The Search For Home
Part 3: Sense of Place
by Jesse Wolf Hardin (www.animacenter.org)
“…the loss of…. places makes up a loss of ‘world.’ Modern man becomes ‘worldless,’ and thus loses his own identity, as well as the sense of community and participation. Existence is experienced as ‘meaningless,’ and man becomes ‘homeless’ because he does not any longer belong to a meaningful totality. Moreover he becomes ‘careless,’ since he does not feel the urge to protect and cultivate a world any more.” – Christian Norberg-Schultz
Our quest to rediscover home/wholeness involves a journey into the present, into the body, and finally into the land itself.
This “land” is fully everything not made alien by our kind, by our design. First and foremost it is the very ground, undulating beneath the pavement, breathing deeply through the cracks in the sidewalks and the stretches of suburban yards. It’s the flesh of plant and animal and rock, of all that’s come before us reconstituted into the heated soil of the garden and the dirt that always finds its way beneath our fingernails. It is the ground that grows the food we eat, but even more close to home, it is what holds up our houses, the terra firma that supports our being and without which we would be left floating in the air, nothing more than an etheric possibility lost without the ground to manifest through and on.
No wonder when someone makes a statement without foundation in truth, it’s said to be “groundless.” Before an electrician turns on the power, he first “grounds” it to the actual soil. All life depends on the microbes active within the earth, and we’d quickly perish if for some reason they were to go extinct. Like Macbeth trying in vain to wash his hands of any evidence of the unpleasant deed, we say we are “soiled” and scrub away at the dirt on our bodies, at the evidence of our organic source and eventual earthly conclusion. When someone is particularly unassuming, relaxed, plain spoken and in obvious relationship with the rudiments of living, we say they are “down to earth.”
The quality, the expression and fact that is “land” is so much more than ground. It includes and extends into the grass braving life in the tended dividers between lanes of speeding traffic, the trees reaching towards the sky, and into the birds that fly there now. This land is not just a part of the whole, but claims as its own the giant sequoias and the fish of the sea, all the natural wonders of the world. And you. And me. As humans it is we that are part and parcel of a greater entity, in a membership replete with inherent benefits and duties.
So just what is place, then? Asked to give examples of places, most of us in modern society would respond with a list of cities (New York, Los Angeles), countries (the United States, Germany, India), or continents (North America, Europe), essentially the monikers found on any world map. It’s less likely we’ll mention the small town or inner city neighborhood where we grew up, as if to really be a “place” it must be large enough and distinct enough to be readily recognizable as such by others. Fewer still would answer with a description of natural environs (southern Ozark bottom lands, Utah canyonlands, northern Pacific coastland), or a list of specific and personal points of our own connection/reconnection (the ocean cliffs below Trinidad, the grassy spot at the foot of the giant pine in so-and-so’s back yard…).
Had I been asked to name some places while still a young runaway, I would have said “The park, the local hangout, the beach at Zuma Cove,” and some years before that I’d have went on and on about “my room” and “my backyard,” or even more particularly, “under my bed, in the closet, behind Mom’s lilac bush.” Before the names of distant cities and countries meant anything at all to us, “place” was experienced as those nested haunts where we could see out but nobody else could see in, tiny places the shifting boundaries of which one could reach out and touch, with its being and character known in this way. For the young, places remain close-at-hand, personal, protective, and somewhat exclusive. Places are special.
Whether large or small, whatever we come to think of as a “place” will seem to have specific if mutable borders. The secret habitats of our younger years were bounded by the walls of our closet and the light that slivers through the cracks in the door, by the leafy arms of concealing rhododendrons and the encircling boughs of park trees. Neighborhoods are bordered by major boulevards or railroad tracks, by subtle or extreme shifts in the prevailing architecture, lifestyles or cultural makeup of the predominate population. Likewise in Nature, where so-called life zones are demarcated by the at-times abrupt transition from timberless alpine peaks to evergreen forests, from piñon/juniper slopes to high desert or valley grassland. Bioregions may contain one or several different life zones, but can be defined by the direction the rains run off its land, the major rivers or distinctive landforms that seem to distinguish one place from another. In addition, every region is defined by the character and effects of its “places of power”: specific mountain ranges, lakes or ancient sites long acknowledged as places conducive to the focusing of intent, spiritual revelation or inner peace. Indeed, their power seems more accessible, our experience more intense because of their unusual topography, localized energies, or the effects of the acknowledgment, devotion and guardianship of countless generations of indigenous peoples… but the ability of the land to affect us, any land, depends largely on the receptivity of the individual. Our experience of the power of place intensifies in direct proportion to our ability and willingness to perceive, to feel, to heal. Once we’re truly open to it, there is no building that can defeat its pull, no fragment of uncovered land no matter how small or contained, unable to gift us with inspiration and power.
(We welcome you to share this piece as you like)
(Photos of Animá Center (c)2008 by Jesse Wolf Hardin)