My grandson Nolan is 4 1/2 years old. He has stolen my heart. He knows how to call me for a FaceTime chat. We sing, talk about his new Percy train engine, and play goofy games, teasing each other about silly things to eat (dog food and train engines are most definitely no, chicken fingers and french fries are a resounding yes). And right now he is fascinated by learning about places - specifically, cities and states - and who in his large family lives where. Once, when his dad traveled to Reno for business, Nolan made up "The Nevada Song" and located Nevada on this big map of the US.
Places. Each of us has roots somewhere, a place, natural or built, to which we feel attached. Place attachment happens for lots of reasons - because of important relationships that were part of the place, because of events or celebrations, or because we grew in some way or learned something new there. Our bond with our place, or our home, defines us to some degree. It says something about who we are.
A good friend from childhood lives on a river in Kentucky. She has lived "in town" before, and has tried it recently, but she finds that the urban noise and confusion unsettle her. The solitude at the river, the views, and the history of her time there suit her and feed her soul.
I have felt very connected to parts of Kentucky as well - the eastern mountains and the blue grass area in the middle of the state. I have sensory memories of both places that take me back to childhood and make me remember who I am and where I come from, geographically and culturally. It took me 25 years of living in Pittsburgh to feel at home in the city - Pittsburgh was just so fast and big! I am now in love with its many unique neighborhoods, its beautiful parks and the deep friendships I have developed - and yes, you can have roots in more than one place.
So why do we talk about home or place attachment? It is critical to understand this special bond because it helps us understand the profound negative impacts on a person's health and well-being when they have been forcibly uprooted from their home, or when their place has been destroyed around them while they are still living there. And the negative impacts can also affect entire communities.
Where have there been disruptions in place attachment?
Think for a minute about what has happened to the communities in Appalachia where mountaintop removal mining has damaged the health of the natural environment, the people, and the communities' economies and cultures. Or imagine living in the Middle East where there have been years of drought and food shortages, forcing families from not only their homes but their countries.
Consider what it might be like to be attached to a place that is no longer secure, where people fear that violence will randomly target them and their families. Or wonder what it would be like to be uprooted from a community where your family has lived for generations because up-scale development has moved in and priced you out of your home. Or... the list goes on.
How does knowing about place attachment help?
Knowing about place attachment might help us have some empathy for displaced people or for people grieving the loss or insecurity of their home while still living there. It also helps us think about ways to preserve nature, protecting it from pollution, and from climate-related storms, forest fires, droughts, and floods.
Understanding the importance of our roots - the people and experiences that we associate with our special places - brings big, kind of remote, and overwhelming topics like the climate crisis, removal of protections against air and water pollutants, refugees and immigration, and income inequality down to earth, closer to the well-being of our brothers and sisters.
Back to Nolan.
For now, Nolan's roots are in Brooklyn, and they are as deep as they can be for a little 4 1/2 year old child. He knows his home - the neighborhood pizza place with the balloon man, the synagogue where he attends Tot Shabbat, the park where he plays soccer and runs with his friends, and the train that takes him to his other grandparents in Manhattan. His place is safe, supports him, and helps him meet important needs. I wish that all children had access to such secure and nurturing places.
PS We are taking the train from Pittsburgh to NYC this weekend to visit Nolan and his mom and dad in their home - I feel myself starting to put a few tiny roots down in Brooklyn myself.
Where are your roots? What places are most meaningful to you? Sit quietly and imagine yourself there, remembering the smells, views, sounds, and people associated with your place.
When I do this exercise in class with graduate students, I notice slowed breathing, relaxed shoulders, a calmness in the air. The conversations that follow are about favorite childhood places. Memories shift the students' perspectives - they remember that they are more than who they are in this moment of time, harried graduate students who barely have time to eat or exercise or socialize. We are reminded of basic priorities, and of the reality that there are many possibilities for how to live and to take care of ourselves and others around us.
One step further.
If you follow local, national, and/or international news, notice the stories that are related, directly or indirectly, to loss or destruction of place. How are the people responding to the changes? How does learning about this affect you?