Genius Loci*

1. The prevailing character or atmosphere of a place.
1.1 The presiding god or spirit of a place.

~ Oxford English Dictionary

Years ago, psychologist Jon Kabat-Zinn published a book titled Wherever You Go, There You Are (1994). He certainly had a point, and a very, very apt one. You can’t shed your personality nor your inner tendencies like clothes, leaving any constricting chaos behind, much as a snake sheds its skin. In Kabat-Zinn’s view, you must bloom where you are planted.

But in moving from one place to another and yet another, it seems to me, you discover different facets of yourself. You discover the spirit of a place. Air,  light, aromas, rain, colors, wind, genius loci, all evoke sensations that claw to the surface. It seems as if in a change of place, where you find yourself surrounded by newness and novelty, the very state of “newbieness” fires up your sensory neurons. You know you are alive, awake. You feel it in your skin, your bones. You leave autopilot behind. Like a vineyard, you flourish best in terroir that nurtures you and brings out your best “vintage.”

I recall reading of Julia Child’s first meal in France, as she recorded it in My Life in France.  Don’t forget that this remarkable cookbook author spent years of her life cooking French food. Yet, that first meal stayed with her. She ate sole meunière in a small restaurant in Rouen. Her perfect recall of details boggles the mind, although her memories stretched back decades. It was, it seemed, that she’d finally come home the minute she sat at the table and her husband Paul ordered the fish.

Memories figure in my version of genius loci, too. Like Julia Child, I recall the presence of places in terms of food and cooking. Three days ago, for example, I woke to the sound of the ceiling fan and the sight of the gauzy white curtain billowing with each “whoop-whoop” of the fan. The soft yellow light of the early morning Florida sun shone through the whiteness.

I ate my usual breakfast of an English muffin slathered with apricot jam and butter, catching a glimpse of the huge puddles left by the night’s torrential rains.  Summer had indeed moved into Florida.  But the gauzy curtains shifted my memory and led me instead to think of a small and yellow stucco house on Bolinas Street in Ocean Beach.

For a moment, I became fourteen years old again, lazy in the four-poster bed in the front bedroom of my grandparents’ house, one mile from the Pacific Ocean and the cliffs of Point Loma.  Gauzy white curtains floated like ghosts in the early morning breeze. I smelled bacon cooking, a signature flavor of Grandma’s Southern cooking. Every morning, Grandma went out to her small kitchen with the white enameled stove and cooked breakfasts fit for a farming crew. Her good fortune came with my ravenous fourteen-year-old appetite, which made a fine substitute for the cowboys she and her mother fed on their Texas ranch.

One morning, I opened my eyes to the bright morning light. Something seemed different.

No woodsy bacon scent, no coffee aroma  tickled the air, urging me to throw off the covers.

Alarmed at the olfactory silence, I raced to the back bedroom, bare feet careening down the hall, slipping on the polished wooden floors. I pushed open the door, quiet as a cat stalking a mouse.

Grandma lay in her narrow twin bed, the covers pulled up to her sagging chin, asleep. Her open mouth and light snoring told me that she slept. A white chenille bedspread on the empty twin bed across from hers lay smooth and flat, although the indentation in the pillow there, I knew, would still smell of my grandfather’s slick hair pomade, waxy and pungent, making his butch haircut stand on end.

I sensed her grief, although she never spoke of it to me. She didn’t have to. If she didn’t cook, I knew, she couldn’t because of the power of her sorrow at losing the man she swore she’d marry the moment she laid eyes on him in a hospital in Madison, Wisconsin in 1914, where she was a nursing student and he a patient. Fraternizing with patients, oh that was forbidden, she laughed whenever she spoke of it That didn’t stop her from climbing over the brick wall surrounding the nurses’ dormitory to meet him … .

In the kitchen, I pried open a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti and heated it up in one of Grandma’s smaller and dented saucepans.  I piled as much of the spaghetti as I could into a carnation-red cereal bowl and walked down the outside stairs into my grand father’s lush garden. Narrow pathways separated plants with elephant ear-sized leaves and tall hibiscus bushes laden with flowers ranging from pink to purple, and everything in between. I sat down in the middle of one path, the damp brick beneath my bottom leaving a wide swath of moisture on my pink shorts.

Strangely enough, I felt free, eating my clandestine breakfast, something I would never find in the cupboard in my own house. But at the moment, my house stood on a rolling hill 1500 miles away. And I sat one mile away from the vast Pacific Ocean, surrounded by plants I only ever saw in my father’s greenhouse, where he conducted experiments on wheat smut and grew hibiscus cuttings taken from his father’s garden.

The aroma of the spaghetti and the salty ocean air traveled many miles with me in my memory bank, those odors associated in my mind with a place where I still looked at life with innocent and unseeing eyes.  And I think that the moment in the garden sank into my unconscious, because I saw for the first time just what beauty my grandfather made from the sandy soil there, in that small beach town.

Now I find myself in a place where genius loci and terroir merge so as to be one and the same thing. I recognize the subconscious force that brought me back, to a different locale. Nonetheless, I’m now in a place where elements of memory pull at me until I create, or re-create, the elusive sense of childhood genius loci.

An azalea plant, which craves and thrives in acidic soil, will exist in less-than-stellar conditions. Likewise, it is possible for humans to endure any number of environments, or terroir. Yet, once a gardener transplants a less-than-happy azalea plant into a richer, more conducive spot, that plant will bloom and bloom.

Not everyone is able to graft themselves from one physical location to another. This I know. And so “Bloom where you are planted” is the best advice. It requires tremendous effort sometimes, in seeking the right fertilizer, the best companion plants, just enough water, and a balance of light and dark.

One thing is certain: while we shape places, places also shape us.

No place, not even a wild place, is a place until it has had that human attention that at its highest reach we call poetry. What Frost did for New Hampshire and Vermont, what Faulkner did for Mississippi and Steinbeck for the Salinas Valley, Wendell Berry is doing for his family corner of Kentucky, and hundreds of other place-loving people, gifted or not, are doing for places they were born in, or reared in, or have adopted and made their own.
–Wallace Stegner, “The Sense of Place

Sunset Beach, Tarpon Springs, FL (Photo credit: C. Bertelsen)


1. The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
1.1 The characteristic taste and flavour imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.
~ Oxford English Dictionary

*Latin term, made popular in English by Alexander Pope in Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Consult the genius of the place in all;
That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;
Or helps th’ ambitious hill the heav’ns to scale,
Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;
Calls in the country, catches opening glades,
Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,
Now breaks, or now directs, th’ intending lines;
Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Pope’s words tended to be applied primarily to landscape design.

More reading, of course:

Here’s an article about the importance of vegetation for women’s health: “More exposure to vegetation linked with lower mortality rates in women.” You might also like this: “Women Who Surround Themselves With Plants Live Longer.”

And there’s a prodigious amount of literature about place.  Landscape has always figured prominently in American letters – think Thoreau’s Walden Pond (1854). Check out the work of Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry. Finally, here’s a long list of resources about place studies, geared mostly to architecture.

© 2017 C. Bertelsen

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