Late last year I visited a friend at his magical farm in Wales. As we walked around the beautiful space that he and his family have created we came to talk about the way that he was fascinated by the idea of working to ensure that his patch of the planet should, as much as it can, become a hearth for the community that they are an active part of.
But what does a hearth mean in the world that we live in now? On a practical level the word comes from the Old English word “heord” which denotes the floor of a fireplace. And for almost as long as humans have existed there is evidence of them having created hearths as practical places but also as cultural places where people came together to connect and share in many different ways.
Along this line the hearth is defined in the dictionary on my bookshelf as related to the fireplace but also as a “home or a place of comfort and love”. The Ancient Greeks agreed with this definition in their connection of Hestia, the goddess of home and family, to the hearth, as did the Romans who connected the hearth to Vesta who had almost identical associations. In fact throughout history we can observe these deep cultural connections to the hearth as a focal point within the home and community. From the ancient Persian connection of the hearth to sacrifice and prayer, to the Albanian folk belief that the hearth is a spiritual place linking the past, present and future, to pagan beliefs around the hearth as the family unit. The notion of the hearth as a crucial point for cultural social and cultural interaction is one that appears in cultures past and present.
It is also an idea that has specific resonance today as we arrive at Imbolc, the halfway point between the winter solstice (Yule) and the spring equinox (Osara). This is a day that places particular emphasis upon Brigid, the Celtic goddess of fire and fertility, who has strong associations to the home and the hearth.
For me “hearth” is also a fascinating word because it brings together so many words of deep cultural resonance. In one word it brings together heart, ear, earth and art in a single shared point of focus. Four elements which can share space philosophically but also in the real world.
Moving away from the literal significance of the word, what may we aspire towards if we create projects, interactions or relationships in our lives, which encompass the rich and historical significance that is encapsulated by a hearth? Heart as a place of love and emotion, ear as a place of listening and stories, earth as a place of connection to the land and nature, and art as a place of creativity and culture. A magical combination drawn together in one place by a word.
So where are the hearths in your life? Where would you like them to be? And what can you do to gently kindle new flames in places and relationships that are important to you?
From the perspective of Permaculture Design there are several tolls that could be used to help create our hearths. To being with you could ask yourself what this “hearth” means to you and what yields you hope that it will provide you with. So if you are envisaging a community garden for example, what will this shared hearth provide for you and your community? Then what elements in the garden will provide these yields, and what will the elements need to be provided with in order to be as productive as possible? The simplest possible activity, which will show you with new clarity what constitutes your hearth and what, you will need to provide in order for it to flourish.