Personal Story to ‘Sophia Geography’

THIS IS THE STORY of many explorations into Spirituality, Landscape and Archetypes. It is as well just one personal, rather idiosyncratic journey of ideas, discovery and self-discovery. Like many travellers journeying through foreign lands in different physical and cultural landscapes,   I have wondered how one’s landscape affects one’s sense of ‘self’.   Nor am I alone in this wondering – the relationship between ‘spirituality’ and ‘landscape’ has been felt and mused upon by travellers, geographers, mountaineers, poets, children, primal peoples, philosophers, religious thinkers, writers and artists   since time immemorial – often with more questions than answers and a greater sense of the mystery than conclusion.

As a child in New Zealand brought up in the paddocks, a great dry riverbed, except in flash-flood, to the fore, and beyond that to the west the Southern Alps – my landscape was my given. My landscape was myself. My landscape was alive. The old wind-deformed pine trees, which protected our house and garden from the hot, dry Nor’Westerlies, were my pine trees and my friends. Mt Grey (Maungatere to the Maori, the origin of the shark tooth Nor’West Wind), the large blue-grey massif to the southwest, was my mountain. The paddocks, the trees and the atmosphere above the paddocks at dusk, were en-spirited with aura, God. My religion was animism. When I went to board in a country town, the landscape was alien and not alive. I felt less myself and, like countless other children boarding away from home, I was homesick for my landscape. I felt what the old Maori distant ancestors of the land must have felt when wrenched from their landscapes, their mountains and their rivers. Again, as a 17 year old, struggling for self-identity and living in the city, I wondered whether one’s ‘self’ was determined by one’s life point and place along history’s continuum – or whether one could somehow transcend historical determinism and causality. I set myself the experiment of staying in a remote one room mountain hut, outside communication, for a week (water was by bucket from an icy stream down the mountain, the toilet through the bush to a long-drop, the fire by my chopping wood, and light by a kerosene lamp) where I would try and forget who I was (in other words my family, my history, my city landscape) in order to discover my essence, the ‘real’ me. I found I could not do it – the beech forest became intrusively alive, not necessarily friendly, the possum eyes in the trees glowed and stared like searching torch lights in the dark. I had to resort to memories of my family, my city landscape and history, for comfort and security.

In 1987 as a traveller in China and Tibet I wondered why the Han Chinese and the Tibetans were so different. To some extent they looked similar but their character and spirituality was vastly different. Could their very different landscapes – one hugely over-populated, communist, materialist, Confucian, de-sacralised, ‘civilised’ and anthropocentric; the other sparsely populated, wild, rugged and mountainous – the home of Bon magic and Buddhist meditation – have something to do with this? Again, in Queensland I met with white, ‘sophisticated’, well-educated Australians, living on Aboriginal sacred land, who were becoming like their native Aborigine visitors, increasingly Aborigine in their values and spirituality. For example, they lived tolerantly alongside ‘dangerous’ spiders and snakes in the house and garden. Spiders in the house were pointed out and not to be disturbed – one had to duck to avoid the spiders’ webs in the kitchen. Obviously the landscape, and the Aborigines’ perceptions of landscape, was changing them. I wondered about the early European Christian colonizers to Australia several centuries earlier and how their landscape perceptions would have been immeasurably different from the indigenous Aborigines’ spiritual landscapes – same land apparently, but different landscapes. In another thousand years would this same harshly beautiful, colourful land co-create the emergence of yet another landscape in the minds of its inhabitants?

Which brings us to the questions; “What/who are our landscapes and how do landscapes define what/who we are?” and “Who are we and how do we define our landscapes?” This book is the map of one writer’s quest. It can be yours too, although you may choose divergent trails and reach different destinations.

image-2Photo credit: Tyler Roberts

All the primitive emotions are ours –
hunger, thirst, heat and cold, triumph and fear –
as yard by yard we win our way to stand
as conquerors and survey our realm…
Spirit, imagination, name it what you will,
it steals into the heart on the lonely silent summits
and will not be defied.


Once I thought the land I had loved and known
Lay curled in my inmost self; musing alone
In the quiet room I unfolded the folded sea,
Unlocked the forest and the lonely tree,
Hill and mountain valley beach and stone,
All these, I said, are here and exist in me.
But now I know it is I who exist in the land;
My inmost self is blown like a grain of sand
Along the windy beach, and is only free
To wander among the mountains, enter the tree,
To turn again a sea-worn stone in the hand,
Because these things exist outside of me.
O far from the quiet room my spirit fills
The familiar valleys, is folded deep in the hills.



New Zealand landscapes, animism, Maori religion, Maori landscapes, self-identity and landscape, Aborigine perception landscape, Tibetans and Chinese landscapes, Aborigines’ spiritual landscapes