Over the next few weeks, I will post a series of sketches of some ideas I have kicking around in my head. With luck, they might become longer essays or full-length books! Apologies in advance for any grammatical errors or sloppy syntax!
Toward the end of writing the manuscript for my book about the monastic sense of place, a simple turn of phrase occurred me: Placefulness. This seemed to sum up in a simple word how monks in the Benedictine/Cistercian monastic tradition related to the landscapes of their respective monastic communities. The were present not just to abstract theological notions, or the love of God, but to the intricacies of their surrounding environments, which were often extensive rural properties.
I googled the phrase. A workshop called Into the Mountain mentioned it, seeking an embodied encounter with the land. A travel writer named Vanessa Walker named her website after the word, and it appears to be a new site dedicated to travel writing. There were a few other hits, but nothing that explored the word as an academic concept or spiritual practice.
The word felt useful. So, in December 2022, when I was invited by the Multifaith Network for Climate Justice in Bellingham to give a talk on contemplative ecology, I thought I would think through the idea out loud. The talk was well attended, and I gave a follow up in Vancouver at Simon Fraser University’s Institute for the Humanities. This Sketch is an outline of that talk.
We seem to me living in the -fulness of times. You are probably familiar with the term Mindfulness: Meditation practice rooted in Buddhism; moment by moment awareness of sensations, thoughts and feelings without judgement. But there is also an emerging alternative called Bodyfulness, articulating the somatic therapist Christine Caldwell’s paradigm for a more embodied contemplative practice. Geologist Marcia Bjornerud has recently written a book called Timefulness which argues that as temporal creatures we are embedded in earth’s deep time cycles. Placefulness then would be something along the lines of the contemplative practice of attending to what is and what arises in our places, especially during troubled times. So, like any spirituality worth its salt, that means integrating the good, the bad and the ugly in the places we live, especially as climate change takes a deeper hold on the world.
To Be in Place
The Greek philosopher Archytas (4th century BCE) is reputed to have said that “To be is to be in place.” This positioned place as a central ontological notion in Greek thinking that was all but obliterated with the advent of geometric space during the Enlightenment and the seeming social construction of everything with the semiotic turn of the 20th century. Starting in the 1960s sense of place began to reclaim space (so to speak) in the theoretical circles of geography and the social sciences. For example, an early re-examination of place is found in Yi Fu Tuan, a geographer, who used the term Topophilia to explore the “feeling-link” between people and places (1974). This can be compared with EO Wilson’s Biophilia: The idea that we are biologically rooted to feelings of affinity with life. Edward Relph’s Place and Placelessness (1976) examines the importance of em-place-ment, and the malaise of place-less-ness that set in during the late modern period. One of my favorite explorations of place and perception is by anthropologist Tim Ingold, who developed a “Dwelling Perspective” on environmental perception that drew from the phenomenology of Heidegger and Merleau-Ponty, who were overtly opposed to the Cartesian project that had favored space over place. Echoing this ontological turn, anthropologists began to see that as Christian Norberg-Schulz writes, “To dwell means to belong to a given place.”
A few examples:
Aboriginal Song Lines
Bruce Chatwin’s book The Songlines (1987) explores settler and aboriginal understandings of place in Australia. In the publicly available sources, Aboriginal sense of place can be described as relating to the Dreaming. During the Dream Time (Every-when), the Ancestors of all life sang the world into being along tracks, called Songlines. during the Dreamtime. A Dreaming is one’s first Ancestor whether it be Kangaroo, Lizard, Bandicoot, Honey Ant, or Badger. Most Dreamings are animals, a few are plants or trees. An initiated person receives a portion of a Songline that traverses the first track of their Dreaming. The tempo and melody of the Songline express the topography of the place. So, forms of the land are a remnant of the first ancestors first movements, and each place is stacked with stories from that sacred canon.
Moral Place-scapes Among Western Apache
Indigenous placenames in the American West are often made up by afforded features of the landscape: Trees, mountains, valleys. Or they speak of activities that take place there like harvesting, council, or hunting. For example, in Western Apache place names, Tséé Chiizh Dah Sidilé means Coarse-Textured Rocks Lie Above in a Compact Cluster. This is a descriptive name for the features of that place.
In short, places teach Western Apache how to live. The collective history of the Apache has accumulated in these places, and they speak their lessons to the people. For example, at one such place a man attempted to commit incest with his stepdaughter. In Keith Basso’s account of these places in his amazing book Wisdom Sits in Places, his informant Ruth gets visibly uncomfortable as they pass this place in their car, and says, “I know that place, it stalks me every day.” In Ruth’s case the place reminded her of an assault she suffered by someone close to her. Not a romantic notion, but the wrongness of the act is written in the landscape which gave her strength. To put a person in their place so the speak, one need only recite a particular place name and its lessons will shoot like an arrow into the mind of one’s interlocutor.
Well Known Coast Salish Transformer Sites
In my part of the world, Cascadia, where Coast Salish peoples have lived and flourished for thousands of years, Transformer Spirits such as Xáays among the Squamish are responsible for certain prominent features of the landscape. A few publicly available examples: The Lions Peaks / Twin Sisters (Ch’ich’iyúy Elxwíkn) on the North Shore Mountain range were transformed for negotiating a peace treaty. The Stawamus Chief (Siám’ Smánit) in Squamish was a Long House where people and animals met for ceremony. Skalsh Rock in Stanley Park was an ancient chief turned into stone for insisting on purifying himself before his child’s birth. Additionally, obsidian deposits were understood as places where Thunderbird shot lighting out of his eyes. These sites were not only moral lesson, but monuments to their deep ties to place.
To be Rooted
Place is a richly textured part of Indigenous spirituality and lifeways. However, despite a reputation for Platonic otherworldliness, the Christian contemplative tradition has deep roots in a biblical sense of place. Simone Weil once wrote that “To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.” Rootedness was a central idea for Weil, whose life was cut short by her own radical asceticism.
Biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann (2002) wrote that “In the [Bible] there is no timeless space, but there also is no spaceless time. There is rather storied place, that is, a place that has meaning because of the history lodged there.” The Peoples of the Levant were covenanted to the Divine through places: Jacob/Israel wrestled with an angelic person, and the placename Penuel means Face of/facing Adonai. Many passages in the Hebrew Bible either begin or end with a reference to the name of a place, or the origin of that place’s name. Stone altars, groves, and mountain peaks were places of contact with the Divine or the history of the Patriarchal period. This is not a reverent nature spirituality, but a sacred geography where a peoples’ claim to the land was rooted in encounters with the Divine. Layered over this history, is the motif of the tension between the Paradise-Garden and Desert-Wilderness, starting with the very first chapters in Genesis where Adam and Eve are exiled from the garden. The entire arc of the story of Israel is God alluring them back to the garden through covenant, obedience and justice.
The story of Jesus of Nazareth is told through particular places. The arc of his vocation as Messiah recapitulated the places of Hebrew tradition: Bethlehem, Egypt, Jerusalem, Mount Tabor, and finally the Tree of Life (cross) and the Garden (tomb). Jesus consistently leaves the towns and cities to pray in the desert. Early Christians recognized certain places as sacred based on their association with Hebrew prophets, Christian martyrs, monks and ascetics and the life of Jesus. The early hermits and monks fled to the desert as means of radical asceticism, but also because the desert is an ideal place to practice a spirituality of silence.
The Christian relation to place becomes more ambivalent as it weds Greek metaphysics. As Saint Augustine wrote, “Our heart is restless until it rests in You.” Christian writers often portray humanity as a wandering pilgrim on earth, much as Plato saw the Forms as the really real. Belden Lane (2001) and John Inge (2003) show that despite a rich sense of place throughout Hebrew and Christian sacred writings, there is a tension with the mystic placelessness of Christian eschatology: Lane writes, “…one finds a continuing tension between place and placelessness, between the local and the universal. God is here—in this place at Bethlehem, Lourdes, Iona, even Boston and Salt Lake City.”
The Monastic Sense of Place
My book Dwelling in the Wilderness: A Liturgy of Place for the Anthropocene (2023) will explore how contemporary monastic communities are invited into a rich sense of place. Rather than being born from the place as Indigenous peoples are, monks take a vow of stability that encourages them to become ‘lovers of the place;’ to root their whole spiritual life of seeking God in a place and a community of imperfect monks. That life is punctuated by daily and seasonal liturgies that can attune the monks to the cycles and seasons of their places. Manual work balances a life of prayer by engaging the body and can enrich spiritual development by linking tasks to places and teaching vital lessons about the spiritual life. A monk’s time spent in formation, work and leisure means that over many years memories and lessons accumulate in place, giving shape to a personal spiritual ecology that connects place, spirituality and theology. And while some monks may return to certain places over and over, it was often the ‘Charged Moments’, as one monk put it, that ended up being most significant. By Charged Moments the monk was referring to times when a feeling of communion, or a spiritual insight comes out of nowhere. Those unexpected places are then integrated into a monks’ spiritual ecology, or moral landscape: places of rich memory, lesson or insight that then continue to teach monks how to be monks. As one monk said, “You become part of the land. Our vow of stability grounds us, and an image that was really helpful for me was the idea of these trees [points] taking root; you know we’ve got thirty feet of topsoil, and the roots go deep… So that was the image of stability that I had. The longer I stay here, the more I can see myself growing in ways I never thought possible. It’s of course not always easy, staying in one place, but the [longer] you stay the [the higher you can] reach.”
Placefulness as Contemplative Ecology
European descended peoples in North America live with a devalued sense of place. It has been re-placed by mobility, commodity and sentimentality. We see uprootedness, placelessness, dis-placement. The troubling loss of place can been seen through the post-modern attempt to respond to a deep yearning for rootedness in the culture. As philosopher Vince Vycinas wrote, “[W]e are homeless even if we have a place to live” Often, new architecture seeks to emplace us by building homey Town Centres that mimic public or even domestic spaces, flashing a sense of place to our meaning-hungry hearts. Consumerism is as much driven by manufactured needs as it is a sense of belonging or self that has been expertly packaged and sold back to us. The Anthropocene, the so-called geological epoch of human domination, is as much a crisis of meaning as it is a crisis of ecology and extinction.
As parties gather in international conferences to discuss emissions reductions targets, many activists have also been looking for ways to heal a wounded sense of meaning, purpose and sacredness in a world on the brink. In the scholarly world, tracking this movement is often called Religion and Ecology or Religion and Nature. But activists tend to use terms like Spiritual Ecology or as Pope Francis does in his encyclical letter Laudato Si, Integral Ecology. These broad movements represent the spiritual wing of environmentalism that sees ecological issues as moral issues, the earth as sacred. As Sufi teacher Llewelyn Vaughn Lee expresses, “The world is not a problem to be solved; it is a living being to which we belong. The world is part of our own self and we are a part of its suffering wholeness. Until we go to the root of our image of separateness, there can be no healing.” Separateness and displacement from earth are roots of our ecological crisis.
This sense of oneness is echoed in the non-religious but deeply spiritual ethnographic memoir of anthropologist Richard Nelson, which takes places on the island of Haida Gwaii in British Columbia. He writes,
“There is nothing in me that is not of earth, no split instant of separateness, no particle that disunites me from the surroundings. I am no less than the earth itself. The rivers run through my veins, the winds blow in and out with my breath, the soil makes my flesh, the sun’s heat smolders inside me. A sickness or injury that befalls the earth befalls me. A fouled molecule that runs through the earth runs through me. Where the earth is cleansed and nourished, its purity infuses me. The life of the earth is my life. My eyes are the earth gazing at itself.”
Without reference to God, religion or even spirituality, Nelson describes a realization that is perhaps obvious to Indigenous peoples, and those who are rooted in place, whose ancestors nourish the land they harvest their food from. For Nelson, it was an ecological Apokalypsis, a great revealing of a truth hidden before his very eyes.
My own writing at Holyscapes has been oriented toward a contemplative spiritual ecology that reflects on the relationship between inscape and landscape. Really what I am interested in is to learn the liturgy of my place. My walks attend to the cycles of the stars, sun and moon; I am even learning the rudiments of the astrological archetypes and Greek stories that accompany the constellations. I want to attune to the cycles and patterns of season and weather, the features of topography and surficial geology. The Latin, common and/or Indigenous names of plants, animals and fungi. The lifeways of food, medicinal plants and fungi. The soundscape and seasonality of local and migratory birds. And a growing awareness of the memories, lessons, experiences, symbols and rituals that embed themselves in the places I visit.
In addition to learning the liturgy of place, I think it is essential that we engage and support ecological restoration projects. While ecological restoration has its critics, one of its potential benefits is not just to local biodiversity or ecosystem function, but to our sense of place. As ecologist Stephanie Mills (1996) writes,
“[The act of restoration] gives [people] a basis for commitment to the ecosystem. It is very real. People often say, we have to change the way everybody thinks. Well, my God, that’s hard work! How do you do that? A very powerful way to do that is by engaging people in experiences. It’s ritual we’re talking about. Restoration is an excellent occasion for the evolution of a new ritual tradition.”
Ecological restorations’ biggest potential might be in its ability to restore people to a deeper relationship with our places.
Caution I: Beware Spiritual Extractivism
One of the core moral lessons of the conservation movement, was that industrial civilization’s hunger for converting the earth into cash or calories has devastated ecosystems and caused a culture-induced mass extinction. Many of those who are interested in shifting the conversation toward a more sacred sense of the world have started many wonderful projects such as retreat centres, Wild Churches, or Forest Bathing circles. As I shift my mind set of seeing the world as a background to one of home, I want to say that caution is in order. In some ecological spirituality circles, workshops or liturgies I have attended, there is often a circle sharing exercise in which we are encouraged to go out into the forest and find a natural object that speaks to us, or to have a conversation with a tree, etc. We are charged, dismissed and given 45 minutes to soak up the forest’s spiritual lessons and the pressure is on! As I talk about Placefulness, my first caution would be to beware of a taking our extractivist cultural instinct and simply shifting it toward what I am calling a spiritual extractivism. Theologian Belden Lane’s words are a much better caution:
“The challenge is to honor the thing itself, as well as the thing as metaphor. When [Ralph Waldo] Emerson declared in 1836 that ‘every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact,’ he sent people racing to the woods, anticipating the voice of God in the call of every thrush. But too often they paid scant attention to the songbird in their anxiousness to hear some transcendent message. They returned home full of nothing but themselves, their pockets stuffed with metaphors. As the imagination reaches relentlessly for a timeless, interior soulscape, it is easy to sail over the specificity of particular landscapes” –Belden Lane, The Solace of Fierce Landscapes (1998, 17)
Caution II: Beware Dissociative Jargon
This one’s for me. In academia, we are coming up with some important terms to describe what is happening to our world, words like Solastalgia, coined by Glenn Albrecht has gotten a lot of traction because it speaks to a feeling that is becoming more common, and just as potent as nostalgia was thought to be during the 1700s, where it was diagnosed as serious illness due to longing for one’s homeland. Solastalgia is the feeling of loss and longing for one’s home place as it changes before our eyes. This kind of language, though abstract and new, is powerful for describing our feelings. What I mean by dissociative jargon is more in line with words like environment, ecosystems and even ecology. Ecosystem is a word for places coined by a culture without a home. I learned this caution from a hero of mine, agrarian writer Wendell Berry. I have a lot to learn from this caution. As Berry writes:
“No settled family or community has ever called its home place an “environment.” None has ever called its feeling for its home place “biocentric” or “anthropocentric.” None has ever thought of its connection to its home place as “ecological,” deep or shallow. The concepts and insights of the ecologists are of great usefulness in our predicament, and we can hardly escape the need to speak of “ecology” and “ecosystems.” But the terms themselves are culturally sterile. They come from the juiceless, abstract intellectuality of the universities which was invented to disconnect, displace, and disembody the mind. The real names of the environment are the names of rivers and river valleys; creeks, ridges, and mountains; towns and cities; lakes, woodlands, lanes roads, creatures, and people.” –Wendell Berry, Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community (1993, 35)
Troubles: Therapizing Place and NIMBY-ism
In addition to these cautions, I am also interested in the troubles on the horizon, troubles for which I don’t have direct prescriptions to solve. These are troubles that I want to think out loud about in future writing and if possible, public gatherings.
First, there is a strong tendency to assume that developing a place is space is a kind of wellness technique. For example, forest-based therapists often see places through a therapeutic lens (this is often good). We develop a practice of deep attention to place as a means of de-stressing, unwinding, or spiritually tuning in to the happenings of a forest. However, I must insist that just as mindfulness is not just to be practiced when we are happy, a practice of Placefulness is not just practiced when our places are lush, or when we are comfortable and happy, or simply in need of cheering up. Forests are places of predation, decay, rot, parasitism, suffering and pain. If we go to the forest and only see vibrant life, interconnection and cooperation we are missing half of the experience.
Sense of place can also become something of a classist project of protecting a strict view of land that elevates places that are primarily in wild states, lined with walking trails and recreational areas. Working landscapes are often excluded, which tends to bias our notions of places worthy of our attention toward those that fit the narrow aesthetics of urban and wealthy recreators, retirees, or second homeowners. NIMBY-ism (Not In My Backyard) can even kill renewable energy projects that threaten a cherished viewshed. Some communities value places primarily for wellness, aesthetics, spirituality and leisure and these are important values. But Placefulness needs to wrap its arms around the reality that many people have to make their livings from the land, as foresters, miners, loggers, truckers, farmers, ranchers and many other professions and many of them are trying their best to do a good job, usually small scale, independent operators. This is tricky, because we need to radically transform our economy, but the answer isn’t simply building a wall around some places while others go to shit.
With Trebbe Johnson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times, we need to be prepared to love damaged places. We need to witness and resist cultures of destruction but also as Donna Haraway encourages us, to “stay with the trouble”. This means resisting either/or narratives that trade in either apocalyptic or techno-optimistic storylines. It means attuning to our neighborhoods as well as our local wild forest parks. It means supporting and celebrating a stream restoration project and grieving an oil spill in the bay. Our places are wounded, so are we. Attention, holy grief and acts of beauty in wounded places are integral to Placefulness.
Troubles: Weaponizing Place
Another important trouble is that deep reverence to places are caught up in human conflicts all over the world. Control over (sacred) places is often enlisted by ethno-nationalist agendas. For example, Hindu nationalists (VHP) demolished the Babri Masjid in 1992 because they claimed it was built by Muslim invaders on a sacred Hindu site. Sacred Groves in India, which are often pointed to as examples of ancient conservation projects, are often caste-restrictive, gender restrictive and include taboos that look nothing like the egalitarian access Westerners expect from protected areas. Sense of place is often accompanied by knowing one’s place in a social hierarchy. In addition, Israel/Palestine continues to be a conflict between those who are deeply invested in their identities and home places. Zionism is a place-based movement. Placefulness needs to grapple with this toxic dimension of sense of place.
Troubles: Reconciling Place
Last, sense of place is not communing with Nature with a capital N. In the pacific West where I live, he beloved forests where I walk, the parks and neighborhoods are all the traditional territory of the Musqueam people. To go into the forest and see only nature is to negate that these are cultural landscapes whose ancient stewards have been stripped of their claims by force. There is a political ecology to Placefulness.
There are some very encouraging large-scale trends: The BC Treaty Commission, Indigenous protected and conserved areas; the advancement of Rights and Title settlements; co-management, profit sharing agreements. The Land Back, Land Guardians, Indigenous land trusts, revitalization movements, Voluntary Land Tax projects like the Reciprocity Funds program. These are all gesturing in the right direction, but reconciliation and decolonization are not the same thing, and Placefulness needs to grapple with what that means for settler and immigrant peoples who love where they live. A post-colonial “Cascadia” should be able to include settler and immigrant peoples, but Indigenous peoples need to be treated with the historical justice that making right deserves. How far does that go? I don’t know. Perhaps I should start look into immigrating back to England after 7 or so generations of ancestry in North America? Or, perhaps my practice of Placefulness needs to be able to sit with discomfort, ambivalence, and the historical wrongs that I had no part in carry out, but whose privileged fruits I unquestionably benefit from. As Nigerian Post-Christian Yoruba writer Bayo Akomolafe says:
“I like to say that, sometimes the best answer to a pressing question is bewilderment. It’s not the answer itself, it’s not the correct answer, it’s the gift of bewilderment, it’s a gift of straying away from the algorithms of easy arrival. And my Elders always taught me that…the answers are not always going to be available…thank you for holding the space for queer questions, and uneasy arrivals for tending to the tense fields where new kinds of beings and becomings can thrive and grow…”
Placefulness is about making space for the unknown, cultivating holy grief for a rapidly changing world, and loving our places even when it might be uncomfortable.
 Edward Casey, Getting Back into Place, 1993, 14.
 Christian Norbert Shultz, The Concept of Dwelling, 1993, 109.
 Simon Weil, The Need for Roots, 1949, 41.
 Walter Brueggemann, The Land, 2002, Pos. 3051, Kindle edition.
 Belden Lane, Landscapes of the Sacred. 1996, 242.
 Vincent Vycinas, Earth and Gods, 1969, 268.
 Llewelln Vaugan Lee, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, 2013, 7.
 Richard Nelson, The Island Within, 1989, 249.
 Cited IN: Gretel Van Wieren “Ecological Restoration as Public Spiritual Practice” Worldviews 12 (2008) 237-254.