(Copyright © 2009)

Thinking about sacred ground, I had a vague inkling of having dealt with that topic in writing up a hike on Sargent Mountain in Acadia National Park in the spring of 1997. Looking up what I had written about that hike in my book, ACADIA: The Soul of a National Park, I found this:

Sargent Mountain brings me to my senses. Literally to my senses. To the skilled perceptions that inform me about the land where I live and on which my life depends. On Sargent my soul responds to the music of a mountain, the song of Acadia, my home on this Earth. If I do not respond to that song, my soul is out of touch with the source of its nurture. When that happens, life is at risk. That is why I go back again and again to the mountain that reawakens me to the music, not of the spheres, but of the Earth and its star, the song of the one sphere where I have risen briefly to awareness and whose native rhythms have shaped every aspect of my being and my soul. I am a minute reflection of the Earth soul, one spark reflecting the brilliance of the sun. (Page 224.)

No mention of sacred ground, but that’s clearly the idea I was trying to convey. And am still trying to convey in this blog. I don’t talk about soul now so much as about consciousness. What I’m after is seeing sacred ground as an aspect of consciousness—that music running through my head as I roam this land that I love. Not music exactly, but the lilting feeling deep inside me of doing the right thing in the right place at the right time. Of being fully who I am where I am, or thinking of you, who you are where you are when you find yourself right where you want to be.

What is that all about? That feeling of belonging exactly there. Of being drawn to a place and at the same time driven by something deep inside you. Like Ratty coming home in Wind in the Willows. There are two parts to the feeling, the outward carrot, the inward stick. Perceptions and feelings complementing each other, uniting in one self-fulfilling urge to happiness.

If the ground is sacred, you are sacred at the same time. The ground sanctifies you, you sanctify the ground. The engagement is mutual. When person and place honor each other, you feel music echoing inside you. You are moved by the landscape exactly as you make your way through it. Your song becomes a songline of the Earth.

It’s like being in love. There’s no separation between you and your beloved. I’m not talking physical union here so much as a kind of recognition of being made for each other, as thought and feeling are two aspects of the same mind. It’s more than form and content going together. It’s like form is content. They’re the same thing, or belong together as parts of something larger than themselves.

Dedicated or set apart for special use, sacred ground must be recognized and designated by persons aware of the special qualities warranting protection. That would be all those sensitive to such qualities as represented in consciousness. It takes one to know one. The whole of Acadia is sacred ground. I know that for myself because I have been there and recognized it for what it is—an extension of myself—as have the millions who seek it out year after year so they can celebrate themselves in that place.

But I do not intend to limit myself to my native haunts in this reflection. I am writing about love for the Earth by all Earthlings, those of every species who treasure their homeland and homewater, the territory that provides for and supports their particular livelihood in every detail. It is the living who treasure the ground and water they depend on. When we die, those who survive us will carry on with the same awe and respect. Since its territory is sacred, then Earth is sacred, as all life is sacred. I know because I feel that inside me. My consciousness keeps reminding me.

As a sacred planet, Earth is dedicated to the single task of supporting all life. As far as we know, it is the only body in the solar system—or any other system for that matter—where chemical ions and elements combine in such a way to reproduce in the presence of starlight and water. We, this living horde, sanctify these grounds and these waters. We carry representations of their wonders within us, and recognize them in our experience. As recognizers, we respect or venerate the sacred; as recognized within us, Earth too is sacred. We are made for one another.

Sacred ground stirs feelings in us of awe, deference, and devotion. Of reverence. Sounds like I’m talking religion here, and in a way I am. The word religion stems from the Latin root ligare, to tie or bind closely. Oblige and obligate stem from the same root in a similar sense, as “to be bound by ties of gratitude” (OED). Beyond matters of belief, religion requires dedication to a life of service. You have to give for what you get. Which is also true of the gift of life itself. We are obliged to pay for what we get, by dying, surely, but also by caring for that which supports us while we share in the blessing of life. That’s my religion, not a matter of serving God so much as thanking Earth for its many gifts.

Which is exactly what I am talking about in using the term sacred ground. Nobody says we have to serve, we just recognize that obligation within ourselves, as we have a duty to serve and protect those we love. How do we serve our particular place on Earth? By protecting it from harm so it will remain productive and whole. That service is not imposed upon us; it comes from inside. Just as mirror neurons reflect actions seen into actions performed (see Reflection 117: Monkey See, Monkey Do), the very awareness of treading on sacred ground stirs a profound feeling of wanting to care for that ground. Whether for a person, animal, or place, caring is a natural form of stewardship. We want to take care of those we love.

Our modern culture places many obstacles between us and those we care for. Essentially materialistic, it reduces obligations to care and serve to financial indebtedness. We are off the hook if we pay up. Buy diamond jewelry, high-calorie foods, big fancy cars, insurance, healthcare, mortgages, the best we can afford—and beyond. Be generous, as long as you consume what we sell, so says our culture. We are surrounded by middlemen eager to profit from our overwhelming obligation to love and to cherish. By serving those who intercede on our behalf, we come to believe money has the magical power to do what consciousness tells us to do for ourselves. As a result, the objects of our many affections become distanced by eager corporations interposing themselves between us now much as priests of the true church were once happy to intercede on behalf of the faithful they made anxious to pay for their sins.

Which not only drains our spirits and bank accounts, but separates our good intentions from our personal values and means for doing good in this life. We drift away from those we would dedicate ourselves to. We say we care, but when it comes down to serving, we cut ourselves off and, by default, serve primarily our material needs exactly as we have been taught. 

The remedy I find in myself is to serve Earth directly and those truly embodying its gifts. That is, by reclaiming my consciousness from those who would steal it from me, I reclaim the right to honor those I rely on and in whom I freely invest all that I am, including my feelings, hopes, desires, accomplishments, and even my genes. And above these, the Earth to which we are bound. It is my sacred obligation to care for these—and the ground on which we live. If I do not sing of these, what other song is mine to sing?



Reflection 56: Beauty Day

January 28, 2009

(Copyright © 2009)


Saturday, it snows all day. Leaving about a foot on the ground. Carole and I plan to take a hike after Quaker Meeting next day. Where should we go? The south ridge of Norumbega Mountain is close-by, that seems a clear choice. We park by Lower Hadlock Pond. Across the white pond, the wooded slope of Norumbega looms like a smooth iceberg. We’re the first ones out. Snowshoes on, we cross the outlet and head up the Brown Mountain Trail (Norumbega used to be called Brown Mountain). As the ground rises, Carole’s snowshoes slip and slide; she decides to do without. I have crampons on mine, so I break trail. We’ve both hiked this ridge many times, but this time is different. The landscape is frosted with snow. Everything is smooth, soft, white. Except for a few fringes of forest green, and gray-brown stems of spruce. We’ve never seen it like this—stripped of all conventions as if pared down to basics. Like a line drawing. Everything is clear and clean. Winding between trees, we both agree it’s the most beautiful place we’ve ever been in. It’s more than the snow. These sloping woods. Low angle of light. Brisk air. Fresh scent. Stillness unto silence. “A beauty day,” I say, quoting my friend Gene Franck. Up and back, we are both in its spell, as if this were the first day of the world. The old and worn are new again. Past thoughts don’t apply. Wholly engaged in the present moment, we are new to ourselves.


Beauty and newness are often closely related. With novelty and freshness not far removed. Think babies, sweet sixteens, fresh laundry, hot dinners on the table. Character comes later, on the downhill slide. The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show were freshness personified. America loved them. They were so youthful—just boys. As men, they proved more challenging. Innocence is an asset not to be wasted.


Is that it? All that can be said on the subject of beauty? Hardly. Trying to come to terms with beauty, I have taken two courses in aesthetics. Irwin Edman could say the same thing five different ways, and invariably ran through them all. Marx Wartofsky said he could declaim endlessly on the similarities and differences between a pencil and a stick of chalk. Beauty, I found, is not a matter of words. Words can be beautiful, particularly when pithy and pared to the core. But philosophizing about beauty tends to be un-beautiful.


Beauty is not something to be talked about. It is experiential, involving any or all of the senses. Beauty is an intuitive judgment in which strong feelings have a say. It is not something you can capture in words but something you feel. A kind of attraction that gets your attention. Captures you. Makes you want more. Awe and respect are often involved, or deepest respect—unto devotion.


But of course the beholder (hearer, scenter, toucher) in the case of beauty is judge and jury, not the beheld. Beauty is as much given as received. It is something you participate in, for yourself as well as others. What’s new is what is new to you, beguiling to you, seems fresh to you. Others may or may not concur with your taste.


Beauty is active, a way of seizing the world. It is always a discovery. Sought, but never fully anticipated. You have to be there, present, to feel the effect.


Some art tries to project or preserve beauty, as if it were an insect in amber. As if it were solely a matter of sensory proportions and relationships. But such features can fall on deaf ears or blind eyes. Beauty requires an audience open to its charms. And beyond that, an audience ready to reach toward those charms, welcoming and embracing the presence of something wonderful beyond itself. Beauty is performance and audience engaging, working together in mutual affirmation. Carole and I affirmed Norumbega that day as much as it affirmed us. Such a place is worthy of status as part of a national park, which it is—Acadia National Park.


Beauty, in other words, is situational. That is, it emerges within consciousness as one aspect of the ongoing relationship between self and world. It is neither a property of that world nor of the self, but is an aspect of the flow between them, the perceptual give and take forming the basis of the primal loop of experience. Experience arises from expectations cast onto the world through active behaviors, and from the feedback those expectant behaviors stir up and redirect from the world to the actor-become-perceiver. Consciousness is privy to the flow coursing through itself, which betokens a world without being of such a world.


Like beauty, consciousness itself is situational, emerging from the interaction between perceiver and the perceived. Either self or world may incite the interaction, but once begun, both are active participants. As long as the engagement lasts, beauty endures, rekindling itself. Here is long-term stimulation of cells in the hippocampus, enabling memory of the occasion to be laid down. That is beauty’s power, and why we have such a hard time defining it. It is that which enables memory, right up there with fear, anger, and jubilation. All of which set nerve cells firing in concert and brain waves humming, integrating consciousness so it is not at sixes and sevens as it often is in lives full of distractions.


Yes, that sounds right: beauty is memorable because it enables the process of laying down memories. That’s why I remember one figure standing next to me on a subway platform in Times Square 56 years ago (see Reflection 41: Christmas Tree). And hiking Norumbega with Carole one winter Sunday seven years ago. My brain is made to remember such events. Memory is not incidental to beauty, it is its essence. Unmemorable experiences fall away like chaff from the wheat. Beauty discovered deserves better. And sees to its own preservation. Just as other strong feelings do.


This is beautiful! Better remember it, it may have survival applications. The future is built on what we retain from the past. All else is unworthy of retention. Beauty is no frill. A life lived in search of beauty is an exemplary life.