Two weeks ago as I rode home from the airport, Delhi was enveloped in smoke, the city’s signature perfume. One evening later the skies were full of lightning with rain pouring down heavily. Since returning from a trip to the Czech Republic and Austria, I’ve been thinking about what it is that makes a place. Some time back, when I first moved overseas, my husband and I sat in our Izmir, Turkey apartment, explaining the culture to ourselves–as we understood it at the time–our first experience of living in a foreign country, through using the designs in a carpet on our floor. It was world full of life, energy, color and sound, but still contained and shaped by tradition’s forms. Turkey is still the favorite place I’ve lived outside of my own home, still holds wonder and happiness in my memory.
Years ago, I visited Spearfish, South Dakota a small town where my parents had lived for some time, and where I still have relatives. While exploring the downtown, I came across a book in the bookstore window titled Dakota, A Spiritual Geography. At the time, I didn’t know the author, Kathleen Norris, but noticed that she was living in Lemmon, South Dakota in a home she had inherited from her grandmother. Lemmon was the same town my father was born in. I had come to South Dakota for the purpose of getting to know a bit more about my family’s background. I had grown up in California, far from relatives except for my father’s parents who lived at the time lived nearby in Lemon Grove, California. I knew little of my family history except through the descriptions of my parents. I was drawn to Norris’s book and its subtitle in particular, because for some time I’d held the belief that the geography we grow up with shapes us in mysterious ways we don’t quite understand–affecting the way we think, what we value–shaping our souls. A few days previous to discovering the book, I had gone with my Aunt to see where my grandmother’s family was buried. My Aunt’s friend was an oral historian whose family knew my great grandparents. She had shown me the graves of my great uncles, and before walking back to the car, I went to stand in the middle of a field nearby. There, I found myself surrounded by the green wheat, an ocean of grass, the sky above infinite and blue. No sound pierced the silence as the earth’s scent earth and the weight of its quietness seeped into my feet. This was my parents’ homeland, a geography they knew and that shaped how they saw the world–its colors, sounds, rhythms. My body felt the quality of its presence, affirming my sense that the land speaks to us. Dana Gioia’s poem, “Palabras,” talks about this idea as well. “El mundo no necesita de palabras. Sabe expresarse/en luz solar, hojas y sombras,” Gioia writes, “The earth doesn’t need words. It knows how to express itself/ in the sun, the leaves and shadows,” and it’s true. There is a kind of voice inside of the material world that speaks without words–something akin to music, but more abstract. Though Nature speaks volumes to us in its vast library of sound and movement, one artist has tried to show this voice visibly in an interesting way, attaching pens to a willow tree’s branches, making visible the branch’s movement, a fascinating idea. Small scratchings embodying the language inside the leaves’ dance.
My belief in geography’s affect on humans was affirmed some time later when I came across an article in Discover Magazine “Are the Desert People Winning?” by Stanford anthropologist Robert Saplosky, where Sapolsky explains how anthropologist Robert Textor in his 3,000 page book, A Cross-Cultural Summary, written in 1967, noted after examining 400 world cultures and classifying them into nearly 500 traits that a “striking proportion of rain forest dwellers are polytheistic, worshipping an array of spirits and gods.” This pattern, Textor points out, can be observed in places like the Amazons, and Borneo, whereas “desert dwellers—the bedouin of Arabia, the Berbers of the western Sahara, the Kung of the Kalahari Desert, the Nuer and Turkana of the Kenyan/Sudanese desert—are usually monotheistic.” Sapolsky goes on to point out how there is a kind of singularity to the landscape in desert locations, where the world is reduced to essentials. Rain forest people, on the other hand, live amidst an abundance of plants, herbs, and animals. “Letting a thousand deities bloom in this sort of setting must seem natural,” states Sapolsky. Every place and culture has its uniqueness, and each place touches our lives and shaping us. We live in a place, and we respond to it, interact with it.
As we travel from one place to another, we carry with us the other places we have been, and the memory of those places. I have often wondered if this is why I enjoy countries very different in landscape from those similar to where I grew up, but am emotionally drawn to countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy, or the state of New Mexico in the U.S., because they remind me of where I grew up in the dry southern California desert with rolling hills and yellow grass spotted with granite boulders and chaparral. Dana Gioia in his TED talk about place explains that “the world looks different depending on where you see it from and who you see it with. It sounds different. It looks different. It tastes different.” He goes on to describe how until recently, people had to pay attention to the local landscape to provide them with the means to live, and that people visit foreign cities today because they enjoy the diversity that local art, architecture, soil, produce, weather, presents in any particular place. Related to this idea, the biologist, E.O. Wilson has written about biophilia–how humans have a natural affinity for nature. It is our source of life. Today, however, we often don’t know the names of the trees outside their windows or the plants we live beside on a daily basis. Gioia asserts that the standardization of the world in its architecture and foods, clothing, and other numerous effects of globalization on cultures, while increasing affordability, creates a loss in diversity. This is a “huge impoverishment of human spirit”–a loss in connection to where we live, Gioia stresses.
We are always changing and so are places. When I first moved to Santa Cruz, California from San Diego County, I wore sweaters most the summer long until about noon each day. It was cold! The world looked different–there were so many trees, and the coastline was rocky, and it didn’t seem to matter how you casually you dressed. These were small things, but many small things put together create a sense of place. During the Creativity Workshop I recently attended in Prague, the workshop leaders asked us to sit in a cafe and draw the soul of a person–not the physical features, but the soul. That was challenging. I observed a mid-aged woman with blond hair and noticed how calm she was. Her voice was quiet, as were her manners. She was in no hurry to eat or to make her point with her partner. I envisioned her to be the shape of a cloud, all edges soft, content to wrap around objects without having to take control. She would glide from place to place without rushing. She contained no sharp edges. She could float above the world and see things clearly. It was interesting to think of visualizing a person’s spirit embodied in material qualities. When I came back to Delhi, though, noting the city’s distinctive differences from where I had just been, I wondered what a drawing of the soul of a place would like–specifically, what would a drawing of Delhi’s soul look like? I’m still pondering that question, but the art piece would need to be kinetic with glints of glass, a mosaic of colors swirling, moving, rising out of dark space then turning into smoke, the scent of smoke filling the room.
Leaving a place you have known and loved and lived always carries with it a grief. A place grows inside us, we have a relationship with it, and to let go of it is loss. We mourn. I remember my dad standing on the path outside my house when he came to visit me just before I moved overseas. “You’re never coming home again,” he said, crying. I had never seen him cry but once before. I was looking at the move as the adventure of my life. He was looking at it as loss. Even though I’ve been living and wandering abroad for years now, I still carry the longing for open space, wide and wild space–the kind of landscape the western part of the United States still holds. I’ve lived in mega cities for many years. I enjoy tidy gardens where they can be found. They are wonderful to behold with their shaped and contained designs, especially when greenery is rare, but to feel truly alive, I need wild space. E.E. Cummings writes in his poem, “Love is a Place,”
Love is a place
& through this place of
(with brightness of peace)
Not only is love a place, but I say place is also love. Through our connection to place our understanding of the world and of love begins. Last summer as I lay on the floor with the doors open so the sun and breeze could float in while I did my exercises, the sudden subtle perfume from the redwoods wafted in through the door and tears welled up in my eyes. The absolute perfection of that clean, woodsy sweetness. There are more dramatic places in the world to live, I’m sure, and I recognize different people need different things. What is it about a place we call home that makes us want to go back to it? There are people, the familiar routines, the memory connect to place, but there is also something fundamental–the physicality of the place itself. You are in love with the land, you want to know it, care for it, understand it and its mystery. When you find the home of your heart, as I felt I had lying there on the floor inhaling the afternoon’s quiet and perfumed air in California’s Soquel Hills, you know it’s where you belong.
I look forward to the day when I can go home.