Small, Sacred Places

Note: This is my contribution for the May edition of the Animist Blog Carnival. This month’s theme is Place Magic.

I’ve talked before about some of the places that raised me, and how badly their loss affected me. Other people in response told me about their own small, sacred places that they clung to when they were young, some of which had also been destroyed as they got older.

When we talk about “nature”, the first thing a lot of people picture is a wilderness setting with little to no overt human influence. These are certainly a significant part of nature, but they are not the sum total of nature itself. Most of us didn’t grow up right next to vast forests, fields and deserts, and even if we had we wouldn’t have been allowed to ramble across them unfettered. Instead, what many of us had were small open lots, parks, yards (our own or neighbors’) and the like. Because these may have been all we had, they became the definition of “nature” for us, and that imprint can last a lifetime.

For myself, when I was in my own small places, my fields and little patches of woods, for that time I was free and autonomous. I could explore those scant half-acres with impunity, and as a young child they seemed so vast and inviting that I didn’t want for more space. Instead of hiking for miles, I was exploring every inch of the land, every stone and stump and tree and pathway. I can even still remember the smells of sun on stone and cedar branches. That attention to detail is something I’m still learning to recapture as an adult recovering from the trauma of losing those places to destruction.

But it is coming back, and so is the sense of adventure and exploration that I had growing up. When I find myself deeper in the wilderness, away from the familiar roads and highways, that giddy excitement floods through my veins and I can’t wait to see what’s around the next bend in the trail. The world is all of a sudden new and shiny and even more beautiful than it was a moment before, and I feel so fortunate to be here in Oregon, the land that has embraced me.

As I get older, I spend less time in formal ritual. These days, a hike is a better way for me to connect with Something Bigger Than Myself, hence part of why I’ve been blogging about those hikes more. And I think it’s because I’ve stopped thinking of nature in terms of abstract concepts and symbols, and approach it directly, body and mind and heart and soul. A place, to me, isn’t sacred because of what rituals occurred there or what spirits call it home. Every place is inhabited by spirits, and every place is touched by the daily rituals of the turning of the Earth and the currents of the winds. As I simplify and streamline and integrate my path, I feel that pulling away the extraneous symbolism is like cutting away choking, invasive blackberries, opening up the ground so that the original inhabitants–snowberries and osoberry and others–can revive themselves. Some of the earth is open and wounded still, but now that the thorny canes have been removed, I’m eager to see what will grow in their place.

The places that raised me, small though they were, and dead though they may be today, are still sacred. It wasn’t about being a young pagan thing running around in the woods; I was still quite Catholic at the time. It was about forging that deep connection to the cosmos, to the wilderness, to the nonhuman beings that I share this world with. Most importantly, it was the early upwelling of wonder and awe at the world, that thing that has fueled my spirituality ever since. Because those places were the wellsprings of this feeling, they are the most sacred of all, even if only in memory.

The small, sacred places are sadly some of the most threatened. None of the environmental groups will work to protect a half an acre of scrubland in a small town. They’re vulnerable to development, yet another poorly-made cookie cutter house in an encroaching suburb. Few people will mourn their passing in the name of “progress”, and the children who move into that home will never know the wonders of the garter snakes and cedar trees that once lived where fertilized lawns now grow. For those of you who have lost your small, sacred places, I share your pain and your loss. For those who have the opportunity to preserve such places, whether for yourself or someone else, I commend you.

Here’s to all the small, sacred places that raised us, and that may still support us yet today.

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2 thoughts on “Small, Sacred Places

  1. Hi
    I enjoyed this writing, thank you.
    For what its worth, one could say that ‘nature’ is not confined to ‘inner’ or ‘outer’ worlds, parks, gardens, deserts, beaches, rivers, mountains, sky, wind or fire.
    A seamless, continual movement in which nothing is excluded.
    Kind wishes, J

  2. My best childhood memories are from wandering about in the woods behind my house. I remember finding snakes and watching fish swim in the creek. Of hot, humid summer days and always coming home itchy and sweaty. Playing out there kindled a love for nature that has only grown.

    Summer will see me moving out for the first time, and I worry for what will happen to the place. I offer my condolences for losing your sacred places. I can only imagine the pain from losing such a special space.

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