—segregation, racism, traumas both personal and collective—that for decades, hooks felt it was impossible to return.

She tried other places: Wisconsin, Connecticut, Ohio, New York. She achieved career success—which gave her the opportunity to own real estate—but she felt ungrounded, incomplete, melancholy. Then “I plundered the depths of my being to see when and where did I feel a sense of belonging, when and where did I feel at home in the universe.” The answer was to return to her origins. Thirty years after she had left, bell hooks moved back to Kentucky, to settle in the college town of Berea, a community with a long history of progressivism where she could make a home full of meaning, like her grandmother’s house. She defined for herself an ethic of place: “A culture of belonging rooted in the earth.”

Reading these words, I feel a visceral longing for the kind of rootedness that hooks found. I have uprooted myself many times, and my search for a home full of meaning is long and still ongoing. But in the era of rapidly warming planet, when homes all around the world are becoming threatened and increasingly uninhabitable, is such rootedness is even still possible? Is it risky in the 21st century to love home as much as hooks did?

Is it unreasonable or stubborn to attach too much to a place when we must all be prepared to uproot ourselves? What sort of home should we seek out now?

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