A shadow fell across the earth yesterday. Not an all-encompassing darkness. Not a clear round shadow tracking its path across the earth. Instead, more of a weird pale diffusion of the light that streams to earth. Look up - shove those black plastic glasses on - and you could see the pale orange halo of fire around a circle of darkness. How strange that our moon, that silver sphere of powdery rock, could - by some whim of physics and geometry - be the exact distance and diameter to temporarily eclipse the sun.
Eclipse-watchers lay flat in the back of pickup trucks, sprawled on hillsides with bottles of wine, sand-angeled in the desert. All gazing up at the sky. All hushed in awe, in reverence, in worship of the planets in the sky. Under the crepe myrtles - or where my colleague held out a plastic colander - the concrete flickered with hundreds of dancing crescents of light. Each burst of light mimicking the sun and moon, coinciding again for the first time in 99 years.
Does it really take an event of cosmic grandeur to draw the attention of modern screen-savvy air-conditioned Americans to the natural world? Our continent is full of incredible beauty. The giant redwoods are here, guarding our Pacific shores. The Rocky Mountains rise craggily up above the western plains. The Mississippi surges, muddy brown, in an unforgettable swath through the middle of our continent. The Everglades fringe our southeastern shores. Why do we sever the beauty of landscape from our daily experience?
Back when every human had a daily struggle with the physical world, we held a different understanding of landscape. Rather than thinking of ourselves as something separate to nature, humans had an embodied daily relationship to the places where the lived, the other beings with which they shared the landscape, and the cycles of weather and light which shaped experience of each day. Native American First Peoples are perhaps the most obvious examples of cultures which saw humans completely enmeshed in a network of beings and ecological systems - not separate from the landscapes in which they lived. (Listen to Robin Wall Kimmerer’s conversation on “The Intelligence in all Kinds of Life” with Krista Tippett of the podcast On Being for a thoughtful perspective on Potawatomi beliefs about humans’ relationship to landscape.)
Animism (“the belief that natural objects, natural phenomena, and the universe itself possess souls” per Dictionary.com) isn’t restricted to First Peoples Americans. Across the globe, humans have ascribed spiritual power to specific landscapes and landscape elements. In the Japanese Shinto tradition, specific landscape elements such as rivers and stones were said to host the spirits of gods, known as kami. (GOTO, S. & NAKA (2015). JAPANESE GARDENS: symbolism and design, pg 65) In Balinese Hinduism, the landscape is understood through the lens of a sacred orientation - called the kaja-kelod axis. Kaja is the direction of the mountains (where the gods live), kelod is the direction of the ocean - where the mysteries and evil reside. Such an understanding of the landscape is augmented by beliefs in the sacred nature of specific landscape elements. Banyan trees (Ficus benghalensis), for example are believed to host the god Krishna, since he rested in one of its leaves in between destroying and recreating the universe. And, of course, most familiar in the western garden design tradition - the Roman tradition of Genius loci, or guardian spirit of a place.
During the late classical revival in England, British designers and thinkers appropriated the idea of the genius loci and interpreted it - not as the persona of a deity that inhabited a place, but as the body of qualities that make that place unique. Alexander Pope’s Moral Essays, Epistle VI “Of the Use of Riches”, a long-winded satirical poem on the follies of extravagance in architecture and landscape design, signifies the transition of the idea from that of personhood to abstract qualities of a landscape:
“Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale,
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and as you work designs.”
In contemporary landscape architecture parlance, that’s “consider drainage, grading, and the surrounding landscape”. Not exactly profound insight.
Today, the terms Genius loci and “spirit of place” are used generically to describe the character of a landscape. Ted Relph has a full website, Placeness.com, devoted to exploring this concept. Lawrence Durrell wrote a full book about the topic in 1969, titled Spirit of Place. So did Christian Norberg-Schulz. Kevin Lynch looked at specific qualities of place in cities.
This proliferation of study and discussion demonstrates that designers and planners are attempting to create places with the same emotional tug as memorable natural landscapes. But, somehow, our human works don’t have the same impacts. Maybe we’re all animists at heart. Regardless of our struggle, the universe’s wonders continue to eclipse our human efforts with their awe-inspiring beauty.