Sunday, October 14, 2018

James Swan on the Presence of Place


“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.”

― Wendell Berry

I've been thinking about what my life long passions are of late, and what course I  might set for myself as an artist now.  I find that what I keep coming back to is that deep sense of the living Earth, the sense of presence I have always felt when in nature, or in the garden.  The Great Conversation.   In November I'm going to England, near Avebury, to attend a Conference called "Dreaming the Land:  Working with the Consciousness of Nature" .  I want to walk among the Stones of Avebury, re-visit the White Spring and Red Springs of Glastonbury, renew my aquaintance.  And talk with as many people as I can about what the living Earth means to them.  I hope to bring that inspiration home, and speak, as an artist, about it.  Gathering voices to help me understand how the Earth speaks to us, and how people have spoken to the Earth in the past.  

I think about a conversation I had once in a coffee shop in Brooklyn, N.Y,, with an artist named Caroline Beasley Baker.   She spoke about the Dreaming Earth:

"I once had a wonderful dream. I dreamed I was riding across the Australian desert at night. I was on a bus, and everyone was asleep. I looked out, across the dark, and saw, rising up out of the desert floor, these incredibly beautiful murals, in huge caverns lit by firelight. I knew they had been made by some consciousness predating humanity, that they had been here for millennia. They had never been seen in the world before, and were now rising up to the surface of the Earth.  Those paintings were more glorious than anything I've ever seen in my life! At the end of the dream, a voice said to me, "Caroline, that's the Earth dreaming".  The Aborigines believe that everything rises from the Earth, everything rests in the Earth and emerges when its time. That's what my dream was about: the Earth dreaming and awakening."1.

I felt like sharing here an article here by James Swan, who has written extensively about the  intelligence of the land, and has been a continual inspiration to me over the years.   Dr. Swan has published numerous books about the Spirit of Place.   His book "The Power of Place" draws on  26 presentations drawn from the five year Spirit of Place symposium  held in the US and Japan between 1988 and 1993.  I wish the symposium was still happening, because I believe it is vitally important that we learn again how to have communion with the Earth again.  How to regain our experience of being a part of the Conversation.    

The Spirit of Place Symposiums: 
 Seeking The Modern Relevance of Ancient Wisdom

By James A. Swan, Ph.D
"Modern man will never find peace until he comes
into harmony with the place where he lives." 

Carl Jung (Pantheon, 1964)


The ancient Greeks spoke of the "genus loci," or spirit of a place. They sited a shrine to honor the Earth Goddess Gaia at Delphi in Greece because the unique personality or spirit of that place was divined to be especially suited to Gaia residing there. Understanding the forces that drew the early Greeks to reach that decision may well be a concept that is at the very root of developing sustainable human societies on earth and creating tourism programs that maximize the unique values of each destination.

Like trees, the human spirit needs roots, and a primary root of the psyche is in the land. Psychiatrist Carl Jung was an explorer of those deeper regions of the mind, the unconscious, where symbols and primal energies originate. Jung declared there were two types of unconscious: personal, which is unique to each person, and collective, which is shared by all humans, and seems to have loose boundaries with other objects and creatures (Dell, 1968). In our sleep, the unconscious comes to the forefront, and Jung observed that people tended to have dreams of a similar archetypal nature when sleeping at certain places. Jung called such place perception "psychic localization," and asserted that it was an important part of human nature.

East Indian scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy agreed with Jung about the unique association between place and consciousness and noted that myths were frequently linked to certain places. He coined the phrase "land-nam," a term derived from the Icelandic tradition of claiming ownership of a place through weaving together a mythic metaphor of plants, animals and geography of a place into a unique mythic story (Luzac, 1935).

The spirit of place plays a strong role in traditional societies, where it is commonly held that each place has a personality and some places are associated with spiritual sentiments. Ancient wisdom deserves respect and preservation, but what additional value may such concepts as the spirit of place have for modern society?

The Spirit of Place Symposiums

From 1988 to 1993 my wife Roberta and I produced a five-year series of annual symposiums -- The Spirit of Place: The Modern Relevance of An Ancient Concept -- seeking to help restore the wisdom of the past about the significance of place and explore its meaning to modern times.

Each symposium was begun with an open call for papers, inviting people from all disciplines and cultural heritage backgrounds to share in a common quest for understanding the subtle power of place. Nearly 300 speakers participated in the programs, four of which were held in the United States -- University of California at Davis, Grace Cathedral, Mesa Verde National Park, and at the San Rafael, CA, Marin Civic Center designed by Frank Lloyd Wright -- and one was held in Sendai, Japan. Speakers represented disciplines as diverse as aerospace engineering, biophysics, psychology, architecture, biology, law, history, anthropology, music, dance and art. Members of 20 different American Indian tribes participated with speeches, music singing and dancing, along with others from Eskimo, African, Polynesian, and Oriental ethnic backgrounds. The rule that was used to organize such a diverse group was that they had to participate as peers, equal experts in whatever their profession. 

Thus panels blending a salmon fisherman with a physicist and an aerospace engineer with priest and a farmer became a common search for truth where many new alliances were forged. At each program, we concluded with a performance inspired by special places. Artists who performed included flutists Paul Horn and R. Carlos Nakai, dancer-choreographer Anna Halpern, keyboard artist Steven Halpern, Japanese recording artist Jun Hirose, and the rock-fusion band Earth Spirit.

Lessons of The Spirit of Place

In producing these programs our principle goal was to explore the modern validity of this ancient concept. We did not to try to start a spirit of place movement. Rather, we hope that what has taken place will set the stage for others to conduct programs that will advance our understanding of the power of places everywhere.  In these five programs, listening to nearly 300 speakers, formally and informally, we heard common themes emerge. The following are some of these shared areas of agreement:

1)Among indigenous cultures all around the world, the belief in the existence of special places of power and spirit seems universal. It is commonly believed that some places have spiritual powers, and these places are normally seen as cornerstones of traditional cultural belief systems. Modern society has often not paid much attention to sacred places, which is a source of great concern to traditional cultures. Another concern is that modern cultures tend to see places as only having value to the past or to other cultures, rather than to society in general.

2) At each of the five Spirit of Place symposiums researchers and designers from many disciplines agreed that gaining a sense of place is a very important part of their work, yet there is very little research on this topic or professional organizations seriously investigating the topic. Modern people are often aware of the unique spirit of a place, but do not have a vocabulary to express their feelings, except through art.

3) A characteristic style of art seems to arise from a geographic region; it is a voice that speaks to us through indigenous art of the spirit of that place. Drawings, paintings, carving, sculpture, stories, songs, poetry and dances, are all fed by the spirit of a place. The artist's mind is not so encumbered by the constraints of intellectual reasoning and so it becomes a more clear channel for the unconscious to expressed. He or she gives voice and form to the spirit of the land.

4)The experience of place is multi-faceted and influenced by culture, personal uniqueness and modality of awareness. There may be many more sensory processes by which we perceive the earth and nature than modern science and psychology are willing to admit. Ancient traditions such as Chinese Feng Shui assert that we have at least 100 senses to perceive place. The needs of modern society for ecologically conscious design suggests that in the training of designers we should seek to cultivate the inner designer as well as training professional skills.

5) Each place has a unique quality which in turn influences what can best be done there.
The built environment can serve as an amplifier of the powers of a place, or it can negate the influence of locality, yielding what Frank Lloyd Wright called "cash and carry architecture." Architecture and design that honors the spirit of place and gives it meaning and form expresses beauty and nourishes health and creativity. Architecture is ultimately a ritual in structural materials.

6)The act of making a pilgrimage to special places is among the oldest acts of human respect for nature and spirit, and one of the least understood and appreciated by modern society, despite the facts that we undertake pilgrimages by the millions each year. Psychology needs to better understand the value of pilgrimage to human life as it may be one of the most important ways that we can discover our meaning, find health, and be inspired, as well as build reverence for nature.

7)The lack of feeling connected to a place, especially a place where one lives and works, can be an important source of mental and physical stress. People need to feel peaceful where they are, and maintain a psychic connection with a place of natural beauty if they do not reside in one. Actor James Earl Jones, who gained his awareness of the power of place by growing up on a dirt farm in northern Michigan has observed: "I have always thought it quite wonderful and necessary to keep connected to nature, to a place in the country landscape where one can rest and muse and listen" (Chas. Scribner's Sons, 1993).

8) Geomancy is the spiritual parent of modern design. Many ancient geomancies understand the importance of the relationship between place and personal experience and take elaborate measures to insure people are harmonized with the spirit of a place. When principles of design from Feng Shui and other geomancies are applied to modern buildings and communities, positive results occur. We need to set aside our limiting beliefs and appreciate the power of such approaches in the same fashion that western science has acknowledged the healing values of acupuncture, even though modern science cannot prove the existence of the life force chi and other geomantic concepts.

9)Modern science is beginning to measure the subtle properties of place. We now know that air ions, electrical and electromagnetic fields do influence health and well-being. More research needs to be devoted to the study of subtle environmental fields. Documenting the existence and value of these fields, may well lead to a whole new art and science of design with modern science and ancient wisdom working together.

10) In a Spirit of Place keynote, psychologist Robert Sommer observed that people can become "a voice" for the spirit of that region as much as for a human community or a relationship. John Muir, for example, seemed to embody the spirit of Yosemite Valley. The Lakota holy man Black Elk was a voice for the Black Hills of South Dakota. Rachel Carson was inspired by Cape Cod to write about "the sense of wonder" in nature as well as the dangers of pesticides to ecological balance. Becoming a voice for the land creates a "psychic anchor" that seems to be important to mental health.

11) The spirit of place concept is less understood by modern society, and one result is that conflicts about the value of place can and do arise between traditional and modern cultures.It is easy to flame the fires of conflict in such situations, creating enemies to raise funds to wage wars that should never have to exist. This kind of self-righteous scapegoating is as exploitive as developers who wish to commercialize sacred places for the sake of pure profit. The more difficult task is to build bridges of respect and cooperation between traditional and modern cultures, but it is the only path that can lead us to greater harmony and understanding.

12) We need new laws and land-use categories that facilitate honoring the power of place, including recognition of sacred places. Creating the public policies that yield such laws will require cross-cultural communication, cooperation and understanding unprecedented in modern society.


The consensus among participants in the Spirit of Place Symposiums is that we must rediscover the wisdom about the power of place and turn it into practical concepts that will guide modern people to live in harmony with the earth, as well as show respect for ancient traditions. Learning to plan and design with respect for the unique spirit of each place is a touchstone of responsible eco-tourism that respects traditional cultures and provides important benefits to modern culture as well.


This paper is drawn from Dialogues With The Living Earth  by James and Roberta Swan (1996)


Coomaraswamy, Ananda. 1935 
Jones, James Earl. 1993 Voices and Silences. New York, NY: Chas. Scribner's Sons, p.358.
Jung, Carl 1964 Civilization In Transition: Vol. 10 Collective Works of Carl Jung New York, NY: Pantheon.
Jung, Carl 1968 Man and His Symbols New York, NY: Dell.
Lawrence, D.H. 1923 Studies In Classical American Literature. New York, NY: Thomas Seltzer and Sons, p.8-9.
Swan, James 1990 Sacred Places: How The Living Earth Seeks Our Friendship Santa Fe, NM: Bear and Company.
Swan, James ed. 1991 The Power of Place Wheaton, IL: Quest Books.
Swan, James and Swan, Roberta 1996 Dialogues With The Living Earth Wheaton, IL: Quest.

1 comment:

Trish MacGregor said...

It sounds like it's going to be a wonderful trip! Take pics, post them!