To Travel or Stay

Genius loci, photo by Van WaffleThe Earth contains much wisdom. Travel changes the way we experience it. It is commonly held that travel enriches our experience of history and culture. However, staying in one place deepens wisdom differently. It is like having a monogamous relationship with one particular place.

Intimacy with that particular piece of the world grows deeper each day: with the people, creatures and plants who inhabit it and pass through, sights, smells, sounds, lay of the land, weather and change of light from hour to hour. A reader may glimpse reverence for place in works such as Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Ancient Romans revered the genius loci or spirit of a place. They often built altars and sought local gods’ protection. Comparable beliefs exist in many cultures. Although the spirit characters in My Neighbor Totoro were invented by filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, they relate to the nature worship of Japanese shintoism.

Poet Alexander Pope famously wrote about the genius loci as a guide to the qualities of a place:

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;

This idea became an essential principle of gardening and landscape design.

Place may act as a muse to writers and artists. My friend, fabric artist Lorraine Roy, lives with her husband on the Niagara Escarpment in Dundas, Ontario. Many of her works are inspired by the rugged landscape and endurance of trees growing on the cliffs. Hints about growing up near the escarpment also appear in the songs of Sarah Harmer, as in “Escarpment Blues”:

If they blow a hole in the backbone
The one that runs cross the muscles of the land
We might get a load of stone for the road
But I don’t know how much longer we can stand

My knowledge and love grow deeper the longer I spend time in a place. The spirit of the landscape where I grew up on the north shore of Lake Erie has grown the deepest roots into my consciousness. However, Guelph’s rivers have taught me even more about myself and how to get along in the world. This is my first spring living at our current address and already I feel great affection for the backyard and nearby woods. Still, I long to put down deeper roots somewhere, both literally and figuratively. I want to plant fruit trees, but to do so in a garden where we rent would feel like giving away a child.

Although I feel such a deep connection to the Earth where I live, travel continually tempts me. These past few days we have explored Prince Edward County; tomorrow we are off to Montreal. I savour the taste of everything new. Reader, when you have time to relax, do you prefer home or travel? What is your favourite place: a living room chair, your garden, or a destination?

Maybe I am a place whore. Maybe new experiences give me a greater appreciation for what I have. Perhaps the greatest value of travel is it gives greater understanding of others. By others I mean not only different cultures, but also landscapes that shape the way they live and think, and the countless unfamiliar organisms with which we share our planet.

Still, while away we miss growth in the vegetable garden, the daily activity of birds at our feeder, and certain qualities of light that may never occur again. Something is sacrificed. A certain simplicity and depth of living is lost.


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