Genius Loci

The bluff on which my neighborhood sits is surrounded and carved up by water: the great streams of Ohio and Monongahela Rivers, Saw Mill Run, and a multitude of creeks and runoffs. For eons they ate away at the rock. Water created passages through the wilderness, and when people settled here they used the watersheds as template for the course of roads. Like an island we find ourselves separated from the rest of the city – but so do many of the other hilly neighborhoods in Pittsburgh. We are a city of islands connected by beautiful spans of bridges which cross water everywhere.

A landscape has its own dreaminess as it lies under the sun and the stars. Ours is a ‘romantic landscape” as the architect Christian Norberg-Schulz calls it, because its hills, folds, watersheds and dense green forests gives it a sense of interiority and intimacy. In a romantic landscape an air of mystery pervades everything. There are very few places from which you can see the whole expanse of the land. Mostly, vistas open up and then withdraw. You climb the hill, but the land behind the next hill cannot be seen. Straight roads do not work, because the terrain resists the formal line. In the woods you see only so far, and as soon as you get to the next curve on the deer trail, a new landscape opens up before you – and conceals itself behind the bend or the thicket or the clump of trees a few paces away. It is a landscape of absence and shadow, but also of brilliant displays of lighted clearings and briefly illuminated hilltops as the clouds race by in the morning sunlight.

A landscape speaks to the soul. Its spirit of place, its genius loci, consists of the ineffable web of geology, flora and fauna, weather, water, light and shadow, earth and sky — and also of the uses human beings have made of these elements over time. The voice of Pittsburgh’s genius loci has as its base note the strong figures of the rivers and the smaller trills of their tributaries, which have carved and shaped this landscape with the force of water. It resonates in the protected bowls of valleys, it rises up to the hilltops and the promise of distant hazy vistas, and then returns into itself to get tangled in roots and hollowed out coal beds underground. Neither sparse and essential as the desert, nor lush and exuberant as the tropics, neither serene and clear as the classical landscape of Greece, nor rugged and majestic as the Rocky Mountains or the Alps — it never gives its all to you, but it offers what you need.

I saw Pittsburgh for the first time in 1987. The taxi picked me up from the airport and we were funneled through the trough between hills for a few miles and finally into the darkness of the Fort Pitt Tunnel. And suddenly, at the end of the tunnel, the river valleys and the bridges and the city lights exploded into my view and poured themselves out into an open landscape. It was breathtaking.

Our genius loci has a strange sense of humor: it is a magician who with a sleigh of hand reveals something by concealing something else. It lulls you into sensory underload and boredom, and then jolts you awake by giving you an unexpected, delightful gift. It fragments itself into a diversity of micro-places with their own distinct moods and histories, but the sides of the bowl, which hold the rivers’ confluence, embrace and center it all and keep the one and the many in balance. It is a generous place to live.

Filed under: Eva-Maria Simms, Nature, Prose