an introduction

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Ancestors’ Playground, oil on wood, 30" x 30" 2018

Where are you from?

Landscapes play a prominent role in our lives and myth-histories, and yet they are rarely acknowledged as actors. Geographers and our own common senses tell us that landscapes are inert, lifeless stages where historical individuals act. However, places are more “agentic” than we think.

Landscapes shape our beliefs, our bodies, and our minds. They also enable, inspire, and constrain much of our activities. We are literally moved by them, and landscape elements such as trees, rivers, mountains, and fields attract us to their surfaces and they shape entire societies. Societies and stories take place.

When we zoom out, we can see that landscapes fill our lives with time and space. People pilgrimage through them as a form of their religious and secular lives. Every day, through time-space routines of movement through landscapes (and architecture), we know where we are in relation to familiar places and objects. We also know “how to go on” in the world. Landscapes ‘place’ memory, and in many cases, store personal and cultural memories, carrying them like an arc through the disruptive flow of time.

Archaeologist Christopher Tilley (2004) argues that our prehistoric social identities were created predominantly near and by stone outcroppings in the landscape. Rock forms were landmarks and social sites – pegs and attractors within our cognitive maps of the world. Viewing rock art was also an important process by which we could tap into ancestral powers at specific locations. It helped us anchor identity in those powers and locations.

Space is not homogenous; some spaces are “wiser” and more sacred than others. Theologian Belden Lane (2001) says sacred space is a “storied place” because certain locales come to be recognized as sacred through the stories told about them. Chthonic forces are also at work in the complex process of sacralization. Geological features inspire specific stories, and only then can the sacred place hold and transmit culture across time. A great example of this is found in the work of anthropologist Keith Basso (1996). He found that, for the Western Apache, certain boulders and stone outcroppings stabilize the mind and moral compass. Speaking the names of important places keeps one connected to the language, and therefore the minds, of the ancestors. The Navajo also have a belief that when one moves outside of the four sacred mountains demarcating the holy lands, Dinetah, one “loses” oneself. Vine Deloria, in God is Red, summarises this reciprocity: “American Indians hold their land — places — as having the highest possible meaning, and all their statements are made with this reference point in mind.” He says that native religions are “complexes of attitudes, beliefs and practices fine-tuned to harmonize with the lands on which the people live.” In fact, many Native communities argue that Native peoples cannot be alienated from their land without committing cultural genocide.

Harvard Divinity School’s foremost Talmudic Scholar, Jon Levenson, makes a similar observation: “Geography is simply a visible form of theology.” In 1836, Emerson declared “every natural fact is a symbol of some spiritual fact.” Mircea Eliade is famous for pointing out the large, cosmic mountain that permeates many world religions as “axis mundi,” and we read in Judeo-Christian scripture again and again that “God is our rock.” Landscapes are situated inside people as people are situated inside landscapes. Feminist and semiotic Theologian, Sally McFague, puts it well: “the interior landscape is influenced by the exterior.” Beldan Lane: “There is an unaccountable solace that fierce landscapes offer to the soul. They heal, as well as mirror, the brokeness we find within.”

A horizon becomes a metaphor for the limits of our knowledge. Land and sky become metaphors for the body and mind, and they affect how we experience both. Spinoza may have been onto something when he regarded human emotions such as love, hatred, envy, “and other agitations of the mind,” not as vices of human nature, but as “properties pertaining to it in the same way as heat, cold, storm, thunder, and such pertain to the nature of the atmosphere.”

The distinction of inside awareness from outside stimulus is only a convention. “The landscape,” Cezanne said, “thinks itself in me, and I am its consciousness.” He goes on: “Colour is the place where our brain and the universe meet.” Merleau-Ponty describes the blue sky appearing “out there”: “As I contemplate the blue of the sky I am not set over against it as a non-cosmic subject; I do not possess it in thought, or spread out toward it some idea of blue…I abandon myself to it and plunge into this mystery, it thinks itself in me.”

In our myths, the prophetic vision always seems to occur outside the city and in the landscape. Abraham leaves Ur and finds God (and Melchizedek!) in the landscape. Moses leaves the walls of Egypt and finds God in the desert; Buddha leaves his tribe and finds God under a tree; Mohammed leaves civilization and finds God in a cave; Joseph Smith leaves his organized religion and finds God in the forest; Carlos Castaneda leaves the modern city and finds God in the jungle. This could be because as we move into the wilderness, the lights of civilization recede and then disappear. The landscape of nature gets bigger, and the stars can speak to one of vast reaches of cosmic time; stones murmur information from deep time; rivers, winds, and rains tell stories of ethereal, fleeting time where nothing lasts long enough to even exist. (This transient quality of the landscape is reflected in the Japanese Buddhist ukiyo-e “floating world” pictures which flatten sky, mountain and sea into patterns on semi-transparent rice-paper. These oriental visions are the mirror opposite of the solid, stone, eternal landscapes and deep spaces of occidental spirituality).

Landscapes and humans exchange ideas and change one another. A vast, uncluttered place can operate on the human mind to give rise to a singularity of vision. There is healing power in mountain silence and desert indifference. Landscapes point out “what matters,” or what, as a material substrate for the meta-system of culture, remains. Like our genes, they are more permanent than we are, and thus the landscape becomes a symbol for the eternal.

Thomas Tweed rightly declares in his groundbreaking book Crossing and Dwelling, that religions “begin and end in bodies.” But by focusing on the figure, he misses the ground. Religions also begin and end in landscapes.

What is objective and universal may be called transpersonal, or ‘archetypal,’ in the Jungian sense; it is that more-than-human place we share with others, that earthly ground of rock and soil that we share with the other animals and the plants. Merleau-Ponty: “My body is made of the same flesh as the world.” Therefore, if we wish to look for the “real archetypes,” we may want to pay close attention to landscapes.

The cultural and material power of landscapes serve as a reminder that there are geological conditions that make possible the rise of consciousness, language, myth, and a sense of the sacred.

Painter and Art Instructor at Haskell Indian Nations University

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