A family member has recently complained that she wants to move from her apartment because her feelings for the place have changed. It’s been on her mind so much that she seems obsessive about this urge to find a more suitable home, somewhere she feels she can “fit in.” My response, initially, was compassion; then, I began to feel irritated (other people’s obsessions often seem irritating). I’ve been reading essays by the Norwegian philosopher Arne Naess for the past few days, however, and his work has tempered my irritable response. Place matters.

Naess was an originator of the “deep ecology” movement, a follower of Gandhi’s non-violence philosophy, a mountaineer; his influences include Taoism and Spinoza. Deep ecology, as a movement, is fairly controversial and has been subject to some pointed criticism–but as a philosophical practice, its inquiry and premises have been valuable to subsequent thinking and critical problem solving as applied to the earth and its environmental limitations.

What appeals to me about Naess, though, is the personal aspect of his “ecosophy,” a term he coined to refer to earth-wisdom, to place-wisdom. He called his own place-wisdom Ecosophy T: the “T” stands for Tvergastein, a mountain he loved and sometimes chose to live on. Living above the timberline for weeks at a time, Naess observed tiny flowers, diverse lichen forms, changeable and severe weather systems, mice, foxes, herds of reindeer bedding down in front of his hut. He contemplated life’s interconnectedness, the concept of peace in all aspects of earth-dwelling, compassion for all sentient beings, respect for earth-forms from rock to plant to insect…

(saxifrage photo–

As Buddhist studies say: “When one has great loving-kindness towards all sentient beings, there are limitless beneficial effects.” Naess seems to have believed this whole-heartedly. He loved the mountain, he loved the miniature saxifrages, he loved the view of the valleys and the lake. These things enlightened him about the inherent earth-wisdom of the place itself. All of his thinking seems to spring from the mountain’s earthy source, its seasons. A mountain seems unchanging to most of us, but Naess appreciated its transformations. Such acceptance can lead to an abiding sense of peace and peacefulness, and certainly to a comfortable feeling of belonging to place.

I understand that urge to belong to place. It’s one reason I have stayed in one region for so long: I do not live in an area of breathtaking natural beauty or harsh extremes, as Naess chose to do, but I respond to my surroundings deeply here in the valley. The temperate climate with its four distinct seasons, the plants I recognize, the familiar birds and mammals, insects and toads, salamanders, the gravel and the different soils, the creeks and meadows, the agricultural fields and–yes–the suburban sprawl and nearby highways all make up the place where I exist. It’s comfortable, and it is comforting, and it is always surprising in small ways as I push my observations and attempt to deepen my understanding of and connection with the place I call home.

There have been times I’ve had to leave places that felt like home, and there’ve been times I’ve felt uncomfortable in the place I dwelt. And I needed to move on when that discomfort became too nagging, to irritable to ignore.

So I’m back to my place of compassion again.

Here’s “Urge for Going.”

8 comments on “Place

  1. As usual, wonderfully written, and thought-provoking to boot. I’m not that familiar with Joni Mitchell, and it was quite an eye-opener to hear this song. What consummate musicianship! The harmony is reminiscent of a lot of bluegrass–Doc Watson particularly comes to mind.


  2. singingbones says:

    Nice post, Ann…. I think you are lucky to be a person who has such longevity of place, something I have lacked all my life. just thinking about that today….. thanks for the beautiful song by Joni…. those were nice days for folk music, weren’t they…. blessings on the season!


  3. Sigrun says:

    Thank you so much for this beautiful post! The song is fantastic!
    Being Norwegian I am embarrassed to admit I really don’t know Næss more than superficial, as part of a national canon of thinkers, I believe its time for me to make a more intimate connection with his work.
    I have for some time been occupied by reflections on home, and actually posted on it today. I have also been reading a lot on Buddhism lately, and sense that my ideas and understanding of home will be changing, not yet sure of how – playing around with Buddhism feels a bit like turning my thoughts inside out …
    Hm, sorry about this – not very comprehensible, I know.
    But thank you again for this thought provoking post!


    • No, Sigrun–you are comprehensible here. I do think there are connections between Buddhist philosophy and Naess. In the USA we have writers such as Gary Snyder & Robert Haas who have a decidedly ecology-minded and Buddhist-influenced sensitivity. But in some ways Naess earns his ideas on place from the ground up.

      Also he asks many more questions than he answers and often ends his brief philosophical essays with “I don’t know.”

      So he refuses the role of “sage.”


  4. I loved Joni Mitchell’s music when I was a teenager, and I loved her lyrics and her artwork on the record albums. I suppose she influenced me in a deep sense, though I do not really discern that in my current life or work.


  5. […] been returning to some zen-influenced texts and trying to remember to breathe and to be here now. Arne Naess’ writings on joy and environment and Buddhism–I’ve just finished reading a collection of […]


  6. […] in Aeon magazine–an exercise in synthesis and interdisciplinary thinking that connects with Naess and his notion of ecosophy; and with Bachelard and others whose work I have lately been reading and […]


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