Querencia- Ruminations on the Ecological Value of Place
by Alex Kellogg
Moving through our modern landscape, our cities and our psyches, one is struck by the lack of deliberateness, of “placiness”, that once exuded from peculiar haunts and hamlets in terrain both urban and rural. In the name of “efficiency” and “consumer demand”, we have made most places like most others, with Starbucks Coffee shops and fast food restaurants gradually encroaching upon and replacing local establishments. Perhaps this is the logical result of our tradition as a nation to constantly move about; as the French writer Alexis de Tocqueville remarked in the early 19th century in his travels through America, “Born often under another sky, placed in the middle of an always moving scene, himself driven by the irresistible torrent drawn all about him, the American has no time to tie himself to anything, he grows accustomed only to change, and ends by regarding it the natural state of man.”
Because we have placed so little value upon any particular place, exchanging one with another according to the dictates of the market, we have seen little need to preserve any particular qualities of any place, save its ability to produce profit. Following this logic, it makes sense that our culture generally values strip malls, fast food chains and other mass produced qualities utterly divorced from their context; they provide a sense of familiarity, via consumption, as we utilize both our physical and social mobility to obtain ever greater productivity. Indeed, central to neoclassical economics is the notion that resources ought to be allocated to where they are most productive. And indeed, a qualified person with the freedom to cross state borders to work at a job that will pay them more than the place they currently reside, is a more efficient use of the scarce resources of labor and capital then trying to keep them in their original place, just as a meal at a fast food restaurant chain is often a more efficient investment in terms of calories per dollar gained versus eating at a local restaurant.
Yet there is a stirring in the American soul that is dissatisfied with this arrangement. There is an acknowledgment, as manufacturing and small-scale agriculture have diminished over the last five decades, that perhaps ever greater productivity at the expense of all else is not necessarily all it was cracked up to be. This unmooring, this radical dissolution of place as having any meaning or value unto itself, I suspect is at the root of at least some of our current environmental woes. People feel little attachment to place, and by extrapolation to nature and the rest of the planet, leading to feelings of apathy or disempowerment to do anything about preventing its destruction.
To address this issue, we might do well to borrow a term from the Spanish that more fully conveys the notion of place than the English language allows. The concept of querencia, from the Latin root quer-, to want or desire, is defined by Latin American scholar Barry Lopez as “ a place from which one’s strength of character is drawn.” Originally used in Spain as a technical term to describe that place that a wounded bull goes to rest during a matador fight, the concept of querencia refers to a deeply rooted sense of home, belonging or origin, a place or state from which one derives the very nature of oneself. Querencia does not have to be a particular spot on a map, nor even a physical place. One may find querencia in an activity, in a state of mind, or in another person. Yet for our purposes, I speak of the querencia one feels for a particular geographical place, an area where one feels most alive and at home with themselves. That kind of attachment to the earth is brought about by constant and close interaction with it over the course of one’s lifetime, perhaps over the course of many lifetimes as generations build one upon another.
One sees querencia in a Chihuahuan sotol distillery owned by a fifth generation family of sotol makers who has kept operations profitable but small in order to regeneratively harvest the sotol plant from the surrounding desert, infusing the product with the properties of the land and therefore the essence of the place. One sees querencia in the acequia system of crop irrigation in parts of New Mexico, wherein water has been managed communaly by families of growers for centuries because community wellbeing, sustainable water management and place are valued over profit maximization of a few. And one sees querencia in the actions of the Indigenous water protectors of Standing Rock, North Dakota, when the Dakota Access Pipeline threatened to disturb sacred burial grounds and pose a significant hazard to the health of the Missouri River, desecrating both the ritual and physical wellbeing of a particular place for profit.
My humble suggestion, therefore, is that if Americans took the time to really be in and observe the places where they reside, if they were to develop a querencia for the ecological, political and social environs in which they already live, we may not only be able to recover our sense of community and belonging in a fast moving world, but we might find ourselves invested enough in the beauty of a place to take collective action against seeing it destroyed. In other words, through the radical act of caring deeply about the places we live in and the people with whom we share them with, local living might be the best weapon we have to resist the worst effects of climate change.