Every year is important, but 2019 feels like one of the most important in my adult life. I’ve moved forward in many ways, some personal, but also as a writer, photographer and naturalist. One impetus came from a book that will change how I relate to nature forever.
An artist needs an experience as rich and deep as prairie soil to grow their creative work. Self-help authors like Natalie Goldberg (Writing Down the Bones) and Julia Cameron (The Artist’s Way) have exhorted a generation of wordsmiths in the importance of knowing our own minds. Anyone who liked these and wants to cultivate an authentic sense of place in their writing must visit The Soul of Place (Travelers’ Tales, 2015) by Linda Lappin. Then set aside a few weeks to study its lessons.
Subtitled A Creative Writing Workbook: Ideas and Exercises for Conjuring the Genius Loci, it’s gold for anyone who writes about natural history, travel, culture, food, ecospirituality, and grass-roots environmentalism. It will help evoke convincing settings for fiction, poetry, or creative non-fiction. It may also serve personal journal writers in the most important travel of all: “the pioneers, those seekers of mental health,” as Joni Mitchell sings. “Craving simplicity, they traveled inward past themselves.”
One of the most venerable books in this genre may be The Sierra Club Nature Writing Handbook, by John A. Murray. I’ve owned a copy for many years. It’s written in formal text book style. The exercises are academic and intimidating.
For example: “After you have more fully familiarized yourself with the genre of the nature essay—say, by reading several anthologies…”
Unfortunately I never persevere well enough by gritting my teeth on long, solitary marches.
Nearly four years ago, I found myself living in a suburb of an unfamiliar city. From my second-story office window I see trees beckoning me to Twin Oaks Woods, especially one black cherry arching over the maples and black walnuts.
Connection to the land is something I’ve always valued. Every move uproots me uncomfortably. I lose the love of a familiar environment. Believing this home would be a temporary one, I visited but kept aloof from the local crows, the ephemeral trilliums and spring-beauties, the muskrat in Cedar Creek, and especially the wise trees.
But disconnection can cause depression. Two years ago I needed to settle into this house, this office, and especially this land. Twin Oaks Woods is rich and kind, a remarkable neighbour for any nature lover. I started to seek a belonging, spirituality and inspiration that were shaken out of me many years ago. I experimented with walking as exercise, walking with a camera, walking with a notebook, walking in meditation. It strikes me now how hard it seemed at first.
I had picked up The Soul of Place more than a year ago. Knowing instinctively it would be useful, I saved the reading for a week alone at the cottage last June. Lake Fletcher has been one constant throughout my life: a sanctuary and increasingly a friend.
There I began with the first main exercise in Lappin’s book, reading the landscape: “Start by observing your surroundings: the land, sky, clouds. Note first the larger features (mountains, bodies of water, plant life, buildings) that define the limits of the space. Observe the qualities of light and climate….”
I took my laptop down on the dock in the evening, and wrote:
Tuesday, June 26, 2018: Earth, air, water & fire all are here in virtually equal proportions. The water is Fletcher Lake, the blue dragon coiling around me & through the various channels formed by geological processes. The earth is Precambrian rock of the Canadian Shield, mostly granite, overlaid with a thin layer of fertile topsoil from which numerous trees & other plants emerge, drawing all kinds of insects, amphibians, birds, mammals & other creatures into their enclave. Above it ranges the third physical element, air, being the sky. This evening it is characteristically blue with a diffuse smattering of clouds, some hazy & thin, others gauzy as traces of cotton…
In the ensuing days I continued, digging deeper into this place I had always known, sinking into the comfort of a book that seemed to know me personally. The exercises focus on tools like imagery, walking and writing, and water. Chapter 1 also explores the 18th Century Romantic writers’ concept of beauty and the sublime in landscape.
But Lappin goes way beyond nature writing. Chapter 2 addresses sacred and urban places such as markets. She explores the 19th Century French tradition of flâneurs, wanderers who commented on modern life. Chapter 3 investigates rooms and their contents. Chapter 4 provides a delicious study of food writing. Finally, one of my favourite chapters mines the unconscious using exercises about dream work, symbolism, mythic elements, labyrinths, et cetera.
Returning home from the cottage retreat, I decided to follow another suggestion from The Soul of Place by spending seven weeks keeping a nature journal on weekly topics, one hour a day. I chose the themes: water, rooms, forests, blue, fruit, night, & beauty. I invited a few writer friends to join me in this summer writing challenge, which helped focus my intention through accountability. At the end I had written every day averaging more than 750 words for a total of 39,000 words. One of my favourite pieces was a poem about apricots.
Towards the end of this project, some difficult ideas and memories emerged. Self-therapy crept into the writing. Who knew fruit could be traumatic? The process taught some valuable lessons about when the self needs attention, when to let go and move on.
The Soul of Place stands out by being well researched, focused, down to Earth, thoughtful and authentic. Other books have helped me explore and gain confidence in myself as a writer, but this one developed my work in a genre that feels most meaningful. No forced march here, the exercises invite personal expression and curiosity to learn more. It was often fun, often surprising. It changed how I write. More intensive projects at the end of each chapter will inspire work for publication.
The book’s title is a translation of genius loci, a term from classical Roman religion for the guardian spirit of a house. The concept has been used in landscape architecture to describe how human intervention should respect natural ambiance.
These readings and exercises helped me connect more deeply with the spirit of Lake Fletcher I’ve known all my life. However, back home I’ve finally met the genius loci of Twin Oaks Woods, every bit as vital. It feeds images and ideas into a daily creative process. Now I can hardly wait to go for a walk each morning.