Ecology, Energy, and Sense of Place

Ecology, Energy, and Sense of Place

In 1952, A few friends and I, all Chinese graduate students at the University of California—Berkeley and all novices at camping, arrived at the Death Valley National Monument at about three in the morning, exhausted by the long drive, and exhausted by an unsuccessful attempt to set up tent in the dark, buffeted by strong wind. In the end, we slept out in the open in our sleeping bags. When I woke up, the sun had risen high enough to throw its rays on the range of mountains across the valley and presented me with a scene, totally alien to my experience up to that time, of such unearthly beauty that I felt transported to the supernatural realm and yet, paradoxically, also at home, as though I had returned after a long absence.
The desert, including the barren parts (and I would even say) especially those, appeals to me. I see in it purity, timelessness, and a generosity of mind and spirit. The bleached skull in the desert, far from evoking the odor of death, suggests something clean and noble that may crumble into dust but is exempt from the humiliation of decay.

This is written by a man after my own heart, cultural geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, in the preface to his book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Attitudes and Values. You can read the whole foreword if you look it up in Google books. I find it all very agreeable. I too love Death Valley, and the desert in general, and have a keen curiosity about places and what draws us to them. So far, I've written very little on the topic of ecopsychology, so I thought it was time to catch up.

One of my favorite things is to go to a place and just get a feel for it. You could call me an energy tourist. I don't care so much for the type of top-rated sites you find on Tripadvisor: the attractions and museums you have to pay to get into. What I like is to walk the blocks where the real people live and observe the native landscaping and architecture, what sorts of cars they drive and how they decorate their yards. In other words, I just like to get a feel for the culture.

This appeals to me in many if not all towns and cities. It never ceases to entertain me. I imagine myself living in that place, what kind of life I might carve out for myself. Which shops might I frequent? Where are the good parks and natural areas? Where might I find my friends? As an ecologically-inclined individual one thing that appeals to me about a place is how well it is “emplaced” in its surroundings.  I believe that when we say a place has a strong “sense of place” one of the largest contributing factors is how strongly the culture of that place reflects the uniqueness of its bioregion.

Consider, for example, how the adobe buildings in Santa Fe have sprung out of that desert bioregion. Admittedly, not all of them are made of local mud anymore. But the basic ideas still stand: thick walls to keep you warm in the winter and cool in the summer, flat roofs are fine because it hardly rains, and so forth. No one wants to go to Santa Fe and see a New England colonial. The New Mexican cuisine of chilies (not peppers, mind you) and beans is easily grown locally, and the pottery and silver jewelry made by indigenous craftspeople.

Contrast that with the bayou/cajun/voodoo culture of New Orleans with its humid, subtropical, delta setting: broad shady porches, shrimp etouffee, and chicory coffee. Could you imagine those two places juxtaposed? Hardly. Not just because the people are so different but because the people and the things they've created have grown out of the land.

People love these types of places. Thus, it is in the best interest of communities and governments to support bioregional reflections like local foods, whether farmed or foraged, because it contributes to this sense of place that not only draws in tourist dollars but also boosts local pride. Likewise, studies show that people who live in such a place are more likely to engage in civic activities and care about the local ecology and economy creating a little cycle of sustainability.

Another cycle that happens is that people start shaping the places that in turn shape them. Once a dominant energy starts to build and place gets a reputation for something, it attracts more and more people like that. Nashville attracts and produces country musicians, Olympia attracts and produces anarchists, Hawaii attracts and produces raw foodists, and so forth. 

I read about a study recently that said the stereotypes people have about cities are real. Cities really do have their own cultures. Well, duh! Of course they do. Would anyone honestly have ever claimed that the people in Miami are just like the people in Milwaukee? Sometimes science is pretty retarded.

My working hypothesis about people and place revolves around energy. Even if you were to close your eyes and plug your ears, the landscape is a tapestry of energy. When I say I like to get a feel for the culture of a place, I mean I literally feel it. When I say I like to imagine what it would be like to live there, that sounds maybe overly intellectual. The first question is actually is it even imaginable? Or what kind of contortions might I have to make to myself, my own energy field, in order to live in that place? How might the energy/essence/spirit of that place enhance the expression of my own soul and how might it squash it?

You probably wouldn't place me, for example, in the smog and traffic of Los Angeles, but might there be enclaves, the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood that would be okay, that would be better than okay, because something about being in Los Angeles was feeding me: perhaps the opportunity to do spiritual development work with wealthy clients, or bring a natural offering to the concrete jungle, or live with a fantastic lover who happened to be a script writer and develop my peak physical strength and prowess surfing at the beach? I do love the tropical fruit trees and parrots there. Who knows? It could happen.

Places have thousands of nuances to their energy. The Santa Fe area I mentioned earlier is much earthier and has a more nurturing feeling than over here in central Arizona which gives off an almost extraterrestrial vibe, even though they are both enchanted drylands. Some places the energy isn't so obvious, like it doesn't quite match the way the surroundings look and leaves one feeling disconcerted and “out of place”.

I believe a lot of the well-meaning New Urbanist type communities feel a bit off because even though they have been contrived with bioregional principles in mind, the energy doesn't match what would have happened if the place was allowed to form more organically. I do suspect that over time they will "settle in".

I also think what is happening when someone steps off a plane in a new place and feels, “this is home,” is that their energy body is breathing a sign of relief because it has realized it has just stepped into a harmonious place for their individual needs.

In this sense, places are almost exactly like lovers. There are places that hold us back and places that help us grow. There are places we fall in love with at first sight, and places we come to feel an affinity for over time. Some people settle down early with one place, some (like me) are serial monogamists when it comes to place, always searching but never finding "the one", some people are bisexual (bicoastal), others are polyamorous nomads, constantly on the move.

Our lovers disproportionately bring out certain sides of us based on who they are: our business side, our creative side, our funny side, our spiritual side. Places do this as well. For example, in nearby Sedona it is completely appropriate to use words like “vortex”, “intuition”, or “energy work” in a casual conversation. Meanwhile there is a neighborhood down the road where just about everyone has a farm animal in their yard. I bet if I lived there, I would feel compelled to get a farm animal too.

This all applies on a small scale to rooms and restaurants and houses, and it applies to undeveloped wilderness places, as the initial quote suggests. People certainly contribute, but they need not have anything to do with this innate energy of place. In fact, getting back to my point about bioregions, it seems the dominant culture can almost always be traced back to the land. Sedona would be nothing without its majestic Red Rocks. In Portland, once home to gigantic trees, the influence of the lumberjacks and whorehouses they frequented can still be felt today. The land and its features might be considered expressions of or expressers of (I'm not sure which) an underlying core essence.

In my next installment on ecopsychology I'll be writing specifically about sacred places, one of my favorite kinds of places to explore as an "energy tourist". Do you have a place that felt like home the instant you arrived? What is one of your favorite places, energetically speaking?