places sacred and defiled

(Originally published in The Sewanee Mountain Messenger. Reprinted by permission.)

Occasionally I grab my climbing shoes and chalk bag and stroll down to the end of my block. There stands a stone wall, about seven feet tall and twenty-five or so feet long, built by the power company. The stones are placed just right for a climbing workout; I can practice traversing, moving from side to side, using finger- and toe-holds in various ways.

On the other side of the wall, twenty feet away, stand the stark metal components of our electrical grid, connected by wires to the generators that produce our power and to the buildings that consume it. I face them as I work back and forth along the stones, but can’t see them at all, though I can sometimes hear the humming of current moving through the system.

My thoughts stray and wander, as they can so easily when one is concentrating on a mainly-physical activity; soon I’m pondering how we think of places. It seems to me that we do too good a job of dividing and categorizing places in our world.

There are spots that we recognize and set aside for their beauty: Fiery Gizzard and Foster Falls, lakes, parks. And then there are places that we by common consent set aside to be made ugly: parking lots, strip malls, gravel pits, junkyards.

Why, though? Are those ‘ugly’ places somehow worth less than the ‘beautiful’ ones? Who decided, and on what basis, which would be saved, and which not tended with care?

Aren’t all land, all places the same? If any place is sacred, aren’t all places sacred?

I once read a quotation to the effect that long ago, art and religion were integrated totally into people’s lives, indistinguishable from their daily existence. Then, art became ‘art,’ to be hung on walls and closed off in museums, somehow apart from what we do every waking moment; religion became ‘religion,’ consulted in churches on Sundays and led by appointed people – again, somehow separated from the everyday.

It’s certainly easier that way. To wall off art and religion is to give ourselves permission not to think continually of how they could inform and infuse everything we do, every day. By dividing the world into places we love and places we violate, we’re spared having to take the time, expense, and, above all, care required to treat all of it with love and respect.

I’m glad that there are museums and churches. I have felt awe while staring up at El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, and while hiking through the Hoh Rainforest on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington.

And yeah, that electrical grid makes it possible for me to grind my coffee beans, and to type these words on this laptop. I send bags of garbage off to our local dump. You might call me an accomplice to our culture’s choosing of places to trash, while keeping others pristine.

Which is to say, I can’t wrap this up tidily for us. I can’t say, “Let’s all do this, and it’ll resolve the issue.” Maybe it’s just about noticing, and about trying not to separate our places, our lives; maybe it’s about being aware. I think that’ll do for a first step.