Thursday, October 15, 2009

Reflection: Landscapes – Sacred or Meaningless

Reflecting on Photos of Ireland

The remains of a rock structure perch
precariously on an uplifted mound of
earth. The outer walls struggle to stay
in tact with the ground now so uneven
beneath it. In the forest an old, old tree
wearing moss over its lower trunk
stands by the pathway in solemn
welcome to all pilgrims who go there.

In my country we have no buildings
from more than a few centuries, nothing
to touch the many stone churches
dating back a thousand years. Even
our trees are often newly planted, so few
old forests have escaped progress.
Our windswept coasts too often
developed into beaches and resorts.

We are the New World, trying to lead
all the rest, while our elders in the
old are second fiddle at times. If
age has wisdom, where is ours, except
maybe in the land itself, the part,
at least, we haven’t scraped away
or covered with concrete. And what
does it say about our heritage?

Looking back at the four hundred plus pictures I took while on the pilgrimage in Ireland leads me to reflect on many aspects of culture, both that which we experienced while abroad and our own at home. I’ve also been reading from several books since I returned home. One of those is Dara Molloy’s The Globilisation of God. In it he suggests that as Christianity and Western civilization spread through other parts of the world, the indigenous religious beliefs that reflect a sacred connection to the land have been lost.

Reading Dara’s book has given me much to think about. The pre-Christian and early Christian traditions in Ireland maintained that sense of the sacred in the very landscapes. Wells and hills, sacred to the Celts before Christianity, were adopted as locations for abbeys and churches. We noted that particularly in Kildare. Thus, in Celtic Christianity there remains some connectedness with the landscape that many of us in other parts of the world have lost. I was addressing some of the loss we’ve suffered in the US in the poem above. But I’ve thought about it even more since writing the poem. And part of my thinking process has been influenced by another book.

I’m something of an amateur archeologist, having participated in a dig in my home state at a site where Spanish explorers in the 1500’s set up a small fort beside a Native American town. In that particular case, after about eighteen months when the Spanish became too demanding or possibly abusive to the Native Americans, their settlement was burned and the Spanish themselves killed or chased away from the site. As we well know, in American history, things did not turn out that way for the majority of the Native American culture.

My interest in archeology and Native American culture led me to pick up another book – Timothy Pauketat’s Cahokia. It describes a large Native American complex that existed on the Mississippi River nearly a thousand years ago. At the present time parts of the complex lie within a state park in Illinois, but that is a fairly recent development. Before it became protected and archeologists had the opportunity to explore much of it, housing developments and interstate highways cut through mounds of ceremonial centers and burials, destroying what might have been learned about a complex culture that existed on this continent a millennia ago. At least parts of Cahokia were sacred spaces to those Native Americans. As our nation grew, it showed no concern for what had been sacred to earlier indigenous people. The same was true at the archeological site where I volunteered. A mound that had existed there, created by perhaps related Mississippian people or their descendants, was pretty much plowed down before archeologists began digs at the site.

We owe much to progress. But have we also sacrificed something in the wake of it? What toll has our absence of concern for what was sacred to those before us taken? How is our disconnect from the land and its heritage influencing our lives today? How is it affecting us spiritually? Can we learn anything from other cultures who do view the landscape in sacred terms? What would that mean for the environment?

These questions and more are a part of what I brought home from the pilgrimage to Ireland.

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