There are areas on the earth recognizable as important, even powerful.
They have been spoken of as sacred by some, "resonating" by others.
Many years and several careers ago, while waiting for my Masters Thesis on
a Quaternary topic to be signed off, I played around with studies of
environmental perception. I did not, however, find an objective explanation
for this phenomena of "sacred" landscapes.
My own experiments consisted of tachistoscopic viewing of a large number
of photographic slides. I asked fellow grad students to rate each slide,
1 to 10, as it was projected. I had previously measured each of the photos
for percentages of color as well as features such as water, sky, vegetation,
etc. The photos were, for the most part, of natural landscapes. I don't
recall getting any meaningful results and the professor suggested that
all I really wanted to do was show off my photography.
Maureen Korp has done a much better job than I of analyzing such landscapes.
In her new book, _Sacred Art of the Earth, Ancient and Contemporary
Earthworks_ (Continuum, 1997 ISBN 0-8264-0883-4), she presents criteria
for recognizing locations of "power" through analysis of a particular
type of art, earthworks.
For those of you unwilling to approach religious topics, don't be
misled by the title. This is not a theological text. If you wish,
think in terms of aesthetics rather than religion. Feelings of awe
and wonder associated with "sacred sites" can and are experienced by
atheists, agnostics and the devout; only the words used to describe
such experiences vary. In the book, such dichotomies are discussed in
terms of sacred and profane, cultural perceptions of art, the concept of
"Mother Earth" and more.
It took quite a while for me to get a copy of this book, but I finally did
through a Barnes and Noble outlet (Amazon has it cheaper). My first reaction
was that Maureen Korp has an excellent command of written language and if
I wasn't careful I'd gulp it down in a single sitting (it's only 146 pages
less the notes). After reading the first two chapters I'd realized there
was much I needed to ponder in detail. Since then, I worked through the
book in small bites. An analogy to fine whiskey may be appropriate here,
it can be taken in a shot (at the risk of being overwhelmed) or sipped.
One of the first points that made me pause was some terminology. I'd been
with the US Army Corps of Engineers for some years and came to associate
"earthworks" not with art but with such things as rivetments, canals
and dams. She states: "...the earthwork. It marks the landscape,
shapes our perception of the earth as a landscape. It creates a
geography".(p19) This is not inconsistent with those engineered items I was
familiar with albeit they were/are rarely considered aesthetic (except
perhaps by engineers). Next, this use of the word geography. "Geography"
has always been, for me, an abstract noun. During my graduate days, the
definition I came to prefer was actually a verb, "geography is what
geographers do". These are not particularly important points except that
they helped cause me to read much slower.
What I believe is central to this book is the idea that people have, from
the earliest times to the present, recognized places that are somehow special.
Different cultures in different times and places mark these areas in a
variety of ways, denoting their power and significance. I thought one of
the more intriguing points dealt with the variation between cultures with
open horizons as opposed to those indigenous to closed or forested areas.
Maureen Korp has this to say about the commonality of sacred sites:
"..., like all other ancient sacred sites, share a set of common physical
attributes that comprise the descriptors needed for a morphology of
The question then is what are these attributes.
After the introduction, she takes us on a tour of European gardens. These
gardens are seen through the eyes of Jennifer Dickson, an artist who
interprets "sacred sites" with a camera. I pondered the applicability
of this chapter in reference to the overall stated purpose of the book
and was constantly drawn to an Ansel Adams print I have on my wall.
Dickson takes photos of physically constructed landscapes whereas Adams' photo
(this particular one is the 1944 _Winter Sunrise, Sierra Nevada, from
Lone Pine, California) is a natural landscape. I was long puzzled by what
appeared to me to be an incompatibility in definition of "sacred" landscapes.
I could not accept that an artifactual garden could be sacred but the naturally
majestic Sierra Nevada were not. The answer lies in Korp's view that
the landscape is not naturally sacred, it is the combination of the artist's
vision, the execution or realization of that vision along with the
natural characteristics of the site that create sacredness. Photography
is thus an appropriate medium for creating sacredness.
I would still maintain, however, that such art as Adams' and Dickson's are
not strictly speaking "earthworks". The inclusion of Dickson's work in this
book thus becomes somewhat problematic. I do think, however, that such
inclusion is justifiable in that examination of this art helps illustrate
just what characteristics of landscapes are to be considered as significant.
Discussion shifts to other, what could be termed, physical installations or
"proper" earthworks. Korp discusses the siting of these works, the materials
of their construction, reactions of visitors and a host of other factors
pertinant to each. Leaving it to the reader to decide which if any of these
works should be considered sacred. She states:
"By no means are all contemporary earthworks sacred endeavors. Some
fail. The artist may lack talent, or talent equal to the artist's
vision. The artist may lack the simple opportunity to do the work.
Some earthworks are just what their sponsors claim them to be - land
reclamation projects, gardens, parks, playgrounds, or other sorts of
outdoor sculptural installations." (p129)
Further on, she provides this synopsis:
"The sacred place is described generally as an architectonic space
that is enclosed or set aside in some way; it is a place that has a point
of entry, requiring the visitor to go from here to there along some
directed path. The sacred place is animated: it is a site where
something important happens, where our everyday sense of time and
place collapses." (p130)
Included in this book are examples of ancient New World sculptures: the
serpent mounds near Cincinnati, Ohio and at Rice Lake, Ontario; various
petroglyph sites; and ancient astronomical observatories. She takes us
on a visit to the Moose Mountain Medicine Wheel, in Saskatchewan.
She has drawn extensively from the writings of Mircea Eliade and a
wealth of others. There is an extensive bibliography provided and the
book is indexed. The single most significant omission that comes to mind
is the lack of discussion of Frederick Law Olmstead, perhaps America's
most important landscape artist. Many of his works, I feel, fulfill the
requirements. There is a point along the road from Yosemite Valley to
Tuolumne Meadows, named after this man, that is well known for creating
feelings of awe and wonder.
Finally, Maureen Korp has provided us with a work of art, in its own right.
This is a book about a form of art, a book about cultural expression,
a book about the dicotomy of religion and aesthetics. It is also an
important book about living with as well as on the earth.