“Either all the earth is holy or none is. Either every square foot of it deserves our respect or none does.”
– Wes Jackson
In so many places across the globe, the human relationship to nature is broken and in need of profound transformation. If what Wes Jackson says above about holiness and respect in regards to the earth is true – and I’m inclined to think that it is – then our planet is dangerously close to being wholly disrespected and we are dangerously close to losing sight of the inherent value that lies in every square foot of land and sea. The implications of the brokenness and disconnect are daunting, often depressing. And yet despair is rarely – if ever – productive and often serves to blind one to existing positive change and promising opportunity.
The great complex thing that is the human relationship to the earth, particularly in its broken places, requires a great complexity of solutions and approaches and, happily, one does not have to look far to see these solutions being carried out in a variety of creative ways all across the globe. As I prepare to embark on a six week bike trip across the country for a project called “Sacred Places, Sacred Stories,” I’ve been wondering if telling stories which evoke a sense of a particular place as sacred could be one of them.
In the course of this wondering, I’ve returned several times to an oft-used phrase in the interfaith world: “finding common ground.” This idea generally refers to seeking out that which we hold in common as the first point of connection in building relationships and resolving conflict. Not intended as a means of avoiding difference, finding common ground is rather a way of promoting trust and recognition of another’s humanity based on shared experience so that difference can be approached and addressed respectfully, peacefully, and more effectively.
This notion of “common ground” applies quite well to the “Sacred Places, Sacred Stories” project which will take me and my trusty red bicycle across New England and then from Minneapolis to Seattle. Along the way, I’ll be stopping to interview people about their connection to, well, the ground – the actual land beneath their feet. By asking people to speak to me about their relationship to the land, I’m exploring the idea that in this literal notion of ground lies a profound point of commonality for many of us – one that spans religion, political affiliation, race, age, socioeconomic status – namely, a deep connection to the earth – to the places where we have grown up, lived, struggled, thrived, places we’ve seen changed or destroyed, places we’ve continuously sought out for their enduring beauty.
This project is thus a way of asking: can we find common ground in our common love for the ground? Are there widely shared – even if widely varied – experiences of loving the earth that can not only build closer relationships between people, but also bring people into a closer relationship with the earth? Does the telling of personal stories and sharing of experiences about land and nature bring the inherent, sacred value of the earth into sharper focus, making it more immediate and real? And, most importantly, will sharing and hearing such stories change the ways in which people interact with the earth?
In the words of Wendell Berry, “there are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” This bike ride will be an opportunity to ask people: What is sacred about this place? What does it mean to treat this place as sacred?
The answers, I hope, will give some insight into our relationship to the earth – both in its brokenness and in its ability to be fixed.