What is Sacred

The Spirit in Place


by Thomas Rain Crowe



“…before the coming of Christianity all the peoples of the Old World had lived in a numinous landscape spangled with sacred markers and sacred places. The land itself was believed to be alive and under the protection of numina, guardian spirits. In such a world one did not blithely cut down a grove of trees, plow up virgin meadowland, dam a stream or divert it. An alteration of the landscape had to be carefully couched in propitiatory rituals intended to appease the numina.”

—Frederick Turner, Spirit of Place: The Making of an American Landscape 



In the 1980s, while working as director for a project to identify and protect Native American sacred sites in the Southern Appalachians, my partners and I, while trying to do educational and activist work pertaining to this project, faced considerable opposition from big land owners, real estate businesses, and self-serving local government officials. This took the form of everything from slanderous attacks and character assassinations in local and regional newspapers to, in one case, death threats. My loosely knit team of traditional Cherokee elders, folklorists, archeologists, and volunteers from both the Native American and Anglo communities were fighting what was definitely an uphill battle, if not an escalating war. But we persisted—at least long enough to see sanctions written into the National Forest Service “50-Year Plan” which included mandatory consultation with Cherokee officials before logging or making roads on Forest Service land. These regulations were designed to safeguard and protect any to-be-logged areas that might include sites of religious or historical importance.

During these years and this work, we experienced something of a revival with regard to the white, European interest in things “native,” and specifically with regard to people of this region and their ethnological heritage. Here in western North Carolina as soon as it became okay, or “cool,” to admit to Indian bloodlines in their family lineage, I began getting phone calls, letters, and faxes on almost a daily basis. I got calls from people asking about certain places that might have religious or historical significance in their area or on their land. I got calls asking for more information as to where to go to get in-depth genealogical counseling. All kinds of questions. All kinds of stories and family history. We had opened a genealogical and cultural Pandora’s Box. While there was, on the one hand, a war going on between the Project directors and the powers-that-be, there was also, simultaneously, an ethnological renaissance of sorts occurring in the population of western North Carolina at large. It seemed at the time as if some kind of acceptance was beginning to replace generations of denial. Interest was replacing apathy.

* * * * *

Today, following a major blood-degree controversy, the ousting of a principal chief on grounds of corruption, the inception of a strong traditional activist movement, and the building of the Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, things are very different over on the Qualla Boundary. For the first time in what some would say has been a long, long time, there are many more obvious and public signs that the traditional life would truly seem to be alive and well. While during the reign of Robert Youngdeer as principal chief the official policy on traditional matters involving the tribe was, “The Cherokee no longer practice the old traditional ways,” today the tribe has recognized Walker Calhoun and Jerry Wolfe as traditional elders. A reinvigorated Cherokee language program is being promoted by the Tribal Council with a focus on the very young members of the tribe in order to keep the language and the traditional culture from going extinct. Old dances, songs, and cultural consciousness are being spread through the public appearances of the touring dance group the Warriors of Anikituhwa. The old ways are becoming part of the new ways and a more appropriate balance is being reached. The idea as to what is sacred is changing, as all things do and should.

At the same time, things are changing out in the world of the dominant culture, as the population demographics for western North Carolina are becoming more diverse with the influx from outside the region of new first- and second-home residents. Many of these “new natives” are bringing with them certain ethnic and ecological values and attitudes from their former lives and places of residence. While in some cases the migration of second-home buyers and builders into the mountains from large urban areas has had negative effects, in the long run the overall influx of new conservation-concerned individuals has made a significant positive impact on eco-activism in western North Carolina, as seen in the growth in size and influence of any number of conservation/ecology organizations. With all the press and controversy surrounding certain pressing environmental issues in this region, the question of the sacredness of the natural world is being raised over and over, again and again.

North Carolina native and ecologian Thomas Berry wrote in his 1999 landmark publication, The Great Work, “In the end, it is the land that is the most sacred element of our lives.” This statement is not some kind of new age or hippie heresy. To my way of thinking, this is just plain, good common sense. If we don’t hold the earth and all its life forms as sacred, as worthy of a certain sense of reverence and equanimity, then we are, in a very direct way, undermining our own welfare and well-being. For without a healthy environment we, as humans, cannot hope to live any semblance of a healthy life. One thing predetermines the other. Without the essentials of clean air, clear water, and rich soil, all other systems are irrelevant.

* * * * *   

In the 1970s, I was lucky enough to have been involved in the foundational days of the Bioregional Movement on the west coast of California, working with and around people like Peter Berg of Planet Drum, Lee Swenson of Simple Living, poet Gary Snyder, and others. What I learned from that time and those people was that diversity is the sustaining concept throughout all of nature, and, in fact, the universe. It is, in the end, diversity that sustains the quality of life for all living things, allowing everything to survive and to evolve, to continue. It was impressed upon me in those youthful days that once the idea or, worse, the reality of a monogenic mentality or monoculture takes root, everything starts to look like everything else around it—the gene pool is weakened, and the quality of life is compromised. In other words, diversity is essential in both a philosophical and a practical way. It is essential to the natural world, meaning it is also essential to the human world. I think it’s a wonderful thing that we have different cultures and different peoples, different races, different languages and belief systems. If this kind of diversity didn’t exist, life as we know it wouldn’t exist. And, maybe, neither would we.

Life would be fairly dull, don’t you think, if we were all the same color, and there was only one variety of tree, one kind of snake or salamander, and one way to think of or worship God? In this kind of mono-world, our imaginations (which are essentially fueled by the natural world and the diversity and mystery of the universe) would go flat, dry. Entropy would set in. We would cease to be the creatures we are. Having had my eyes opened to this paradigm of diversity, and at the same time being witness to the pandemic of globalization and monocultural thinking, it is easy for me to say now, and with conviction, that I am not willing to live in a world absent of elephants and whales. Let me say it again: I am not willing to live in a world absent of elephants and whales!

* * * * *

Later, in the eighties when we were working here in North Carolina on the Sacred Sites Project, I got to witness, first hand, not only traditional ceremony, but was able to spend time in (sacred) places that were truly special in that they exuded a numinous energy or exhibited a personality of presiding divinity that was not only physically noticeable but remarkable. There was a consistency, I took notice, to where these kinds of places were found. Geographically, there were waterfalls, groves of trees, springs, mountain peaks, rock cliffs—characteristics that when chanced upon in the course of normal daily travel gave me pause to slow down, pay attention, and take note.

As I became more and more enamored of these “special” places, I was taken aside one day by one of our project elders and given a real talking-to. “All places are sacred,” he said. “All equally, and should be treated as such. The idea that one place is more sacred than another is foreign to our Cherokee beliefs. Everything is sacred. To divide and separate one thing from another is a white man’s concept. We believe that everything is interrelated and part of a larger web of life.”

Ultimately, I find myself wondering what the implications are for this kind of thinking for all of us today. If we embrace these kinds of ideas, then how can we justify any emotion other than horror concerning such recent regional travesties as the toxification of the Superfund site of the Barber Orchard land in Haywood County, the pollution of the Pigeon River by the paper plant in Canton, the pollution of the air in and around the Great Smokies from coal-fueled power plants, the history of clear-cutting as practiced by the U.S. Forest Service, and for that matter, any human activity that is carried out in the natural world (including, also, our towns and cities) without reverence and respect, and without a thought to the future and the well-being of future generations.

What is sacred? In a very real sense, and as the indigenous peoples have believed for thousands of years, the Earth itself is a sacred ‘temple,” a “church,” a gift and a covenant from The Creator. Or as Kentucky poet Wendell Berry proclaims, “What I stand for / is what I stand on.” Would we dare to swear inside of or desecrate a church? If not, why would we want to be any less respectful towards the Earth itself—which literally gives us sustenance and life, and without which we could not and would not exist?

* * * * *

When I am in my garden, here, next to the Tuckaseigee River, I try to work with a sense of well-being and reverence for the rich soil and the relatively clean water nearby. I grow my crops organically and without any easy poisons. I do this out of respect for myself and for my family and for the continued all-around health of the land—so that others after me may benefit, too, from a healthy soil. That they might benefit from my labors by inheriting a place from which they, too, may harvest healthy food.

Many years have gone by, and I am more than middle aged. Only now am I truly beginning to replace my European values (with so much emphasis placed on the separation and isolation of things) with those of my traditional Cherokee neighbors, who see things in a much more holistic way. But I’m making progress. My Cherokee friends make fun of me and tease me. “You’ll get it, someday,” they say, laughing. But I know I’ve still got a long way to go, as I work diligently to better see the bigger picture that comes so easily to my Indian friends. A picture in which there is a world where we are all related and where everything is sacred.

The Sacred
 
The seed of spirit is in the flower.
And the flower lives in the garden of all things.

Nowhere has the rock or the wood
become so fertile as in the womb of the earth.
In the hands of plants.
And in the stormy dreams of the gods.

Like the farmer who tills sand along the shoreline of the sea
or poets without ink,
we are born into this world of grace.
With only the seeds of memory and a song
of our ancient race.

Through the warm tears of love
the eyes of fire in the mountains dance.
How quickly the mind becomes water
as we gaze at the moon!
This silver
that lays side by side with gold in the poem of night.

And like the dew, this moon will pass away.
EVERYTHING is sacred!



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