Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Genius Loci: "Highly Resonant Connections"

On a different topic (or is it, really?), I remember writing in my journal once: "If love was a pie, romantic love would be one piece". Now I want to add: "If relationships were a pie, relationships with other people would be one piece". Granted, a large piece. But there are others, and I don't think I've written about them nearly enough. If you're still not sure what I'm talking about, here are some examples: Relationships with the self, with ideas, with higher powers (if you believe in them), with the natural world, with animals, and with place. Relationships with place are my special interest. I've always had a sensitivity towards place, which made me feel weird and somewhat alone. But maybe I'm not. Craig Chalquist writes in the (fantastic) compilation Ecotherapy:

When I began to study places in California, I dreamed about them, not just as scenery, but as imaginal figures: personifications actively greeting me, cautioning me, or telling me of things I had missed while visiting. Our surroundings are part of the psychological ground of our experience...Aboriginal peoples have always sensed this, hence the frequent mention of sacred sites and nature spirits in the ancient myths. In recent work a new vocabulary has begun to evolve to express these deep, symbolically rich, and highly resonant connections psychologically. "I think, therefore I am" might be true for computers, but as embodied humans deeply situated, we are because we are somewhere, a somewhere not dead or inert but addressing and informing us continually. (pg 80)

The Romans had a term, "genius loci", which roughly means "the spirit of a place". When I first heard that term, it meant a lot to me. Sort of like discovering the word "asexuality" but on a smaller scale. I had never known how to explain my extreme love and hate for places, which were things that most people seemed to move through without comment. My usual format of non-blog writing is poetry, and what I consider my best poems all come from "the spirit of a place". It's very inspiring to me. There are allusions to genius loci in our culture from time to time, but it seems like a thing that is rarely addressed head-on.

Relationships with places are similar to relationships with people, in that no place is the same for any two people. It speaks to how differently we all interpret the world, since it's not like a place can act differently in the presence of some people. Love for place happens on a very deep level surpassing logic, similar to, I would imagine, romantic love. For example, even though I've never lived in New York, I have a great love for that city. I think the fact that me, my parents, and my grandparents were all born there has something to do with it. And reading the newsletter from my college study abroad program, I learned that there seems to be a pattern of people having strong, life-long loves for the places where they studied abroad. Would we love those places in the same way if we'd gone there on a business trip or vacation?

It can be edifying to have a relationship with something that may still be there long after you're gone. And what we love about places can give us information about our most deeply-held values. But relationships with places can be difficult for many reasons. How many people's favorite place has been altered or destroyed due to greed or indifference? In Ecotherapy, there was an anecdote about a therapy client who was beside herself with grief when a forest that she loved was clear-cut. In fact, there are several similar anecdotes in the book. Nature often gives a place its meaning; I can't imagine many people are passionate about parking lots (although they can have a surreal beauty). I'd like to think that if there was more acknowledgment in our culture of genius loci, it would have positive ecological consequences.

So, what places do you love? And if you know, why?


Anonymous said...

I love my home city, Melbourne.

It's not just because I live nearby - honestly, I'm not sure why I love it so much. It has a fantastic dedication to the arts, which helps, but I could go to the city just to sit and think and I'd be happy.

Eli said...

I love the city I live in now! I was born here, but my parents moved us away when I was 5. I got my first job and apartment here after college, and even before I knew I was ace (well, knew there was a word for it) I always joked my city was my only boyfriend. Today is actually the official second anniversary of my move here:)

Ally said...

I am in love with the city of London, England. This has been since I was very tiny, five or six years old. I can't remember where it started, but most children's books I read took place there, and I always imagined it must be a pretty amazing place. As I grew, the movies I watched and books I listened to were mostly British.

When I was 22, I had a really bad year, and I had to leave college. Since I knew I had to pay back my student loan anyway, I took the bit that was left, and a credit card, and finally FINALLY went to London for vacation. I can't explain how it felt, to finally be there. It's like when you have this old crappy car and one speaker is a few seconds behind the other? You get used to everything being just a little bit out of sync. Coming to London for the first time was like suddenly, I could hear clearly, I was moving in step with the rest of the world. It still feels like that every time, and I've been back twice now.