Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Strange, Familiar Landscapes: Where the Gods and Spirits (might) Live

            A week in Greece, much of it in the Peloponnesian countryside, showed me something about what landscapes do to the mind.  I thought all the time of the gods and spirits that were supposed to have animated the peaks, forests, and streams.  Their presence was much easier to accept than where I spend most of my time.  I don’t think it was just the stories.  It was also the shape of the place.

            The instinct that gods live in high places seems intuitive in a terrain with steep, treacherous, almost unscaleable slopes that open up into broad terraces and generous mountaintops, level meadows shaped for revels.  Almost like an apartment building, the land has many stories, some hard to reach from others.  Above the village where we stayed was a sheer cliff, which I would estimate at a thousand feet high.  Why would there not be a life up there, inaccessible but imaginable, as there was a life on the hilltop acropolis of each ancient city of women and men?

            And the spirits?  I have never seen a place with such intense microclimates – not even coastal California, which comes close.  A slot canyon rips a cool, dusky, lush line into an arid and barbed mountainside.  Surrounded by dry pines, backed that thousand-foot cliff, a tumbling vertical stream throws out a fan of hanging grasses, then comes to ground at the roots of big, gnarled figs and planetrees (also called sycamore maples).

            It reminded me of the Banias, so named by Roman occupiers for Pan, a river cleft at the base of the Golan Heights in northern Israel.  In the spring, cold, blue-tinted meltwater races through a green, heavily shadowed rent in a near-desert baked in gold Mediterranean light.  Where a blade of that gold slices between wood and leaves and strikes the water, two worlds meet.

            This kind of anomaly is a place for spirits.  It’s a product of a place vitally unlike itself, always generating its own exceptions.   It’s a home for something of the place yet not entirely of the world – a dryad, say, or river spirit.

            In the modern west, the aesthetics of nature generally comes down to two categories.  One is beauty, the quality of a restful and regular place – a lovely farming landscape, for instance.  The other is sublimity, the half-frightening, half-elevating power of huge, alien nature: a volcano, a whirlpool, the ocean in a storm, lightning in the Sierra Nevada.

            It occurs to me that sublimity, in particular, is a monotheist idea: that there is one vast, brooding spirit in the world, whose unknowable power we glimpse in its display.  Sublimity is the Book of Job.  Most American parks, uninhabited sites of pilgrimage to vast and impersonal places, are terrains of monotheistic awe.

            The animated landscapes I’ve been thinking of fall into a third aesthetic category: the uncanny, the place we aren’t sure what to make of, which may or may be looking back at us with eyes like, but also unlike, ours.  With a mind like, but also unlike, ours. 
These are the landscapes of the strange familiar, where we recognize ourselves but are also frightened and baffled.  They are inhabited, personal, vital, and alien, all at once.  Animist, pagan places, they have a variegated vitality that fills me as I race and stumble across them, trying to reach the next strange grove.    


  1. To this lover of Greek myth, a marvelous post. Two reactions:

    1) Is the notion of the animated, uncanny landscape really that alien in the West? I distinctly recall, as a child, wandering up hollers in the creek bed and interacting with elves that dwelled behind waterfalls, beneath glades of mayapples, and amid webs of tree roots protruding along the bank. I think it's just that, in our pragmatist and/or starched, Puritanically monotheist culture, we insist that such pagan notions must be outgrown, whereas European Christianity has a long history of quietly accommodating even adults' uncanny reactions to the landscape.

    2) I wonder what you'd make of Iceland. When I was there with my family, we saw all three of your categories at once: the sublime (massive waterfalls, geysers, volcanoes, glaciers, hot springs next to icy beaches), the beautiful, and the uncanny. The latter we found in pastures where farmers studiously mowed around boulders, lest the Hidden Folk flip their tractors, and in plateaus above waterfalls that were covered with springy, moss-covered hillocks like the hunched backs of some fuzzy creatures. The uncanny is there in the Icelandic sagas about the original landholders, with their casual, matter-of-fact mentions of magic sprinkled amid the origins of place names, in the wildly imaginative displays at the Hólmavik Museum of Witchcraft and Sorcery, and in the strange landscape metaphors in the songs of Björk and Of Monsters and Men. It's a weird place, where the end-of-the-Earth landscape and geological forces combine with long, dark winters to fire magical thinking. Of course, as your post points out, there's plenty of magical thinking to go 'round in the Mediterranean, too, and a more hospitable climate.

  2. I love these responses, Jacob. Thank you. I agree with you: it's not so alien here, and I think I must have overstated how much I even suspect that's true. Your parsing of the different cultures of assimilating or suppressing the uncanny is very sensitive.

    What a wonderful evocation of Iceland! Now I really need to go there. Again, thank you. So much to consider here.