The anatomy of home: The spirit of place, the experience of community

'Call it what you like, but spirit of place is a great reality.'

  • Tuesday, January 20, 2009 10:10pm
  • Opinion


For The Beachcomber

Call it what you like, but spirit of place is a great reality.

— D. H. Lawrence, “Studies in Classic American Literature”

Four years ago, I walked some 1,400 miles through most of southern England with a pack on my back. Sometimes I stayed at inns or bed and breakfasts; sometimes I pitched a tent.

On days I camped, I noticed something curious: I would sometimes walk hours longer than I’d planned, despite fatigue and advancing darkness, until I found a spot that was “right.” Was I being picky? I don’t think so. And I wasn’t looking for a spot that was scenic or that felt particularly safe (one of my favorites was a narrow rock ledge 100 feet above the Atlantic). I was looking for the place where I belonged, even if just for a night — a place I liked, but that also liked me, a marriage of person and place.

Each of us has stumbled upon places that possessed an almost magical sense of rightness — a condition that we are hard pressed to describe solely by means of the material elements of which they are composed. There is a phrase in Latin that captures this condition: genius loci. In classical times, the word “genius” was synonymous with “spirit”: It was understood that distinct spirits or demi-gods inhabited special places — gods one was at pains to please and with whom it was unwise to trifle. Indigenous peoples, like Native Americans, have a similar belief system.

We, however (by which I mean Americans of European descent), do not. We are products of the Age of Reason. When René Descartes wrote, “I think, therefore I am,” in 1637, he ushered in an era that worshipped the intellect and mistrusted the senses. America’s founders were men of their age; they had a passion for rational discourse and a devotion to individual freedom. When they declared our independence, they proclaimed the revolutionary notion that “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” were our “inalienable rights.” But wait — in the first draft, the phrase was “life, liberty, and property.” I suspect Jefferson changed it to “happiness” to make it more palatable. Nonetheless, over time, the pursuit of happiness/property in America has not just ignored genius loci but, sadly, has gradually eroded our sense of community — not just community with others, but communion with the inherent value, or spirit, of the natural world we inhabit. If today we mourn the loss of places that have special meaning, then we must acknowledge that both the loss and the alienation that comes from it are self-inflicted.

This is the seventh and last in a series of columns I’m calling, “The Anatomy of Home.” In earlier columns we’ve looked at Place, Shape, Beauty, Comfort, Delight and Dwelling as components of “home.” This column explores the notion of Spirit.

The irony of attempting to “deconstruct” the feeling of home, to identify and understand the parts of its anatomy, is of course that this effort is itself a relic of the Age of Reason. The plain fact is that some significant aspect of “home” — that part we might call “the spirit of place” — is beyond reason; it exists principally in the realm of the senses.

But I make no apology for attempting to make sense of the sense of home, and here’s why: If we do not take pains to understand what, specifically, gives meaning and value to the place we call home, we stand a very good chance of losing it, piece by piece, element by element. Consider the proposed banishing of the library. Consider the planned ravishing of Maury Island. You cannot attend to, care for, cultivate and protect something if you do not know what it is made of.

As individuals, we may not have the power or the opportunity to alter the pace at which change is producing placelessness in America, but we do have the power and opportunity to preserve the genius loci — the spirit of place — here, in the place where we live.

On most mornings, sometime after 8, the dogs and I can usually be found at the Burton Coffee Stand. The coffee and scones are excellent, but that’s not why I’m there. I’m there because of the spirit of that very particular place, and of the hamlet of Burton, and of the Island as a whole. It’s about the sense of community that thrives there every morning. Or perhaps I should say “communities,” because if you come early and stay late you’ll notice that the coffee stand is home to several communities. By 7:30 on weekdays, the stand is crammed with guys with pickups. They’re craftsmen on their way to projects, and they all know each other. They visit, share job problems, tell stories on one another, joke. Then they’re gone, replaced by the folks I know best: neighbors and friends who grab a cup of coffee before their morning walk around the Burton Loop. Stay a little longer and the gang from the Vashon rowing club — lithe, red-cheeked, dampish men and women shivering in line and longing for coffee as much to warm their hands as their innards. On weekends, especially in summer, the next wave will be the cyclists. Each is a community unto itself, and yet they are knit together, partly by the warmth Kathy and Anna serve along with the coffee, and partly because of their joshing affection for each other and the communal comfort of knowing they will be there every day, like clockwork, like the tide slipping in and out of Quartermaster Harbor.

The spirit of place is strong at the Burton coffee stand. As it is everywhere on this Island. We just need to honor it.

— Will North, a novelist, is the author of “The Long Walk Home.”

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