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The Home of the Soul: Spiritual Naturalism and the Power of Place

“Return again,
Return again,
Return to the Home of your Soul…

 

Return to who you are,
Return to what you are,
Return to where you are born and reborn again.”

-Shlomo Carlebach

“Return to the Home of your Soul.” Every time I sing or hear sung Shlomo Carlebach’s song excerpted above, “Return Again,” I think of wheat fields, extending in all directions as far as the eye can see. The rolling hills of the Palouse Country in Eastern Washington State is one of the most productive wheat, barley, and lentil growing regions in the world, and, to those raised in the communities that lay nestled among those hills, that country is astonishingly beautiful—and it is home. Home to many souls. The land nurtures them, nourishes them, becomes a part of them. I was one of them once. I left the Palouse physically behind me, regretfully, when a career opportunity pulled me elsewhere. All the same, I discovered that though you might be able to take a person out of the land, taking the land out of the person is no more possible than it is desirable. My soul still calls the Palouse Country home. When I say “soul,” I mean that in the context of the essence of who I am, as opposed to an entity that outlasts my body. What is it about the power of place that connects us so strongly to the lands that sustain us? How can we as Spiritual Naturalists recognize and contextualize that power in a way that reconciles with what we believe?

Most of us have such a special place in our lives—the home of our soul. It may be a place where we spent our childhoods and formative years; perhaps it was a vacation spot we visited on an annual basis when we were young, and now we keep the tradition alive by returning there with our own children, an experience poignantly captured by E.B. White in his essay, “Once More to the Lake.” These passages illustrate White’s understanding of the power of place in our lives:

…from then on none of us ever thought there was any place in the world like that lake in Maine. We returned summer after summer…   …I wondered how time would have marred this unique, this holy spot—the coves and streams, the hills that the sun set behind…   …This seemed an utterly enchanted sea, this lake you could leave to its own devices for a few hours and come back to, and find that it had not stirred, this constant and trustworthy body of water (qtd. in Aaron 27-28).

Unique. Holy. Enchanted. Constant. Trustworthy. White gets it.

These places are part of us—they shape who we become, every bit as much as the adults who raise us do. That is not meant to diminish the roles of our parents, families and human relationships in our development. In his book Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions, Phil Zuckerman makes this point very clear:

From the discipline of sociology, we know that socialization—the informal, often unconscious process of learning how to be, based on what we experience and observe while young—is fundamental to our development as thinking, caring, and loving human beings. The people who raise, nurture, feed, and love us, and all the experiences we have and the people we interact with and observe as we grow up, shape us to an undeniably strong degree…(Zuckerman 35).

Zuckerman is right. The people surrounding us as we grow have an undeniable impact on us. At the same time, part of what we “experience and observe” as Zuckerman puts it would include the natural environment surrounding us, which directly shapes those formative experiences and observations. The experiences E.B. White had that make that lake so special to him were dependent on the lake’s natural environment. I was raised by parents who both grew up in very small farming communities, and their values, the ones that helped to shape my own, were forged by the kinds of activities and lifestyles that their surrounding landscapes encouraged and required. They both hate to be away from the homes of their souls for more than a couple of days; they fidget, they get antsy, they begin to pace—they feel the call to return home. We are all drawn to return to these homes if separated from them, even for just a short visit, knowing that when we do so, we are truly “home” once again. Many may say that “home is where you hang your hat,” or that no matter where the circumstances of life lead you, you should just “bloom where you’re planted.” Though there is some resilient merit there, for me, these philosophies fail to capture the full story. I currently live in a place possessing a staggering amount of environmental beauty, which as a Spiritual Naturalist I deeply revere and appreciate. I call it my home. I work to connect with its unique rhythms and patterns as I can. My wife and children live here. My current phase of life has found me here. The land that speaks most powerfully to my soul? That’s eight hours east of here; the country that resonates with me and nurtured me when I was a child. That is not a disparagement of the place where I now live, it is just a fact I cannot deny.

Now, I am not claiming some supernatural or spiritually magnetic power is calling out to me across the Cascade mountain range, trying to summon me back to where I grew up. I am not claiming that whenever I return to the Palouse I have some transcendent experience that no other Earthly place could induce in me. We are Spiritual Naturalists, and claims to supernatural powers that bind us to places or that we can commune with are, to many of us, anathema to reason.

Let’s explore the first question through the lens of what I’ll call “the nurturance factor.” The physical landscapes that surround us during our formative years have great, though obviously not exclusive, influence on who we become. Our experiences with those landscapes instill in us a sense of what is normal and constant in life. Landscapes provide us with images, smells, sounds, and experiences that shape our memories and understandings of how the world is. I recall working in the hayfields outside of Pullman, helping to bring in over 10,000 fifty-pound bales of hay in ten days. That experience taught me the value of hard work in a manner unique to the surrounding landscape. The landscape shaped not only a memory, but a moral value. I also remember standing on my parents’ porch on Christmas Eve every year, to actually listen to the snow hit the ground; it was so quiet otherwise that the impact of snowflakes was the only sound to be heard. Nowhere else have I experienced such an utter and peaceful stillness. Our environments directly shape our memories and what we hold important.

I am not the only one who has been influenced by the Palouse’s power of place. Richard Scheuerman, author of Palouse Country: A Land and Its People, has this to say in the opening pages of that book:

Stretching across the heartland of the Inland Pacific Northwest is a mystical (emphasis mine) expanse called the Palouse Country which was transformed between 1860 and 1920 from open prairie into one of the nation’s premier dryland farming and ranching districts. Although the region’s name has become synonymous with the steeply rolling hills in its center, the greater Palouse is a tousled tapestry of contrasts with valleys, hills, and mountains woven together by the twisted course of the Palouse river and its tributaries (Scheuerman 1).

Do you notice how his description of the Palouse is prefaced by the word “mystical”? What that word means to him, only he can say. I can only nod and smile, knowing that he too understands the “Palouse Pull.”

Landscape photographer Alison Meyer, in the introductory words to her photograph collection entitled Palouse Perspective looks at the region through a different “lens”:

As often is the case in outdoor photography, the place itself taught me how best to view it. Of course, it’s nearly impossible to miss the classic Palouse photo opportunity at the height of spring when the lush hills glow with multi-green hues speckled with neon flowers. But because the Palouse is more often subdued and unadorned, (that is, there are no blatantly photogenic jagged mountain peaks or frothy ocean seas), it demanded that I slow down to discover its more subtle treasures. I watched shadows of clouds drift quietly across the landscape, focused on the simple curves of distant hills softened by a misty atmosphere, observed the progressive gradations of color and texture that occurs as a crop moves from delicate, translucent green sprouts to honey golden richness. I was captivated. These experiences were both mentally calming and artistically inspiring. I wanted to reflect this soothing, meditative state in photographs (Meyer v).

Alison Meyer herself is not native to the Palouse, though she has lived there for over 20 years (about the same amount of time I lived there). It seems the country took hold of her soul as well. In time, it “captivated” her. Her photographs have certainly captivated me; they are hanging all over my classroom and house, ever-present reminders of the land from where my soul comes.

There are specific images and experiences that resonate when I read Scheuerman’s words, peruse Meyer’s photographs, and summon the memories, shaped by the land, of the years that formed me. The beautiful hills, cloaked in white in winter, loamy brown in early spring, turning to emerald green and at last to gold in summer, forged in my young mind how the seasons looked, smelled, and even tasted. Once the wheat and barley stalks are long enough for them to be rustled by the wind, the fields resemble a green, and later gold, ocean, with undulating tides coursing and rippling across them. Meyer managed to capture this phenomenon in her photo called simply “Barley Breeze.” The photo alone stirs great emotion in me, but not as much as the actual experience of standing in the fields with that breeze washing over me. That is to know peace.

I vividly remember the day I moved away from Pullman, one of the most difficult days of my life. I spent hours watching the wind dance across the fields as the tears ran down my face. Something sacred and profound to me was about to be, not exactly severed, but irrevocably changed…weakened. There was still excitement for change and new experiences to come, but it was overshadowed by a sense of loss. As has been said many times in many places, perhaps we do not realize how much we truly appreciate something until it is lost to us. Once the sun had gone down, I lay on my back in a field of ripe wheat and gazed up at the sweeping canopy of stars in the night sky, that panorama framed by the wheat stalks all around me gently waving in the soft winds. My hand then closed around a small stone, partially buried in the ground beside me. I pulled it free, and picked the tops from two of the wheat stalks nearest me. Today, that stone sits in a small jar on my nightstand, partially buried in soil from my parents’ garden, with the grain-laden top of a wheat stalk sunk into the soil on either side of it; a small, symbolic connection to the home of my soul. One might think that it is my parents, the house in which I was raised, the isolated memories themselves of my formative experiences that I truly miss. Those things are real, and have their own influence. At the same time, whenever I head back for a visit, I feel a great sense of peace and belonging, whispering “I am home” to myself—when I am still an hour away from Pullman itself. It is when the landscape comes into view that the feeling takes hold. It is the land itself that has that effect on me.

So is it possible to have this powerful connection to place if you haven’t been there very long? Does it require a 20 year period to forge a connection to a specific location? I don’t believe so. My wife’s father was an officer in the Coast Guard, and he was reassigned every two years, moving to a new posting. When my wife was in middle school, he was stationed in England. After two years there, she had to be dragged kicking and screaming onto a plane to bring her back to the United States. Even though her parents, those who nurtured her, were going with her and did all they could to re-acclimate her to her own country, there was something her middle school self could not abide leaving behind. She went on to go back and work in England in the summers during her college years, and we have been there on two occasions since we got married. Though she definitely follows a “bloom where you are planted” philosophy, one need only mention English gardens or Tudor architecture to make her eyes look wistful as part of her soul looks across the Atlantic to the land that captured it.

I remember the very strong connection I had with the Pacific Ocean the first time I saw it. I too was in middle school at the time. I spent an entire day walking up and down the beach at Ocean Shores, Washington, just letting the sheer power of the wind and waves hold me in awe, conversing for hours with a sea lion who mirrored me as I went. There was a storm coming, and I was completely alone out there, as I preferred it. That introduction to the open sea had a profound influence on me, and to this day I love to visit the ocean, comb its beaches, listen to the give and take of the tides. The ocean spoke to my soul, but perhaps did not “connect” to it in a way that the Palouse has, as I do not miss it as much. What forms the intensities and longevity of the connections to place for each of us is part of the mystery, but there is no denying that each of us do feel them to some degree.

When my family recently visited Gettysburg National Military Park, my wife commented that we could have spent hours probing through the visitor center alone, but it was the battlefield itself, the land, that held the power of the place. It was the land we had come to experience, and walking that hallowed ground where men once fell is what made the experience as emotionally provoking and memorable as it was. In this case, the land itself had been imbued with a different manner of power, one capable of uniting people of a nation through a common, heritage-defining event. That land is sacrosanct, not just because it is land, but due to a defining moment in national history. This is yet another facet of the power place can have over our souls, a facet deserving of its own exploration at a future time.

How about if you live in the city? That is certainly a different environment than the wheat fields of the Palouse. Urban centers have their own environmental dynamics, and create their own unique relationships, of which I have not the experience to speak. I am sure that those raised in major cities have very special connections to those places. However, I am pretty confident that those who live in more urban settings feel closely tied to and greatly value the more nature-centered elements planned into the design of their cities. My mother-in-law, who lives in Bellevue, Washington, has a commanding view of the mountains of the Olympic Peninsula from her house, and she prizes that far more than the concrete and asphalt urban centers surrounding her. Majestic views of natural landscapes always add a hefty amount to a property’s value, and make it more desirable, speaking to an innate desire to connect to nature in some way. She revels in all of the cultural opportunities the city offers: the theater, the ballet, the opera. At the same time, when asked what she would like to do on her 80th birthday, she wanted to spend a week at the ocean, away from the city, to revisit old haunts and re-connect with a place that holds special meaning for her. Many people in urban areas prize living near or frequently visiting bodies of water, nature reserves, or parks. They tend gardens in their backyards or in community plots lovingly. If they did not value these natural havens, then why do city planners factor them in at all?. Would those in the city cry foul if it was announced that city officials were closing all the parks to develop them into apartment complexes? I would think so. They need places where they can connect with nature as well. I am willing to venture that those living in New York City value Central Park more than they would “Central Parking Lot.”

So why are these connections to place important to sustain? I feel that it all comes down to the concept of reverence. Paul Woodruff, in his book Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue, defines reverence as “the well-developed capacity to have the feelings of awe, respect, and shame when these are the right feelings to have” (Woodruff 8). As Spiritual Naturalists, we all feel a sense of awe when contemplating the mysteries of the universe and how we are a part of them. More close to home is the awe inspired by the mysteries of life as it has evolved on this planet, and how we emerged as a part of that living process. I feel that the connection to place discussed here is ultimately a kind of soulful echo; a part of us is crying out for that deep unification with nature that cultures such as the ancient Celts, the Native Americans, and countless others held in such reverence. Our souls want and need that connection; we were not meant to be severed from the natural landscapes of which we are still a part. Modern industrial civilization has worked very hard in the last couple of centuries to weaken our connections with nature, pronouncing us superior to it and separate from it. Nature and its processes have become things to be mastered and subjugated; we are to exercise our “dominion” over the Earth, its animals, and its resources.

This has to change. I am not suggesting a return to living out in the unprotected wild, forsaking all means of sheltering and providing for ourselves that we have come to know. We have lost the depth of connection to nature necessary to make that even possible. We could not hope to walk into the wilderness and expect to immediately feel the same level of connection to the environment that members of ancient cultures more attuned to nature’s flow possessed. It would take generations of recovering what has been lost, and we as a society lack the conviction at this point to do what would be necessary to re-acquire a connection of that depth. However, we must endeavor to develop and rediscover, to what degree it is possible for us, connections to the natural environments that nurture and sustain us today, because place matters. We must approach those environments with as much awe as the ancients did, even if we do know a little bit more about how nature functions than they may have. We must respect the environments surrounding us by keeping them clean, use their resources wisely and sustainably, and preserve them for future generations to wonder over as we have. We must also feel shame when we fail to do so. When you see a piece of trash outside, no matter where it is, pick it up. When projects or initiatives in your area demonstrably threaten the natural environment, speak out and express your concerns. Above all, get out into the nature around you; observe its patterns, listen to its rhythms, feel its pulse. When we can sustain awe for nature and our place in it, demonstrate respect for it, and feel shame for the degradation of it, then reverence for the land, for the power of place, will be restored.

I invite you to contemplate these questions: Where is the home of your soul? Have you been there lately? If not, try to arrange a visit. There you will feel whole, and a part of a greater whole. Perhaps it surrounds you as you read this. How can you show your awe for it? How can you respect it today? How can you act so you will never know shame when communing with it in the way that seems best to you? As you ponder these questions, I leave you with a poem I composed that works to capture my feelings toward that special country of which I have already spoken:

A SOUL CAN LOVE A LANDSCAPE
by Jeff Worthy

A soul can love a landscape
That nurtures it when young.
It works its way into the depths
Where songs are born, then sung.

 

The love born of a landscape
Is not one all will know;
You have to be one with the land
If this love is to grow.

 

There is a special landscape;
A wondrous, sacred place
Whose natives know they have been blessed
In their land’s lasting grace.

 

The beauty of this landscape—
So stunning all year long—
Lies in its undulating hills
Where wheat and barley throng.

 

The colors of this landscape
Change often, and delight.
From springtime green to summer gold,
As last to winter white.

 

The voices of this landscape
Call out to those who’ll hear:
“We’ll shelter, feed, and comfort you
Throughout the coming year.”

 

The power of this landscape
Is not just in its loam,
But also in the pride that’s felt
By those who call it home.

 

A soul can love a landscape
That serves as living art;
For me, the hills of the Palouse
Will always hold my heart.

 

May you revere the home of your soul.

 

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Works Cited

Carlebach, Shlomo. “Return Again.” Singing the Journey: A Supplement to Singing the Living Tradition. Boston: Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations, 2006. Print.

Meyer, Alison. Palouse Perspective. Flying Cedar Press, in association with Star Print Brokers, Inc. 2008. Print.

Scheuerman, Richard. Palouse Country: A Land and Its People. Published with support from the Students Book Corporation, Pullman, Washington, The McGregor Company, Colfax, Washington, and Schweitzer Engineering,

Pullman, Washington. 2003. Print. White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” 40 Model Essays: A Portable Anthology.

Ed. Jane E. Aaron. New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2005. 27-28. Print.

Woodruff, Paul. Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001. Print.

Zuckerman, Phil. Living the Secular Life: New Answers to Old Questions. New York: Penguin Press, 2014. Print.

4 Comments

  1. I’ve read about studies showing that our memory neurons are especially responsive to landscapes that resemble long-gone vistas in the parts of Africa where our hominid ancestors spent several million years: flat plains of short vegetation dotted with hills and other elevations. Although the idea may not appeal to everyone, it makes sense to me that the spirituality of the home landscape you beautifully describe may have some roots in memories we carry with us of our genetic homeland.

    • Hi, Brock. Thanks so much for that comment. I can totally see how we could all carry within us an archetypal species memory of our origins. That idea of a common consciousness or some manner of hardwiring that connects us all based on ancient origins is fascinating to me. Could you tell me the names of the studies to which you are referring? I would love to read those. Thanks for reading!

      Jeff

      • I finally tracked it down. From Stephen Pinker’s How the Mind Works, page 376:
        “In experiments on human habitat preference, American children and adults are shown slides of landscapes and asked how much they would like to visit or live in them. The children prefer savannas, even though they have never been to one. ..[Adults like savannas along with the kinds of forests that are familiar in the U.S.] One interpretation is that the children are revealing our species’ default habitat preference….Of course, people do not have a mystical longing for ancient homelands. They are merely pleased by the landscape features that savannas tend to have. [These features provided safety for early humans walking upright:] Semi-open space (neither completely exposed, which leaves one vulnerable, nor overgrown, which impedes vision and movement), even ground cover, views to the horizon, large trees, water, changes in elevation and multiple paths leading out… prospect and refuge, seeing without being seen.” Pinker cites biologist Gordon Orians and his “savannah hypothesis.”
        It’s worth noting that Pinker doesn’t make anything mystical or spiritual of all this. For him, we simply continue to carry around the early preferences in environment that fostered our survival.

        • Thanks so much, Brock, for sharing this with me. I too noticed that he did not attribute anything spiritual to the connection. Interesting. I find the fact that we could carry a species recognition of such a land as a safe place to live pretty spiritual, myself. It would imply a universal connectivity between all of us. If only we could really tap into that and use it to better our understandings of each other. Thanks again for the author and title. I’ll add that to my ever-growing list of things to read since I joined the SNS! 🙂

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