Growing a Sense of Place


Recently, there’s been some wonderful writing coming out of the Pagan blogosphere concerning the practice of being in active relationship with a specific place. The phrase “sense of place” keeps coming up, and, while I haven’t seen a good definition for it, I’m reminded of Justice Stewart’s holding that, although he might not be able to define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. See Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

Wendell Berry, who says of our relationship to the land that “it all turns on affection,” and that “We do not have to live as if we are alone,” writes movingly about living on the same farm that his grandparents worked. Neis Linde writes about being in relationship with the same bit of land for many years. Their experience is deep and informative, but, for many Americans, in general, and many Pagans, in particular, living in the same place for a long time isn’t a genuine option (this may, in fact, be in the process of becoming more and more an issue of sex and class). Most of us move a time or two as children, go away to college, move somewhere else to work, and then move any number of times as we and/or our partners find different jobs, as we move into better housing, as our parents age, as we decide where [we can afford] to retire.

I’ve been thinking lately about what set of skills are involved in establishing a relationship with a new place. I won’t pretend that any set of magical/meditational skills can replace long years spent observing, working with, doing magic on, and talking to the same place; knowing that your ancestors planted that tree or this vegetable garden; or looking forward to being buried under the lilac bush that you planted or next to your parents, grandparents, great aunts. [Landscape Guy and I have both spent years and years being in relationship with our own Bits of Earth, but we both acknowledged last night, over LG’s delicious stew, that when we die or sell, both of our places will almost certainly be torn down and turned into McMansions or townhomes.]

But what is it that a Pagan can do to establish a relationship with a place, even if for only for a short time?? My “Place Without a Witch” series is an attempt to explore how a Witch learns a new place, but Gemmy’s story may not be too helpful to someone who knows, going in, that s/he’s only going to be in a place for a very short time. I’ll probably keep working on this for years, and maybe, someday, it will even provide a bit of guidance for my son’s son’s sons who make the leap to other planets, but I do have a few current suggestions:

1. Learn what you can. The local government has a website, as does the local historical society, the local extension service, the local (notice a pattern?) garden club/food bank/UU group. Subscribe (via dead trees or dead coal) to the local newspaper. Look at local maps. Befriend an older neighbor who likes to talk. Visit a local cemetery. Take pictures. Sketch. Invite the ancestors of the place in and dance.

2. Bring a Bit of Earth with you. Even on the 50th floor of a highrise temp apartment, high above a sea of concrete, you can bring a terrarium full of beloved mosses and plants, a treasured bonsai tree, a kitchen-window pot of herbs with you and that can serve as your connection to the Earth.

3. Find a place. Even from a highrise, you can find a local park, a nearby stream, the hellstrip between the sidewalk and the street, the weird bit of dirt off of a parking lot. Save your coffee grounds and take them there as an offering. Bring water. Observe. Feed the animals who show up. Talk.

4. And, perhaps most importantly, find a tree. It turns out that trees really do love us and want us to be happy. We should want the same for them.

What suggestions would you add?

Picture of Muir Woods by the blogger; if you copy, please link back.

4 responses to “Growing a Sense of Place

  1. Establish a regular routine of ritual.

  2. Yes. Find a tree. Since my divorce 8 years ago, I have moved 5 times. Finding a tree in each place and trading comfort and love with it has kept me sane. And the trees seem to enjoy it, too.

  3. On average across my 77 years I’ve relocated every five years or so but, with a few exceptions, always within my home state of Oregon.

    Even though I always establish a connection with my new ‘place’, per your suggestion, I have also over time compensated for these disruptions by selecting a few non-personal locales here and there as sanctuaries for reflection, meditation and re-connection with that-which-is that I visit from time to time.

    One of my favorites now that I live in the southern part of my state are the remaining Redwood groves along the coast of northern California – walking and sitting deep among these great trees is indeed a spiritual experience.

  4. Those ‘hell strips’, the urban streams and the bits of waste ground on the corner are so much in need of our magick.

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