Alexander Pope

In classical Roman religion a genius loci was the protective spirit of a place. It was often depicted in religious iconography as a figure holding attributes such as a cornucopia, libation bowl or a snake. Many Roman altars found throughout the Western Roman Empire were dedicated to a particular genius loci.

Alexander Pope made the Genius Loci an important principle in garden and landscape design with the following lines from Epistle IV, to Richard Boyle, Earl of Burlington:

Consult the genius of the place in all;/That tells the waters or to rise, or fall;/Or helps th' ambitious hill the heav'ns to scale,/Or scoops in circling theatres the vale;/Calls in the country, catches opening glades,/Joins willing woods, and varies shades from shades,/Now breaks, or now directs, th' intending lines;/Paints as you plant, and, as you work, designs.

Pope's verse laid the foundation for one of the most widely agreed principles of sustainable land management. This is the principle that management plans should always be adapted to conserve the character of the cultural ecology of the environment where they are located.

The Positive Values of Environment

The world environment now evokes nightmares. It calls to mind the exhaustion of natural resources, the accumulation of waste products, the various forms of pollution, crowding, noise, and the thousand devils of the ecological crisis. But while it is true that environmental degradation is now almost as widespread and as traumatic in the country as in the city, there is danger in thinking about the environment only in such negative terms. If we limit our interest to the correction of environmental defects, we shall behave like hunted creatures, trying to escape from one danger after another, taking shelter behind an endless series of protective devices - today afterburners on our cars and complicated sewage treatment systems, tomorrow gas masks over our faces and filters on our water faucets. Such technological fixes will have temporary usefulness, but they will increasingly complicate our life and ruin its quality. The real solution to the ecological crisis will have to come from a change in our ways of life and from the development of positive values relating human nature to external nature. I had these positive values in mind when I selected "The Genius of the Place" as a title for my presentation.

Positive values can at times be introduced from the outside. But almost universally, the values most likely to be successful in a given system are those which are inherent in the system itself and which are part of its "genius" or "spirit" - using these words in the sense they had in the classical Greco-Roman tradition.

Ancient peoples personified a locality with a particular god or goddess who symbolized its qualities and potentialities. We no longer believe in dryads, nymphs, or genii. But rationalists as we may be, we still respond to phrases such as "the genius of New England" or "the spirit of the Far West". These phrases imply the acknowledgment that each place is characterized by a set of attributes that makes it different from others, and that gives it uniqueness.

The visitor can perceive in a few minutes the spirit of London in a pub, or the spirit of Paris on the crowded terrasse of a student cafe. He needs only cross the frontier between Italy and Switzer-land to apprehend at a glance the contrasting geniuses of these two countries. Much as I am tempted to do it, I shall not discuss the differences between city and city or country and country- - even though this topic would provide telling examples of the genius of the place. Suffice it to point out that the word genius, as used here, does not imply a judgment of values or some measure of superiority. It refers only to the array of attributes which give its unique characteristics to a place and enable it to evolve in such a manner that, while changing, it retains its uniqueness.

One of Aldo Leopold's famous aphorisms is that conservation shows us what a land can be, what it should be, what it ought to be. In my opinion, this statement implies a questionable philosophy of nature, because it seems to assume that some invisible hand guides nature to the one perfect path of ecological harmony among its different parts. In reality, as we shall see, it is possible in most areas of the world to find several safe roads to ecological salvation. Leopold's aphorism implies furthermore a defeatist view of man's relation to nature. It regards man as an intruder whose inventions almost inevitably dislocate the ecological order and are likely thereby to cause nature's destruction.

Leopold's type of pessimism has taken the curious form among many conservationists and ecologists of making Biblical teachings responsible for the destructive influence of man on nature. I shall devote some space to this peculiar assertion, not only because it is unwarranted by historical facts and present practices, but also because its widespread acceptance threatens to distract attention from the real problems of the relationships between the earth and mankind.

The Judeo-Christian Tradition

The ecological crisis in the Western world, so the saying goes among ecologists and conservationists, has its origin in the first chapter of Genesis, where man is given dominion over creation. Finding a ready excuse in this passage of the Scriptures, the peoples of Judeo-Christian origin have had no scruples - so it is stated - in exploiting nature for their selfish benefit. The outcome has been a variety of ecological disasters - from erosion of the land to exhaustion of natural resources. Oddly enough, conservationists and ecologists who certainly know better, hardly ever mention that many peoples outside the Judeo-Christian tradition have also been ruthless with nature, in many cases even before the Bible was written. Erosion resulting from human activities has occurred in ancient China and it probably caused the end of the Teotihuacan civilization in ancient Mexico. Plato explicitly stated in the dialogue Critias his belief that Greece was eroded before his time as a result of deforestation and overgrazing. The noble groves of cedars and cypresses in Lebanon were massively exploited not only by Solomon but also by the Assyrian kings and the Roman emperors.

The Judeo-Christian civilization has been no worse and no better than others in its relation to nature. Throughout history, men have disturbed the ecological equilibrium, almost universally out of ignorance and chiefly because they have been more concerned with immediate advantages than with long range goals. The goat has helped countless human beings to survive by its ability to derive nourishment from poor lands, but it has probably contributed even more than modern bulldozers to the destruction of the land and the creation of deserts.

The view that Biblical teachings have been responsible for the exploitation and raping of nature by modern man has recently led to the advocacy of a return to the humble attitude of the early Franciscans. Because Francis of Assisi worshipped all aspects of nature, it has been suggested that we should try to follow in his footsteps and abandon our aggressive attitude toward nature. In a fascinating and often-quoted article, Professor Lynn White has suggested that Francis of Assisi be made patron saint of ecologists. Even the early Franciscans, however, soon abandoned the romantic and unworldly attitude of the saint. Man has never been just a worshipper of nature or a passive witness of natural events. Indeed, he developed his humanness in the very act of interacting constructively with the world around him and while moulding nature by his will to make it better suited to his needs, wishes, and aspirations. Stonehenge, Angkor Vat, the Parthenon, and the countless other temples created by man before the Judeo-Christian era represent expressions of man's will which exacted as much from nature as did the construction of Gothic cathedrals or of the George Washington Bridge.

Among religious leaders, Saint Benedict of Nubia is much more relevant to the human condition than Saint Francis. Saint Benedict and his followers taught and practiced a doctrine based on the second chapter of Genesis in which it is stated that the Lord instructed man to tend the Garden of Eden and dress it. Their attitude toward nature was one of active intervention, but their wise management of the land has proved compatible with the maintenance of environmental quality

The Concepts of Saint Benedict

When Saint Benedict established the first great monastery of Western Europe on Monte Cassino in Italy during the sixth century, he decided that the monks should not only pray to God, but should also work; he recommended furthermore that their monasteries be self-sufficient. In order to achieve self-sufficiency, the Benedictine monks developed skills pertaining to agriculture and architecture. They learned to manage their holdings on such sound ecological principles that their land retained its productivity despite intense cultivation and thus continued for long periods of time to provide the monasteries with food, clothing, and wealth. The monks also developed an architecture well suited not only to their religious and lay activities, but also to the type of country in which they lived; Benedictine architecture thus achieved such great functional beauty that it constitutes one of the major achievements of early medieval civilization.

The Benedictine order was so successful that during the Middle Ages, it established numerous monasteries over most of Europe, and thereby greatly contributed to the creation of European agriculture and landscape in the form we know them today.

Most influential from this point of view was the Cistercian branch of the Benedictine order which established its monasteries in wooded river valleys and marshes. The Cistercians rapidly became masters in the art of drainage, developed the use of water power, and converted malarious forests into habitable and fertile land. They achieved such great fame in the control of malaria that a Pope gave them the responsibility of draining the Campagna Romana.

The conversion of forest into farmland by the Benedictine monks is just one among the many historical examples that could be quoted to illustrate that man has great latitude in determining the face of nature. Before the Christian era, the Celtic populations of Britain lived almost exclusively on the calcareous plateaus, such as the Salisbury Plain, probably because the low, wooded areas were unhealthy and too difficult to cultivate. In contrast, the Romans, and then the Saxons, who had a more advanced technology, succeeded in colonizing the malarious forest of the Thames Valley and thus prepared the ground for one of the greatest centers of civilization. The Pennsylvania Dutch country provides another striking example of the fact that land created from the forest can long be maintained in a healthy, productive state. Thus, the transformation of the land by man need not be destructive; in many cases indeed it has been a creative act.

The ecological crisis in our times has nothing to do with the Judeo-Christian tradition but rather comes from the tendency now prevalent all over the world to use land and waters, mountains and estuaries for short-range economic benefits. The solution to the ecological crisis will not be found in a retreat from technological civilization, but rather in an enlightened transformation of it based on ecological understanding. We must learn to recognize the limitations and potentialities of the land and to manipulate it in such a manner that it remains a productive and desirable place for human life.

The "Vocations" of a Region

Successful management of the earth demands that we identify the "vocations" of its various parts. In Latin, the word vocatio refers to the divine call for a certain kind of function. Similarly, each part of the earth has, so to speak, one or several vocations, which it is the duty of scholars to identify and of practical men to develop.

Certain parts of the earth, like certain persons, may have only one vocation. For example, there may be only one thing that can be done with certain arctic areas, with tropical lands, or with desert regions. But in general most places, like most persons, have several potential vocations; the indeterminacy resulting from these several options adds much to the richness of life.

Consider for example what has happened to the primeval forest in the temperate countries. Much of it has been transformed into farmlands, each area developing its own agricultural specialization, social structure, and esthetic quality. But the temperate forest can have other fates. In Scotland and Eastern England, it was progressively transformed into moors by lumbering activities and sheep grazing. These moors are not productive from the agricultural point of view, but their charm has enriched the life of Great Britain and its literature. In North America, most of the forest was transformed into prairies as a result of the fires set by the pre-agricultural Indians. Even though the prairies have now been replaced by agricultural lands, they have left a lasting imprint on American civilization.

Utilitarian considerations are only one aspect of man's relation to the earth. The widespread interest in the preservation of wildlife and of primeval scenery is sufficient evidence that man finds in wilderness a kind of satisfaction that transcends economic usefulness - perhaps because he wants to retain some contact with his distant origins.

In practice, however, the only chance most people have to experience and enjoy nature is in its humanized aspects - cultivated fields, parks, gardens, and human settlements. This is true all over the world, even in the United States, where so much is made of wilderness preservation. For this reason, it is not sufficient to save the Redwoods, the Everglades, and as much of the wilderness as possible; it is equally essential to protect the esthetic quality of farmlands and to improve Coney Island.

There are many different kinds of beautiful landscapes. Some derive their appeal from their majestic scale, their uniqueness, or their splendor. The national parks in the United States provide many varied examples of scenery to which man's presence does not add anything. In most cases, however, the quality of the landscape consists in a sense of fitness between man and his surroundings. This fitness accounts for most of the charm of ancient settlements, not only in the Old World but in the New World as well. The river settlements of the Ivory Coast, the Mediterranean hill towns, the pueblos of the Rio Grande, the village greens of New England, and the old cities organized along peaceful rivers throughout the world, are as many different types of landscapes which derive their quality not so much from topographical or climatic peculiarities, as from the intimate association between man and nature.

Living as we do in an industrial mercantile society, we are inclined to overemphasize the role of technological and economic factors in determining the quality of the environment. But there are many other environmental factors that have a pervasive influence on human life. History and the climate, for example, play creative roles in determining the architecture and materials of dwellings and churches, the shape and botany of gardens and parks.

The formal gardens of Italy and France did not just happen through the caprice of wealthy men or the genius of a few landscape architects. They were successful because they fitted in the physical, biological, and social atmosphere of Italy and France at the time of their creation. Formal gardens and parks also flourished in England but the English school achieved its distinction by creating an entirely different kind of park better suited to the local conditions. The great English parks of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries are characterized by magnificent trees grouped in meadows and in vast expanses of lawn. This style was suited to the wet climate of the British Isles. In France, many attempts were made in the eighteenth century to create gardens and parks in the English style, but with limited success. As Horace Walpole remarked in a letter giving an account of his visit to the continent: "In short, they [the French] can never have as beautiful a landscape as ours, til they have as bad a climate."

Walpole's witticism expresses the biological truth that a given landscape style can be lastingly successful only if it is compatible with the ecological imperatives of the country. This is what Alexander Pope summarized in his famous line, "In everything respect the genius of the place."

Just as the climate in most parts of France is almost incompatible with the green magnificence of the English parks, so is the atmosphere in many American cities unsuited to certain types of plants. This does not mean that plant life is out of place in urban conglomerations, only that more effort should be made to identify and propagate for each particular city the kinds of trees, flowers, and ground cover that can best thrive under its set of climatic and other constraints. Ordinary grass looks so pathetic in most cities, and the rows of plane trees so monotonous, that botanists and foresters should be encouraged to discover or create other plants congenial to urban environments. Studies of plant ecology may become more urgent in the city than in the wilderness.

Ecology and the Genius of the Place

The genius of the place is thus made up of the physical, biological, social, and historical forces which together give it uniqueness to each locality or region. All great cities have a genius of their own which transcends geographical location commercial importance, and size. And so is it for each region of the world. Man always adds something to nature, and thereby transforms it, but his interventions are successful only to the extent that he respects the genius of the place.

Man's transformations of the land from one ecological state to another have not always been successful. As already mentioned, the famous stands of cedars and cypresses in Lebanon have all but disappeared and much of the Mediterranean basin has been disfigured by erosion. Ecologic changes have given desirable results chiefly in situations where they occurred so slowly that they were compatible with adaptive processes of biological and social nature. Deforestation yielded beautiful farmland and romantic moors in Great Britain where it occurred progressively over several centuries. But, in contrast, deforestation resulting from massive and hasty lumbering has been responsible for ghost towns and eroded land in many parts of North America.

Because most transformations of the earth's surface will now occur rapidly, a new kind of ecological knowledge is needed to predict the likely consequences of technological interventions and to provide rational guides as substitutes for the empirical adjustments that time used to make possible. Ecology will provide the scientific basis for understanding and developing the genius of the place.

But orthodox ecological knowledge is not enough. In the final analysis, all decisions concerning the environment involve matters of taste and therefore value judgments.

During the eighteenth century, tastes concerning landscape architecture were profoundly influenced by the artistic style of a few painters, in particular Salvadore Rosa, Claude Lorraine, and Nicholas Poussin. Each in his own way, these painters used Italian scenery to create an idealized picture of the pastoral ways of life, and this ideal rapidly found its way into the design of parks and gardens all over Europe, especially in England.

Nature and the climate in England are far different from what they are in Italy. But the English landscape architects succeeded nevertheless in using the genius of their land to develop a new kind of scenery expressing the emotional and aesthetic values that they had acquired from seventeenth-century painting. By so doing, they created the scenic beauty of England which we still enjoy today.

The successes of the English school of landscape architecture illustrate that man's intervention in the environment can generate new values. It can take the form of creative interplay resulting in the progressive flowering of the potentialities hidden in human nature and in external nature.

Genius of the Place
René Jules Dubos
Given at Berkeley, California, February 26, 1970