Book Review

Take a moment to consider the word “hearth.”

Does it make you think of the heart of a home? Does it conjure up some primal memory of community, a fire around which long ago ancestors sat, broke bread together, and shared stories? Do you crack the word apart into “heart” and “earth”? Does the word expand, shift, and contort to suggest a meaning beyond its dictionary definitions of “the floor of a fireplace” and “home; fireside”? Do you question whether the word holds any relevance in these hearth-less times? Each of the essays, poems, and stories (and the few photographs by the magnificent Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado) collected in Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place, edited by Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor, responds to questions framed by contemplations of the meaning of “hearth” in our turbulent century.

In his introductory essay, Barry Lopez begins by recounting a long ago experience of camping with a friend in Alaska and building a fire on the ground every night: “Small and assertive, the fire centered us every time, defining a space temporarily ours in an enormous and indifferent expanse of country. The flicker of the fire’s flames within the boundary of a stone perimeter urged us toward quiet thoughts of the day’s events.” The shelter from the dark, the shared conversation, and the community offered by the hearth are concepts Lopez urges us to consider during this “time of environmental emergencies, of a sixth biological extinction, of economic violence, and of social disintegration.” Lopez wonders: What is the “hearth of the Anthropocene”? He suggests that this is a question that underlies most of the book.

For all of the contributors in this book, the sense of “hearth” reaches far beyond the fireside. For many, it is tied to a particular landscape, a landscape that is a spiritual home: to rivers running with trout in Geffrey Davis’s essay “Even in the Loneliness of the Canyon”; to the sky, water, and green seen from a deck above a lagoon in northern Sri Lanka in Ameena Hussein’s “A Staircase with a View”; to a monastery in Big Sur overlooking the Pacific in Pico Iyer’s “My Mobile Home.” And for a number of authors, the landscape that is so particular to their interpretation of what a hearth may be is bound to generations of ancestors who lived there: the lip of Kilauea Caldera, a Hawaiian volcano, in a poem by Pualani Kanahele; a long ago garden in Dalat, Vietnam described in Andrew Lam’s “Enchantment,” where the author’s umbilical cord was buried before the family fled to America; the South Fork of Long Island, NY in Carl Safina’s “Soul on the Tide”; a hometown cemetery, thick with ink mushrooms and memories, in the mountains of Romania in Mihaela Moscaliuc’s “The Ink of Cemeteries.”

A number of the volume’s contributors—such as Luis Alberto Urrea in his poem on the borderlands near Tijuana, the Irish writer Sara Baume, and the Icelandic writer Gerđur Kristný—write of refugees and consider who is welcomed at our hearths. Other contributors question whether the loss of an ancestral hearth is something to lament or rather something freeing, as in Alisa Ganieva’s essay on her homelands in Dagestan. Without the “destruction of ancient hearths and customs,” she writes, she would never have been able to lead the cosmopolitan life she now leads in Moscow, far from the high Caucasus mountain villages where her family resided.

For a few of the authors, the question of “hearth” is inextricably linked to the climate crisis.  Climate activist Bill McKibben writes that the internet has become our current “hearth,” that we sit staring into our computers as we once did into the fire. The internet, he fears, is an “anti-hearth,” missing two critical components the hearth offers us: commonality and letting one’s mind wander as the embers die down. For Gretel Ehrlich, who has written about life on the ice of Greenland, being tasked with writing about hearth and home seems absurd “as the Arctic crashes,” as the landscapes that were her hearths change irrevocably.

Although all the contributions to the volume broadened and deepened my understanding of what a hearth can be, it was Kenyan writer Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s “The Fire in Ten: Elements Necessary to Build a Hearth” that resonated most lyrically and profoundly on the question of what a hearth should be in these fractured times. She describes the hearth as a place “where heart and earth and fire merge to summon souls into a stillness that is a window into tales that refract human beingness,” and of cold, dark, hearth-less nights with “poetry made in the memory of those shadows that certain fires cast upon certain walls.” She writes of observing a flock of birds flying like a “grayish sky accordion,” and of learning that these migratory swallows were searching for their home, lost when the trees they nested in were cut down. “We might have asked,” she writes, “as citizens: To whom else do these trees belong?” She writes of an encounter in a church with a Congolese cleric, who sobs with red-eyed grief for the dead in a fire-charred village where he stumbled upon a field strewn with bodies, villagers killed for not wanting to leave their “mineral-replete ancestral fields,” their own hearths. And she writes:

I am seeking ingredients. I must learn to create a hearth and build a fire that might warm the iced hearts of a universe that cannot see those siblings in a corner of the earth who were slaughtered by the weapons those others have created and sold to grow their economies, reassure their citizens about a shining future, become rich, do good things by making donations to the poor of the world that their seven deadly sins have gutted, while also aiming to live a long and complacent life deaf to the sound of the gnashing of teeth embedded in the melody of the merry ring tone of their coltan-fed cell phone. Anyway, the fire that feeds my hearth should be capable of flowing through and sealing with warmth the fractured heart of a red-eyed cleric.

As I read Hearth, I thought of cooking fires and wildfires, communities gathered and communities torn apart, landscapes adored and landscapes abandoned or devastated, and I wondered with Barry Lopez: How do we define the hearth of this era, our Anthropocene? Hearth gave me no definitive answers, but I didn’t expect it to. Instead it gave me burning questions. To echo Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: To whom else does this world belong? Whose hearths are we destroying as we imagine we are improving our own?


About the Reviewer

Lisa Harries Schumann lives outside Boston and is—among other things—a writer and collector of stories, both fiction and nonfiction, and a translator from German to English, working on texts whose subjects have ranged from penguins to radio broadcasts by the cultural critic Walter Benjamin.