When we use the expression ‘genius loci’ today, we don’t usually mean something religious, but rather the spirit — or, in more secular terms, the essence — of a place. The classical Romans, from whom we inherited the term, were speaking of literal spirits, guardians not just of a specific place, but everything that went with it. Roman life was filled with genii of all kinds, protecting families, buildings, towns, their senate, their legions, their emperor. Even a god could have a guardian sprit.
In the eighteenth century, poet and gardener Alexander Pope brought the idea into modern landscape and architectural design with his admonition to the Earl of Burlington to ‘Consult the genius of the place in all…” He wrote in the midst of a resurgence of classical Roman architecture, launched by the Italian architect Andrea Palladio a century before. At the time, highly formal gardens planted in strict designs were the norm for those who could afford them, and Pope urged his admirers to forsake such strict conventions.
He wasn’t recommending wild gardens, by any means. Near the grand house they remained quite formal. Farther out they became ‘wilderness,’ which meant that the plantings and ornaments were carefully contrived to look natural, not that the landowner was to leave things to chancy nature. This was the Age of Enlightenment, after all. Fixed dogmas of all kinds were to be replaced by reason, balance, rationality, and science.
Pope’s counsel launched a philosophy that informs designers and architects to this day. In the twentieth century, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and landscape designers like Jens Jensen led the way toward working with the details native to a particular place: its plants, terrain, stone, wood, water, light, air, vistas. This was the spirit I tried to follow in my years as a landscape designer, though it’s a challenge in built-up, suburbanized areas, where so much of the native landscape has been demolished.
Now that I’m free to wander and find native plants and flowers wherever I go, I often remember the spirit of a place by the plants that I saw there. The quiet of the north Idaho woods. Windswept California meadows full of tidy tips and California poppies. The wild-scented sage chaparral of the Santa Monica Mountains. I can follow a desert trail of cactus from southern California through Arizona, on to New Mexico, and north to Utah. The thought of creosote instantly brings up the pungent smell of the Anza Borrego Desert after rain.
Native plants tell me a complex story about the place they’re in: what the soil is like, how much sun and water falls on them, whether they are adapted to unique conditions, how hardy they are, how close to the ocean or forest, what their companion plants are likely to be, who and what pollinates them. They bring back the scents, the bird song, the sighing of wind, the feel of the air, the rock and soil under my feet. They hold the long history, and, I sincerely hope, the future of the places where I find them.
They are far from indomitable, being all too easily displaced by aggressive invaders, plants that find it easy to grow under many different conditions, that are quick to take advantage of any niche they find, that are prolific seed producers. Everywhere I go there are groups dedicated to eradicating non-natives. Last year in Borrego Springs, California, acres of desert flowers bloomed for the first time in many years because volunteers had spent countless months pulling out invasive mustard. They were given a final boost when a drought went into its third year. The mustard couldn’t handle it, and its seeds were destroyed. But the native seeds, used to going dormant to deal with dryness, were waiting, and sprang up the second they had a chance.
The loss of native plant habitat is a human-induced phenomenon. Clearing ground for roads and buildings opens soil for invaders. Cargo from ships, trains and trucks crosses the country. Seeds can travel as far and fast as we can, attached to our tires, our shoes, our suitcases, our pets. Gardening brings exotic plants to areas that can’t resist them. Agriculture brings a host of seeds to an area, as does growing fodder for livestock, so that hay, for example, has replaced the native grasses on the California hills.
The efforts to wrest habitat back from the brink are heroic, and crucial. But, because it works backward from destruction, it’s often a losing battle. The soil is full of the invading seeds at that point. Clearing the California hills of hay is not going to happen. The best answer is to preserve habitat to begin with, but since this involves collaboration among government agencies and boards, builders, homeowners and developers, it’s a process beset by all the things politics, money and human relations are usually beset by. People love wildflowers and trees and the native landscape; they will go far out of their way to enjoy such things. But it’s a different story when those same plants are perceived as being in the way.
This is why I’m sorry we’ve lost the original meaning of genius loci. If we thought of our native plants as spirits, as guardians of their place, we might be much less willing to destroy them. And they are guardians and protectors of their neighborhood, part of the network of beings and entities — trees, soil, rocks, flowers, grasses, animals, insects, fungi, lichen — that both create and hold that habitat together. Some of it will inevitably be supplanted by houses, offices, stores, roads. I’ve loved my homes. I happily use the roads that take me on so many magical adventures. Our cities and towns and shopping centers aren’t going anywhere, and more are coming.
But how differently we would design them if we thought the earth they stand on was alive and sacred. If we could recognize that the natural landscape is important in ways that we can’t fathom. Imagine thinking that it’s as important as we are. Perhaps even more so, since the earth can survive without us, but we can’t survive without its bounty. What if we took Pope’s admonition literally, and consulted with the spirit of the place in all our endeavors? If the question ‘How can I protect this?’ preceded ‘How can I use this?’ Then each of us, too, would become genius loci, a guardian spirit of place.
I’d love to have you on the journey! If you add your email address, I’ll send you notices of new adventures.