Angels, Ecology, & Virtual Reality

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?

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3 replies on “Angels, Ecology, & Virtual Reality”

  1. I don’t know if it’s a kind of premordial subconscious recognition of something significant … part of being a creature of the earth … or if there’s a spiritual component, or if it’s just a construct of our personality, but it does seem like certain places touch us more than others. When I have those feelings, there always seems to an element of sadness, don’t know why.

  2. I grew up on a 1,200 acre farm in Kansas. We worked the land, raised cattle and pigs, hunted the woods and fished the creeks & ponds. We cut evergreen trees from the field and drug them to the house where we put them up as Christmas trees. Various natural springs watered the cows and the wildlife. Most of my childhood was spent outdoors, working the land and being in that environment, and that created many ‘senses of place’; special moments of awareness.

    There *is* significant significance in our affection for the world and our place in it, in my opinion, because it is all a gift from God to us. Maybe our realization of the divine origin of this gift is the base of this affection? Maybe it’s a product of our self-awareness in the grand scheme of things – the interweaving of place and time, and our relation to it?

    Should we let this guide us? With discernment, yes. But maybe it tells us not so much about where to go and what to do, as it tells us about who we are?

    All this makes me want to re-read my book on Teilhard de Chardin….

  3. I definitely believe in the power of place and your essay raises many questions. I’ve written about power of place a few times. I live in a wonderful townhome in Redondo Beach which I tripped across synchronistically after my divorce 20 years ago. I wanted the place to ultimately be a spiritual b&b and have conducted journal groups here for many years. It has such a peaceful quality in my home and I was later told by a neighbor that the piece of property had formerly been a Seventh Day Adventist Church. Spiritual work had been done in the recent past on the land.

    I have been extremely drawn to a few places at various times in my life–Mammoth before it became a major tourist attraction–and currently Idyllwild, still a sleepy little mountain town. A good Jesuit doesn’t believe in reincarnation, but it does sometimes make me wonder.

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