In Search of Querencia

In August I moved from Plymouth, Massachusetts, to Providence, Rhode Island, where I am working for a year as an AmeriCorps service member with a community agriculture organization. The move feels propitious. I’ve been longing for awhile now to be involved long-term in agriculture, and living in a place called Providence seems like an unsubtle message from the universe about where I’m heading. At a time when so many people are home- and job-insecure, I can hardly complain about this new turn in my life.

But as I’ve settled into a new city, I’ve reflected on the progress I’ve made in the past few years, and something is still missing. In September of last year, when I moved to Massachusetts for my first AmeriCorps assignment, I was living on my own for the first time in my life (college doesn’t count). The first month of being solitary was tough; I was badly yearning for the familiarity of Darien, where I had grown up in the same house and where my parents still live. This time around, I’m not yearning for that home, though. I spent enough time in Darien this spring during the COVID lockdowns to know that it’s not in my spiritual or energetic interests to stay “in the nest.” Now, I’m yearning for a new home; a place where my personal life, professional work, and the physical landscape will feed into each other and where I will be anchored by enduring social relationships and, eventually, new familial bonds.

What I really desire is querencia. In Spain, where the term was originally coined, a querencia is a spot in a bullring where a wounded bull retreats to renew its strength. Querencia is now used in the Spanish-speaking world to connote a home-place where one feels safe and protected. In The Rediscovery of North America, Barry Lopez draws attention to this latter meaning of the word to discuss the modern problem of cultural placelessness:

“It is unfortunate that the word is compromised in this way [by the violence of bullfighting], for the idea itself is quite beautiful – a place in which we know exactly who we are. The place from which we speak our deepest beliefs. Querencia conveys more than “hearth.” And it carries this sense of being challenged – in the case of a bullfight, by something lethal, which one may want no part of.

“I would like to take this word querencia beyond its ordinary meaning and suggest that it applies to our challenge in the modern world, that our search for a querencia is both a response to threat and a desire to find out who we are. And the discovery of a querencia, I believe, hinges on the perfection of a sense of place.

“Bullfight, Suerte de Varas” by Francisco de Goya (1824)

Lopez goes on to venture that discovering a querencia involves being cognizant of the inviolate relationship between a culture and the physical land it occupies. But for the majority of us in North America, this sort of acknowledgement leads back to the undeniable truth of European conquest and imposition. I for one grew up on traditional Lenape, Wappinger, and Paugussett territory. Now I am a settler on Narragansett land. And because of the practices of the industrial culture I was born into, much of the land I’m familiar with will be submerged by the Atlantic probably within my lifetime, while Southern New England’s sugar maples and hemlocks will recede to the Laurentian Shield or die out completely.

What then? If anthropogenic climate change will wipe away much of the familiar characteristics we associate with home, what hope have we of rediscovering any sense of querencia? The way I see it, querencia is always waiting for rediscovery, regardless of exterior changes. The plant and animal species around us may shift along with climate regimes. But what won’t shift is our human capacity to open our hearts to the other-than-human even in the midst of heartbreak and find a new sense of belonging, one that’s based on proposition instead of imposition. Generations of settlers have started over in the same way as they’ve relocated due to war, economics, religion, or climate stress, and they’ve always carried the old stories with them. We’ll all have to make this leap of faith too if we want to create a future world worth living in, one where we’re not consumed with regret and self-recrimination.

I don’t feel like Rhode Island will be my new querencia. I may meet key people who will point the direction in my ongoing journey. But ultimately, I feel like my final destination – my longed-for home-place where I can firmly face the challenges of my life – is elsewhere. I intend to document in this online space my search for querencia and where the journey takes me. For now, though, I am making myself as comfortable as possible in the Ocean State.

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