Despite the ticks and the bowhunters I went up into the woods the other day, simply because I missed them. Near the end of the hike, I recognized I had been thinking a type of thought I had not recently had. I wondered if the last instance had also been the last time I walked in the woods. Rough estimate, yes. Had the environment encouraged me down certain trails of contemplation? In this case it was the whole life trajectory of near relatives, some still alive, some deceased, but there are other topics that I would include with it in mood, that I had to admit “I haven’t thought about those in a while.”
If place can so strongly influence our thoughts it suggests that setting aside areas as sacred is valid, and that we should make some effort to do so. In my case some typically sacred areas leave me cold. Outdoor chapels at summer camp are much admired and camp people seem to feel strongly about them, but that never worked for me, not as a child and not now. I worry that “natural” settings may actually distract people from contemplating God to contemplating only a few aspects of Him, which could lead to regarding those aspects as most important. Worship spaces of architectural beauty are mixed for me. Some work and some don’t. Starting off on a journey alone, by car or on foot, is usually a time of worship for me, as is completion. I am certain that would not be true on a bicycle.
Areas of seriousness or contemplation may not be enough. I suspect those imitations are frequently used by intellectual folks, who are pleased to be pulled out of their daily grind into deeper thoughts, equating that with the spiritual and worshipful. Yet worship is sometimes intellectually deep, sometimes not (as in the Cider and Carols video of “Joy to the World,” below. Wonderfully valid. Not much intellect at that particular moment, nor should there be.) We should be intentional about what places we choose to put ourselves in. Location may be a prayer posture of a sort.
This is what the ancients called genius loci or spirit of place. They of course thought that all places had a tutelary or guardian spirit, and that this spirit could at times converse with a human, as when the spirit of the Tiber spoke with Aeneas. As the common understanding of the world grew more secular, the phrase "spirit of place" became psychological, and the term "sense of place" began to supplant it about fifty years ago. In any case, I think it is obvious that certain environments are conducive to certain types of thoughts. The interiors of stores are designed to make us think how much better we would be if we bought the things in those stores. Nightclubs are designed to make us think that it is glamorous to get drunk in a deafening cacophony. Even stone cold atheists will admit to a momentary intimation of the divine when they step into cathedral.
The agreeable melancholy of a walk though an autumn woods may require some cultural conditioning to appreciate, but it seems to me that the experience naturally directs a sensitive mind into certain channels. The dead leaves underfoot; the hint of winter in the air; the ephemeral but exquisite beauty of the scene. I think I have mentioned that I am a native of the north who has been thirty years resident in Texas, and the northern fall is one thing I still very much miss. After I'd lived here some years, I took some students on a field trip to the Ozarks. It was October and the woods looked and smelled like the woods of western New York in September. It made me cry. Not copiously, but in a muted and autumnal way. I think the spirt of that place had said something to me.
I became a geographer because I am very sensitive to my environment. There are many landscapes that can inspire what C. S. Lewis described as "longing." They give at least some of us a foretaste of better things to come. There are other landscapes that fill me with what David Bentley Hart called (I think) "metaphysical despair." They seem to be possessed by an evil spirit of place.
Thank you. You always elevate the discussion.
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