Do you believe in the spirit of place?

The desert is my personal landscape — what’s yours?

The novelist and island writer Lawrence Durrell believed we are each aligned with certain places.

This is where we do our best work because we resonate with the Spirit of Place. 

He believed landscape is not a projection of the psyche — an interpretation of your surroundings based on your interior — but a tutelary spirit which guides the growth of personality and art.

This isn’t an original notion, though Durrell’s expression of it has linked the concept closely to his name.

The Romans called it Genius loci, and they depicted local protective spirits in their religious iconography.

We also see the concept manifested in folk tales, festivals, local beliefs and stories which are tightly bound to a specific locality.

The meaning has shifted over the centuries. Today we think of genius loci as the deeper atmosphere that clings to a place, rather than as a literal guardian deity.

For Durrell, the Spirit of Place was an aspect of the landscape itself, and it carried a weight of environmental determinism.

As he wrote in his collection of the same name, certain types of soil would always produce a certain type of wine, where a different grape would always fail.

The same could be said of people. “As long as people keep getting born Greek or Italian or French,” he wrote, “their culture will bear the unmistakable signature of the place.” You could exterminate the French entirely and resettle the land with foreign peoples, but within two generations, according to Durrell, those national characteristics — restless metaphysical curiosity, a tenderness for good living — would be back.

The idea that environments influence behaviour and culture no longer carries much scientific weight, but Durrell’s conception of it contains a deep poetic truth.

The key to understanding it is to examine the character of a people, and to observe the influence of the landscape on your own conception of yourself.

The theory seemed to hold true throughout Lawrence Durrell’s life. The Greek islands inspired him to great lyrical heights in his writing, and to poetic insights into the human spirit, modern love, and even our post-relativity notions of time.

But he could not write in Alexandria — the arid climate of Egypt seemed to have blocked his creative energies during a period of exile in the Second World War. Nor was he happy in Yugoslavia or Argentina. It was only in Greece and in the south of France that his lyrical talents flourished again.

The Western world seems to have lost its link to this mythical past. But I have traveled widely, and I know there are places where it still holds on.

Connecting to that spirit of place and capturing it in words is the highest expression of travel literature.

Have you felt that deeply personal connection to a particular landscape or location?

Or have you felt its opposite — totally alienated by a place that clashed with your deepest sensibilities?

Where do you connect to the spirit of place?

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About the author

Ryan Murdock

Author of A Sunny Place for Shady People and Vagabond Dreams: Road Wisdom from Central America. Host of Personal Landscapes podcast. Editor-at-Large (Europe) for Canada's Outpost magazine. Writer at The Shift. Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.


  • The enchanting İstanbul – its soul is so vibrant and rich and always breathtakingly beautiful. 😍

    • I’d love to go back to Istanbul — and to travel more extensively in Turkey. So many layers of history. And what a landscape.

      • Absolutely, it’s the layers of history that adds to its charm.. and all the country in general..
        you’re most welcome to visit anytime 🙂

  • I am always emotionally overwhelmed when I reach eastern Quebec and Canada,s St Lawrence river shores. When You cross the few last steep hills of Gaspésie , reaching for Percé. Never feel that on a south vacation beach.

    I dream of Newfoundland and Scandinavian countries, those sinuous road with new water plan at each turn.

    Those boreal forrest and toundras where you can almost see elf and trolls hiding.

    In movie , Irish landscape are calling me.

    And those remote islands, not tropicals, like around Nova Scotia.

    And those little villages so inclined by the sea in Italy. Like Positano, or the Toscane. All images that catch my heart with emotion when I see them on the screen. Not the same emotion as the beach like in Florida.

    In those south places, I feel like just being a tourist and having good time and visiting. But In a new england sea shore little fisher village, I could breath life for a while there.

    But snowshoeing in a vast white frozen lake , with evergreen cover of coton balls like snow. That have no price. Walking in hope of the fire and the coffee, the hot soup. Like in life, walking alone in the cold daily field, in hope of some warmth welcome, and love, somewhere…

    • Beautifully said. I’ve never been to eastern Canada, but always pictured something similar to that soft Irish landscape of rounded hills, lakes and ponds, and the sea in the distance.

  • Hello, Ryan:
    “Genius loci” – how appropriate the phrase. There are places which I visited where I could actually feel the pores of my skin open, absorb the sights, sounds, smells, where all of my senses were seemingly jolted into operating at their optimum. At times, it was, as Harry said, overwhelming to the point where I stood rooted to the spot in disbelief that such grandeur, such beauty existed outside the poetic ramblings of a beloved author.
    I remember reading some Durrell in my wasted youth but was curiously unaffected by his writing – having been born on a Caribbean island and experiencing on a daily basis the atmosphere and sights of tropical living, it all felt too familiar and quotidian (heresy! I can hear you mutter). My parents, their parents and grandparents before them, had lived, worked, striven their entire lives under the heat of summer suns and weathered the natural brutality of hurricanes and their aftermath…..although born and raised in this environment, I always felt a certain detachment from it all, never seeming to feel that immersion in the lifestyle and culture.
    However, fortune smiled upon me and I had the opportunity to attend university in England, more specifically not far from the Yorkshire dales. After nearly 50 years, I still vividly recall my astonishment at the sight of the Dales, the soaring hills and mountains, the snow that lay in separate folds, the sheep browsing along the hillsides, the stone walls so meticulously constructed in their rough-hewn manner, the dips and rises as we drove many miles, my head craning to take in everything…….I swear I felt a visceral craving to jump out of the car and wander into those hills, schooling be damned. Whether it was an ancestral itch in my very bones or the siren-call of such wide-open green spaces is of dubious merit to the more prosaic aspect of my character – but, with the passage of time, I truly feel that the connection between my soul and the Dales could only have been an intrinsic longing to return to the place from which my lifeblood originated, notwithstanding the ages that have passed between my ancestors and me.

    • Which island did you grow up on, Bradley? I think you mentioned it a while back but I can’t remember. I wonder if part of the reason I love deserts is having grown up in snow and bitter cold for half of each year? Lawrence Durrell was born in India, in the foothills of the Himalayas, and found his personal landscape in the Mediterranean (he hated England, where he was sent to school). It seems many of us feel like misplaced persons when it comes to landscapes. Although, that being said, I’m increasingly curious to explore the landscapes of my childhood again with fresh eyes.

      The Yorkshire Dales are beautiful. I drove through once after attending an expedition skills course in the Lake District. Are you still based up there today?

      • Born and raised in The Bahamas, Ryan. Yeah, I know, visions of pellucid turquoise water, palms gently swaying in the breeze, steel drums softly thrumming in the warmth of the night, cold libations near at hand, nary a care in the world…….it’s advertising for the sun-deprived Northerners mostly and those seeking escape (and solace) from the crushing pace of living the urban lifestyle. For me, it was the norm and it can be rather wearying living in such a climate essentially every waking day – except for when hurricane season is in full gear and you have gone through a few of the monsters and picked up the pieces afterwards. To an Islander, it’s life-as-usual, despite the siren-song of calypso songs and rhythms: we have bills to pay, traffic to contend with, fading and failing institutions, political difficulties… other words, just like anywhere place, except for the balmy weather.
        Yin/Yang: now I spend most of the time in Canada, learning to endure winters that seem to lurk around for longer periods each year, but I truly love the change in seasons, the magnificence of forests, the ability to just get in a car and drive for miles and miles……..
        I still go back “home” to visit family and have a greater appreciation for the tropical vistas but that is more than likely a result of my aging and nostalgia as opposed to that intense grip of “genius loci”.

        • It sounds like an interesting place to grow up — though I understand what you’re saying about the monotony of the same sunny skies and warm temperatures for most of the year. I experienced that in Malta. Without the passing of seasons, time seems to lose all urgency. Every day felt very much the same. There’s always tomorrow, so why do something now?

          I’ve never been to The Bahamas. The closest I got was a couple trips to Turks & Caicos, I had a friend who was living there.


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