Last week I talked a bit about how the Weald and Downland Museum was a special place for me and how it had a distinct sense of place. Today I want to talk about a favourite place that is a lot closer – 14,500 Km closer to be precise. But first I want to differentiate between sense of place and spirit of place.
Technically speaking sense of place is typically applied to urban and suburban areas and used to characterize the relationship between people and spatial settings It is the characteristics that make a place special or unique and foster a sense of belonging. Exposure to an environment through childhood play, the role of family, culture and community all combine to establish environmental preferences later in life. Which is a roundabout way of saying that if you were brought up in a certain setting as a child you’d like that setting later in life. This can be seen in a lot of rural communities where young people leave for the economic opportunities offered by cities only to return later when they want to raise a family or eventually retire.
Spirit of place is usually applied to a rural or a relatively unspoiled or regenerated place and is a bit more of an airy fairy concept. The soul, for want of a better word, is formed by the apparent characteristics (both positive and negative) of a place and these qualities are talked about by artists and writers, They are also the subject of myths, folk tales and certain celebrations. The characteristics then help people form associations and attachments with the land. The Romans called the concept Genius loci and believed that every place had a protective spirit which was depicted in their religious iconography as a youth holding an item such as the horn of plenty, a libation bowl, or a snake (symbolising fertility and a connection to Mother Earth). Indigenous peoples see a landscape defined by guardian spirits, supernatural beings, and ghosts. Here in Western Australia the Nyoongar people describe their relationship with the Swan River through the Wagyl or rainbow serpent. Geographical features were created by the Wagyl as it made its way along the river and these sites were considered sacred. It all sounds like a load of cobblers but in the Twenty-first Century we are seeing people who feel a sense of alienation looking to re-establish a connection with the natural world with a combination of environmentalism and spiritual beliefs such as religious naturalism.
We came to live in York in 2004 and we both fell in love with the landscape – the rolling hills, the farmland and the wandoo forest. In fact we developed such a deep connection with the landscape that when we moved to Tasmania for a couple of years we pined for it. The sense of dislocation was visceral and we found it exceedingly difficult to adjust our arts practice to the Tasmanian landscape – we missed the big blue skies and the open woodland, the smells, the sounds, the red dirt and the quality of the light. To put it bluntly we felt like we didn’t belong in Tasmania – we belonged in York. So we returned and the relief we felt on doing that was palpable.
I have a couple of places that are really special – they are both patches of remanent woodland with granite outcrops, amazing varieties of orchids and birds. I’ve had many magical moments in them like when an echidna literally bumped into me as I was photographing, or the time when I was so engrossed photographing some flowers that I didn’t notice the mob of kangaroos that settled around me and I only noticed them when I stopped and it only seemed right to stay there sitting on the ground with them. Last week I was out photographing orchids in the late afternoon, the light was turning golden and the shadows were lengthening. A couple of kookaburras were calling out to each other. It was nice to lie under the wandoo tress and look at the clouds scudding across the sky. A sublime experience and I couldn’t think of any better place to be. A spiritual experience? Yes most definitely.