A Sense of Place
by Trish Beckjord, RLA
This past holiday season, while spending time in western Pennsylvania, I visited Frick Environmental Center and walked the Falls Ravine Trail down to the valley of Nine Mile Run – a creek that drains the surrounding property down to the Monongahela River. What a different place I found from what I’m used to!
The Pennsylvania Flora Project of Morris Arboretum describes most of the southern two-thirds of the state as originally covered by oak-dominated forest rather than the pre-dominant prairie early settler’s found when they reached Illinois. In southwestern Pennsylvania where I was in Pittsburgh, the forests were dominated by beech, basswood, and sugar maple.
The difference in the sense of place between western Pennsylvania and northeastern Illinois striking. Even the state trees well characterize the difference. While Illinois’ state tree is the White Oak (Quercus alba), Pennsylvania’s is the Canada Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis). Although planted in many yards here, you don’t see Canada Hemlock in NE Illinois woodlands. I did see some along the trail at Frick Park though and somehow they just seemed like they “belonged.”
In design terms, the distinctive sense of a place that renders it different from every other place is called its genius loci. As a concept, it was first identified as an important design principle by Alexander Pope, a well-known 18th century poet and landscape designer. You can read his original poem here. Its lines eloquently describe how the designer should always acknowledge and properly respond to the surrounding context within which a landscape or building will be placed. Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water is an excellent example of this done successfully as is the Frick Park Environmental Center. The landscapes and buildings of both are contextually successful.
The principle of genius loci is also a driver for the native plant movement. In planting native species that were found here before European settlement, we are recognizing we are in NE Illinois, not SW Pennsylvania, northern California or anywhere else. We are HERE and that “here” is unique and celebrated rather than looking like every other place we’ve ever lived.
The corollary of course is that this recognition of place in our plant selections leads us to plants that are more likely to be successful in our climate and also supports our local pollinators in the best way possible, most of which are at the base of the food chain and therefore critically important.
Sure, Pennsylvania has many native plants that are the same species as those in Illinois. In addition to oaks, hickories, and basswood, I also saw Musclewood (Carpinus caroliniana), Spicebush (Lindera benzoin), Alternate-leaf Dogwood (Cornus alternifolia), Ninebark (Physocarpus opulifolius), Sycamore (Platanus occidentalis) and Christmas Fern (Polystichum acrostichoides). But Pennsylvania also has native species such as Mountain Laurel (Kalmia latifolia), Blackgum (Nyssa sylvatica), and a variety of Rhododendron species that we don’t see in the wild.
Of interest to me, too, was the character of the bedrock so close to the surface in the park. To my uneducated eye it seems to clearly show the cyclic depositions caused by the fluctuating sea levels of the state’s geological history. It is dominated by layers of sandstone, shale, claystone, coal, and limestone. This too contributes in ways direct and indirect to the region’s unique character.
As I’ve thought of how different these two places are, each compelling in their own way, I turned to the writing of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. Their poetry is filled with a love of place and is completely attuned to that which gives it its genius loci. These lines from A Timbered Choir by Berry seem filled with the spirit of a place. In one poem, the author walks a ways uphill and then turns around and starts back toward home…
And then I saw
the pasture green under
the trees, the open
hillside, the little ponds,
our house, cistern,
woodshed and barn,
the river bending in
its valley, our garden
new-planted beside it.
And Berry concludes the poem:
happiness came freely to me
from this place, to which my heart
also had been given.*
As you travel this year, notice the landscapes around you and appreciate that which gives each place its own genius loci. When you come home, look here with new eyes and evaluate how your home landscape fits with the spirit of place that is NE Illinois. Are you missing native plants? Can you add a native tree here, a cluster of native shrubs there? Some native wildflowers in the garden that says NE Illinois? January, February and March is the time to plan so now is a great time to think about it. Here’s to a great 2019!
*from Berry, Wendell, A Timbered Choir-The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997. Section1996, poem IV. Pub by Counterpoint, Washington, D.C.