Tunes for a Monday Morning
The places that claim us

Knowing our place

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Continuing last week's conversation on the connection between our interior and exterior landscapes, here's a passage from Sharon Blackie's fine book The Enchanted Life:

"We think of ourselves as 'in' landscape, but sometimes we forget that landcape is also in us. We are formed by the ground we walk on: that which lies beneath our feet. That which holds us, supports us, feeds us. Ground is where we stand, the foundation for our lives. Whether its hard and cold or warm and soft, ground is the foundation of our being in the world.

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"Ground is the safe place at the heart of us; we 'go to ground' when we are trying to hide or escape from something which is hurting us. We 'hold our ground' when we stand firm against something which challenges or threatens us. We 'have an ear to the ground' when we are properly paying attention to what is going on around us. To 'keep our feet on the ground' is to be realistic, not to get too big for our boots. Without ground, we are nothing.

"Some pieces of ground are also 'places.' To find our ground, then, is to find our place -- but what makes ground into a place is so much more than just a defined (or confined) location. Places have their own distinct names, features, landforms, environmental conditions -- but places are more than just physical: they are reflections of the human cultures which formed from them and belong to them.

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"As human animals who are inextricably enmeshed in the world around us, it is hardly surprising that the nature of our relationship with our places is critical to our ideas about who we are, and what it might be possible for us to become. We construct the daily texture of our lives and our systems of meaning in relation to our places: they are part of our existence, intrinsic to our being; they are more fundamental to us than the language we speak, the jobs we hold, the buildings we live in and the things we possess. It's in our places that we come face to face with (or sometimes, perhaps, choose to turn away from) the bright face of the Earth to which we belong. The need to make sense of, and find meaning in, our relationship to the places we inhabit is a fundamental and universal part of the human journey in this world.

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"To put it quite simply, we cannot be human without the land. Our humanity cannot exist in isolation: it requires a context, and its context is this wide Earth that supports us, and the non-human others who share it with us.

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"Every ecology, every community of plants and animals and soil, has its own particular kind of personality, or intelligence, which affects the people who live in it many different ways. We all know it; we feel it in the places we live, and we feel it especially as we move around the planet. Modern science might use different words, but it tells us exactly the same thing: the topography of a place, its weather, the flora and fauna which inhabit it alongside us -- all these aspects of a place contribute to the character and sense of identity of the people who live there. The experience of inhabiting high, bare granite hills bears little similarity to the experience of inhabiting lush, grassy, chalk downlands; to occupy a city, with its manufactured concrete floors and walls, shapes you in an altogether different way.

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"Psychologist Carl Jung called this process of shaping 'the conditioning of the mind by the earth': every country, he said, along with the people who belong to it, is characterized by a collective attitude or state of mind called the spiritus loci. 'The soil of every country holds...mystery,' he wrote. 'We have an unconscious reflection of this in the psyche.' "

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"I have lived in several countries, and spent time in many different landscapes during my life," Blackie notes, "and each in its own way has left its mark on me. Inside me is [a remote Scottish island] on which I once became stranded, castaway; on which I merged so deeply with the oldest, hardest rock on the planet that I feared petrification. But inside me too is the gentleness of the rain-haunted west of Ireland, and the dense silence of a misty early morning bog. There is a stripped-to-the-bone south-western American desert, fierce sun laying bare all my imagined inadequacies; there are lush green oak-groves in an ancient Breton wood where Merlin sleeps still, trapped in a tree. I am a collection of all the landscapes I have loved.

"I have never been rainforest, though, and I could never be jungle -- there is nothing of me or mine in those humid, colourful, shouting places. And isn't this true for so many of us? That there is a single kind of landscape in which we feel a sense of homecoming; a particular kind of landscape in which we feel so much more whole? For the lucky ones among us, those are the landscapes in which we finally have come to rest; for others, they're the hauntingly vivid landscapes of the imagination which never quite let us go.

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"What surprises me still, perhaps, is that so many of us can resonate so deeply with a landscape we've imagined, but to which we've never actually been. In his masterful book Space and Place, geographer Yi-Fu Tuan offers the example of C.S. Lewis, a lifelong devotee of the far north. As we can clearly see from the vividly portrayed winterlands of his Narnia chronicles, Lewis loved the idea of 'northerness.' It was, Tuan says, a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of northern summer which drew him, and which appealed to something very deep in his psyche. But not only did Lewis never live in northern lands -- he never even travelled to the extreme north.

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"We think we imagine the land," she concludes, "but perhaps the land imagines us, and in its imagining it shapes us. The exterior landscape interacts with our interior landscape, and in the resulting entanglements, we become something more than we otherwise could ever hope to be."

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The Enchanted Life by Sharon Blackie

Words: The passage above is from The Enchanted Life: Unlocking the Magic of the Everyday by Sharon Blackie (September Publishing, 2018). The poem in the picture captions is from Rounding the Human Corners by Chickasaw poet Linda Hogan (Coffee House Press, 2008). All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: Waterfalls swelled with winter rains on our greening, dreaming hillside.

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