[originally published A Sense of Place, 12/05/13]
This article is a reprisal of one of my first on Patheos. It’s my “Top 10 Tips” for cultivating a sense of Place in an urban environment; a feat that did not come easy for me. I was reared on a family farm with hundreds of acres as my garden. I roamed barefoot from sun-up till sun-down, engaging in more risk-taking behavior than my parents would ever want to know about! Snake spoke to me, coyote sang his eerie song, and bobcat warned me about what happens when you meet Other, out past your bedtime.
I am a country girl, and my spiritual awakening happened in a rural environment. My journey toward an animistic world view began as a child; a child in nature doesn’t need to be told the world is alive, she hears that living world all around her. I also discovered witchcraft (I define this term for myself here), and reclaimed the line of my ancient Mothers, while still living in the countryside. My interaction with the living world nourished me, and when that landscape changed (with my move to the city as an adult), it was a jolt to my system. It took me years to adjust! Thankfully, witch-craft taught me the tools of Connection and Presence–but you don’t have to be a witch to use them!
The ability to connect and be present in the midst of chaos is important. I first cultivated this skill while living in my cup-runneth-over-house with four Little Bigs. I sharpened and honed this tool living within the constant pulse of the city. Connecting with Place–the ground beneath my feet–in the city required more than foundational grounding and centering. It required research, digging, and the courage to change my thinking and my lifestyle.
All those years ago, when I struggled to hear this land’s voice — this bit of earth under the layers of asphalt and concrete; the cacophony of road noise woven with live music; the fabric of cowboy boots and hipster plaid — I longed to feel the heart connection I’d felt in the countryside. After engaging in the following practices, I found the love and appreciation I sought: a connection with this sauntering, swaggering city called Austin.
Discover the pre-history of your Place. Which other-than-human persons once lived on the ground beneath your feet, and now rest within its substrata? Many of us learned this information in school, but for those who have migrated it’s important to acquaint yourself with the beginnings of the land you now call home. Visualize those waves of ancient migration, the shift of flora and fauna, and expand your awareness out a few paces to notice the patterns and story that emerge from that knowing. Let the land tell you its stories: Listen.
You don’t need to be an expert, but learn a thing or two about the primordial shaping of your Place. What forces created the significant landmasses? What type of rocks lie under or within your topsoil (do you have topsoil)? Often it’s difficult to imagine soil under the asphalt and concrete, but it’s there. Heck, even the asphalt and concrete are organic material (as in, organic chemicals). I like to imagine the roads and sidewalks as band-aids (plasters) covering the skin of the Earth. I then stand on sidewalk and grass, in turns, while holding this image. Try it!
Many pagans base their ritual year around a seasonal procession not in sync with their local weather patterns or agricultural year. Do you utilize seasonal change within your system of praxis? Why not craft a localized ritual year?
Central Texas does not follow an 8-fold wheel of the year. The first time I broke with the revered British tradition was nerve-wracking. ’Everyone else’ was doing it the ‘traditional’ way. I was afraid that being an outlier within such a fringe subgroup as ‘paganism’ would push me into Lonely Land. It didn’t, though my personal practice no longer matches that of the wider community. But hey, I’m a witch and well used to being different!
Do some research on the human history of your city. When did the indigenous population arrive, and who were the immigrants (or colonizers)? There are often amazing, heroic, tragic, and humorous stories associated with the settlement of our cities. Dig them up! Your local University is a great resource. Check-out their history department, and ask whether they hold public lectures or symposiums. Also, visit your local library. I bet they can direct you to a local historian more than happy to share their knowledge!
This is a fun step, and another realm of myth-making. Who were the archetypal Mothers, Warriors, Wise Women & Men, or Tricksters? I loved discovering the stories of Austin. Texas was already rich in mythic imagery, so I was delighted to learn of the Austin buffalo hunt, Mrs. Eberly and her cannon (pictured above), and the house of ‘ill repute’ in my neighborhood.
Don’t shy away from People
Cities are the anthills of humanity, areas of condensed human creativity and enterprise. Some of us are introverts and need to carefully craft our excursions, but don’t let that deter you from connecting with other humans. Get out and meet your fellow ‘ants’! This makes us feel grounded in our physical place, as opposed to a fantasy land of our imagining. It’s tempting to be an internet pagan, or witch, but don’t stop there! There is so much more out there. Don’t read – DO!
Get out of the box
Get out of your house, your car, your office, your coffee shop. Get your body out of the center of the anthill and up on the surface where the sun shines and the wind tousles your hair. This is vital for a Witch.
The most important step for me in building a sense of Place within an urban environment, and a major turning point in my relationship with the city, was selling my car and buying a commuter bicycle. My first commute to work was an epiphany! Each garden I passed was a unique scent experience. I became intimately acquainted with the environment by stepping outside my box, and removing the barrier.
While you are out experiencing the plants, weather, and other-than-human-person creations in the city, visit the sites that commemorate the history and myth of the area. These stand as temples and altars of our urban landscapes. You might be surprised what shrines speak to you, and what places whisper your name.
Put into your body the produce of your bioregion. We are what we eat– literally.
You are part of the anthill that is your city. Find your work; your part to play; your art; your unique offering, and Do It! Contribute your time and energy to the activity and organization of the human city. By getting involved, you become invested: you feel connected to others who are part of Place.
Embrace Your Humanness
Finally, relish in your humanness. We can be pretty amazing animals. While the countryside is the anthill of…well, ants, the cities are our places. These wondrous works deserve our active participation. We can make them better than we ever dreamed, but only if we engage and connect: with ourselves, the humans around us, and our other-than-human neighbors. It’s about relationship, being present, and building sacred connection.
Go forth–be fully present in your location, and Cultivate Place!