“Place and a mind may interpenetrate till the nature of both is altered,” the great Scottish mountaineer and poet Nan Shepherd wrote as she reflected on the relationship between nature and human nature. But what we call place — that unalloyed presence with a here and now, with the unfolding of time in a locus of space — penetrates more than the mind: it permeates body and spirit and the entire constellation of being. There is a reason why the original Latin use of the word genius was in the phrase genius loci — the spirit of a place. We become who we are in the crucible of where we are.
Our minds, however, are born wanderers — perpetual refugees from presence, perpetually paying for their flight with loneliness. We go on forgetting that we are not only embodied creatures, but embodied in the body of the world; we go on forgetting that the here and now — that locus of intimacy with everything and everyone else inhabiting this island of spacetime, intimacy with the pulsating totality of our own being — is our only refuge from the existential loneliness that is the price of being alive.
That is what Barry Lopez (January 6, 1945–December 25, 2020) explores in “Invitation” — one of the twenty-six exquisite essays in his posthumous collection Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World (public library).
Drawing on his longtime immersion in indigenous cultures and his lifelong travel with native companions, Lopez counters the hollow stereotype that indigenous people’s connection to place is a sort of “primitive” sensitivity to be contrasted with “advanced” civilization:
Such a dismissive view, as I have come to understand it, ignores the great intangible value that achieving physical intimacy with a place might provide. I’m inclined to point out to someone who condescends to such a desire for intimacy, although it might seem rude, that it is not possible for human beings to outgrow loneliness. Nor can someone from a culture that condescends to nature easily escape the haunting thought that one’s life is meaningless.
Existential loneliness and a sense that one’s life is inconsequential, both of which are hallmarks of modern civilizations, seem to me to derive in part from our abandoning a belief in the therapeutic dimensions of a relationship with place. A continually refreshed sense of the unplumbable complexity of patterns in the natural world, patterns that are ever present and discernible, and which incorporate the observer, undermine the feeling that one is alone in the world, or meaningless in it. The effort to know a place deeply is, ultimately, an expression of the human desire to belong, to fit somewhere.
This longing to belong with the world is the fulcrum of our yearning for meaning. Whitman knew it when, after his paralytic stroke, he arrived at what makes life worth living; Mary Shelley knew it when, in the wake of her staggering bereavement, she reckoned with what gives meaning to a broken life; Lopez knows it, locating the cure for our existential loneliness in our intimate relationship to place:
The determination to know a particular place, in my experience, is consistently rewarded. And every natural place, to my mind, is open to being known. And somewhere in this process a person begins to sense that they themselves are becoming known, so that when they are absent from that place they know that place misses them. And this reciprocity, to know and be known, reinforces a sense that one is necessary in the world.
This question of how our relationship to place deepens our relationship to life permeates the entire book. In another essay from it, titled “An Intimate Geography,” he writes:
Intimacy with the physical Earth apparently awakens in us, at some wordless level, a primal knowledge of the nature of our emotional as well as our biological attachments to physical landscapes. Based on my own inquiries, my impression is that we experience this primal connection regularly as a diffuse, ineffable pleasure, experience it as the easing of a particular kind of longing.
Lopez is the ultimate modern anti-Cartesian, reminding us again and again of our creaturely nature, interconnected and indivisible — the life of the mind indivisible from the life of the body, our portable totalities interleaved with the whole of the world. He offers a succinct prescription for remedying the elemental longing pulsating beneath our restlessness and our loneliness:
Perhaps the first rule of everything we endeavor to do is to pay attention. Perhaps the second is to be patient. And perhaps a third is to be attentive to what the body knows.
Complement these fragments from the wholly magnificent Embrace Fearlessly the Burning World with C.S. Lewis on what we long for in our existential longing and this lovely illustrated antidote to our elemental loneliness, then revisit Lopez on the key to great storytelling and the three steps to becoming a writer.