Tag Archives: Sense of Place

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.

(Almost) Wordless Wednesday

This time of year, my thoughts turn to the safety (and mirth) found under the hills, inside the lodge, alongside my neighbors.




Monday Poetry Blogging — Southern Song by Margaret Walker


Southern Song

~ Margaret Walker

I want my body bathed again by southern suns, my soul
        reclaimed again from southern land. I want to
        again in southern fields, in grass and hay and
        bloom; to lay my hand again upon the clay baked
by a
        southern sun, to touch the rain-soaked earth
and smell
        the smell of soil.

I want my rest unbroken in the fields of southern earth;
        freedom to watch the corn wave silver in the
sun and
        mark the splashing of a brook, a pond with
ducks and
        frogs and count the clouds.

I want no mobs to wrench me from my southern rest; no
        forms to take me in the night and burn my shack
        make for me a nightmare full of oil and flame.

I want my careless song to strike no minor key; no fiend to
        stand between my body’s southern song–the
fusion of
        the South, my body’s song and me.

I like this poem for its sense of place: both good and bad. And, I really, really love the final line of this poem: “the fusion of the South — my body’s song and me.”

Is there a poem with a final line that always grabs you?

Picture found here.

We’re All Standing on the “Self-Defining Ground of the Slave Quarter” Today


On a day when I found, as a Southern American and a member of the Supreme Court bar, a lot to cry about, chef and historian Michael Twitty‘s letter to cooking show personality Paula Deen brought a different kind of tear to my eye. As is often the case, Twitty’s writing begins and ends with the creation and preservation of a sense of place.

You, just like me cousin, stand squarely on what late playwright August Wilson called, “the self defining ground of the slave quarter.” There and in the big house kitchen, Africa, Europe and Native America(s) melded and became a fluid genre of world cuisine known as Southern food. Your barbecue is my West African babbake, your fried chicken, your red rice, your hoecake, your watermelon, your black eyed peas, your crowder peas, your muskmelon, your tomatoes, your peanuts, your hot peppers, your Brunswick stew and okra soup, benne, jambalaya, hoppin’ john, gumbo, stewed greens and fat meat—have inextricable ties to the plantation South and its often Black Majority coming from strong roots in West and Central Africa.

. . .

[Noting that his studies of Southern cooking have taught him the value of reconciliation, Twitty contnues:] I would like to invite you to a gathering at a historic antebellum North Carolina plantation. We are doing a fundraiser dinner for Historic Stagville, a North Carolina Historic Site. One of the largest in fact, much larger than the one owned by your great-grandfather’s in Georgia. 30,000 acres once upon a time with 900 enslaved African Americans working the land over time. They grew tobacco, corn, wheat and cotton. I want you to walk the grounds with me, go into the cabins, and most of all I want you to help me cook. Everything is being prepared using locally sourced food, half of which we hope will come from North Carolina’s African American farmers who so desperately need our support. Everything will be cooked according to 19th century methods. So September 7, 2013, if you’re brave enough, let’s bake bread and break bread together at Historic Stagville. This isn’t publicity this is opportunity. Leave the cameras at home. Don’t worry, it’s cool, nobody will harm you if you’re willing to walk to the Mourner’s Bench. Better yet, I’ll be there right with you.

You should read the whole thing.

Paula Deen should go.

Picture found here.

Tuesday Evening Poetry Blogging


~ David Whyte

There are places that seem
to expect us:
to take us in like pilgrims
from the way ahead
to tell us suddenly
and without fanfare
of a new beginning
made out of nothing
but the way we got here . . . .

– from Pilgrim

Friday Poetry Blogging

Mid-August at Sourdough Mountain Lookout

~ Gary Snyder

Down valley a smoke haze
Three days heat, after five days rain
Pitch glows on the fir-cones
Across rocks and meadows
Swarms of new flies.

I cannot remember things I once read
A few friends, but they are in cities.
Drinking cold snow-water from a tin cup
Looking down for miles
Through high still air.

Picture found here.

Digging* Ditches

Here’s a wonderful article about how children develop an attachment to nature and a sense of place. The entire thing is very well worth a read.

Most environmentalists attributed their commitment to a combination of two sources, “many hours spent outdoors in a keenly remembered wild or semi-wild place in childhood or adolescence, and an adult who taught respect for nature.” Lots of time rambling in neighborhood woods and fields and a parent or teacher who cared about nature were frequently cited as causal forces in the development of their own environmental ethics. In his autobiography about growing up in Denver, lepidopterist Robert Michael Pyle describes the urban semi-wild place the inspired him.

“My own point of intimate contact with the land was a ditch. Growing up on the wrong side of Denver to reach the mountains easily and often, I resorted to the tattered edges of the Great Plains, on the back side of town. There I encountered a century-old irrigation channel known as the High Line Canal. Without a doubt, most of the elements of my life flowed from that canal.

From the time I was six, this weedy watercourse had been my sanctuary, playground and sulking walk. It was also my imaginary wilderness, escape hatch, and birthplace as a naturalist. Later, the canal served as lover’s lane, research site and holy ground of solace. Over the years, I studied its natural history, explored much of its length, watched its habitats shrink as the suburbs grew up around it, and tried to help save some of its best bits…Even when living in national parks, in exotic lands, in truly rural country side, I’ve hankered to get back to the old ditch whenever I could …

Even if they don’t know “my ditch,” most people I speak with seem to have a ditch somewhere—or a creek, meadow, wood lot or marsh—that they hold in similar regard. These are places of initiation, where the borders between ourselves and other creatures break down, where the earth gets under our nails and a sense of place gets under our skin…. It is through close and intimate contact with a particular patch of ground that we learn to respond to the earth, to see that it really matters… Everyone has a ditch, or ought to. For only the ditches—and the fields, the woods, the ravines—can teach us to care enough for the land.” (Pyle, 1993)

Did you have a ditch? I had a small creek that ran through an undeveloped area about a half a mile or so from our house. On weekends, after I finished my chores, I would walk down to the creek. It was, yes, a place for an INTJ to be alone, as I was almost never alone in my crowded home, but it was also where I developed a special relationship with nature and the first “place” with which I developed a strong relationship.

[A]nthropologist Edith Cobb reviewed the autobiographies of 300 European geniuses and found that many of them described similar kinds of experiences in childhood.

“My position is based upon the fact that the study of the child in nature, culture and society reveals that there is a special period, the little understood, pre pubertal, halcyon, middle age of childhood, approximately from five or six to eleven or twelve, between the strivings of animal infancy and the storms of adolescence—when the natural world is experienced in some highly evocative way, producing in the child a sense of some profound continuity with natural processes. . . .”

It is principally to this middle-age range in their early life that these writers say they return in memory in order to renew the power and impulse to create at its very source, a source which they describe as the experience of emerging not only into the light of consciousness but into a living sense of a dynamic relationship with the outer world. In these memories the child appears to experience a sense of discontinuity, an awareness of his own unique separateness and identity, and also a continuity, a renewal of relationship with nature as process.

As the linked article goes on to explain, such experiences aren’t limited to geniuses. Many children between the ages of 7 and 14 experience a relationship with the natural world — often with stones, trees, rivers, sunlight, etc. While children, many lack the vocabulary to describe what they experience and, to be honest, many adults struggle with this, as well.

One 40-year-old woman described her experience this way:

“When I was about eleven years old, I spent part of a summer holiday in the Wye Valley. Waking up very early one bring morning, before any of the household was about, I left my bed and went to kneel on the window-seat, to look out over the curve which the river took just below the house…The morning sunlight shimmered on the leaves of the trees and on the rippling surface of the river. The scene was very beautiful, and quite suddenly I felt myself on the verge of a great revelation. It was if I had stumbled unwittingly on a place where I was not expected, and was about to be initiated into some wonderful mystery, something of indescribable significance. Then, just as suddenly, the feeling faded. But for the brief seconds while it lasted, I had known that in some strange way I, the essential ‘me’, was a part of the trees, of the sunshine, and the river, that we all belonged to some great unity. I was left filled with exhilaration and exultation of spirit. This is one of the most memorable experiences of my life, of a quite different quality and greater intensity than the sudden lift of the spirit one may often feel when confronted with beauty in Nature.”

I’d be fascinated to see a study that compared how many Pagans had such experiences as children with members of other religions. I can’t help but think that, for many of us, the discovery of Paganism provided a language to describe what we knew to be true and a validation of experiences that, especially as they often go undiscussed or are even actively discouraged, we didn’t even know other people had.

*To dig: Understand, enjoy, really get into. It’s true, I’m old and no longer hip. But I’m happy to be in that company with Langston Hughes who wrote, “My motto, as I live and learn, is: Dig and Be Dug In Return.” I like to think that the creek dug that odd little girl as much as she dug the creek.

Picture found here.

Caledonia’s Been Everything I’ve Ever Had