This is the conclusion to my PhD dissertation.


“Lying between the earth and the heavens”:
Spirituality of Place in 19th and 20th Century
American Nature Writing

When everything else has gone from my brain–the President’s name, the state capitals, the neighborhoods where I lived, and then my own name and what it was on earth I sought, and then at length the faces of my friends, and finally the faces of my family–when all this has dissolved, what will be left, I believe, is topology: the dreaming memory of land as it lay this way and that.

Laguna Trail

Annie Dillard begins her memoir An American Childhood with a paean to place: specifically, the rivers, streets, and rolling hillsides of Pittsburgh, the town where she was raised. In telling the story of her childhood, Dillard cannot separate her memories and experiences from the place where they transpired. To understand how young Annie stepped into self-consciousness like a garment, readers need to envision the landscape where she grew up.

Place is a pervasive influence. Although it is easy to ignore the everyday backdrop of our mundane lives, we all bear memories of significant places that impressed us with their grandeur or became indelible by dint of what transpired there. We all have our own equivalent of Dillard’s topology, a “dreaming memory” of places imbued with meaning: the pond where we fished with our cousin, the backyard where we played catch with our grandfather, the quiet restaurant where we fell in love. As readers and writers we are drawn to consider place–both sites we’ve been and sites we’ve only imagined–because we each carry a remembered geography. Although this topology is intimate, mapped only in our innermost soul, we nevertheless seek to describe, commemorate, and share our vision of these places, what we’ve seen, and how our lives have been changed.

The final section of Aldo Leopold’s Sand County Almanac is titled “The Upshot.” After sharing his natural observations, Leopold turns to consider the practical import of his musings: what, in a word, is the use of observing and thinking about Sand County and other places? One of the upshots of The Sand County Almanac, of course, is the very Land Ethic which this chapter has considered. So now, at the conclusion of this project, let me step back to consider what my own Upshot might be.

What’s the use of talking about spirituality of place? Why note the way authors chart the intersection of land and spirit, the way solitary protagonists seek healing and enlightenment in nature? I’ve argued earlier that the spiritual is ecological. Venturing into liminal spaces, individuals move beyond themselves, and this has ethical repercussions in terms of how these individuals relate to one another and their environment.

Tennessee Cove

But what’s the upshot of this realization? Once one’s horizon has been broadened through a personal appreciation of place, what’s the use of that?

A friend of mine recently published her first book. Jane Dobisz is a wife, mother, stock-broker, and Zen Master. She was the Abbot at the Cambridge Zen Center while I was its Head Dharma Teacher. Jane is outgoing, articulate, and sharp. I look forward to the day when she writes a book describing what it’s like to teach Zen while juggling stock-brokering, child-rearing, and grocery-shopping. In the meantime, though, Jane’s book doesn’t talk of these. Instead, The Wisdom of Solitude: A Zen Retreat in the Woods describes a 100-day solitary retreat Jane did twenty years ago, long before she was a wife, mother, or stock-broker.

The myth of the American Adam is alive and well. Jane is savvy enough to know that book-buyers crave escape. Reading about a solitary retreat far from spouses, children, and jobs is almost as good as actually doing such a retreat. As a Zen practitioner, I don’t condemn the practice of retreating, and I don’t doubt that the sharp-witted Jane I know had that sharpness honed by a retreat she took before we’d even met.

But part of me is disappointed that we still equate spiritual attainment with escaping, that we still define “the Wild” as an unpopulated place where we flee “the World” with its demands and problems. Although I know that God, Buddha, and enlightenment exist and transpire everywhere at all moments, I also sense that we all secretly crave the chance to go where truth really resides, for certainly there has to be more of it hiding anywhere but here.

This desire to escape is not particularly spiritual: masters of all stripes insist that truth should be sought in the present moment, in one’s own footprints. And this craving for solitude isn’t particularly ecological, either. The desire to emulate Thoreau is partly to blame for suburban sprawl as people flee cities to buy their own individual parcel of God’s green earth in homogenous suburbs where, according to one comic’s quip, developers cut down trees then name the streets after them. If we knew how to find truth in our midst, maybe we’d tread more lightly, mindful that enlightenment lurks around the corner and underfoot.

In the meantime, we continue to be human. We buy books about nature, spirituality, travel, always searching for an answer that must dwell somewhere outside ourselves. We know we’re connected to other humans and the entire natural world, our lives caught up in the food chain, Indra’s Net, Spider Woman’s web. But we also cling to the characteristically Western notion that we stand apart from our fellows, that “I” would attain enlightenment if only “I” could find time for a retreat.

Deer on coastal trail

I know how strong this desire for solitude can be since I myself have fallen prey to it. The personal path that led me to undertake this study both began and found its culmination in the solitude of liminal spaces: first in a rocky cove in Michigan, then on the ocean-skirting trails of California. And so by way of my own Upshot, let me briefly guide you through a portion of my own personal topology.

The path that led me to this project began when I taught myself how to meditate on a rock in the middle of a sandy lagoon on the shores of Lake Huron. It was the summer of 1989, and I was an earnest born-again Christian. At the end of the first week of a month-long stint at a nondenominational retreat in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, I ran away from my fellow campers to a distant rocky cove where I hoped God would reveal himself.

It was the summer of my sophomore year. I’d just spent a week driving with friends across the Irish countryside. We’d started in Cork then made our way through a litany of places: Cork to Killarney, around the Ring of Kerry, up to Limerick and along the coast to Galway, then to Connemara where we climbed almost to the top of Diamond Hill. Down from Diamond Hill we headed east, cross-country, to Dublin, where we caught a plane to Ohio, from whence I carpooled to Michigan. By the time I found myself on that rock in Lake Huron, I was jet-lagged and confused. In all this wandering, God had never spoken; on none of my maps, Irish or American, was my own future path neatly highlighted.

Like the protagonist of a James Joyce story, I felt in-between places as I sat there on that rock. This wasn’t Ireland, nor was it Ohio; it wasn’t where I’d grown up in Columbus, nor was it where I went to college in Toledo. On the brink of my junior year, I couldn’t settle on a major, finding myself torn between English and biology, art and science. As the daughter of a truck driver and the first in my family to go to college, I felt pulled between two worlds. Should I stay in the working class world I was raised in, or should I continue to pursue a degree that would take me somewhere new? I wanted to know what to do with my life; I wanted to know how going to college, Ireland, camp, or anywhere was going to steer a journey that still hadn’t charted itself.

And so I spent an entire day in the summer of 1989 sitting on a large, weather-sculpted rock in the middle of a clear, craggy lagoon. Sitting on that rock awash with questions, I was flooded with physical sensations: the cool roughness of the rock beneath me, the persistent warmth of the sun above me, the shimmering brightness of the water about me. At some point before day’s end, before I hiked back to camp barefoot and at peace, I let go of my questions, convinced that God’s silence was an adequate answer. I came to realize what others had known all along: where I was at that moment was the precise point in both space and time where I was intended to be.

Tennessee Valley Trail

This past summer, after having worked toward my PhD since the fall of 1994, I found myself in a similarly liminal space, the end of my proverbial rope. I was sick of writing (or not writing) a dissertation that refused to be finished; I was suffering the burnout of teaching too many students at too many different colleges. I was disheartened by the academic job market: why bother to complete a degree that would be useless, yet another expensive feather in an already irrelevant academic cap?

Facing another onslaught of questions about my future (should I finish the degree? should I go on the job market? should I try something entirely different?), I did the only thing that made sense. I ran away. I bought a last-minute plane ticket to San Francisco, as far from my current home in New Hampshire as I could get without a passport. Just north of the city, in the Marin Highlands in the shadow of Mount Tamalpais, I knew there is good walking, the same seaside strolls that solaced Jack Kerouac, John Muir, and Gary Snyder.

I spent an entire week in San Francisco, alone. I stayed at the San Francisco Zen Center but set foot in their zendo only once. Every morning I’d rise before practice, dress, then sneak out of the Zen Center, walking down hilly streets to my rented car. Everyday I planned to stay in the city to take in the sights, but every morning my car steered itself north, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and into Marin.

One of the places I walked was down the Tennessee Valley Trail to Tennessee Cove, back to the Coastal Trail to Coyote Trail, then across Fox Trail to return to my car: another litany of names, this time traveled on foot. The day was gorgeous and clear, the hillsides studded with mule deer and California quail. As I stopped for lunch overlooking Pirate’s Cove, I experienced a strong, sudden feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d been in that precise place sometime before.

It wasn’t until I was halfway down Fox Trail headed toward home that the realization occurred. As I walked a crest between two sloping valleys, a bank of fog rolled across the path and nestled into the green hollow I’d just ascended. As I strolled that crest with fog on my right and clear sky on my left, I realized why it looked familiar. “It’s Ireland!” I exclaimed to myself, laughing. “The hills, valleys, ocean cliffs and fog look just like Ireland!” The comparison, of course, was absurd. Coastal California is geologically, botanically, and climatically distinct from Ireland: a scientist would never have made such a connection. But viewed with the eyes of a poet, my Ireland of memory is no different from my California of dreams: both are cherished sites in my own topology, places where my heart found solace in wind-blown fog and craggy ocean cliffs.

Fog on Fox Trail

When I returned to New Hampshire from California, I resumed both teaching and dissertation work. But I also decided to start writing about my own present environs, the streets and sidewalks of Keene, New Hampshire. Figuring there is no better time than now and no better place than here, I set out to “travel a great deal” in Keene. Thoreau’s mother, after all, was born in Keene, and Thoreau himself said the hills surrounding town looked promising for walking. Surrounded by mountains, Keene reminded early settlers of Rome with her seven hills: the main path that intersects Keene State College, the campus where I teach, is called Appian Way. Topology is about remembrance, but it’s also about recycling, the same litany of names working their way into consciousness time and again as we find a succession of places where our heart sings “home.”

The journey that started on a rock in Michigan, amidst the remembered hills of Ireland, culminating on the cliffs of California, found an apt metaphor in the autobiography of a 14th century pilgrim named Margery Kempe. I never expected a required PhD seminar in Medieval Literature to steer the course of my career as an Americanist, but pilgrimage is an inexact science. What a long, strange trip it’s been since Ohio, then Ireland, Michigan, and Boston; what unseen hand steered my course to New Hampshire, California, then back again? I know not to ask too many questions; I know to keep sauntering, like Thoreau, to an unseen Holy Land.

When in Ireland, I never made it to Lough Derg, Saint Patrick’s Purgatory, with its sacred caves and stone penitential beds: a pilgrimage to Donegal awaits another day. In the meantime, though, it feels I’ve been to hell and back, dissertating being another kind of pilgrimage with its own penances and vigils. When the litany of places I’ve been and authors I’ve read has faded from memory, I like Annie Dillard will carry a “dreaming memory of land,” those unmapped sites of the soul filled with rock and sea and acres of billowing fog. I’ve never been there, but it looks familiar: déjà vu. Like Anne Bradstreet’s “Weary Pilgrim,” I continually relish the relief of coming home.

Copyright Lorianne DiSabato (formerly Schaub) 2004