Sacred sites are not unusual in religious traditions throughout the world, but the concept of “sacred space” encompasses a much broader perspective. As the late Upper Sioux tribal elder, educator, and historian Tom Ross once said, one way to understand it is to think of the sacred as being everywhere, but like rain, it tends to pool in certain spots. Thus, there are places on the landscape that become the locus for some special human experience. A powerful locale that may embrace a range of elements: great architecture, ancient temples, geography, terrain, spiritual beliefs, community stories, to name a few. But ultimately, it is a unique place that speaks to each individual person on some intimate level, a space where you step out of your analytical mind and open your heart to an experience. It stirs feelings that range from breathtaking to overpowering.
Although this may sound a bit “new age” to some, the basic tenets serve as a point of reference. My years of experience in cultural resource management have given me an understanding and an appreciation of the concept of “sacred space.” As a society we tend to categorize and segment such topics into the secular and the spiritual, but in truth they intermingle. This is especially true for many cultures around the world. For example, to the Native American, the entire world is full of sacred purpose and being. Everything is connected. The Earth is the Mother. Her stones, rivers, and landscapes nurture the plants and animals they depend upon for sustenance. The yearly cycles are all part of the sacred circle of life that is essential to our very existence. Thus, all aspects of the landscape are revered and every space is sacred. However, as Ross pointed out, there are certain especially important sites to be revered, remembered, and continually honored.
It’s a perspective about which volumes have been written and a topic that speaks in varied ways to a great many people. One that can’t easily be paired down to a simple blog so today my intent is more of a thoughtful pondering based on an alarming email that showed up in my inbox yesterday morning. It seems that the US Congress is considering a series of bills in which our most treasured public lands and wild places could soon go up for sale. If passed, these bills would allow states to take control of federal lands — including up to 2 million acres of national forests — and auction it off for mining, clear-cut logging, drilling and road construction, with no regard for archeological or environmental protection. That was startling enough, but today I heard of yet another proposed bill that would allow uranium mining in the Grand Canyon. That we would even consider such things raised my hackles.
From an ecological and a cultural perspective, there are some places on Earth that are so special they are worth saving and protecting. For several years, I did field work in the American Southwest and know first-hand how important it is to protect our cultural heritage and our natural landscapes. More recently, I took a morning train ride through the Santa Cruz Coastal Redwood Forest. I found myself in awe of these magnificent trees. Traveling via an old steam train, we followed narrow tracks that wound their way up the side of a mountain through immense stands of this old growth forest. With every turn of the wheels, the peaceful beauty of this special place settled over me. One of the few remaining virgin stands of coastal redwoods, the property we were traversing had once been part of The Big Trees Ranch, purchased in 1867 by San Francisco businessman Joseph Warren Welch in an effort to protect and preserve the giant redwood trees from logging. In 1930, the Welch family sold part of the property to Santa Cruz County, which eventually became part of the Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park.
Science tells us that Sequoia species were once widespread across the North American hemisphere and along the coasts of Europe and Asia. Today, however, only three species survive: the giant sequoia and the coast redwood in California and the dawn redwood in the remote areas of Southwest China. The coast Redwoods of California and the giant sequoia are some of the tallest trees on Earth. They can grow to over 300 feet in height, with trunk diameters between 8 and 20 feet. They are truly magnificent. To stand below one and look up is an awe-inspiring experience.
I can only speak to what they look like today, but their story is one that begins long before written records. Officially, the oldest living coast redwood is at least 2,200 years old, but foresters believe some may be much older. If we were to give in to the economic interests and clear–cut large portions of our remaining redwoods, it would take centuries to fully renew the forest, even if we to plant new trees. In every sense of the word, the Redwood forests of California are sacred natural landscapes that connect people to the peace and beauty of their surroundings. How can we place a monetary value on such a sacred space? They, like the natural beauty of all our parks, need to be preserved for all people to enjoy.
You can read more about the history and archeology of the Grand Canyon by going to: https://www.nps.gov/grca/learn/historyculture/archeology-along-the-colorado-river-video.htm
To read more about Native American perspectives on sacred lands, the following article is provides a good assessment of some of the issues: http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/01/16/challenge-protecting-sacred-land-146984
If you’d like to glimpse of the world through Native American eyes, this outstanding collection of essays provides some real insights.
To discover some of nature’s spectacular locales, I invite you to spend a few evenings watching “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” a six-part, 12-hour documentary series by Ken Burns and his longtime colleague Dayton Duncan on the history and development of America s national parks.
To learn more about the cultural, political, and natural history of California’s Redwood National Parks, the following book is an excellent source.
If you’d like more interesting facts about the giant redwoods, take a look at: http://santacruz.hilltromper.com/article/ten-amazing-facts-about-redwoods
If you are interested in helping to protect and restore redwood forests, this organization was founded in 1918 and their science–based Master Plan for the Redwoods guides their efforts to protect and restore redwood forests. http://www.savetheredwoods.org/
Another organization that helps to protect sacred places and cultural diversity around the world is Earth Island Institute’s Sacred Land Film Project. Founded in 1984, this organization has produced a variety of media and educational materials — films, videos, DVDs, articles, photographs, reports, school curricula materials and Web content — directed at deepening public understanding of sacred places and indigenous cultures. http://www.sacredland.org/