Monday, July 23, 2007

Genius Loci: the Spirits of Place

Three years ago, I moved from a city famous for its shipping docks to a place in the country. Not only "the country," but the valley where I had grown up. I'd lived for years and years in cities all over the world, and coming back here was a wish that had long gone unfulfilled.

Several things struck me on my return. One was the incredible certainty, which took my city-bred children two years to comprehend, that you can walk in any direction in the country. You are not confined to streets and paths. You may, if you wish, simply set off and go cross-country without worrying about the neighbors (mostly). Though you do have to worry about poison oak.

The other thing that struck me is how different this, the place I live now, is from the place I grew up, only two miles down the road. Microclimate? Or different spirits?

When I was in graduate school, in the unnamed industrial city where I ended up living for ten years, I resided in a rather unhealthy part of town for awhile. I had needed to find a place fast, between my arrival from London and the beginning of classes, and I ended up in one of those divided older houses, with young Rottweiler lovers in both the other apartments, all very nice people (but). The front garden had a six-foot-high, black spiked steel fence around it, with a gate that clanged when people walked through it. There was a small, miserable tree outside the gate, which small (and not-so-small) urban boys worked very hard at, trying to get a stick to play with. Sticks, apparently, are de rigor for boys, regardless of their class and upbringing, and these particular boys were starved for lack of them.

As time went on, the tree acquired a lean. Each spring, it put out fewer leaves. Finally one day, I found it lying on the pavement. We had a suitable funeral, and I pondered how much paved places wring the life out of one's soul. I found myself desperate to walk on grass, and I began planting things in the small, unkempt, barren yard inside the barbaric fence. Despite the dog droppings from the other residents' dogs, and the thrash-metal barbecues they liked to hold in the middle of the yard, where people didn't seem able or willing to watch their feet, I did manage to grow a small selection of bushes and vines. I gave some sweetpea seeds to a junkie woman once, and she almost cried, saying she didn't know what to do with them, holding them like they might break or get lost.

Needless to say, this affected my studies. I found myself reading about gardens, every kind of gardens; and eventually, inevitably, I came across books about the grand English gardeners - Capability Brown, William Kent, and the like. Their "modern" style of landscape gardening was all about improving on what nature should have been, rusticating things and making the views look more natural than natural. They were deeply interested in the idea of the genius loci, or spirit of the place: a location's distinctive atmosphere, the thing that makes it wholly itself. They worked with the way the landscape was already shaped, sometimes introducing new elements or rerouting streams into man-made lakes, all with an eye to emphasizing what was already there. Trees were planted in apparently random, asthetic clumps. Distant fields of sheep were incorporated seamlessly into the foreground by use of Ha-has (I love those to death). This style was the beginning of what came to be an obsession with the Picturesque, meaning, "like a painting."

A ha-ha from below...and above

In its original context, genius loci was the Roman term for the literal protective spirit of a place, this being a common enough conception: think of the roadside shrines in Japan and Bali, India and, long ago, in pre-Christian Europe and Britain. Small statues stand in particular places where people pass through, and as travelers come and partake of the spring or the resting-place, they leave offerings, or simply ask for the blessing of the little god. As time went on, this idea of local gods was no longer considered important. Formal gardens, with geometric layouts and little hedges, became the mode; the genius loci was relegated to a few classical statues placed at discreet intervals or in niches; the concept was lost. However, with the Enlightenment's interest in classical asthetics the term came around again, in the form of an allegory or a metaphor.

The poet Alexander Pope wrote, at around this time:

"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.

After Capability Brown died, his naturalistic style was replaced by the Romantic version of the same thing: gothick ruins, hermitages, and ivy-covered grottos were all the rage. Brown's flexible and mild-mannered genius loci was transformed, via a veritable injection of anxiety, into a more exciting (if faux) Spirit which offered a "sublime thrill" to explorers of the dark and wild gardens of the new era.

For a really brilliant sideline to this, I recommend Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, one of the best plays I have ever seen or read. If you like the things I have been discussing in this blog, you would love this play, all about mathematics, love, chaos theory, Byron, history, death and, of course, landscape design. Mr. Stoppard evokes beautifully the lady of the house's distress at plans to remake her beloved Brownian grounds into something in the Romantic mold, with a ruined tower and creepers.

Another form of landscape arrangement, Feng shui at its base is a form of place-spirit analysis, simplistically speaking, with elements of geomagnetism, astronomy, cardinal direction, and geographical formation working to align human dwellings to the Universe. The ancient Chinese managed, with a minimum of fuss, to deconstruct a somewhat theological concept down to a science of energy flow and geological meaning. Curiously, some of the principles of Feng Shui can be found in many of Brown's gardens.

But to get back to this idea that there are little gods, presences that occupy a place, that give it its character: it is my deep and abiding feeling that perhaps many modern places feel soulless is because they ARE soulless. Think of shopping malls, where the entire landscape has been mashed into shape, flattened into generic-ness.

Think of those bad parts of town: do they have landmarks? Trees, large stones, hills? For the most part, and I dare you to come up with examples otherwise, ghettos and slums are in the flat parts of town. They're the most paved parts. They have the fewest, or the smallest, trees. How about those projects, where the poor are crammed into faceless apartment blocks, with weedy, untended, unused yards? The landscape has lost its face; the genius loci has fled, taking its protection with it.

Okay, I'm being political here, but it's not impossible to fix. Look at this wonderful piece of "intervention", or public performance (?) art, by a group called Rebar. The piece is called Park(ing). Rebar claims it is "Providing temporary public open space in a privatized part of town."

After Rebar did this first piece, other people PARK(ed) in cities all over the world. It's one of the coolest ideas I've seen for combatting urban depression. A portable genius loci!

In concept, I think genius loci can be a lot like mana, as I discussed in a previous post: the more a place is used, polished, loved, allowed to be itself, the more it will create itself, allow itself to grow a soul.

And these souls, these spirits can be very, very small, the genius loci of a waterfall or a knoll or even simply a hidden, sweet corner of an alley (under the fire escape, behind those potted plants). Some, of course, are vast, like the ones at Yosemite Valley, where staff work tirelessly keeping the local genii locii (?) from getting trampled.

In the valley where I live, there is a grave, quite old and all alone, tucked into the corner of a side-valley. Whoever it is who died and was buried there is now a small spirit of that place. People who don't know her, riding past on their horses, leave small handfuls of dried grasses and other things, to thank her for being in that place, making it special. Then there's the huge oak tree on a knoll, high above the valley, all alone, with a trunk the width of a king-sized bed. It stands, shading the mushrooms and irises who grow there, and its massive limbs house some kind of spirit, I am certain - though some long-ago fool carved the word "SUE" into the bark, thus naming the poor spirit for generations to come.

In any case, I think the current craze for small fountains and hidden benches in tiny urban gardens is an attempt, albeit unconscious, by the residents to invite, gently and hesitantly, some sprite or minor god to come and settle, to sit and stay awhile. You build a fountain to delight their ears, put in some fragrant roses in brilliant colors; like hummingbirds, fleet and delicate, they'll come to smell, to listen, to look at the lovely lines and shades you've made with your planting choices. In the end, if you're lucky, you'll make the place comfortable enough and beautiful enough that one of those vanquished spirits might, with a little coaxing, consent to stay.

They need us as much as we need them.


theskyfullofdust said...

These posts are one of the highlights of my day, so thank you. I think my new bland and souless office needs a spirit. Better get out and find one. And The Invention of Hugo Cabret has been added to my wishlist. Thanks again.

Anonymous said...

I lived, for a few years, on the Dumbiedykes housing scheme in Edinburgh. It has a bad reputation for drugs and prostitution - and it's built on the side of a hill. It's heavily paved, yes, but each block of flats is split-level, and its alleyways are flights of stairs. There's also plenty of green space. Despite that, though, it's still part of the city that most people avoid - maybe because before the current scheme was built in the early 70s, it was one of the city's worst slums.

Heather McDougal said...

Oh, good! I'm so happy to hear it.

Be aware that the Invention of Hugo Cabret is a kid's book...but still really cool.

Good luck with your office.

Heather McDougal said...

...Getting mixed together here.

About the housing estate in Edinburgh: Interesting. Perhaps this thing about putting the poor on the flats is an American thing?

Anonymous said...

That was a lovely post. I've been reading this blog ever since Mr. Gaiman linked it last week. My list of wonderful net-mentors grows.

Scott said...

Wonderful post, I was reminded of Simon Schama's wonderful book Landscape and Memory. Humanity's relationship with nature and how our viewpoint's are affected by the environment around us are fascinating subjects.

Heather McDougal said...

Yes, I looked that one up on Amazon; it does indeed look wonderful. I might have to put that one on my wish list. Thanks for the recommendation!

(You can find it at

Anonymous said...

I'm living in a small college town right now with it's own genus loci - artwork. On many of the buildings and down many alleys there is commissioned work, murals done by schools and community groups, and even funny, interesting grafiti. It strikes me a strange and wonderful that this town has so much more community artwork than other's I've lived in, and even in the worse parts of downtown it gives the impression of a "spirit", a community of people who care.

Anonymous said...

Having read your blog for some months, I can safely say that this is my favourite article so far. Congratulations on a beautiful and inspiring piece of writing.

Heather McDougal said...

Thank you so much! It's something I've thought about for ten years or more, but it also goes to show what happens when you write about your passions: people respond...

Rekre8 said...

Has everyone reading this and enjoying it discovered Charles DeLint yet? Spiritwalk, the Little County, Memory & Dream - haunt the used bookstores for these.

Alana Dill said...

I found your blog because I also have a deep desire for a gypsy vardo wagon. Stayed to read about the genius loci and deeply appreciate this article. Gave me some insight to something that's troubled me lately - why have I lost my lifelong interest in gardening? It's just gone. I need to get outside more, I think.

As for putting the poor on a hill... that makes sense for older cities where the rich would live in the easiest places to access, while the poor had to trudge up and downhill to get home and back. (I'm talking post medieval stuff, not the feudal system where lords lived on the defensible hilltops).

And in newer cities, the rich could flaunt their access to superior and personal transportation uphill to where the "views" are, while the poor shared cars, buses and trolleys.
This is just a guess...
thanks for your wonderful blog.