One of the points about climate change that really struck me in Naomi Klein’s On Fire was that change happens on a multi-generational time scale. You have to know an area really well to notice small changes, and you have to have generational shared knowledge to document that kind of change.
But our modern world doesn’t favour staying in one place. “Few of us live where our ancestors are buried,” says Klein. Especially in North America, the willingness to pick up and move for the lightest of reasons is an unquestioned virtue. Staying in one place is tantamount to failure; staying in the same place your parents and grandparents lived is borderline degenerate. Only people who’ve given up don’t try to move to somewhere new.
It raised a lot of thoughts for me personally. I’m a child and grandchild of migrants, and I migrated from the US to Canada myself. My kids have grown up in the same house most of their life, but I lived in seven different cities as a kid. As an adult, I spent years in cities in Europe, travelled in Asia, and drove around North America in a vintage Citroen.
I asked about staying put on Twitter, and I did some research and wrote a long thread there. Part of looking around at the state of knowledge on staying versus moving was running into Melody Warnick’s 2017 book “This Is Where You Belong“. I decided it was worth a read!
Warnick’s book is somewhat autobiographical, overlaid with interviews, examples, and research about developing “place attachment”. She and her family moved, for the sixth time, from Austin to Blacksburg, VA. When she found herself looking at real estate listings in other towns after only a few months, she decided to investigate what it took to put down roots.
The book covers a lot of the reasons that staying put is more healthy physically and psychologically than constantly moving. It also has a number of commonsense recommendations for establishing connections to the place you’re living. Like: walk or bike more, so you see things up close. Volunteer. Meet people. Learn the history. Do what people who live there do.
Every chapter varies between high-level discussions of the topics and warm, funny stories of Warnick and her family trying to put them into practice. Their success varies, but it’s a really charming history of trying. And even when their attempts don’t go perfectly, the experience of doing it there means they become more and more attached.
The thing that stood out to me, in reading, was how many of the projects and processes the author talked about originated in the Web 2.0 urbanist world of 2005-2015. Like Walk [Your City], which lets you print out signs to put up around your town to help pedestrians find points of interest. There are a lot of stories of how someone got a good idea, threw up a Web site, and got thousands of participants who used that tool to make their town a better place and become more attached to it. It feels like a different idea of what the Web is for than we have today.
The book ends on a very difficult chapter. The town the author lives in is the site of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, and part of her work in becoming attached is to engage with that local tragedy. Just like any kind of love, loving a place means learning about, experiencing, and feeling deeply the pain and suffering that place has been through. It’s a hard story to read, and she doesn’t skimp on the hard questions.
Long story short, I liked this book, and it’s made me think harder about putting down roots. My family currently splits its time between Montreal and Melbourne, Quebec. My parents and brothers all live in the San Francisco Bay Area, and my ancestors are buried in New Jersey, in Jerusalem, and in Greece. It makes me wonder what kind of geographic legacy I’m leaving my kids, and how they’ll be able to use it.
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