Recently, in a weekend retreat program designed to seek and find joy, our task was to list the things that bring us joy in life. My list included:
1. serendipity, finding the unexpected certainly can generate joy, maybe it is joy;
2. light, mostly natural, some artificial (incandescent lamps only);
3. music, both natural and human made – I am keenly aware that I am more attuned to the latter but I can also appreciate the sounds of nature.
Some examples of natural music during this sojourn: the calls of birds, frogs and wind; a flock of sandhill cranes singing their crossing of the evening sky, like a chorus of squeaky gates; the bullfrogs’ vibrational drone, perhaps an Indian tambura; the wind through a forest of pines, a soft whoosh, similar to a distant train or the persistent ocean ebb and flow; the high pitch howl of a coyote. Magical sounds. Real sounds.
Placeness can be perceived through sound as well as sight, or feel. Or through all of these things together. At the site of the retreat was an overwhelming sensual experience, a place of spirit – a spirit of place. There, in this mid-Michigan landscape, was a pine forest planted in rows, straight lines, aisles, allees in the woods, chorus lines in an endless mirror. Row after row, uniform rows, columns, stud walls, buttresses holding up roofs of scented leaves, cathedrals of nature, a crunchy carpet of brown needles below. Upright, alert, an army of trees, battalions, natural fence posts. The wind rushing through the totemic figures, the light penetrating and generating an orange glow off the trees and thick floor matting. Space is defined, place is created. Sight, sound, feel. Joy.
Or inside an empty corn crib built of horizontal wood lath with light filtering through, corn husks on the floor. A tiny chapel for one or two who enter and notice. An odd birdhouse-shaped structure, almost a cartoon rendering of a house with no right angles. This basic, practical container becoming a beautiful space and light container, a filtering device for viewing the world, or a space all its own.
Genius loci is a concept defined by the Romans as a protector of a site, a deification of a unique place that makes it something worth defending. Random House Dictionary’s entry for genius loci is “the peculiar character of a place with reference to the impression that it makes on the mind.” Simply and modernly put, a “spirit of place.” Alexander Pope incorporated the concept into landscape design, now an underlying principle of landscape architecture – that the overlay of design should be adapted to its context – in order to express the uniqueness of place. From personified tutelary spirits that exemplify a place to a pervasive spiritual sense of a particular site, it all reveals that throughout human history, the interaction with “place” is significant.
Arslocii begins with Genius loci, but that’s only half of it. Arslocii is the combination of a special site with something else – something permanent, or something fleeting, which causes an enhancement of both and creates an experience of placeness from the two. It is the pairing and synergy, ergo the two “ii”s. It is an artful relationship, one of the spirit and of the mind, of the place and of what’s placed in the place, in tandem. And the whole is greater than the two parts.
Back at the retreat, as we moved symbolically from leaving our joylessness behind and welcoming our newfound joy, we each in turn threw a handful of glitter up into the air. It was a partially cloudy day with the sun ducking in and out intermittently, a soft breeze moving the clouds playfully. The glitter was tossed, it caught the sunlight, was carried by the wind and created magic as it cascaded in waves to the ground – a fairy veil of sparkly energy, atoms made visible, tangible sunlight. It lasted but a moment but what a spectacular moment. Joy. Arslocii.