In 1989 my wife Loretta and I, and our friends Cece and Bill Ussler hiked 12 miles into the backcountry of Canyonlands National Park in search of an ancient cave painting – the All American Man. Recent radiocarbon dating of the pigments used in this ancient pictograph places its creation somewhere in the 14th century. Canyonlands is a landscape of sandstone, carved by wind and water into the kind of sculptural rocky shapes that Utah puts on its license plates. On our way we came upon an Anasazi cliff dwelling beneath a sandstone overhang. It was close to the trail, but there were no railings, no concrete walkways, no signs directing or restricting our access. It was as if we were ‘discovering its existence, as some early explorer in this part of the West did. I remember feeling hesitant, approaching as if trying to avoid stepping on a grave in a cemetery. Beneath a giant rock were the remains of a house where people had lived, raised children, stored food, built fires to warm themselves - almost 800 years ago. As I stood in the remains of the kiva, I was stunned by the magnitude of time that separated me from the last person who lived here. It is the same feeling I often get as I look up toward Orion’s belt on a clear winter night - smallness in the face of time and distance. But in such places this gulf of time and space does not isolate me from the owner of my kiva or from the Big Bang, but somehow connects me to them, the separation between the corporal and the spiritual becoming a thin veil. There is a Celtic Christian term for the rare locales where the distance between heaven and earth collapses. They are called “thin places”, and here in the kiva the wall of time and culture that separates me from the Anasazi, the Ancient Ones, who so mysteriously disappeared from this landscape, fades.
This is a built place. So often people seek thin places in nature – waterfalls and craggy peaks, dark forests and seashores. But we humans have built many landscapes, interior and exterior, that similarly pare the distance between the sacred and the solid. Visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC at dusk and you will understand. Another such place is the Flight 93 National Memorial in southwestern Pennsylvania, or St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. Great architecture or landscape architecture can do this. But a simple cannon placed in a Virginia meadow can do the same.
My friend Paul Morris, a landscape architect from Atlanta, said this in the context of a conversation about sacred places: “Places are static – meaning comes from people.” Sometimes the physical environment does not have to be striking to be powerful – a multi-community greenway in Memphis, Tennessee is not so much about the bicycles and pedestrians who may use it as it is about a single gunshot in April 1968 and the racial divide that has characterized the community, and how the path knits parts of the community together that have been separated ever since.
What Paul is saying is that a place must have meaning to people in their own lives to capture a sense of spirituality beyond its physical space. I’ve felt this on the summit of Mt. Rogers in Virginia, the highest point in the Commonwealth. The final climb to the summit is not difficult. There are no views from the top, just a large rock with a USGS marker embedded in it surrounded by spruce and fir trees. But the approach to the summit is through a dense remnant of the Canadian-zone vegetation that once covered much of the East and Midwest in the wake of the last ice age. Here in the Southern Appalachians such forests are fast disappearing and are limited to the highest, coldest elevations. This forest is somehow quieter than the rest of the oak-hickory forest that surrounds the peak. Everything is moss-covered. It is dark, even on a bright day, and smells of balsam, like Christmas. Its meaning for me is wrapped in every fairy story I experienced as a child and with my own children as an adult, lands of mystery and strange creatures – wizards and Wookies. It reminds me of how colored lights on a dark night make me feel at that time of year. The tactile quality of the moss is comforting, like a blanket.
God, or thousands of years of forest succession, created this place. A human built a trail here so I can experience it, but otherwise the hands of people have contributed little to this thin place, but there are many skillful designers packing meaning into landscapes throughout the world. Some are grand and historic, inspiring, like Andre le Notre’s Avenue des Champs-Élysées terminating in the dramatic Arc de Triomphe in Paris. Some are contemporary and personal even as they draw a crowd, like Anish Kapoor’s Cloudgate sculpture in Chicago. In it you can see yourself and the skyline of the city, reflected together.
Alfred Runte, in his excellent book National Parks – The American Experience, makes the case that the National Park movement started in this country as an attempt to capture and preserve the soul of the new nation before it was overwhelmed with industry and commerce. The leaders who advocated for the preservation of special landscapes set out to create temples to remind us of what differentiated America from Europe with its grand cities and architecture. What they preserved started with the great Western landscapes that defined what America meant to its citizens at the time – the romantic notion of freedom within God’s creation. For the intervening 100+ years, the Park Service has wisely expanded this notion to preserve not just that moment in history, but a pastiche of soul-markers along the way – battlefields, homes, factories, monuments – that have meaning for people. It is no accident that I’ve discovered many thin places in my wanderings through the park system, from the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC to a craggy outcrop on the Appalachian Trail in Virginia overlooking the James River valley. When we are at our best, we humans have the ability to build mystical places that can rival the emotion engendered by a view of Half-Dome or the feeling of the mist rising from Niagara Falls. This mystery arises from our shared stories, good and bad, of freedom and conflict, wisdom and blindness. If we pay close attention, maybe we can learn from the stories of people who lived long before us, and also from the thin places not created by the hand of man, understanding in some small way how a copse of conifers atop Virginia’s highest peak can transport us to another world.