Friday, June 1, 2007

Spirit of place

For Nancy and Natacha

Many people persist in believing that any two places on the planet could be made to resemble each other, provided that enough transformation work were to be carried out at both ends. A couple of months ago, I joked about this style of thinking in my post entitled Mediterranean Bondi. [Click here to see this post.]

In fact, many spots on the planet Earth would appear to be unique and inimitably specific. Surely one of the most celebrated places of this kind is the sacred mountain at the heart of the Holy City, adorned by the Moslem Dome of the Rock.

If only this majestic site could be duplicated magically at other spots on the globe, this might end many ancient quarrels. American Jews could then have their own holy mountain, say, in an isolated corner of Colorado. Certain Christians might admire a copy in Salt Lake City. And Moslems would be free to recreate the spirit of Jerusalem's splendid es-Sakhra, the Rock, in every Arab corner of the globe.

But that's not at all the way the cookie crumbles. Places are unique. They are not swappable. We cannot rebuild Paris, as somebody once suggested, out in the country.

Why is this so? What does it mean to say that places are unique? It means that certain places have a spirit. A spirit of place. As the Romans put it: a genius loci.

Probably the most extraordinary machine on Earth is the human brain. And, if any known machine is capable of detecting the ubiquitous spirit of place, it's surely our extraordinary human wetware, about which we still know so little. Our brains react to the specificity of a place.

I was thrilled this morning, when phoning Nancy to wish her a happy birthday, to learn that she had recently ventured by accident into the place of our ancestors in New South Wales: the tiny country town of Braidwood. And that my aunt had been engulfed in a curious spiritual cloud that Nancy described naively as happiness. Why not?

I know that such things happen, that such mysterious feelings arise unexpectedly from time to time. But I don't know why. No more than Nancy does. Nor even Natacha, who's attached profoundly to the spirit of certain places in her beloved Provence. It's obviously a matter of the ways in which our respective cerebral mechanisms interact with tellurian memories stored away in specific places, in ways we don't yet understand. In a nutshell, we're sensitive to the spirit of place. For the moment, that's all we can say. But let's say it with joy!

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