The Spirit of the Place: Thoughts from My Walk in the Wild

"Place has a deeply spiritual significance because place is not only physical but is also a subtle energetic milieu that [surrounds] a particular land area. This energetic milieu is the source of the particular kinds of plants and animals to have emerged and lived in that place. ...each earthly place has its own creative force or dreaming energy which spawns the creatures of that region"

Robert Lawlor, Dreaming the Beginning. Parabola, Summer 1993

As part of a recent assignment for a class studying aspects of Ecopsychology, I was asked to take a walk in the wild and to record my impressions. Here, in North Carolina, I am able to walk out my door and be greeted by what many native tribal people call trees - the tall people, that surround my house. There are about 250 acres of woods encompassing my immediate environment. There are also two houses barely within sight, so my experience is not entirely wild.

This particular assignment was poignant in that it helped me see my worldview and my relationships to non-humans and non-ordinary reality through bringing to conscious the subtle shift in dislocation/location that I had been unconsciously undergoing the previous few months. I had just come back to my new home here in North Carolina from visiting California where, 7 months previously, I had moved after living there for 15 years. A few days before my return, I discovered myself looking forward to, and actually anticipating the woods, the pond, and the beautiful trees of our new homestead. I found myself 'homesick'. When I took my walk in the wild, I truly understood that I had returned to or had re-found my 'primal home'. I discovered that I recognized the spirit of this place or, perhaps, the spirit of this place recognized and accepted me, inviting me to uncover the mysteries of this new environment.

I was born on the East Coast; raised in New York City. Yet as a young girl, my mother took me to the Berkshire Mountains in Western Massachusetts. It was there that the spirit of the Mountains first entered my soul and quietly transformed me. It was in the mountains, and at such a tender age, that my spirit helpers made themselves know to me and I carried them in a pouch within my heart for the rest of my life. My fifteen year sojourn in Northern California and my visits to Western lands awakened me to the awareness that each place has its own spirits and visions, alike but subtly different, as lakes may be similar because they are bodies of water, but the environment of each place yields its own ambiance . Yet the spirit of the place where we first entered conscious awareness can hold us most deeply.

Gary Snyder reminded me of this in his essay: The Place, The Region and the Commons. "All of us carry within us a picture of the terrain that was learned roughly between the ages of six and nine... Revisualizing that place with its smells and textures, walking through it again in your imagination, has a grounding and settling effect " (Snyder, p. 26). I have often thought of this as a 'geographical imprinting' or even 'geographical DNA' in the case of a longing for and a comfort in the homelands of our ancestors. Rather like a cellular memory of Place. "Our place is what we are" (Snyder, p. 27). This is an interesting concept. Many times I have reflected on the geographical imprinting differences between my life partner and myself. He was born in Northern California and prefers the craggy outcroppings of the Sierra Mountain Range. He has walked the back of the mountains from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail. He is a quiet man, sparse in speech, yet his mind is clear like an alpine lake. There is a space and width in the landscape of his personality that is not crowded with objects in the foreground. He prefers vistas and broad views, granite peaks to scale, an uncrowded and uncomplicated life. His perfect spot in all the world is atop a granite face in Tananah Lake in Yosemite National Park.

I, on the other hand, have embedded the landscape of thick forests interspaced with fields and creeks, on gently rolling old mountains. I want my life scattered with many people like trees in a foreground, yet with periods of quiet reflective walks through fields of wild flowers, wild thyme and wild strawberries. My lakes are filled with activity: canoes and kayaks, children playing on the beach. My personality is tempered by exposure to the Eastern Hardwood forests and its specific bioregions. My partner's is mitigated by empty grasslands rolling up to the steep mountainous regions of the Tahachapes, the Sierras, and the Cascades. I feel at home in the broad mixed pine and hardwood forests of North Carolina; he says there are too many damn trees here! Where ever I go I make new friends, while my partner wrestles with his ambivalence of being alone and a loner. Perhaps it is overly simplistic to attach too much emphasis on how our geographical imprinting shapes our personality, but certainly the spirit of these primal place resides deep within our psyches.

Many Native people are sensitive to the spirits of a place. Snyder recounts a Crow elder saying, "I think if 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 just need people to be around long enough and the spirits will begin to influence them" (Snyder, p. 39).

Grim addresses this theme in his description of the eco-consciousness among diverse tribes of Indigenous peoples of America. He gives examples where Native people validate their habitation by appealing to animals, plants, and geographical places in their homelands and bioregions, or develop rituals and cultural dispositions based upon their bond with the natural world. (Grim, pp. 47 - 49).

The relationship between humans and place becomes sacred when humans pay attention to the energetic fields which emanate from the land. These energy fields are recognized as spiritual forces that the creator or Great Spirit shares of itself to humans. This is seen as the ultimate sacrifice of the Great Spirit to humans, thus every act upon nature itself becomes a ritualized thanksgiving to the creator for sharing itself. The spirit of the deer is thanked before it is killed; the spirit of a lake is blessed before it is used for water; the spirit of the land is acknowledged before it is inhabited. In this way do humans maintain balance in the natural world. The balance of giving and receiving and giving back in a natural flow of gratitude and grace.

The spirit of a place (or animal or plant) can develop a special bond with a human who has shown her/him self to be aware of the balance (or tao as it is called in some Asian cultures). "This spiritual relationship was typically associated with the "adoption" of the Native person by the spiritual power believed to reside within the animal, fish, or plant. The knowledge which was imparted to the individual hunter, fisherperson or gatherer was private and secret because it was individually transmitted during vision quests or unsolicited visionary experiences or dreams" (Grim, pp. 46-47).

This adoption process is not necessarily determined solely by the spirit who selects the human because the spirit believes the human to be special or kind or in harmony with nature. It can be provoked by humans. Carlos Castaneda recounts his experience of non-ordinary reality gleaned from his teacher, Don Juan, a Yaqui Indian in several of his books. Don Juan attempts to teach Castenada how to evoke the spirit world; how to trick, cajole, tame and overcome the spirit of a drug, animal or place to make it an "ally" in his quest to become a "man of knowledge", a sorcerer, curer, or medicine man. Don Juan believed that having spirit allies allows the person of knowledge unlimited access to the spirit world where one's personal power is augmented by eliciting the power of the spirit of the Place.

The spirit of a Place has many access points. Don Juan started Carlos Castaneda off on his journey with the use peyote and other hallucinogens, as a way of externally invoking the experience. As Castenada found his own strength of will and discipline, he was able to access the spirit of Place through other psychospiritual practices. The meditative practice is perhaps the most widely used technique, and is one of the most difficult to master for it demands a singularity of focus which is difficult for "westerners", given our fragmented culture. There are many forms of psychospiritual practices that may also invoke the spirits: walking meditations, physical positioning such as yoga asanas and Sufi dancing; physical isolation and contemplation achieved through vision questing; accessing cellular memories of spirit through breathwork; using flower essences; dreaming; creative contemplation through art, drama, and music. Incorporating daily practice to invite the spirit of Place is related to one's worldview.

Grim uses a term that is both descriptive and inclusive of the practical or pragmatic expressions of a worldview: 'lifeway'. "Lifeway refers to this functional interaction of cosmology and cultural activity (Grim, p. 42). Referring to lived experience of worldview as a lifeway allows us to deepen into the process of actualizing a worldview, moving it from an intellectual level to the practical daily manifestations of our conceptual understanding, for example, daily meditation or periodic vision quests.

The role of my worldview, and consequent lifeway, shapes my interactions in the world of both physical and non-physical entities. It enriches the concept of interrelatedness and the underlying unity of all things. It acknowledges the equality of all living and non-living entities by revealing the spirit that inhabits all matter. It brings balance into an anthroprocentrically skewed world where physical beings have dominance and assume a hierarchy over other expressions of matter/energy/life. In my lifeway, I attempt to live in harmony with the spirits. I invite in these expressions of the Divine by creating space for them and acknowledging their presence through ritual and ceremony. In turn they let me know of their presence in subtle ways: a strong scent or visual impression through fluctuating light patterns; the calling of its name on leaves in the wind or in the sound of a brook; a fleeting image as I turn my head and catch the tail end of movement. I see their presence by the gifts they leave: a knowing of where the best berries are to be found, or a surprise discovery of a tortoise shell. Thus the spirit of the Place invites me to stay and sit a spell, for I have found home.

Written by A. Masai Jones

References and Resources

  • Castaneda, Carlos. A Separate Reality - Further Conversations with Don Juan. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1971.
  • Jung, Carl.Memories, Dreams, Reflections. New York: Vintage Books, 1975.
  • Lawlor, Robert. "Dreaming the Beginning", Parabola Place and Space issue, (Summer 1993).
  • Grim, John ed. "Native North American Worldview and Ecology" Worldviews and Ecology. Maryknoll, New York: 1994.
  • Snyder, Gary. "The Place, The Region, and the Common" and "Good, Wild, Sacred". The Practice of the Wild. New York: North Point Press, 1990.
  • Starck, Marcia. Women's Medicine Ways. Freedom, CA: The Crossing Press, 1993


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