Print Version August 23rd, 2005
In the summer of 1995 in Montana, outside the little town of Chinook, I found myself surprised by another world. Vacation sightseeing tends toward idle gawking at landscape, “natural” or “artificial,” taking it in for pleasure, and moving on. Here, however, the landscape reached out and took me in and moved me at a far deeper level. Waist deep in prairie, enveloped by grasses not yet browned by summer, everywhere my turning gaze found only distance and sky. I felt that I ought to have been delighted by the beauty, yet what moved me was an intense and old sadness, a melancholy beyond words. This was the Chief Joseph Battleground, witness to the deaths of many: many people, many hopes. At intervals slender metal rods had been hammered into the earth like so many nails and each one bore—in a circular engraving—a name, several names, of those who had fallen and bled in that place. Some rods had become shrines, now marked with medicine bags and fragments of stone and feather and flower. Some stood alone, askew, while the wind whispered in the grass. Silence, space, and sadness.
Does a place have a spirit? A genius loci, in the old sense; “a strong and dominant angel?” I know I approached that place with a knowledge of its history. Would it have so moved me without? I know the depth and the timbre of the inner motion took me by surprise: I arrived a tourist and left a pilgrim. The land itself seemed to speak with a silent voice at odds with its beauty. Somehow nature and history came together in that place to shape a world of significance that could draw me in, a world between the objective and the subjective, a world where the visible and the invisible met in imaginal existence. Such a world, being a matter of imagination, engages human feeling deeply—we cannot but be affectively inclined towards or away from it. It is a world of significance for us. But is the significance significant? Should we let it guide us or should we pass it off as trivial?
There is, I believe, a crucial question here. The modern period has sundered the imagination. The natural and the human have fallen apart and generated an unruly family of feuding dualisms. And, somewhere in the gap that has been opened, the religious imagination has been lost. As a result, it seems difficult to speak of the spirit of a place without reducing that spirit to one pole or the other: objective / subjective; real / unreal; materialist / romantic; etc. But if land and place and earth have no spirit, if they cannot speak and move our hearts and touch our minds, what hope do we, or they, have for survival? It is the modern blight that we treat “nature” as a voiceless commodity and the post-modern misfortune that we live under the fear of the consequences. The deadened earth is dying and we are killing ourselves as we kill the land.
But why shouldn’t we treat the land this way? What can keep us from ecological destruction?