Is the experience of the ‘spirit of place’ the experience of a particular place or the experience of The Spirit in a particular place? And how might such an experience be constructed? Consider this account from the poet R.S. Thomas who in 1947 visited one of the oldest nonconformist chapels in Wales on the banks of the River Wye. Sitting in the August sunshine while his wife Elsie did a sketch of the building (above) he had a revelation:
… it was two and a half centuries earlier on a fine August morning. And almost immediately I saw, I understood. As with St John the Divine on the island of Patmos I was ‘in the Spirit’ and I had a vision in which I could comprehend the breadth and length and depth and height of the mystery of creation.
Although he then says that he won’t try to put the experience into words he did, some time later, write the following poem:
Though I describe it stone by stone, the chapel
Left stranded in the hurrying grass,
Painting faithfully the mossed tiles and the tree,
The one listener to the long homily
Of the ministering wind, and the dry, locked doors,
And the stale piety, mouldering within;
You cannot share with me that rarer air,
Blue as a flower and heady with the scent
Of the years past and others yet to be,
That brushed each window and outsoared the clouds’
Far foliage with its own high canopy.
You cannot hear as I, incredulous, heard
Up in the rafters, where the bell should ring,
The wild, sweet singing of Rhiannon’s birds.
R. S. Thomas would develop the theme of the moment out of time that led to eternity often in his poetry. Natural images such as a constantly welling fountain or a tree continually shedding golden leaves were used to capture this moment. But here the reference is to ‘The Birds of Rhiannon’ in the Second Branch of Y Mabinogi whose singing suspends time so that those returning from Ireland with the head of Bendigeidfran then feast for seven years before proceeding to the island of Gwales for a further eighty years during which time is suspended.
In the medieval text this is presented as part of a story and socialized as the common experience of a group of people pursuing a specific purpose. Rhiannon’s birds are voices from Faery and, in texts from earlier times, this suspension of time is often presented as a crossing of the borders into the Otherworld. For modern writers, however, it is more likely to be a solitary experience, a ‘moment’ that is ‘forever’ (think of T.S. Eliot’s rose garden in ‘Burnt Norton’). It may or may not be a metaphor for a communion with ultimate ‘reality’, a god, the God, or a presence integral to a particular place. Waldo Williams, writing in Welsh, says ‘Gwyddom gan ddyfod yr Eiliad / Ein geni i’r Awr’ (We know in that Instant / We’re born to the Hour) and this neatly captures the general idea of a split second which is also eternity.
The content of the experience may be different for each individual, and at different historical periods or in different cultural contexts. But is it the same experience? And if so, if one experiences the singing of the Birds of Rhiannon, another the whispering of the Holy Spirit and yet another a wholly secular perception of a moment when time stands still, what accounts for this difference?