On the sacred

There are no unsacred places;

there are only sacred places

and desecrated places.

Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

As this post comes out, we up here in the northern hemisphere will have had our longest day of the year: the summer solstice. This blog began on the autumn equinox; we likewise marked the winter solstice (although the spring solstice got hijacked by World Water Day). You might be wondering why a blog whose themes are ostensibly social criticism and political economy is interested in these events. This is my attempt to frame an answer to that question .

There is a great void at the heart of industrial civilisation, and that is the sacred. It is a category of experience that is central to all human cultures, and yet with us it finds no expression. Our established religions have lost touch with it, and our material practices have no space for it. You will often hear a person say: “Oh, I’m not religious, but I am spiritual,” but they can rarely tell you what they mean by that – except that they need the sacred in their lives.

For industrial capitalism, nothing is or can be sacred. Its view of the world is robustly materialistic. There is stuff to be consumed, there is other stuff that gets in the way of consuming the first kind of stuff, and that’s about it. To you, the Appalachians may seem picturesque; to a mining engineer, they’re overburden.

Time to crack open the explosives, boys; there’s coal in them thar hills!

Trying to articulate exactly why this approach to the world is wrong – and it is wrong – is a challenge, because everything we learn from infancy tells us that this is the only way, and that everything else is mere sentimentality. One can bring practical arguments to bear, and some of these are starting to get grudging traction, but somehow they fail to get to the heart of the issue.

There may be some practical drawbacks to this approach to the natural world.

It seems to me that the sense of the sacred is the sense of belonging to something larger than ourselves. This need not involve the supernatural. We are, after all, members of the community of living beings on this planet. We are as much a part of nature as a tree or a dolphin or an eagle. As such, we have a part to play.

Intuitively, we recognise this when we find ourselves in a natural landscape. One does not need to have spent an idyllic childhood tripping barefoot through daisy-strewn meadows to experience this. I grew up in the English Black Country, a part of the world that industrial capitalism had been systematically ravaging for a long, long time. This landscape was a large part of Tolkien’s inspiration for Mordor, and I had no problem relating to it when I came to read The Lord of the Rings. Give me a wild green space any day of the week.

We like to imagine that ours is the leading role in the community of life, but the reality is that no such role exists, even though we are strangely desperate to pretend there is. You often hear of the time when “dinosaurs ruled the earth” – dinosaurs just lived here, the same as everything else. There were a lot of them about, and they filled a lot of ecological niches, but that’s it. No legislation was passed, no sway was exercised. We project our own supposed world-dominance back onto them, as if they were some sort of trial run for us. It’s utter nonsense.

Multiple studies have shown that time spent in a natural environment is beneficial to people’s physical and mental well-being. Mostly, in my opinion, what these studies show is that too much grant money goes on demonstrating the patently obvious. Human beings did not evolve to live the way they are made to live in urban industrial society; I’ll be expanding on this theme in a future post, but for now suffice it to say we are fish out of water.

We need this experience of belonging on our planet. We need it at a basic instinctual level, just as we need to breathe air. And to get it, we need to give up on this idea that we are separate from, better than, and somehow more valuable than everyone else in our natural community. We need some basic humility, some compassion, and the readiness to acknowledge the existence of something greater than ourselves which we cannot – and need not – control.

People were certainly aware of the movements of the sun and the moon a long time before we have written records, and the written records themselves go back almost to the beginning of writing. For a farmer, awareness of the seasons is obviously vital, but the same goes for most hunter-gatherers too, and of course for many, many other species.

Marking the quarters of the year is a simple way of reminding ourselves that we are small, limited and vulnerable. It need not interfere with the practices and rules of any organised religion, although those are more elastic in practice than we sometimes think.

These people are good Catholics, celebrating the feast of San Juan. Nothing pagan going on here, no sireee.

When we situate ourselves as members of the community of living things, rather than as overlords of it, the world looks rather different. How you react to that is going to vary from one person to another. There are some people who can’t cope with being somewhere that doesn’t have a WiFi signal. To others, it will already be closely aligned to their existing viewpoint. Others still will find it confronting. After all, it flies in the face of so much we have been taught to believe is true. If your job is to blow the tops off the Appalachians, or something similar – and so many jobs contain at least an element of that – you will find it very hard to stand there.

Nevertheless it seems to me that this is the only place to stand. From this perspective one can see what needs to be done, and just as importantly what needs to be given up. It is a point of view which the built environment tends to obscure; so many of us live in surroundings where everything we see was either made by a human being or put there by a human being, where we can’t even see the stars at night.

The stars are still shining down, however, even if we don’t see them. Take some time to look at them, and be still, and breathe. Remember who you are – and who you aren’t. This may involve some kind of spiritual practice for you, or it may not. For my part, an hour in a wood where the birds are singing will do it. Try it. I think you’ll find a lot of things will make more sense.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

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