Kari Amick writes:
Animals home. For them, the word is a verb. To home. Birds fly north, and salmon swim upstream, led by magnets or magic to the place where they were born. When I worked in New Hampshire I spent five days a week floating on water looking for loons, birds that returned to that same lake every year from winters on the ocean. Loons are loosely monogamous, but they return to their lakes one at a time, as if each mate needs to make peace with the water individually before they can begin the business of copulation.
The very reason humans define and describe the homing instinct explains why we lack one. Homo sapiens is a learning animal. We have taught ourselves what home means, and we orient ourselves towards that, until our communication becomes garbled and clarity is lost. In 1967 writer Joan Didion wrote of the hippies: "these were children who grew up cut loose from the web of cousins and great-aunts and family doctors and lifelong neighbors who had traditionally suggested and enforced society's values. They are children who have moved around a lot, San Jose, Chula Vista, here." They are children, she says, but children who lack some fundamental understanding of their own context: "I am not optimistic about children who will settle for saying, to indicate that their mother and their father do not live together, that they come from a 'broken home'." At the same time, it is the breaking of the home mechanism that Didion is bemoaning throughout her essays, and she traces the fissure from those children to her own.
Home for humans is not an instinct, but a social and physical place. In another 1967 essay Didion writes of her daughter: "I would like to promise her that she will grow up with a sense of her cousins and of rivers and of her great-grandmother's teacups...would like to give her home for her birthday, but we live differently now and I can promise her nothing like that."
When Didion goes home she is returning to her family, not to the house she lives in, "a vital though troublesome distinction," because her family means her parents, not her husband. For migratory fish and some birds, home is where they were born and where they will reproduce, one place with two purposes. For other birds it is only where they raise their young. It is a vital though troublesome distinction. The birds in the latter group, despite their consistency after reaching maturity, may or may not actually be going home.