MTPR

'Hearth' With Gretel Ehrlich And Christopher Merrill

Nov 29, 2018

A hearth is many things: a place for solitude, a source of identity, something we make and share with others, a history of ourselves and our homes. It is the fixed center we return to, and it is just as intrinsically portable. It is, in short, the perfect metaphor for what we seek in these complex and contradictory times—set in flux by climate change, economic emergencies, migration, the refugee crisis, and the dislocating effects of technology.

Hearth
Credit Milkweed

The following highlights are from a conversation with Gretel Ehrlich and Christopher Merrill about the anthology, "Hearth: A Global Conversation on Community, Identity, and Place." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.

Note: This interview took place the afternoon of  Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation.

Sarah Aronson: In the preface of the book, Annick Smith asks, “Why do we need a book about something so obvious and good?” What I want to know is, why do we need this book, and is it so obvious and good?

Christopher Merrill: I would say in tumultuous times we think more and more about the nature of hearth, which can be a complicated place and a place of drama. After this week’s drama, I think many of us feel evermore the importance of drawing tight in that circle around the hearth.

Gretel Ehrlich: I think it can also be just a campfire. I love to cook, and my favorite place to cook is over an open fire where I stayed in Zimbabwe for several months—over a great big grate. We did everything around that fire; it became the center of our world and the center of feeding each other while terrible things were happening there as well.

Christopher Merrill: And it became the place where you told the stories, right?

Gretel Ehrlich: Exactly.

Break

Two of my favorite lines from the whole book come from your piece [Gretel]:

          “Home is where there is no I.”

          “Intimacy requires time, time requires devotion, devotion demands surrender.”

How do we balance surrender and fury, or surrender and action? 

Gretel Ehrlich: I think what I meant by surrender is a broken heart is also an open heart. If you’re open-hearted, and that doesn’t mean you’re nice . . . laughing . . . or that anything has been resolved or you’re not furious, but you’re also raw. It’s that wonderful feeling of rawness, openness, vulnerability, humility, and terror all at once. You live as if your skin had been peeled off and you’re raw flesh. You actually feel everything, so your response to where you are in the world is very immediate and precise, which engenders a clearer way of seeing where you are and perhaps a better way of expressing it.

You certainly don’t have to be a writer, but whatever expression you choose of action, that action is devotion. It means, “I have to do something,” whatever it is. You just have to take it all in at the same time and have the stability, which is embedded in all of us, to hold all those contradictions in one hand.

Christopher Merrill: I might say brokenness demands that we pay attention, both to the source of the grief and to the place where we find ourselves. Writers are people who tend to pay attention. That’s where so much of my writing comes from, and I think that’s what governs a lot of the writing in this book.

About the Book:

From Susan O’Connor and Annick Smith, a multicultural anthology about the enduring importance and shifting associations of the hearth in our world.

A hearth is many things: a place for solitude, a source of identity, something we make and share with others, a history of ourselves and our homes. It is the fixed center we return to, and it is just as intrinsically portable. It is, in short, the perfect metaphor for what we seek in these complex and contradictory times—set in flux by climate change, economic emergencies, migration, the refugee crisis, and the dislocating effects of technology.

Featuring original contributions from some of our most cherished voices—including Terry Tempest Williams, Bill McKibben, Yvonne Adhiamba Uwuor, Pico Iyer, Natasha Trethewey, Gretel Ehrlich, and Chigozie Obioma, along with a stunning portfolio of photographs by Sebastião Salgado—Hearth suggests that empathy and storytelling hold the power to unite us when we have wandered alone for too long.

An essential, fundamentally multicultural anthology, this book challenges us to redefine home and hearth: as a place to welcome strangers, to be generous, to care for the world beyond one’s own experience.

About the Authors:

Gretel Ehrlich
Credit Jack Swenson

Gretel Ehrlich is the author of fifteen books, including The Solace of Open Spaces, a record of her first years living on the Wyoming range, cowboying, and herding sheep; and A Match to the Heart, a memoir about being hit by lightning on her ranch. Her most recent book, Facing the Wave, received the PEN Award for Nonfiction and was nominated for the National Book Award. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Whiting Award, three National Geographic Expedition grants, and an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Ehrlich has traveled by dogsled with subsistence Inuit hunters at the top of Greenland for twenty years, and as a result has written extensively about climate change.

Christopher Merrill
Credit Christina Hutchins

Christopher Merrill has published six collections of poetry, including Watch Fire, for which he received the Lavan Younger Poets Award from the Academy of American Poets; many edited volumes and translations; and six books of nonfiction, among them, Only the Nails Remain: Scenes from the Balkan Wars, Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, The Tree of the Doves: Ceremony, Expedition, War, and Self-Portrait with Dogwood. His writings have been translated into nearly forty languages; his journalism appears widely; his honors include a Chevalier from the French government in the Order of Arts and Letters. As director of the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa, Merrill has conducted cultural diplomacy missions to more than fifty countries. He serves on the U.S. National Commission for UNESCO, and in April 2012 President Obama appointed him to the National Council on the Humanities