Terroir

Well, in the ancient world, the word “genius” was not so much used about individual people, it was used about places, and almost always with the world loci. Genius loci meant “the spirit of a place.” And we all know what that intuitively means. We all have favorite places in the world, and it may be a seashore where you’ve got this ancient conversation between the ocean and the land and a particular geography of the way the cliffs or the beaches are formed.
But it could’ve been the same in the ancient world. A little bridge crossing a stream with a pool at the back of it and a willow hanging over the pool — that place would be said to have a genius loci. But a more sophisticated understanding would understand it’s this weather front of all of these qualities that meet in that place. So I think it’s a very merciful thing to think of human beings in the same way as — that is, your genius is just the way everything has met in you.

 

David Whyte

It is Whyte’s final line that originated my flight of ideas considering two related words, terroir, and provenance.

 

the set of all environmental factors that affect a crop’s epigenetic qualities, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat” or a softer, more bespoke definition “how a particular region’s climate, soils and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine.
the place of origin or earliest known history of something”, or its more common usage, “a record of ownership of a work of art or an antique, used as a guide to authenticity or quality.

Provenance is another description of our past while terroir characterizes how provenance interacts with now to create the persona we present to ourselves and others.

In my usual analytic way, I would point out that both terms provide reputational insight, terroir referring to the animate, provenance to made objects. And I would try to use them metaphorically describing organizational culture; you know, why Sloan Kettering has more gravitas then the local hospital or why no one would listen to Sammuelweiss when he told us just to wash our hands. But instead, let’s consider the most personal use of these metaphors.

We all have provenance and terroir, both in constant conversation – like ‘this ancient conversation between ocean and land.’ My provenance, in conversation with my terroir, makes me at times a little too fruit-forward (or as my wife reminds me, I need to ‘read the audience’ better). Like a good vintner, I manipulate the process a bit to accent the underlying terroir differently. With greater reflection and restraint, I try to hint at the flavor early on but deliver in the middle, in the mid-palate, to extend the metaphor.

I understand the tough work of recognizing this internal conversation, allows expressing our uniqueness while identifying our commonalities. But my understanding begs the question of my inability to acknowledge and express the inner terroir.

David Whyte evocatively expresses the obstacle to this recognition. 

Well, one of the interesting qualities of being human is, by the look of it, we’re the only part of creation that can actually refuse be to be ourselves. And as far as I can see, there’s no other part of the world that can do that. The cloud is the cloud, the mountain is the mountain, the tree is the tree, the hawk is the hawk. The Kingfisher doesn’t wake up one day and say, “You know, God, I’m absolutely fed up to the back teeth of this whole Kingfisher trip. Can I have a day as a crow? You know, hang out with my mates, glide down for a bit of carrion now and again? That’s the life for —” No. The Kingfisher is just the kingfisher… But we, as human beings, are really quite extraordinary in that we can actually refuse to be ourselves. We can get afraid of the way we are. And we can temporarily put a mask over our face and pretend to be somebody else or something else

This ability to be another is an important social lubricant, allowing us to perform the many roles we are called upon to play; husband, father, physician-healer, physician-disrupter, even friendly stranger. I believe the grit within this lubricant has two components. First, when deeply engaged in a role, it's hard to transition to another without the residue of the old character lingering into our present. You know these moments, after an emotionally or physically exhausting day, you just need to be still, to ‘recharge,' to shift gears. Stillness requires energy that we may not have. Second is the momentum associated with those deeply engaged roles. Returning to now requires energy and focus.

Our past, our provenance is always with us but distorted, a time softened best-part version that is comforting and familiar. A curated, created version of our terroir is an imagined future. Neither has the sharp edges and frictions of our current circumstances. Both can be so comfortable, so energetically easy, making it difficult to pivot away from our socially induced persona to the present. 

“… then we can take it another step of virtuosity and forget that we were pretending to be someone else and become the person we were, on the surface, at least, who we were just pretending to be in the first place. So one of the astonishing qualities of being human is the measure of our reluctance to be here, actually.

At this moment, we confound the gravitas of our assumed persona with our true provenance and terroir; the time when we lose our true North. The solution, as with all 12 step programs requires the recognition of our reluctance to give up the comfortable mask of our assumed personas.

… one of the great necessities of self-knowledge is understanding and even tasting the single-malt essence of your own reluctance to be here.

The advice given to young health professionals learning to have meaningful conversations with patients is to come in the room and take a seat – signaling that you have time and focus and can attend to their needs. But I am thinking that taking a seat can serve as a signal for us – to remove the mask of our current persona, to more empathetically engage in the conversation. And ‘taking a seat’ applies to all of the transitions in the artificially constructed distinction of work-life balance. While it does not guarantee our presence, it serves as a reminder that we can alter both our provenance and terroir by allowing them to experience more openly the vintner of the present.