(Copyright © 2010)

“God,” “heaven,” “the night sky,” and “the universe” are four different characterizations for a sensory phenomenon that looks something like this:

One TurningOur sense of the motion of the stars at night is one of the most powerful and enduring wonders of human experience. Because we can have that experience again and again throughout a lifetime, we know it is true. Yet it isn’t true. The apparent wheeling of the stars is an illusion. The stars are not moving in unison—Earth is turning on its axis, carrying us with it, making the stars appear to be rotating overhead while all the time it is we who are rotating. We have names for the rising and setting of the sun and the moon—two heavenly bodies closer to home—yet, again, sunrise, sunset, moonrise, moonset are illusions created by the dipping of the eastern or rising of the western horizon against the background of the solar system and stars beyond. Projecting our Earthly motion onto the sun and the moon, as we do on the stars, we stake our claim to being the center of the universe, even though that concept is a convenient fiction in the human mind.

Earthrise experienced as sunset Universe means “one turning” or “turning oneness,” reflecting the sense of unity we feel when all about us shares the same motion. The concepts of God and heaven arise in the sighted consciousness of every human who has ever stood in the dark after the western horizon has swallowed the sun and celebrated the stately dance of the stars overhead against the background  of eternity and infinity. There is no escaping the feeling of awe and reverence which that ceremony kindles within us. Projected onto the scene, we categorize our feeling as being in the presence of the gods or of deities, which is what the words signify—the shining ones, from the Indo-European root, deiw-, to shine (and in such derivatives as sky, heaven, god, deity, divine, divinity, dios, Jove, and Jupiter).* Halos about the Heads of sacred figures reveal the cosmic origin of their holiness—and of the awe we bestow upon them. 

Early shepherds and other night folk noticed that seven great lights moved against the cyclical pattern apparently set by the stars, and we still dedicate the days of our week to those lights.

  • Sunday to the sun;
  • Monday to the moon;
  • Tuesday to planet Mars personified as Tiu, Germanic god of war;
  • Wednesday to planet Mercury personified as Odin, Woden, or Wotan, chief Teutonic god;
  • Thursday to planet Jupiter personified as Thor, related to Late Latin thunor or thunder;
  • Friday to planet Venus personified as Old Norse Frigg, wife to Odin, goddess of love and of heaven;
  • Saturday to planet Saturn personified as the rustic Roman god of agriculture.

This seven-day week is an amalgam made from several different cultural systems:

This system was brought into Hellenistic Egypt from Mesopotamia, where astrology had been practiced for millenniums and where seven had always been a propitious number. In A.D. 321 the emperor Constantine the Great grafted this astrological system onto the Roman calendar (The American Heritage Dictionary, Word History for Wednesday).

Distancing themselves, various religions dismiss these categorizations as pagan, that is, being of the country where uncultured peasants dwell, but the characterizations linking planets and gods in the human mind have stuck for thousands of years, suggesting the true power of such primal images and associations. In themselves, these images are neutral aspects of our placement in Earthly surroundings, but consciousness endows them with a salience of grandeur and significance, requiring the categories we project upon them be of the very highest order.

The four quarter days of the year demark the four seasons, summer and winter solstices when the sun “stands still” at the extreme turning points on its journey along the horizon, and spring and fall equinoxes when the sun rises and sets due east and west, respectively, and night and day are of equal length. Our compass of 360 degrees (reflecting an early approximation of the seasonal cycle repeating after that many days) is based on the normal (right-angle) alignment of Earth’s axis pointing due north toward the Pole Star and the east-west line between sunrise and sunset on the equinoxes. A great many pyramids, temples, basilicas, cathedrals, and city plans are oriented in time and place to harmonize with the evident plan of the universe as early observers interpreted it in light of their understanding and experience. As Earthlings, humans have had no other choice. Sensitivity to the cosmos is built into consciousness, calibrating our senses of orientation, correctness, and wonder.

Since 1994, I have joined a group of friends in observing theVernal equinox vigil “sunrise” at 5:35 a.m. on the day of the spring equinox as viewed from Ocean Drive in Acadia National Park. Equinox It strikes me still as the right thing to do—make a personal effort to celebrate the  ending of winter and coming ofEquinox potluck breakfast spring as one of the most decisive events of the year. Following the vigil, we retire to the home of a couple living nearby for a potluck  breakfast. After orienting our lives to the seasons, by 7:45 a.m. we are ready to walk into our days heartened to be in synch with the cosmos.

  Using the simplest tools, early astronomers projected lines and angles onto the night sky in mapping the positions of stars and planets, giving birth to geometry, navigation, and astrology at the same time. A friend once had my horoscope done, informing me my rising sign is in 03 degrees Scorpio:

You tend to be quiet, reserved, secretive and, at times, quite difficult to understand. Others notice your deep emotions and feelings and wonder how to draw you out. Stubborn and tough, you fight for any position you believe in. You are very resourceful and formidable when you become angered or upset about something. You enjoy living life at the cutting edge—for you life must be experienced intensely and totally. Quite courageous, you are willing to take calculated risks. Easily hurt by others, you often strike back with bitter sarcasm. Sensitive and curious, you are concerned with the deeper mysteries of human psychology. Once you have become interested in any subject, you pursue it with total fanaticism (Astrolabe @ alabe.com, 2001).

As a characterization of myself, that’s about as accurate as any resume I might concoct on my own. All based on heavenly alignments and relationships bearing on the date, time, and place of my birth. Those who devised and refined the system were conscious and observant Earthlings determined to conduct their lives in keeping with the order of the heavens as they perceived it. Perhaps subtle planetary alignments actually do affect the epigenetic connections of our brains as we lie deep within the refuge of our mother’s womb. I think it more likely that our placement in time and locale on the Earth sets the conditions of our formative development. We become creatures of that particular era and place, adopting or reacting to the ways of family and community as exemplars we ourselves would do well to follow.

In Reflection 183: Orthodox Consciousness, I wrote of my young self discovering fossils as a vital part of my early life, and splashing about the springtime hills surrounding my native haunts:

Since then, I’ve always felt there is more to existence than the surface reveals. My approach has been to probe everything to find out what secret life is trapped within—now including my own brain. Here I am, still tapping away, longing to reveal more of Earth’s secrets.

Which, for me, captures the essence of who I am in engaging the specific circumstances of my placement on Earth, forging interests and attitudes to last a lifetime. I detect that same essence in the horoscope fragment quoted above, and in the image of early peoples enrapt by the slow dance of stars and planets across the night sky. Consciousness aligns us with the turning of the universe we are born to, committing us early on to lead the lives we fulfill as we age. For me, spiritual guidance is found not in churches so much as in open spaces—estuaries, mountain ridges, shores, bogs, deserts, and wild areas of every sort where natural processes flourish today as they have since beginning times. If I can resonate with those processes without disturbing them, then I am more likely to thrive than those who degrade or deplete them.

Joining the dance of stars and planets in the night sky is a bit like hopping onto a moving freight train or spinning carousel. You have to get up to speed before making the leap. But when you do leap, you are already with the program, so have a better chance of furthering the general order than upsetting it, of adding your weight to the one turning than stumbling and being flung aside as disruptive or irrelevant. How we characterize the dance determines how we live—in or out of harmony with Earth and its cosmos.

 __________

* “Indo-European Roots,” Appendix to The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, (Houghton Mifflin, 1992).

Earthfall, March 20, 2006

(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?