The Spirit of a Place: the Power of Landscape

“Dead I say? There is no death, I say, only a change of worlds.” – Chief Seattle

African American (Gullah) bottle treeThe Great Chief’s speech goes on to talk poetically about how those intent on destroying Native American lands (in Seattle) …”when the last Red Man shall have perished, and the memory of my tribe shall have become a myth among the white man, these shores will swarm with the invisble dead of my tribe, and when your children’s children think themselves alone in the field, the store, the shop, or in the silence of the pathless woods, they will not be alone…at night when the streets of your cities and villages are silent and you think them deserted, they will throng with the returning hosts that once filled them and still love this beautiful land….Be just and deal kindly with my people…to us the ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their resting place is hallowed ground.” There is some dispute as to whether the great Indian chief wrote this inspiring speech, but, as in art, truth is not always the same as fact.

Bottle Tree

Charleston, as a place, has its own voice. Have you ever felt that in a place? When I visited Venice, and stepped out onto that earth and water, I felt the palpable presence of the stories of those who had walked there before me. And some years ago I discovered the principles of Chinese feng shui and dusted every corner of my house, and yes, it feels truly different than before I took the time to respect this place, this house.

So many cultures blended together to make Charleston a creole, from its beginning: the English, the Barbadians, the French Huguenot. The native Americans, and the African American cultures certainly revere the ancestors. This photograph is of a Gullah ‘bottle tree’ which reminds us of the spiritual world and is part of the great vernacular yard art tradition of Sea Island African American people.

My own mostly English family told historical stories, and collected the data to rattle off, about who, what and when. It was more of a left brain catalog of historical facts, I felt, growing up. Thinking the ancestors actually lived here now was too close to the superstitious for us, as respectable Episcopalians and Presbyterians. But we knew the stories and the legacy was important. My mother valued that old cedar chest passed down from her Aunt Caroline Martin Arnold, more than most anything in the house. And Charleston had an unusual population that early in her history recognized her value and insisted upon her preservation. The city began the historic preservation movement in the United States in 1920 when they formed the Society for the Preservation of Old Dwellings.

But there is even more reason I think. There is that spirit that Chief Seattle speaks of, and the one the Africans brought with them. An old song sung in church whose words recognize the Spirit, has a refrain that says “there’s a sweet, sweet spirit in this place.” I think I feel like part of that whole creole mix now, the mix that Charleston always was, and is today, and more and more what America is. There is a spirit in this place.

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I was called to be an artist. And as an old old midwife said to me "If the Lord wants you to do something, you won't have no good luck' til you do." So, here I am, sharing what I love, longing to illuminate the work of art, which is everywhere.

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Posted in art, Arts & Culture, beauty, Charleston South Carolina, creativity, Gullah, Native American, Poetry, religion, South Carolina History
7 comments on “The Spirit of a Place: the Power of Landscape
  1. I know that hymn well… one of my favorites. I like the idea of connecting its message with that of Chief Seattle.
    Gail

  2. Jae Jaxon says:

    Every place that you go has a “spirit”. Some of us are more sensitive to it then others. When I was growing up and even now sometimes I would go to my families cemetery. I would tend to the graves of my grandparents-sit talking to them. I would visit cousins that I had never met passing their graves and connecting them on the family tree. I never felt afraid way out in the country alone among hundreds of graves. There was one grave there that was clearly marked as a former slave. Most walking by did not know what the pipe & jar signified but I had stumbled across that information years later. My favorite story of that places spirit is the day they all said hello. I had driven down on a sunny day only to return to my car to find the windshield wipers and the radio turned on. The “spirits” will often speak to us if we listen. Good article-I enjoyed it.

  3. Jae, I really value your thoughtful insight. Thanks for illuminating this concept so well. It helps me when others to validate how I feel about places. Tell me about the pipe and jar. Are there other symbols on gravestones? I am getting ready to write about the Stonecarvers and the imagery at the Circular Church graveyard. Unfortunately, the African American members of this historic church were not buried here but in another place nearby. Alphonso Brown on the Gullah Tour showed me where it was. I want to know more! You are the best, and you know, you are one fine writer, girl.

  4. jennie lacivita says:

    Yes, there is the spirit of this place………..i too have experienced the spirit of the lowcountry and it has made a huge impact in my soul and that place that brings peace and wonder , a connection with the past , the ancient of days, the present , the voice that speaks from history from the live oaks and whispers from the wind acrosss the low lands and water…..i appreciate your love and connection in your writings which are amazing as you are. Keep on……..inspire us on!!
    Jennie Lacivita……beloved.

    • Jennie! And what a delight for us to share this love of place. You of all people know about the spirit, girl. Thank you for your visit, support, and this kind and generous response to my new baby, here. You have always believed in dreams, too. Much Love, Sha

  5. […] to this place. Culturally, the Lowcountry is not without her talk of dark spirits: I have my own blue bottle tree to catch them and keep them captive. The idea that land has voice is shared by local African […]

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What’s this?

Welcome to my blog about the Lowcountry of South Carolina, a place proud with beauty, history and art. Sometimes we feel a call, to be, to go, to do. I was called to be an artist, and as an old midwife from Alabama said, “If the good Lord wants you to do something, you won’t have no good luck until you do it.”

So here I am writing about what I know, about the 'under glimmer' as the poet Basho, says, the way I have learned to see, to notice. I am inspired by, and talking about the history and art and culture of this place that has called me to herself. By the ancestors.

My background includes a degree in fine arts from a small private college in Florida, and before that, four years of all girls' boarding school in Asheville. I worked as a professional photographer, helped my children grow up, and now and I love seasoned things, good food, better conversation, beauty, my beloved and beautiful Italian Greyhound, Beau. Moved by the sacred places and stories of this beautiful historic land called the Lowcountry, I am here in spirit and I hope to infect you with my love of this place.

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