Sense of Place

Wednesday afternoon I found myself rushing through the security check at Denver International Airport, frantically scrambling with my shoes, laptop, toiletries, and carry-ons as I silently chanted “Please don’t let me miss this flight. Please don’t let me miss this flight.” It was a close call, but even though I sprinted up to the gate well after boarding had commenced I was able to get on the plane despite missing the announcement for my seating section. I’m one of those people who are chronically on time, so what was the cause of my tardiness? My coworker and I had decided to take a brief walk around the Garden of the Gods Park in Colorado despite the fact that our last meeting of the day had run late and we needed to head to the airport. It’s been a long time since I have been that stressed out, especially knowing that with the recent snowstorm on the East Coast, missing the flight probably would have meant having to stay a day or more longer than planned in Colorado while I waited for the airlines to catch up with the backlog of stranded passengers. But was the time spent visiting this scenic outdoor location worth it? Totally.

Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo by Allison Ehrman
Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Photo by Allison Ehrman

Contrasted against azure blue skies, the red cliffs of Garden of the Gods were stunning. Aromatic scents of evergreens and mountain brush wafted through the warm air (75 degrees!), while we examined busy Black Billed Magpies and Western Scrub Jays. White-capped Pike’s Peak stood majestically in the background, as though the glory of our immediate surroundings weren’t sufficient. Fortunately, my coworker and I share a similar philosophy of life that leads us to never turn down an opportunity to enjoy beauty and adventure. A missed flight would have been a small price to pay for a moment of awe that will live in our memories forever.

Then, what a difference a three hour flight made. When we arrived back in Baltimore that night, it was below freezing and my eyes stung from wind gusts that later made it difficult to keep my car on the road. As I drove north through the country, everything was covered with a heavy layer of white snow that sparkled in the glare of passing headlights. Broken branches littered highway shoulders and lawns, brought down in the days before by heavy ice and high winds.

As an earth-centered pagan, everything I do and experience is built around my sense of place. What is to the north? South? What is the weather like today? What sights, smells, and sounds does the term “spring equinox” evoke in my memories? Growing up in Texas, I equated the concept of “north” and “winter” with something approaching heaven on earth. As a child and young adult I delighted in summer visits to Colorado where even in June or August the mountains provided a bit of a chill after the sun had set. The break from the relentless Texas heat was marvelous. The rugged peaks of the Rocky Mountains dwarfed the rolling beauty of my Texas Hill Country. In Texas, “south” meant water in the form of the Gulf of Mexico. When I lived in California, “west” meant water. Now, in Maryland, “east” means water and for much of the year “south” means comfortable temperatures. The act of driving across the United States has provided yet another layer to my comprehension of place – scale. I have had to adapt my concepts about the earth according to each location I have visited, even though the examples I have given here, for the sake of brevity, are all within the same country. My trips to other parts of the world have expanded my comprehension of place even further.

Travel as Change Agent

Travel is a powerful change agent in the life of any human. It enables us to understand that there are other ways of living, other ways of being in community with our fellow humans, other ways of identifying with our environment. Each new location we visit or live in forces us to alter our concept of what the earth is and who we are. We relate personally to our current setting, but even that relationship is informed by the accumulated understanding we have developed across our lifetime of travel.

I encourage you to take some time to examine the thoughts and feelings you associate with the cardinal directions and seasons at your current home. Then when you travel, take a moment to orient yourself and consider how that location differs. Spend some time facing each direction and thinking about what is out there and how that affects your concept of that space. Consider the weather and how that influences your understanding of that area.

Then, each time you return home from your travels, reexamine your own location yet again. How has your concept of “north” been altered by your new experiences? What about “spring equinox” or “beach” or “mountain” or “city”? In short, how has your sense of space changed? And how in turn has that changed you? It’s a fascinating way to explore our earth and ourselves at the same time, which is an important undertaking since we are each part and parcel with this planet.

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