Genius Loci means “spirit of place”, which is rooted in animistic beliefs, referring to land and nature spirits as well as the spirit of the land itself. Animism is the belief that everything has a soul, a spirit, and consciousness. Humans, animals, plants, trees, mountains, stones… Animistic belief involves respect and reverence of nature – asking for permission to harvest, giving offerings as thanks, building a relationship with plants, trees and land features. Working with genius loci is part of being a green Witch or hedgewitch – working with the land, local plants and spirits under your feet to gain a closer connect to the cycles of the seasons, the gods, the nature spirits, and your own spirituality. The everyday becomes the magical when you are in tune with genius loci.
There is a lot to learn, and a lot to pay attention to so it is good to have a solid base to start from. Creating a written profile of the genius loci of your area is a good way of doing this. Then you know what local animals to research the folklore and symbolism of, you can learn what types of land spirits there are and what types of offerings they like, you will know what plants and trees to research for the medicinal and magical properties as well of the best ones to make ritual tools with… so many things can come from a simple profile. Some tools to use include: local field guides of your area for wildlife and Native plants; works on local ethnobotany (the folklore and medicine of plants); histories of aboriginal tribes, their beliefs, practices, the spirits they knew to inhabit the land; Google Earth to find a perfect up to date map of your area — you can leave markers where you find a good berry picking site, a patch of Oregon grape plants for healing, or a good ritual site you found on a walk. All of these tools are available for free as books from you local public library and Google Earth is free and easy to download. You can also get local maps online through your city’s municipal webpage or the provincial government. Here is the profile of the genius loci of my forest…
Genius Loci Profile of Forest Grove
- Location: Burnaby Mountain, British Columbia
- Historical Location: On the border of Nooksak land, but overall Coast Salish.
- Maps: Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area Trail Map, Google Earth
Birds: Canadian geese, chickadees, crows, ducks, eagles, finches, hawks, hummingbirds, junkos, owls, ravens, robins, sea gulls, sparrows, stellar jays, woodpeckers…
Mammals: black bears, coyotes, deer, hares, mice, mountain lions, and shrews
Reptiles & Aquatic Life: frogs, salamanders, salmon, snakes, toads, and turtles
Insects: ants, beetles, bees, butterflies, centipedes, crickets, dragonflies, flies, grasshoppers, mosquitoes, moths, slugs, snails, spiders, termites, wasps, and worms
Trees & Shrubs: Alder, Birch, Buckthorn, Cedar, Cottonwood (Poplar), Dogwood, Elder, Firs, Black Hawthorn, Hazel, Holly, Maple, Oak, Pine, Rowan (Mountain Ash), Willow
Edible Plants: Blackberry, Fireweed, Huckleberry, Indian Plum, Nettles, Salal, Salmonberry, Thimbleberry, Wild Ginger, Wild Onion, Wild Raspberry, Wild Strawberry
Magical & Medicinal Plants: Bittersweet Nightshade, Black Nightshade, Bleeding Heart, Burdock, Dandelion, Devil’s Club, Dock, Enchanter’s Nightshade, Ferns, Fly Agaric, Honeysuckely, Horsetail, Ivy, Moonwort, Oregon Grape, Periwinkle (Sorcerer’s Violet), Plantain, Skunk Cabbage, Wild Rose…
Non Native Species: Ash, Cherry Blossom, Daisy, Himalayan Blackberry, Tansy, St. John’s Wort, Yarrow
Burnaby mountain is really a forested hill, not quite tall enough for a mountain – there is a university built at the very top of the hill, the rest is the Burnaby Mountain Conservation Area – a protected forest and wildlife reserve, not to be touched or built upon. There are streams and springs trickling down the mountain like snaky fingers forming deep dangerous ravines into which a wandering university student usually meets an ill-fate once or twice a year. Some are full of salmon minnows in the Spring, others fresh springwater from the heart of the mountain.The streams going north down the mountain empty into the Burrard Inlet which goes out to the ocean, and the streams on the southern side flow out to meet with the Coquitlam River which also goes out to the Ocean. The salmon are beautifully red or silver and watching the bald eagles snatch them up in autumn is a sight to behold
There are old growth Cedars and endagered Black Cottonwoods, the tallest fir trees you’ve ever seen – they touch the sky. The forest is covered in a soft blanket of ferns, flowers, vines, and decaying leaves, needles and cedar wood that cushion your step when you walk. There are other areas that appear soft and delightful, but are thorny patches of brambles, prickly Blackberry vines, Salmonberry bushes, and Nootka Rose.
We experience all four seasons here, but overall it is a temperate rainforest. Spring arrives in February with budding leaves, April is warmer but full of rain, there is usually an odd week of freezing and snowing weather in April, but May is beautiful and is truly the beginning of Summer. In June, July and August the weather will alternate between cool rain and hot sunny days. Fall arrives in September with sunny days and chilly winds and it will rain often. Once October arrives it is well into autumn and it will rain until April. Winter is only a few weeks long, usually at the end of December to the Middle of January. It may snow and last for a couple weeks, but usually no more than that. Storms are infrequent and lightning storms even less likely. But when they happen they are impressive – massive wind storms fed by the ocean ripping limbs of trees and even knocking them over subsequently knocking houses over as happened two years ago in November. In learning when the seasons change, I am able to know when which wild plants are growing and ready to harvest.
About the Coast Salish
“The highest-ranking male assumed the role of ceremonial leader but rank could vary and was determined by different standards. Villages were linked to others through intermarriage; the wife usually went to live at the husband’s village. Society was divided into upper class, lower class and slaves, all largely hereditary. Nobility was based on genealogy, intertribal kinship, wise use of resources, and possession of esoteric knowledge about the workings of spirits and the world — making an effective marriage of class, secular, religious, and economic power. Many Coast Salish mothers altered the appearance of their free-born by carefully shaping the heads of their babies, binding them with cradle boards just long enough to produce a steep sloping forehead.
Unlike hunter-gatherer societies widespread in North America, but similar to other Pacific Northwest coastal cultures, Coast Salish society was complex, hierarchical and oriented toward property and status. Slavery was widespread. The Coast Salish held slaves as simple property and not as members of the tribe. The children of slaves themselves became slaves. The staple of their diet was typically salmon, supplemented with a rich variety of other seafoods and forage, particularly for the southern Coast Salish where the climate was even more temperate. The art of the Coast Salish has become a popular idiom for modern art in British Columbia and the Puget Sound area.” (Source)
Coast Salish Cosmology
“Belief in guardian spirits and transmutation between human and animal were widely shared in myriad forms. The relations of soul or souls, the lands of the living and the dead, were complex and mutable. Vision quest journeys involving other states of consciousness were varied and widely practiced. The Duwamish had a soul recovery and journey ceremony and legends.” (Source)
Deities: There are no deities in the way Neopagans would think of them as the Coast Salish are an animistic people. The “deities” are the sun, the moon, the creator/father of all who belongs to the Above-People, the mother of all and giver of life who is the Cedar tree, Raven, Eagle, Coyote, Otter, Bear… many animals in Coast Salish mythology have the powers of gods.
Spirits: Spirits were divided into different groups full of supernatural beings and creatures as well as animals who could shapeshift into human form at will. The main classifications found are the Canoe-People, the Ocean-People, the Forest People, and the Above-People. It is believed these spirits can also possess people and were known to speak through shamans who had been ritually purified.
Of the Forest People, the most common in tales are a wild man and wild woman of the woods who live deep in the wilds feeding on bugs and decaying trees. They do not consort with other spirits and avoid rivers and the sea. Wild man will trick wanderers by offering them salmon, if you eat the salmon which is really decayed bark, you will turn into a ghost and wild man will enslave your soul. Wild woman loves to eat children, and carries a sack on her back to store them in. You can hear her by the sound of her breath moving through the leaves of trees. They are said to be shamans who never died, but exist forever walking between worlds. They will either grant the aspiring shaman power, or eat him or her.