For Dave Westacott

Genius Loci

Halfway up Solsbury Hill there was a shrine which the protesters used as a meeting place. It was a small obelisk built of local stone, with a carved motto on it. The motto read “Genius Loci”. The story was that the man whose land this was had died of a broken heart soon after being forced to move and that local ramblers had erected this shrine in memory of him.

“Genius Loci” means “Spirit of Place”. A “genius” in this sense is like a genie. The two words are related. It’s a type of small god who occupies a particular territory, and represents the character, the soul of that place. Terrestrial, not extra-terrestrial, earth-bound and parochial, not cosmic, the “Genius Loci” inhabits the realm between the earthly and the spiritual in the ancient rural imagination. They live in hills, in tree-stumps, in knolls, in copses, in clearings, in rocks, in rivers, in humps, in caves, in springs, in shrines and in hearths and need to be consulted with and placated when tasks are undertaken. They are the creatures that a human being can see with his child-like eye, in the twist of a branch or the shadows under a tree, and represent the personality of a place. They can be wayward, they can be benevolent, they can be mischievous, they can be wise. Often they shift arbitrarily from one thing to another. They can trick you and deceive you. They can lead you astray.

We don’t quite have a proper English word for the concept any more. Most of the words we used to have are tainted. They’ve lost their flavour. The word “Fairy” or “Fey” is one. It has become overlain with a particular, twee 19th century children’s book image of diminutive creatures with butterfly wings. In fact the Fairy-folk came in all shapes and sizes, from the very small, to the very large. Some fairies were giants. Some fairies were ugly. Some fairies were horrifying or wild. They could change in an instant, from terrifyingly beautiful, to extraordinarily repulsive. They had no concept of morality. They were wayward and capricious, like a tribe of weird feral children whose only concern is their own self-gratification.

Sometimes human beings are led astray by them. They have a magic of appearances which is known as glamour. They cast a spell over your eyes so you see the world in a different way. They lead you into their caves and their fairy-mounds where time stops still, and there they enslave you.

They have the power to change their appearance, to shape-shift and morph from one creature to another. Sometimes they can appear as animals. Sometimes they can appear as human beings. Beware the stranger and treat him politely, as you never know: it might be a malignant fairy on his hauntings out to trick you of your fate.

Often they are associated with times of the season – with Halloween or Mayday or Mid-Summer’s Eve – and with places in the landscape, like hill-forts and stone circles and standing stones: places where ancient humans once lived and worked and wondered.

They live in the Alongside world beside us, only a blink away, in the place where the human imagination delves and melds and mixes with the world of nature – delves and then forgets. It’s a very real world, for all that we have forgotten where it is. Children live large parts of their lives inside it and we re-enter it every night in our dreams.

Scientists call this process “anthropomorphism”: meaning the tendency of human beings to project their own characteristics on to the world around them. This is true. Of course we project ourselves outwardly on to the world around us. The whole world is an anthropomorphic projection, in the sense that we have seized it with our senses and interpreted it with our brains. The mundane world of un-magic out there is also just a projection from the functional part of our brains: the part that needs to simplify to survive. We can’t go round being distracted by the glint of sunlight on the surface of a brook or mesmerised by the whispering voices of the trees when there’s food to be gathered; but what we’ve forgotten how to do now is to turn off the un-magic filter once we’ve eaten our fill, to turn the magic back on, to see the whole vast fascinating complexity of nature once again, with its presences and its powers and its hidden personalities, to see it and to feel it and to engage with it again.

You see, these old stories have something to tell us. The “glamour” that can turn a handful of fallen leaves to a handful of gold, is real. A handful of leaves is indeed golden. We’ve made a specific differentiation in our brain between what is useful to us and what is not. So leaves are worthless and gold has value. But under the spell of glamour, maybe we can see the golden leaves in a new and shining light once more. Maybe we see the inner radiance of the leaves from the inner radiance of ourselves.

So we project ourselves into the world and create characters and stories and legends and tales. We see giants in the hillside and wild-hunts in the night. There are hauntings and possessions and ghostly presences in out-of-the-way places. We see mysteries where there are shadows and forever the fairy-folk are there, the Good Folk, misguiding us with their glamour. They are only “good” in the sense that we daren’t call them anything else for fear of arousing their displeasure. We should always fear and distrust them as they are our own capricious selves let loose on the world.

Here’s the problem with dismissing all of this as mere anthropomorphism: that the beings we see are indeed aspects of ourselves. The stories we tell are us. If we look out on the world and no longer see them, it is only ourselves we are losing sight of.

Solsbury Hill

Solsbury Hill, as the name suggests, was associated with the sun. Perhaps sunrise rituals took place here. Sam, of the Donga Tribe, suggested that the landscape all around was carved out ritually in a form of a complex sacred geometry. When she spoke it was like the breath of the wind rising from distant oceans. Looking out from the hill you could sense the meaning of her words. The landscape stretched out all around like a living being. Perhaps the ancient people left markers on the landscape, so that as the sun made its journey through the year, it also journeyed through the landscape. Perhaps they told a story of the journey and peopled it with characters. Perhaps the characters were the gods, the heavenly beings who moved about in the night sky against the fixed backdrop of the stars. Perhaps by that means the people could judge the progress of the year.

That was how the ancient people thought. It was a story, it was science, it was time, it was space, it was measured, it was immeasurable, it was landscape, it was cosmos, it was “out there”, it was “in here” all at the same time.

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