Discussion Guide

The HEARTH anthology, which is itself a conversation between diverse voices on community, identity, and place, is uniquely suited to discussion groups and book clubs.

The editors’ greatest hope is that this book will prompt readers to ask questions of themselves and others, questions such as: What does the idea of hearth mean in today’s world? Can a hearth be an idea we carry with us, rather than a place? Do our young have a different idea of what it means to create hearth than our elders? How can we maintain connection to community in a world that’s fragmented and transitory? In the age of climate change, how do we honor the landscapes and elements that have provided us with refuge and warmth throughout our ancestry as human beings?

We hope you will pick up these questions – and many more provided in these discussion guides that follow – to carry on this conversation in your own community and to reflect with others on what makes a stable hearth in our shifting world.

We encourage you to send us your stories. Go to Your Hearth to share in our global online conversation and keep these ideas alive.


The editors write that although humans are programmed to seek refuge just like other species in the animal kingdom, we are different in that we “keep asking questions about who we are, why we are here, where came from, and where we are headed” (page 7). Why do humans keep returning to these philosophical questions about our origin, purpose, and destination? How does the notion of hearth relate to these questions?


What is the distinction between home and hearth explored across this anthology, especially in relation to concepts like intentionality and ritual? What are the elements you have gathered from these essays and stories and poems that you are adding to your understanding of hearth?


Hearth considers the nature of human relationships to the planet, particularly as various writers consider the idea of habits, habitat, and what it means for a place to be uninhabitable. Gretel Ehrlich writes, “When talking about ‘saving the planet,’ which we have failed to do, people speak only of saving it for their grandchildren, never for the sake of the Earth itself. Why bother to save it for humans who will just destroy it again?” (page 109). What is the role of creating habits as humans seek to understand our relationship to our own habitats?


What relationship between movement and groundedness do writers like Carl Safina and Zoë Strachan call to light? Does a hearth require a firm placement? Is it a physical place? Mark Tredinnick seems to think otherwise: “Self is a hearth you make and keep making, like a fire” (page 231).


A main theme through much of this collection is exile and diaspora, the distance between place and displacement. What happens when a hearth no longer exists in the physical world, but only in the emotional? Does it, as Kavery Nambisan writes, result in a certain kind of suffering when we are separated from the hearth? How do we treat the diseases of the hearth, of the heart?


Do we keep returning to this question of hearth because our lives are inextricable from place, even in a global culture made of incessant movement? Even in locations where it is tougher to notice, like urban or digital environments, are we are still bound to circadian rhythms? What happens when our lives lose the connection to the rhythms of the earth, when our lives are no longer dictated by the movement of the sun, of the seasons?


In what ways can we think of a hearth as a sundial, a marker of one’s position in the world, one that requires a perspective that moves? Andrew Lam, writing of the immigrant and refugee child, notes, “He takes his reference point across time zones and often from two or three different continents” (page 37). Boey Kim Cheng considers this shift in perspective as well: “[Home] had become an alien, difficult concept; it had ceased to be a fixed point of reference” (page 120). We often think of hearth as fixed, but in what ways does it simply mark the spinning of the planet against our own lives?


What happens when the hearth becomes a symbol like Natasha Trethewey’s obelisk or Zoë Strachan’s standing stones? What is the mobile and symbolic nature of home, of hearth, in a transient world?


Much is made of the relationship of fire to the hearth: fire as safety, fire as a natural process, fire as spirituality. Some have considered the use of fire the single greatest human achievement. Why have we ascribed such power to fire, beyond its literal capabilities? How is this power complicated by the association of fire with greed and the destruction of one’s hearth, such as in Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s piece on the village destroyed by fire so that its land could be used for profit?


What are the different spiritualities associated with the hearth across this collection? Think Pualani Kanahele’s writing of Kilauea and Pele’s Hearth, or William Kittredge’s commentary on “hearths as heavens” (page 225). How do spiritual hearths vary across cultures? What happens when humans are separated from these spiritual hearths?


The hearth is often political, like when Terry Tempest Williams and Sarah Hedden write about the need for public lands in the communal gathering spaces of a culture. Gerður Kristný explores the political implications of Iceland’s response to asylum seekers and economic migrants, whom Iceland has welcomed to their hearth, despite an ancestral fear of outsiders. And Sara Baume writes of the humanitarian crisis of refugees in the Mediterranean in 2015, drawing distinctions between who is allowed to return home and who is allowed to seek placement elsewhere. What are our global responsibilities to other humans with regards to the hearth? What can we take from this book back into our own hearths?

It seems we humans, like whales and monarch butterflies, are programmed to return to, or to seek, places of refuge, nurture, and deep connection. But unlike monarch butterflies and whales, we also keep asking questions about who we are, why we are here, where we come from, and where we are headed. All around the world, individuals, families, friends, and neighbors gather around a campfire or a computer, a kitchen table or an auditorium stage to share ideas, and warmth, and often food. This book, we hope, may become one such gathering place where ideas are asked that have no answers, where the talk goes on and on, connecting us in peace and trust. Keeping the fire alive.

Annick Smith and Susan O’Connor