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Appreciating Vermont’s Genius of Place

Almost every Sunday I take a long meandering walk through my neighborhood in Burlington, down to the bike path on Lake Champlain, along the lake toward Oakledge Park, and back via Pine Street, with a stop for a refreshment (or two) at Zero Gravity Brewery on Pine Street.

I pass familiar businesses, landmarks, and people. I think about work, I think about friends and family, and sometimes I think about nothing at all.

But very often, including today, I think about the landscape around me. I reflect on how the shape of the land, the seasons, the old houses, and stories of generations past give Vermont its genius of place.

The term “genius of place” – “genius loci” –  is ancient, originally referring to a place’s guardian demon or spirit. But a 1970 Berkeley lecture by the microbiologist Rene Dubos (who also coined the phrase “think globally, act locally”) helped give it a new definition, as the powerful creative influence the environment can and should have on architecture, lifestyle, vocation, and commerce.

He wrote:

…The genius of the place is made up of the physical, biological, social and historical forces which together give its 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.

Later he writes:

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.

I’ve heard many people say they experience a unique feeling when crossing into Vermont. They can never quite describe it, but they try with words like “calming,” “centered,” or “home.”

That reminds me of these lines from Dubois:

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 Switzerland to apprehend at a glance the contrasting geniuses of these two countries.

Part of what defines Vermont’s genius of place are its many old buildings, barns, and bridges. Perhaps the well-intentioned urge to preserve the past can go too far, stifling progress. (In 1993 the National Trust for Historic Places put the entire state in its “11 Most Endangered Places list.)

But part of the genius of Vermont’s place is the fact that people live in its mountains and forests. This gives it a different feel than New Hampshire, with the White Mountain National Forest, or New York, with the Adirondack Park.

Dubois writes:

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.

That sounds like Vermont to me. And it reminds me that the true genius of place is that it can’t be separated from the people who live there.

Vermont’s genius of place is equally its landscape, its seasons, and the character of the people who call it home.

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