I have my config files in ~/config/emacs which ~/.emacs is symlinked to.

I'm trying to figure out how to make the default "emacs root directory" $HOME in all contexts (unless overridden by a buffer-local variable), whether launching an ansi terminal, launching dired, or anything like that.

$ ls -al .emacs.d | perl -pe 's/^.*([.]emacs[.]d)/$1/'
.emacs.d -> ./config/emacs

My .emacs.d/init.el file contains the following snippet in an attempt to force emacs open stuff like dired and ansi-term in my home directory.

(cd (getenv "HOME"))

How do I change the effective root directory for ansi-term and everything else?

Here's a complete example that should reproduce the surprising behavior I'm talking about on OS X and Linux.

I have a directory ~/tmp/emacs

$ echo '(cd (getenv "HOME"))' > ~/tmp/emacs/cd.el
$ cd /tmp
$ emacs -q -l ~/tmp/emacs/cd.el

And then from inside emacs,

Launch the ansi terminal and accept the default shell

M-x ansi-term C-m C-m

print the current working directory from inside the terminal

$ pwd

I expected working directory to be $HOME.

  • My suggestion would be to use a scalpel instead of a sledge hammer -- i.e., How do I launch Emacs and open a dired-mode buffer in a specific directory from the terminal? How do I launch Emacs and open an ansi-term buffer in a specific directory from the terminal? Etc. All of this can be achieved without altering system-wide or Emacs-session-wide defaults. I find individual solutions to be better than global solutions, that will undoubtedly have corner-cases and cause some problems in the future (some of which will be difficult to trace).
    – lawlist
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 4:00
  • @lawlist I think the sledgehammer is what I'm after. I just want emacs to behave as if it was started somewhere else. The default behavior is great when the path to my .emacs.d/init.el file doesn't contain symlinks. I was actually kind of surprised that emacs considered ~/.emacs.d/.. to be its root/home directory rather than just ~. Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 4:17
  • Once Emacs is open you can set an environmental variable with setenv -- e.g., (setenv "HOME" "/private/tmp"). I don't know if that helps any, but I just tried it in an eshell buffer and was able to cd to the new HOME directory by typing cd ~ after using setenv. You can probably do that while launching Emacs -- there are ways to pass elisp while launching Emacs from the terminal.
    – lawlist
    Commented Sep 12, 2016 at 4:21

1 Answer 1


The answer is easy if you consider that default-directory (the variable returned by pwd) is always buffer local and returns the default directory of the current buffer.

With the following addition, you can watch, what's going on:

(cd (getenv "HOME"))
(message "Current dir: %s" (pwd))
(message "Current buffer: %s" (buffer-name))

Without any file loaded, the file will be executed in the context of the first buffer created and that's *scratch*. After the initialization (and the file loaded with -l belongs to this phase) a new buffer with the start message is created and this one doesn't get the default-directory from the *scratch* buffer.

tl;dr default-directory is per file and changes, when you call ansi-term (or pwd) with another buffer open. cd only changes the default-directory of the current buffer.

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