Searching for the Sacred: Parts III & IV
By Molly Murfee
Dear Readers: What follows is an excerpt from my book in progress, The Adventure of Home. As Parts III & IV of the draft Prologue, it sets the stage for the foundational topics driving the ensuing adventures, saunters and ponderings. If you'd like to read Parts I & II click here. I hope it all finds resonance and intrigue with you …
… The Southern Rockies have been my physical and spiritual home for decades now. Yet, after all this …
I still cannot claim to have emerged from a specific hole in the ground – just over there. My grandmothers did not give me stories they got from their grandmothers, connecting me to this land, here, in this place, rife with fallible heroines and heroes, generous and terrible gods and goddesses offering lessons with morals and codes of behavior to guide a silly human bumbling on its way.
I wander curiously through the labyrinth of cultural traditions singing praises to place, I open doors to peer in, try on various customs like a new dress. Yet no matter how bright the colors, or fantastic the tales, they are not mine. I do not have an ancestral holy mountain to circumvent on my belly. My origin story does not point to a place ensconced in the eons and dirt of this continent.
I am not alone. We are an entire country of people from somewhere else.
It is a lost feeling to have a litany of heritages to which you cannot subscribe due to a variety of causes: ideological differences; a lack of physical connection; a broken line of inherited storytelling. Or, the fact you simply can’t abide to the violence contained in its past or the lasting prejudice in its present.
Mythological refugees, we are severed by space and time from any positive nourishment our ancestral homelands and their traditions might offer us, adrift without the bonds stretching back thousands of years that could tether us to this earth.
We cannot help but envy the Utes and other Native American tribes. Like children pressing our faces up to the window, we view their cultures - stories, customs and rituals displayed behind the glass that seem to be imbued with respect for the land upon which we currently live. They seem worthy of our admiration and ideological emulation. But for us colonizing Europeans, unless one is an ethnic descendant, the definitive message is these traditions are not ours to claim or borrow.
Culture and myth, both sacred and secular, rise out of landscape like smoke from a fire in interlocked braids of people and place – and herein lies at least one of our arterial bleeds. We do not have an ancient cultural heritage wrapping like wind around these peaks, flowing through the currents of these rivers, rising up through the roots of these native plants. We have not brought an immediate past ingrained with the mythological fingerprint of noticing, honoring and protecting to translate into these lands.
Nor do we directly connect with them from a utilitarian or subsistence standpoint. When we lived more in rhythm, our physical surroundings mandated what we ate and when; what our structures were made of, how big they were, and where exactly we took up residence – all merging with the ebb and flow of the seasons and their severity, the land’s natural abundance and lack.
While our physical survival obviously still depends on the food, water and air the planet serves us, our modern lives no longer demand our cognition and skill in providing it for ourselves. Now, our industrial grocery stores serve us mounds of January strawberries from warmer climes and feed lot meat wrapped in plastic. Many are hard pressed to recognize the original whole plant or animal from which our food originates. We do not possess traditional environmental knowledge - when to plant, when to gather, how to tend. The migration patterns of animals, when to follow them south. Our water arrives to our kitchens, sterilely extracted from its natural bed, piped through underground tubes, us often oblivious to its magical source.
Our homes are constructed from manufactured wood extracted from forests far away and chemically-laden substances threatening toxicity and illness. We dig our basements into creek beds, stack walls against shorelines, feats of engineering allowing us to exist where we should not. Complete with air conditioning and heat, we no longer even need to feel the weather, moving from insulated bubble to insulated bubble, earbuds in our ears, necks perpetually cocked downwards at our personal hand-held devices, utterly ignorant of the temperature, the wind, the rain or the human being passing by our side.
We do not live in and with the land, we merely live on it, hovering above like a detached spacecraft, alien to our own place. Landscape becomes a mere backdrop.
Here in the Southern Rockies, the mountains are the awe-inspiring monarchs, worthy of god-like status, yet all too often still serve only as a pretty painting. The undulations in our landscape become no more than an impersonal playground from which to hedonistically score recreational points. We work unsustainable schedules to afford all sorts of “luxuries,” unnecessarily stripping the land of resources, leaving unseen gaping holes and polluted streams in our wake, dragging all living things on this planet down along with us.
Our cities and suburbs grow like tumors over any unoccupied space. Neighborhoods are not communities, houses not homes - merely a gathering of numbers residing in impersonal structures known only for a time. Fear and disuse eliminate the front porch that once fostered chatting among passers-by. The only land to touch exists in a 12 x 12 plot of cultivated Kentucky Bluegrass, if that, in the back. With a fence. Marge from Michigan doesn’t talk to Karen from Kansas. Lock your doors, pull the blinds. People from all over the world live proximate, separate lives in the safe confines of their own insulated boxes. There is no sharing, Robert Fulghum would not be proud. The phenomenon of community is one more item to place on the endangered species list from modern society.
And this is important. Because community is the garden in which tended culture sprouts alive - a response to the interaction of people and the land and each other just like water and light, soil and seed. It bends and shifts, moves and adjusts like flowing prairie grass in the wind. It cannot be created by people moving from office to car to house without interacting with each other. It demands we open our doors, step outside. Do something radical like have a picnic together. One where you sit on the ground and get dirty.
No wonder we treat the land poorly. We have named no sacred places. The secular umbilical cord of subsistence that would have kept us connected on even the basest of terms has been cut. We do not have a visual continuum stretching from our ancestors - through us - extending into time. The supportive and cooperative foundation of community is all but dead.
So, considering all this, what then would give us pause about the future impacts of our relentless pursuit of the individual here and now?
I feel we know from a primordial level – we need to reroot – to individually and collectively cultivate our connections – physically, spiritually, culturally - to the land we currently inhabit and to each other, co-creating traditions and reestablishing relationships rising from the dirt beneath our feet as we dance, singing with the voices of the wind and river, holding hands with creatures who are also members in our communities. Moving mindfully forward with the temperance of bear and whale and bird. The wisdom of tree and rock.
This is what the Utes know and what we’re jealous of - their stories and lives originate in place. Tales of pinyon, coyote, raven are born from an interaction and subsequent relationship with the land. Of watching it, observing it, having their days and years take place within it.
A certain origin story from a certain book kicked us out of the garden long ago apparently for wanting knowledge and exercising free will. Being a skeptic (I like to call it critical thinking), knowing how politics have always wielded religion as a heavy-handed tool, I find the whole story suspect. But that, and this little mention of “dominion,” has culturally set us up to live a life of separation where we feel we have the right to do whatever we damn well please for our purposes and our purposes alone.
Our mythology alienates us from the beginning.
Academics, historians, mystics and philosophers have been debating this concept of whether humans are a part of, or separate from, nature ever since. The issue of duality and dominion has risen into our agriculture, our management practices, our development and our attitudes. This perceived separation makes it easy to be destructive – we do not see nature as an integral part of ourselves, or us as an integral part of it.
In Braiding Sweetgrass, author Robin Wall Kimmerer tells the Great Lakes origin story of Skywoman, who fell from the heavens, but with the help of the creatures, and in collaboration with them, created our garden island home. Kimmerer imagines a meeting of Skywoman with the exiled Eve: “Sister, you got the short end of the stick …”
Stay tuned next week for the final installment of this article series, Part V.