A sense of the sacred
I’m getting to that part of my life where I’m spending great chunks of time in clearing out the memorabilia of a lifetime. Some unkind people refer to it as junk. A baboon skull, a lion’s tooth, a wooden hornbill in a nest, a brass ship’s clock from a freighter which ran aground in the Bay of Bengal. That’s what the shopkeeper in Chandpur told me it was.
And photographs. Reams and reams of photographs. Some in albums, a few in chintzy frames, lots of them still stuffed into paper envelopes, some still in use as markers in books I’ve never read. Cartons full of 35mm slides – the projector gave up the ghost ten years ago. Yet more pictures in the form of digital images on hard drives, compact discs and even floppy disks.
Some images have people in them – people I knew, people I worked with. Grinning faces, serious faces, faces of people long forgotten and some of people not with us any more. Most of the images show scenery – trees, mountains, streams, grainy shots of wild creatures peering through dense brush, roads vanishing over faraway ridges.
I’m drawn to some of the images. Here’s one of the World War I Memorial at Beaumont Hamel in Picardy, showing the famous statue of a caribou facing the plain where 660 Newfoundlanders died on 1 July 1916. Here’s another (well-composed if I may say so) of St. Peter’s Basilica glowing brilliantly white against a slate blue Roman autumn sky. A 35 mm slide from three decades ago shows the massive white hemisphere of the Boudnath stupa in Nepal with its four sets of Buddha eyes and multiple streams of prayer flags. My wife is shown in one more recent image, looking very small next to an 800-year old Douglas Fir in Cathedral Grove, Vancouver Island. And here is a black and white print, taken nearly a half-century ago, of an even older tree – a 1700 year old baobab at Modjadjiskloof, South Africa.
Why do these particular images of such diverse places and localities have a special attraction? I believe it has to do with them evoking a sense of the sacred.
I recall sitting on the stone wall at Beaumont Hamel, looking at the peaceful and beautiful French countryside and reflecting that the place once witnessed the death of millions. There is surely something sacred about a place where so many ordinary people gave up their lives nearly a century ago for what they believed to be a noble cause, however vague and elusive it may all seem to us today.
Sacred typically implies an association with holiness. Traditionally that has been associated with perceptions of divinity, but it can also denote a high level of spiritual respect. Places and structures such as Boudnath and St Peter’s are perceived as sacred since they are centres for spiritual purposes such as meditation and worship, and they are associated with individuals regarded as holy. The great stupa at Boudnath is at least 600 years old, possibly as old as 1400 years, and is a massive representation of a Buddhist mandala, with 13 rings from the base to the pinnacle symbolizing the path to enlightenment. Hundreds of thousands of pilgrims pass by every year, all of them attesting to the sacredness of the place.
I recall a visit to St. Peter’s and a long time spent in taking in the splendour of the art and architecture. I confess I am no Catholic, so why would a view of Michelangelo’s Pietà give me an emotional jolt? The German philosopher and cultural critic Walter Benjamin, who died in 1940 while trying to escape the Nazis, explained in his classic The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction that magnificent art has a unique existence at the place where it happens to be. A viewer can sense “a direct and timeless link with the creator, a knowledge of the piece as embedded in a meaningful tradition, an aura felt by virtue of the viewer’s proximity to such all extraordinary, almost otherworldly object”
Is sacred a valid descriptor for natural places? The world’s indigenous peoples all believe so. Uluru (Ayer’s Rock), Mato Tipila (Devil’s Tower), Mt Kilimanjaro, Mt Kailash, Sagirmitha/ Chomolongma (Mt Everest), Lake Titicaca, Lake Baikal, the Ganges and Brahmaputra rivers are just a few of the sacred natural sites that include some of the most iconic places on Earth. According to UNESCO the total number is huge, uncounted and, in a sense, uncountable. In these places nature and humanity meet, and people’s deeper motives and aspirations are expressed through what is called “the sacred” . Many of these places are virtually ignored, some receive pilgrims by the million, and others are the closely guarded secrets of their custodians. People of faith or religion, or of no particular faith, find inspiration in these places, and they resonate across a wide spectrum of humanity.
There are many thousands of distinct belief systems around the globe and links with the conservation of land and water occur in every one of them. Sacred natural sites represent, for many, the areas where nature, connection to the greater universe, and collective or individual recollections come together in meaningful ways. For some, sacred natural sites are the abode of deities, nature spirits and ancestors, or are associated with hermits, prophets, saints and visionary spiritual leaders. Some sites are feared, many are benign. For the religious they can be areas for ceremony and contemplation, prayer and meditation. For those of no particular faith they inspire awe and induce a sense of well-being.
Up on the North Shore of Vancouver lies Hunter Park, wedged in between great strips of suburban homes. Hastings Creek flows through the park on its way downhill to join Lynn Creek and then onward to the Burrard Inlet. Two centuries ago the Coast Salish people wandered through here, and just 120 years ago one of the largest known Douglas firs was felled not far from here. Now its all just an urbanized fragment of coastal rain forest, with huge cedars and hemlocks and 120-year old red alders. No steelhead or chinook any more, but coho and cutthroat still make it up the crystal-clear gurgling creek. Remnant of past greatness it may be, but the park is just 300 metres from my house. That’s sacred enough for me.