My youngest son asked a great question yesterday: “What would you feel like,” he mused, “what would you be like, if you were the tallest thing around?” He was thinking about growing up on the Great Plains with no trees, no mountains, no skyscrapers in sight. Nothing to interrupt the view from your eye all the way to the drop of the horizon. Nothing taller than you to squelch the very powerful sense of being, and presence.
Would you feel a sense of mastery? vulnerability? connectedness? exposure? oneness with the prairie? loneliness in such vastness? all the above?
His question shook loose a fragment of a line that I once heard someone quote from Saul Tchernikowsky, an early 20th century Hebrew poet. Or at least, this is my translation of what I think I remember I heard: “the landscape of our childhood shapes the contours of our souls.”
I believe that is so. Just as in some ways we are what we eat, and we become how we act, so the land and vistas and spaces around us must somehow shape who we are.
When my middle son was in high school, he read The Forest People, an ethnographic study by Colin Turnbull of the Mbuti people of the Belgian Congo. If I am remembering correctly, this fascinating and peace-loving people, besides being small, lived their entire lives nestled in the thickets of the forest. Not only were lots of trees much taller than they were, lots of trees constantly blocked their view. Or rather, from their perspective, the trees surrounding them were their view. That is all they saw, ever.
Their sense of distance, depth, perspective was honed on this reality: that the world around them was thick, tall, and very close.
Once, Turnbull took one of the tribesman up in a plane. Looking down, he pointed out the Mbuti’s forest. The tribesman could not understand. The things he was looking at were small, tiny. They could not be the trees of the great forest he lived in. He could not adjust this aerial perspective and translate it into his ground perspective. He had no point of reference to enable him to do that. He never saw - either in real life or in pictures - the world the way he was seeing it from the plane. It did not compute.
So if somehow our brains are affected neurologically by the landscape of our childhood, so must be our spirits.
Richard Louv (Last Child in the Woods) writes about this psychologically. Here, we speak of it spiritually.
How are we affected by the sights that greet us as we step outside our homes each morning? by the sounds that envelope the night as we sleep? by the music we play, the air we breathe, the quality of light, the climate of our town?
The experience of place is not immaterial to the building of our spirits. We might not study the enduring impressions of place on children; we might not see articles in the newspaper or specials on television about it. But we know that intuitively the place of our childhood somehow imprints itself on us, and we in turn reflect its shape.
For those of us who are parents and grandparents, this is something we need to remember. And do something about. Today, my husband and I planted an orchard. Or the beginnings of one anyway. We now have five apple trees in our front yard. (Okay, so the word “tree” may be a bit grand in describing them, given the small size of the three newest additions. But if all goes well, trees they will be. Three more are in planters deciding whether they want to live or die.)
Eventually, I hope to have 8 - 10 trees in my orchard. I hope to live long enough to enjoy seeing my grandchildren run among the branches, climb upon the limbs, harvest the fruit, and sit with me reading books out loud in the cool shade on a warm summer’s day.
And I hope that the power of that place imprints itself deeply on their souls.