earthweal weekly challenge: SPIRITS OF PLACE


Greetings and a happy belated May Day to all. If you’ll recall Sarah Connor’s enchanting Approaching Beltaine challenge from last year, this is a time in Gaia’s North for bright fire, fertility dances and merriment. We weave those joys round a maypole, lacing ourselves in the rapture. The festival opposite to this is Samhain, the celebration of coming winter, and our members in Gaia’s South weave the spirits of cold starlight into late and later mornings.

One morning earlier this week there was an odd celestial alignment on my early morning walk: a crescent moon, followed by bright Venus and then a smaller Jupiter all in a tight row in the southeastern sky. Did you see it? A strange bed of fellows there, Earth’s orb of night consciousness partaking something with Gaia’s naughty sister and their Big Daddy in the distant solar system. As we conjoin at this moment of the year from our opposite festivals, the heavens themselves seemed to express a desire to join a feast it is for us to name, from both poles now …


Proceeding from Gary Snyder’s discussion of the commons (a fruitful concept for last week’s earthweal challenge) in Practice of the Wild, he goes on to talk about bioregions, the broader lay of local lands.

The little nations of the past lived within territories that conformed to some set of natural criteria. The culture areas of the major native groups of North America overlapped, as one would expect, almost exactly with broadly defined major bioregions. That older human experience of a fluid, indistinct, but genuine home region was gradually replaced — across Eurasia — by the arbitrary and often violently imposed borders of emerging national sates. These imposed borders sometimes cut across biotic areas and ethnic zones alike. Inhabitants lost ecological knowledge and community solidarity. In the old ways, the flora and fauna and landforms are part of the culture. The world of culture and nature, which is actual, is almost a shadow world now, and the insubstantial world of political jurisdictions and rarefied economies is what passes for reality …

Regions are “interpenetrating bodies in semi-simultanteous spaces” (Cafard, 1989). Biota, watersheds, landforms, and elevations are just a few of the facets that define a region. Culture areas, in the same way, have subsets such as dialects, religions, sorts of arrow-release, types of tools, myth motifs, musical scales, art styles. (40-1)

Snyder uses trees as one signia of a bioregion, like the Douglas Fir in the Pacific Northwest.

The presence of this tree signifies a rainfall and a temperature range and will indicate what your agriculture might me, how steep the pitch of your roof, what raincoats you’ll need. You don’t have to know such details to get by in the modern cities of Portland and Bellingham. But if you do know what is taught by plants and weather, you are in on the gossip and can truly feel more at home.

Snyder now gets to a most interesting point.

The sum of a field’s forces becomes what we call very loosely the “spirit of the place.” To know the spirit of a place is to realize that you are part of a part and that the whole is made of parts, each of which is whole. You start with the part you are whole in. (41)

The part we are whole in! How distant is this perspective from the modern one of existence in another anywhere, which is the definition of suburbia. The spirit of place is the ensouling presence where we make our home. The part we are whole in.


Snyder goes on about this spirit of place:

Sometimes in the mid-seventies at a conference of Native American leaders and activists in Bozeman, Montana, I heard a Crow elder say something similar: “You know, I think people stay somewhere long enough — even white people — the spirits will begin to speak to them. It’s the power of the spirits coming up from the land. The spirits and the old powers aren’t lost, they need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them.” (41)

My upbringing was archetypically American — we moved around a lot. My father was an ordained minister starting out, and he took parishes in Pittsburgh (Pennsylvania), Rahway (New Jersey) and a beeline of suburban Chicago churches from Winnetka to Wilmette to Evanston, from the time I was born until I was seven years old. The five years we were in Evanston offered my first sense of home, but our family was fragmenting and soon enough we were on the move again, as my mother took me and my siblings south to Florida for a few years and then we moved back to Chicago as they tried to patch up the marriage. Failing that, my family scattered, with my father moving to New York City, my mother moving south to Florida again with my younger siblings, my older brother to California and me to Washington State, where I lived for seven years of college and bad rock and roll bands before moving to Florida in 1980. I had a dozen addresses until 1996 when I married for a second time and moved into the house I am sitting in today as I write.

My sense of place in the past is a blur, but I am quite happy to say I slowly but surely found home at last.  In my lingering here I’ve dug into local history and ecology, coming to know, as they say, the bones of the place. A few years ago my career job was eliminated and I no longer commuted long distances to work every day. My days are now fully here, up early with the late night blowing in the trees outside, walking at dawn through the same quiet waking neighborhoods, the same trees, the same alligators down at the lake. Maybe the spirit of place now has a trustworthy bridge into my awareness.

Another example comes to me from my father, who eventually settled in the woods of Pennsylvania to found Columcille, what he called a megalithic park — big stones threading 40 acres of field and woodland. I’ve written here about it before, but what is evident to just about anyone who comes to visit the park is this abiding presence in the land, a divinity in the rooks. For forty years my father slowly worked and tended and loved that small rural veld, and there emerged a deep sense of participation between nature and divine. The spirit of place can be manifest in our work.

That work must have its own language, carefully named and articulated. Snyder works on this as a North American, but all residents of Gaia are invited:

Bioregional awareness teaches us in specific ways. It is not enough just to “love nature” or to want to “be in harmony with Gaia.” Our relation to the natural world takes place in a place, and it must be grounded in information and experience. For example, “real people” have an easy familiarity with the local plants. This is so unexceptional a kind of knowledge that everyone in Europe, Asia, and Africa used to take it for granted. Many contemporary Amercians don’t even know that they don’t know the plants,” which is indeed a measure of alienation. Knowing a bit about the flora we could enjoy questions like: where do Alaska and Mexico meet? It would be somewhere on the north coast of California, where the Canada Jay and Sitka Spruce lace together with manzanita and Blue Oak. (42-3)

Unfortunately, climate change is rapidly altering some of these boundaries as animal and vegetable life moves away from heating latitudes. Is the  spirit of place being uprooted as well? Who will be able to name them?


Similarly, the Anthropocene is rapidly altering the natural terrain with mountaintop mining, clearcut forestry and tar sands oil extraction. Even our solutions mar the landscape with wind propellors and vast seas of solar screens. Wildfires erased almost 100,000 square miles of forest cover last year, an area roughly the size of Oregon. The seas are creeping up and in, devouring most of my state of Florida in a century or so. And war is brutalizes human and natural environment alike, invoking the terrible ghosts of nuclear annihilation.

So before it is too late, we had better find a way to make ourselves home here, for it is only those whose homeland is threatened who are willing to do whatever they can to save it.

Snyder continues:

There are millions of people in North America who were physically born here but who are not actually living here intellectually, imaginatively, or morally. Native Americans to be sure have a prior claim to the term native. But as they love this land they will welcome the conversion of millions of immigrant psyches into fellow “Native Americans.” For the non-Native American to become at home on this continent, he or she must be born again in this hemisphere, on this continent, properly called Turtle Island.

That is to say, we must consciously fully accept and recognize that this is where we live and grasp the fact that our descendents will be here for millennia to come. Then we must honor this land’s great antiquity — its wildness — learn it — defend it — and work to hand it on to the children (of all beings) of the future with its biodiversity and health intact. (43-4)

For this week’s challenge, write about the spirit(s) of place where you live and have your being in. What is the biological description of your home? How does living in a biogregion change the contours and boundaries of your day? In what places is the spirit of place most resonant for you, and where it is most faint? What is the deep voice of assurance it offers? Can it be channeled in an earth poem? And how do we carry the spirit of place forward into a drastically changing Earth?

Spirits, come!



Eskimo woman shaman
quoted by Rasmussen

The great sea
Has sent me adrift,
It moves me as the weed in a great river,
Earth and the great weather move me,
Have carried me away,
And move my inward parts with joy.

from News of the Universe: Poems of Twofold Consciousness, chosen and introduced by Robert Bly (1980)



William Stafford

“The Navaho world is made of verbs.”

Left-alone grow-things wait, rustle-grass, click-
trunk, whisper-leaf. You go-people miss the hold-still
dawn, arch-over-sky, the jump-everywhere glances.
This woman world, fall-into eyes, reaches out her
make-tremble beauty, trolls with her body, her
move-everything walk. All-now, our breathe-always
life extends, extends. Change. Change your live-here,
tick-tock hours. Catch all the flit-flit birds,
eat the offer-food, ride over the clop-clop land,
our great holds-us-up, wear-a-crown kingdom.

from Even in Quiet Places, 1996



Wendell Berry

What must a man do to be at home in the world?
There must be times when he is here
as though absent, gone beyond words into the woven shadows
of the grass and the flighty darknesses
of leaves shaking in the wind, and beyond
the sense of the weariness of engines and of his own heart,
his wrongs grown own unforgiven. It must be with him
as though his bones fade beyond thought
into the shadows that grow out of the ground
so that the furrow he opens in the earth opens
in his bones, and he hears the silence
of the tongues of the dead tribesmen buried here
a thousand years ago. And then what presences will rise up
before him, weeds bearing flowers, and the dry wind
rain? What songs he will hear!

from Farming: A Hand Book (1970)




Mary Oliver

Every day
   I see or hear
         that more or less

kills me
   with delight,
      that leaves me
         like a needle

in the haystack
   of light.
      It was what I was born for —
         to look, to listen,

to lose myself
   inside this soft world —
      to instruct myself
         over and over

in joy,
   and acclamation.
      Nor am I talking
         about the exceptional,

the fearful, the dreadful,
   the very extravagant —
      but of the ordinary,
         the common, the very drab,

the daily presentations.
   Oh, good scholar,
      I say to myself,
         how can you help

but grow wise
   with such teachings
      as these —
         the untrimmable light

of the world,
   the ocean’s shine,
      the prayers that are made
         out of grass?

— from Why I Wake Early (2004)

7 thoughts on “earthweal weekly challenge: SPIRITS OF PLACE

  1. A great challenge, Brendan, that definitely speaks to me. I adore Mary Oliver’s poem. “…that kills me with delight….” That is how I feel, on every outing, in this spirit place I am fortunate to call home………

    Liked by 1 person

  2. The spirits of my particular place decided to speak last night, so I was able to speak of them as well. In the tumult of fear, finding a safe space to breathe can be itself a kind of happiness. Thanks for all the beautiful and inspiring poetry from eskimo women, et. al, Brendan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Your site won’t let me comment on your poem, so let me say here how powerful the sounds and sights of before and after and in between! I am very familiar with “a mousehole of hope.” Beautifully honed.


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