How does the landscape influence our lives and personalities? How would I be different if I had grown up in a tropical rainforest, on Arctic tundra, or in a large city? Although I don’t know to what extent the landscape has shaped my personality, I feel certain that I would be a different person – either in small or in large ways – if I had grown up living with a different landscape. And I have also been influenced by landscapes of the mind – landscapes of dreams, myths, and stories – as well as by the physical landscape.
Here are a few elements of the landscape that have shaped my life:
In British Columbia, several mountain ranges running north to south shape the climate and the distribution of ecosystems. They’re a constant presence in the land. When I was young, I distinguished two main types of mountains: the rounded, green mountains (“hills”) in my backyard and the higher, jagged, rocky peaks (what I thought of as the “true mountains”) of the large mountain ranges. It was these that captivated me. They seemed like places where anything could happen: where heroes could journey on quests, dragons could fly from peak to peak, and dwarves could mine deep into the earth. When I hiked the mountains in later years, I knew more about what was really there, but they still fascinated me. I struggled to breathe in the thin air, but when I stood at the top, the rest of the world was spread out before me, looking far away and unimportant.
For me, mountains are places of mystery, of things that lie deep in the earth, of testing, and of discovery. They are where we go to discover ourselves and our path in life. They remind us of that which arises from everyday life, and that which guides us on. In the novel that I’m working on, mountains – one mountain in particular – repeatedly appear to the main character in a series of dreams and visions, triggering a series of events that will change his life and world forever. The mountain path winds upward, and there is always further to go, more to discover. Just as you reach one peak, one goal, you look ahead and an entire mountain range awaits you.
I live inland, yet I cannot avoid the influence of the ocean. Masses of air from the Pacific bring weather systems inland. Rivers flow inexorably to the ocean, providing water for the dry climates in the interior and creating the fertile valleys where most of the population of this province lives. In autumn, salmon swim out of the ocean and up the rivers, where they spawn and die, returning nutrients to the land. Just as life once arose in the ocean, many millions of years ago, so life on the land today would not be possible without it.
Visits to the coast remain among the most memorable of my life. I feel drawn to the ocean, yet when I am at the coast, I am amazed by how different the environment is from that of my home: lush rainforests instead of rolling grasslands, moderate temperatures year-round instead of extremes of hot and cold. It feels familiar and yet strange. The ocean itself is so large; it is hard for me to believe that more of the Earth’s surface is covered by ocean than by land, but I know that this is true. The ocean has covered the Earth while continents have shifted and species have come and gone. I know that one day it will be gone, just as our entire planet will be, but when I am standing on the shore watching the waves, it seems that this will last forever. The ocean reminds me of infinity and eternity, and also of my own mortality.
“O wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being,
Thou, from whose unseen presence the leaves dead
Are driven, like ghosts from an enchanter fleeing…”
— Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ode to the West Wind”
Wind is shaped by weather patterns and the earth’s rotation. Some plants rely on it to disperse seeds and pollen and we enjoy it on hot evenings, but the wind can also be damaging and dangerous. It can uproot trees, rip roofs off houses, and create frigid wind chills in winter. Yet I have always loved something about the wind. As a child I would stand in the back field of my elementary school and watch the wind whirl dead leaves and pieces of trash higher and higher into the sky. I felt that if I could somehow just let go of the earth, then the wind might carry me away as well, and some part of me longed for this to happen. In The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, a book I read and re-read many times, Dorothy’s house is carried to a magical land by a tornado, and to me it somehow made sense that the wind could do this. Later I discovered Percy Bysshe Shelley’s poem, “Ode to the West Wind,” and this too resonated with me, even down to the association of wind with autumn and falling leaves.
Wind for me is freedom, power, and inspiration. The word spirit originates from a Proto-Indo-European word meaning simply “to blow”, while the Latin word spiritus refers to “breath”. Thus, inspiration means both the act of inhaling as well as that feeling that can lead you to create poetry and art. When you feel inspired, you can express yourself freely and intuitively, let yourself go as though you are letting the wind carry you away.
Fire is another shaping force of my landscape. Summers are dry and forest fires caused by lightning are common. Many species in this region evolved with fire – for example, Douglas-fir and ponderosa pine trees evolved thick bark so they can survive low-intensity fires. Yet for humans, fire can destroy our homes and our lives. I grew up knowing the fear of forest fires during every hot, dry summer. And when we suppress forest fires, fuel builds up, and the fires that occur are more severe. Yet what may be a tragic loss to one individual – whether human or not – is to the ecosystem as a whole rejuvenation. Low intensity fires clear out young trees and shrubs that compete with the mature trees, while higher intensity fires create open spaces where pioneer species can take hold and begin building a forest again.
Fire is complete transformation – necessary for growth, but also painful and requiring many sacrifices. To me, fire is a reminder of the necessity and inevitability of change – and that if we do not accept change as it comes, the forces that cause change will build up until, when change does come, it is more painful and destructive than it would otherwise have been. Fire reminds me not to become too attached to any one thing or place, because everything can change irreversibly in an instant.
These four elements of mountains, ocean, wind, and fire only begin to identify the many – and quite possibly innumerable – ways the landscape has shaped my life. I could describe many others: forests, specific animal and plant species, rivers, lakes, seasons, and all of the interactions between the different elements.
What are some of the ways that landscape has shaped your life? What elements of the landscape are most important to you? How is your landscape similar to or different from my own?
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