This week I've been in Georgia O'Keeffe country in northern New Mexico, teaching a workshop on integrating nature into your daily spiritual practice. It occurred to me that the basics of the workshop could be useful for helping writers conjure up the specifics of place for writing about our lives.
Imagine yourself flying over the landscape you write about–not at the height of a cross-country jet flight, but more like that of a soaring hawk. What does the earth below you look like? How is it shaped? What parts are wild, cultivated, paved over? What do you see when you look east? South? West? North? What are the physical landmarks that bound those four cardinal directions? The human landmarks? What does the sky overhead look like?
Now come back to the ground. Where are you in that landscape? How do you know where you are, that is, what makes the place distinctive to you?
Close your eyes and listen. What do you hear? Keep them closed for at least a minute. What is different about the information you notice from your senses when your eyes are closed?
Take a few deep breaths with your eyes. What do you smell? What does the air feel like on your skin? Is it warm? Cold? Sticky? Dry? If the wind is blowing, what does it feel like? Can you smell anything on the wind? What direction is it coming from?
Open your eyes and look about you. Who else lives in this landscape besides humans? (Here's a sidebells penstemon with a wasp pollinating its flowers, for instance.) These other species, from the tiny microbes that animate the soil, help the plants grow and cleanse the air and water that passes through it to the big "charismatic" species like whales, cypress trees, pronghorn antelope, or bald eagles. Name ten domestic and/or cultivated species that share this landscape with us. Now name ten wild species.
Add this community to your daily life by stopping to greet one species every day. Notice what that species is doing, where it lives, what relationships define its life. Just as you know the human community and its characters, get to know the lives that make up the community of the land. Honor them with your awareness, and they will bring your writing to life, rooting it richly in place.