Storytelling & Relationship to Place

Below is the first in a two-part series Chelsea is writing for the blog, Inhabiting the Anthropocene. You can find the original post HERE


A Sense of the Sacred

‘Sacred’ is a word that has not been uttered often enough in discussions of conservation and climate change. In the sphere of religion, it is too often considered in the context of the churched rituals where it is most perceived to be present.

Not growing up religious myself, ‘sacred’ felt for a very long time like yet another heavy, “God-y” word, something I could perhaps analyze and observe but never comfortably participate in.

My relationship to the word has changed a great deal since I began working for a non-profit called Kairos Earth whose mission it is to “renew an understanding of the earth as sacred in both religious practice and practical action to conserve the earth.” We attempt both to insert ‘sacred’ into conservation conversations and to pull it out from behind the walls of churches.

Happily for our work, Pope Francis’ recent encyclical, Laudato Si’, has made great strides in popularizing the notion that the sacred is inseparable from our human relationship to the earth. In his postlast week on Laudato Si’, Stephen Weldon highlights Francis’ sense of an “integral ecology” which perceives “deep relationships between our actions toward the natural environment, our actions toward other human beings, and our own spiritual welfare.” Relations that, we can say, are sacred.

‘Sacred’ still feels heavy to me, but less now in the sense of religious rigidity and increasingly in the sense of evoking something profound and profoundly important.

Nonetheless, it was not without a good amount of trepidation that I took this word with me on a 2,500 mile bicycle trip this summer, and began asking a broad spectrum of folks — religious leaders, conservationists, state employees, community members, paleontologists — to tell me quite personal stories about their relationship to place and whether they considered that to be something sacred.

I began collecting definitions of this word from people I encountered along the first week of my ride from Harpswell, ME to Burlington, VT. Here are several of those definitions:

Essential, inviolate, irreplaceable, embodying highest value.

Sacred is set apart: touched by and infused with the creator. 

Something to be respected, cared for, revered.

An experiential sense, a sense of reverence and openness to God and life.

Across the spectrum from entirely religious to entirely secular, every single person I spoke with had something to say about ‘sacred’ and its connection to place. They said it with an ease and eagerness that often surprised even themselves. They said it as though they had never been asked but had always known exactly what to say. (Here is something I wrote about that first leg of my journey.)

Giants on the Plains

I stood under a graying sky on First Avenue in Malta, Montana, brushing persistent tendrils of hair out of my line of sight, checking my camera and double-checking the time. The wind was unquestionably picking up now, ushering in dark clouds. But the rain hadn’t started falling and I was early, so I lingered a moment to take in my surroundings.

grain elevator smallTo my right towered a corrugated steel-coated grain elevator and adjoining silos —
odd gray giants. Despite growing up in Nebraska and Oklahoma, I was raised an urbanite, forever tucked away in college towns, never attaining any real farming or agrarian knowledge. My move to Boston four years ago didn’t help. So it was nothing new that I couldn’t get an accurate read on this particular agricultural relic.

Or was it a relic? There it stood, sturdy and opaque, majestic and ambiguous. Was it operational? Or, like so many others I had seen over the past several weeks, was it a skeletal shout-out to better economic times, now long past — a once living beast, now fossilized in the landscape, an embedded footprint of history in a community now struggling to adapt to a new era?

Alas, mum’s the word with grain equipment when you’re a city slicker and new to town.

With a sigh, my lingering questions and I turned to instead gaze up at the odd giant to our left — a neon green and orange Brontosaurus. She stared indifferently over my head and I followed her long neck, turning to face an electric blue triceratops that was, somewhat disconcertingly, staring directly back at me with a frozen, head-tilting frown.

Abuzz with beasts and full of questions, I walked between these echoes of extinction and headed up the steps to the Great Plains Dinosaur Museum & Field Station to meet and interview someone who might have some answers for me.

Age-Old Questions for the Anthropocene

Lingering questions, urgent questions, and as-yet unarticulated questions about our planet’s mounting ecological crisis — one which continues to vastly surpass efforts and strategies to counter it — were the impetus for embarking on a six-week bicycle ride and interview project across the country this summer.

The foundational questions for this project were: How do the stories and narratives that we tell about ourselves have the potential to affect our way of being in the world? And: How do our perceptions and experiential knowledge shape our reality and affect our behavior?

When cast through the prism of the challenge we face of living in the Anthropocene,  the questions became: How do perceptions and knowledge of place affect the habitability of that place? And: If we transform how we perceive and imagine place, how will that affect our lived practices of habitation?

And of course, what does it mean to think of and treat a place as sacred?

I sought to capture tales of personal experience, intimate memories, small glimpses of perception, articulations of relationships to landscape. It struck me that stories, memories and local knowledge were perhaps the best forms in which to collect such information.

bike mail box smallSo, questions in tow, I hopped on my red bicycle in early June and rode from Maine to Vermont and then from Minneapolis to Seattle, stopping along the way to speak to people about their connection to place, community, landscape, and earth. In many cases, asking people simply, “Why do you love this place?”

The Dinosaur Doctor 

Dr. Freedman-Fowler, paleontologist, greeted me just past the rack of dinosaur-themed postcards inside the museum. I was somewhat flustered (per usual) and she was gracious and patient as I explained the project once more in person (we had been communicating over e-mail). She offered to give me the official tour of the museum and we spent 30 minutes walking through displays of fossils, geological maps, and placards of local history. Beneath its big skies and vast tracts of farm and ranch land, Montana, I learned, is absolutely chock-full of dinosaurs .

Quite obviously a brilliant woman, the doctor seemed slightly disappointed to be giving the same old tour to yet another person who had a dearth of scientific knowledge and was unable to truly engage her on the topic she loved most. Admittedly, I was more than a little glazed over after a mere half-hour of struggling to keep up with big words about big eras. (I tried to redeem myself by boasting about having a “cousin who just got her PhD in geochemistry” but, alas, I couldn’t remember a blessed other detail about her degree or research, apart from the fact that it involved dust and ash).

However, at the end of the tour I asked Dr. Freedman-Fowler a question that surprised her: “What about your work and living in this place do you find to be sacred?”

Throughout the course of the trip I was nervous about asking this “sacred” question, particularly when posed to scientists and conservationists. Clearly a little unfamiliar with using the word herself, Dr. Fowler began answering slowly and carefully, and then with seriousness and conviction, and then with joy. Watch the footage: there is a noticeable change in her body language, there is a light present in her face.

“It’s so spacious out here. There’s so few people. One of the places that we collect dinosaur fossils is down in Garfield County. I read in a book a statistic that the population of Garfield county is so sparse that if Manhattan had the population density of Garfield County, there would be 5 people living on the entire island of Manhattan. That’s how spacious is it out here. And so when you go out, and you’re doing field work, and digging up these dinosaurs, you’re out in the middle of nowhere and you know that there’s no human within miles of you, and that the particular part of the land that you’re walking on – maybe no human has ever walked on. And so you’re just kind of isolated. There’s nothing but you and peace and quiet. You hear birds chirping and the crickets…and the breeze. And so it’s the life of the surface and then the fossils that are coming out, and just no human interference. It’s just all natural. It’s very peaceful.”

And this is the core of what this project is about. This is the momentary capture of that love of place.

After purchasing several fossil-themed postcards, I descended the museum steps, glanced one more time at the dinosaurs to my left and the silos to my right, seeing each of them in a slightly new, slightly better-informed light. Some of my questions had been answered. Others had arisen.


Stay tuned for Pt. II next week!

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