The Genius of Place

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

— Alexander Pope, Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington

A steep and unaccountable transition from what is called a common sense view of things, to an infinitely expanded and liberating one, from seeing things as men describe them, to seeing them as men cannot describe them.

— Henry David Thoreau

It is venturesome to think that a coordination of words (philosophies are nothing more than that) can resemble the universe very much.

— Jorge Luis Borges

I’ve been reading several thoughtful posts by forestrat on the esthetics of nature. Forestrat is a talented photographer of the natural world, as you can see on his site, and his examination of how we appreciate the wild world has immediacy due to his own experiences in the upstate New York woods where he lives.

There is so much bound up in these questions, but since a youngster I’ve been intrigued by the sense of place, or the lack of it, as part of our relationship with nature.

I was fortunate enough to grow up in the country, real country with the woods all around. I can remember, disconsolate for whatever teenage reasons there were, being determined to head into the forest until I could find a spot I could call my own.

I remember struggling through nettles and past pale-trunked poplars and heavy dark spruce. I wanted that place where I could go and no one could bother me, or even find me. I carried an axe to blaze occasional poplars to mark my progress through the devil’s club and ferns.

Finally, I broke out into a long grassed meadow, full of yellow dandelions and buttercups, one or two fallen logs swathed in sienna grasses. Birds sang back and forth.  Nobody knew where I was. The sun shone and all was right with the world. For at least a teenaged minute or two. But I had found a place that from time to time I would visit, just to survey my domain, and dream about building a cabin and becoming a woodsman or a writer.

Years later I read a book on mythology which talked in airy abstract terms about the meaning of nature in different cultures. The one bit I still remember was the notion of every place having its own small-g god. This made me smile. I began to think and feel about the natural world from a different angle for myself, and not just as an interesting reflection on the ways of distant aboriginals.

This is the whole matter of the spirit of place , of genius loci, a rich subject which once you start to examine it spreads out and touches on aspects of architecture, gardening , the theatre , psychology , mythology, geomancy , ecology, philosophy , archaeology, literature , mysticism, bioregionalism, anthropology , New Age excesses, and artistic vision .

KamloopsMorningSepia

The spirit of place is about the invisible, but not the abstract. It is the unique, distinctive or cherished aspect of some spot on this green earth. It is the part which is felt.

The ancient Romans called it the genius loci, which they took to be the protective spirit of a place. But in the Romans case, they also tended to associate their already well-known gods with specific locations. I’m more interested in the ambiguous, nameless divines of the wild and unassuming places.

MinterPath

The ancient Greeks described this in ways I can relate to better. They had their nymphs , feminine entities, which dwelled mysteriously in ponds and dales, glens and groves, glades and streams, valleys and hills. I love their names: the Auloniads of the pastures, the Napaeae of the mountain valleys, the Dryads of the trees, the Naiads of the lakes and ponds, and the Saraesa of the beautiful wind.

Unfortunately, I have always been more mundane in my perceptions, not able to perceive directly nymphs and leprechauns and fairies peering out at me from the underbrush or from under lily pads. This is probably for the best. This kind of concretization of the spirit of place has always seemed unnecessary to me, although I take pleasure in the imaginative play of it.

Rock Wall

I enjoy imagining some kind of awareness not my own in such places, diffuse and ambiguous though that may be. It is like the writer’s Muse. It may be so strong and evident for some people that they must personify it. For us less sensitive it is just something in the air.

FinnSlough1RAW

Often I find such places are not just wild, but on the interface between human and relatively undisturbed nature. Of course, a garden is a prime example, and perhaps why Alexander Pope’s quote above has been so important for the design of gardens and architecture in the landscape.

Craig Chalquist, who has coined the term “terrapsychology,” describes the process of becoming sensitive to the spirit of place as “listening into the terrain.” Listening is so much more than just using your ears. In t’ai chi ch’uan push hands, for instance, listening through touch is integral to the art. Meditation and prayer are at their core kinds of deep listening. Real listening is a radical openness and stillness, a receptiveness. I’m not there very much, but I know that’s part of what wildness and nature can help us understand.

When I think back, when I stepped out on that sunny open meadow I found during my transition out of boyhood, I remember it with gladness. There was no kindly spirit bent to greet me, at least not in the normal way. But I was greeted, by the spirit of freedom.

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Notes on images:

Photos are my own. From top down, 1) grasslands near Kamloops, BC; 2) Minter Gardens, near Agassiz, BC; 3) a rock wall in a mansion area of Vancouver, BC; and 4) the old community at Finn Slough in Richmond, BC.

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11 Comments on “The Genius of Place”

  1. forestrat Says:

    Thanks for the plug of my blog!

    These are some nice photos. I especially like the one of Finn Slough. The warm colors of the homes and the grasses play off the cooler blue of the sky and the water.

    This spirit of place is certainly something that is hard to fit into Carlson’s natural history framework for natural aesthetics. It is difficult to describe, not learned from text books, yet it is there.

    “To speak truly, few adult persons can see nature. Most persons do not see the sun. At least they have a very superficial seeing. The sun illuminates only the eye of the man, but shines into the eye and the heart of the child. The lover of nature is he whose inward and outward senses are still truly adjusted to each other; who has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” Nature – Ralph Waldo Emerson

    MDW


  2. […] says in Nature; “…the simple perception of natural forms is a delight.” A post by fencer discusses the “spirit of place” in appreciating […]

  3. fencer Says:

    Ralph should be mandatory reading in the school system… I think that quote indirectly addresses the spirit of place that the child in us is more open to, and sees wonder in.

    Regards


  4. If a man is not Free what care has he for the land. As you might imagine I especially like the line you close with. We all need a place that is like a good trip.

  5. fencer Says:

    Hi Mr. Beer,

    Just got back from a trip east. Visited Niagara Falls… the sense of place there remains powerful despite the best efforts to tart it up. An odd place really because of that.

    I was fortunate to grow up in the country… it’s an experience I think the young should at least be exposed to, but beyond the occasional hiking or camping trip, or minor fishing expedition, few of the urban multitudes are.

    Regards

  6. Eliza Says:

    Fencer, I’m one of the “urban multitudes”, I’m afraid. Having said that, our culture has deep respect for the “invisible” elements of a space, and particularly of landscapes au naturel. I have to admit, untamed spaces do intimidate, because of the many unknowns there are. But letting go of certainty, I suppose, could be a pre-requisite in experiencing nature and absorbing the surroundings.

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi Eliza,

    Nice to hear from you!

    I’m kind of a city person these days… live in the suburbs, rarely visit the country myself anymore. I miss getting out there more often.

    Regards


  8. Great post. Great photos. The one of the Kamloops area and the one of Finn Slough are hauntingly beautiful. I like the other ones too, of course.

    In my teens, I used to walk through the Endowment Lands now called Pacific Spirit Park. The place was soothing for jangled teenage nerves. There was so much to see but there was also so much to absorb – the feel of the wind or lack thereof, the smells of the vegetation, the sounds of the trees moving, the birds, the insects, and of water trickling or rushing; the sun filtering through.
    It’s almost impossible to describe the balm that is to the soul; impossible to share that thought with another unless they, too, have experience it.
    There was such a difference between the grassy glades; the trodden paths; the thick spongy mat of rotting cedar logs just off the beaten track; the still pools of marshy waters filled with tadpoles and water striders.
    All the philosophies in the world disappear when you feel at one with the place.

  9. fencer Says:

    Hi lookingforbeauty,

    Thanks for your thoughts, and the description of your own teenage haven… Your last sentence captures it nicely!

    Regards

  10. eyegillian Says:

    I keep coming back to read this post. It reminds me of how I loved the woods when I was growing up, and the favourite spot at the top of a hill in a stand of tall pines — the soft ground and wind’s song in the high branches made it a magical place indeed. I’m enjoying the breadth of your writing, and the photographs are great, too!

  11. fencer Says:

    Hi eyegillian,

    Thanks!

    It’s important, especially for kids, to have experiences and places like that…

    Regards


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