Monthly Archives: November 2017

The Last Great Place

Recently I came upon two articles in the New York Times that I found very engaging. The first is an article by Christopher Solomon, who writes for Outside magazine. The title of this piece is “America’s Wildest Place Is Open for Business.” It is both disturbing and evocative at the same time. It is the story of a huge tract of wilderness in northern Alaska that the present administration wants to tap for oil and gas. Apparently there is a lot of that stuff under the ground, but what is above ground is absolute pristine wilderness of incredible beauty and enormous size. But what I would like to point to is not just an “environmental issue,” but rather it is our disregard, our trashing, our actual destruction of authentic sacred space. (By the way look at what they want to do with Bear’s Ears too down here in the lower 48.)

I will begin by simply quoting from the beginning of the article:

“Several years ago a mapping expert pinpointed the most remote place in the Lower 48 states. The spot was in the southeast corner of Yellowstone National Park, 20 miles from the nearest road. Roman Dial read the news and wasn’t much impressed. To him, 20 miles — the distance a hungry man could walk in a long day — didn’t seem very remote at all.

Mr. Dial is a professor of biology and mathematics at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage, and a National Geographic explorer. He decided to figure out the most remote place in the entire nation. His calculations led him to the northwest corner of Alaska, where the continent tilts toward the Arctic Ocean. The spot lay on the Ipnavik River on the North Slope, 119 miles west of the Haul Road (otherwise known as the Dalton Highway), which brings supplies and roughnecks to the oil fields at Prudhoe Bay. Judged by miles, Mr. Dial reckoned, the place was six times more isolated than that corner in Yellowstone. So he decided to walk there. On the journey he and his companion didn’t see anyone else for 24 days.

Their destination lay within the National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska. NPR-A, as it is known, is the single largest parcel of public land in the United States. The reserve sprawls across nearly 23 million acres, which makes it larger than Maine or South Carolina or 10 other states. The reserve’s eastern border sits about 100 miles to the west of the more famous Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. Separating the two like a thorn between roses lies the industrial sprawl of Prudhoe Bay.

If the reserve still doesn’t ring a bell, you’re not alone. Even Google Earth doesn’t know it, though the reserve is 10 times the size of Yellowstone. ‘It is the wildest place in America that you’ve never heard of,” as one conservationist recently told me. Yet the reserve deserves attention, now more than ever. The Trump administration has declared the nation’s public lands and waters open for business, particularly to oil and gas companies. In its first six months the administration offered more onshore leases to energy companies to drill on public property than the Obama administration did in all of 2016, the secretary of interior, Ryan Zinke, boasted to the conservative Heritage Foundation in late September. ‘Our goal is an America that is the strongest energy superpower that this world has ever known,’ he told the group, and added, ‘the road to energy dominance goes through the great state of Alaska.’

Nowhere is this more evident than on the North Slope. In April, Mr. Trump signed an executive order aimed at lifting President Barack Obama’s closure of federal Arctic waters to drilling, a decision now being challenged in court. Both the administration and the Republican-held Congress are trying yet again to open the Arctic refuge for oil exploration, an effort that provoked a fierce battle a dozen years ago.”


So the article goes on at quite some length. It is filled with facts of a political, of an economic, of a social nature. But it also describes with some eloquence the environmental significance of this land, its beauty and its manifold connections to so many forms of wildlife. Mr. Solomon does not explicitly say so, but he is in fact delineating a “sacred space” of sorts in the same way that John Muir did with the Sierras over a century ago. Muir sometimes referred to that wilderness as his “cathedral.” To refer to these kind of spaces in such a manner is not sentimentality or romantic effusions. Rather this is a sense, articulate or not, of the numinous, the divine, the mystery within the Mystery as the Taoists would put it, the recognition and intuition and contemplation of the incredibly complex interrelatedness in which we live and breathe and act and die. Living within society it is not impossible to have all this, yet it is also very noteworthy that most people simply become lost in all the diversions of human constructs that we surround ourself with. The end result is a kind of sleepwalking existence, yet it may be quite noisy, quite frenetic. Thoreau saw all this almost two hundred years ago.

Mr. Solomon laments the imminent destruction of this beautiful wilderness, but what you read between the lines as it were is a lament for the destruction of all sacred space because this is what the meaning of this destruction is all about. We are not just destroying a parcel of land, huge though it be; we are destroying our very sensitivity to that which transcends our petty greedy grasp. We are ultimately destroying our very selves.

Here is the link to that whole article:



The other piece that struck me was an obituary in the New York Times of Katie Lee, a folk singer from the 40s and 50s and 60s. She died recently at the age of 98. She was not as well known to the general populace as Joni Mitchell or Joan Baez, and probably not as talented as these two, but people in folk song circles knew her quite well. People like Burl Ives, Josh White, and Ramblin Jack Elliott admired her. Ives said, “The best cowboy singer I know is a girl–Katie Lee.”


At first her repertoire was traditional for folk singers of the early 50s, but a new awareness was brewing within her. Growing up in the desert country of Arizona she fell in love with the desert wilderness and especially the great desert canyons and rivers, like the Colorado and all its tributaries. Incredible country indeed! One particular area held an especially deep attraction: the Glen Canyon area. Many there were who said that this canyon complex was as majestic as the Grand Canyon. So when it was proposed to dam the Colorado at this point and drown the canyons under water, Katie was shaken to the depths of her soul.

From the obituary: “Her enchantment with Glen Canyon began in 1953 during a visit with friends and continued when she became a river runner. She adored its rapids, and the breezes that she said sounded like voices speaking to her. She swam nude in its potholes and waterfalls. She explored its 125 contoured side canyons, each of them named (some by her), and each one a different aesthetic experience. ‘When they drowned that place, they drowned my whole guts,’ she said in an interview in 2010 at Telluride MountainFilm, a documentary festival. ‘And I will never forgive the bastards. May they rot in hell.’”


You can feel her anger, and it is like the anger of Jesus chasing the money-changers out of the Temple. Katie wanted to chase these same money-changers out of this Temple. She joined such legendary figures as David Brower, the head of the Sierra Club at that time and author Edward Abbey, one of our greatest champions of the desert wilderness in their concerted opposition to this “blasphemous” destruction of a rare sacred space. Katie became known as the “Desert Goddess of Glen Canyon.” But their fiery opposition proved futile–just as it happened with John Muir’s opposition to the Hetchy Hetch dam in Yosemite. The money interests seem to always win. But that didn’t stop Katie from writing songs of protest: From the obituary:


“In ‘Colorado River Songs,’ an album she released in 1964, she pilloried the Bureau of Reclamation.

Three jeers for the Wreck-the-Nation Bureau
Freeloaders with souls so pure-o
Wiped out the good Lord’s work in six short years.”


But you can see that her protest came from a deeper place within her, that Glen Canyon had affected her heart much more than just as “beautiful scenery.” From the obituary:

“She added: “I had a cause! A cause that didn’t center on me-me-me: one that asked nothing of me, really, yet was far from mute. I’d never had a cause before, but now there was a place, almost a person, that needed my help.”


She never let up, even in old age, even when the environmental movement became stagnant and superficial and willing to compromise with the powers that be. Her fiery nature never got old; her keen sense of the magnitude of this blasphemy never faded. From the obituary:

“Ms. Lee recalled in “All My Rivers Are Gone” that while on a trip to Glen Canyon in 1957, a year after the first dynamite blast that initiated construction of the dam, she took a break from lunch, stared at the river and talked to the water. “I feel betrayed. Homo sapiens! Greedy pathetic fools with a genetic mania to destroy all the sanctuaries that feed their souls. Well, hell, I don’t give a damn if we’re blotted out. I don’t want to be a part of the human race when I see the pimps in government and the whores who do their bidding. I’d rather be a coyote.”


From the few coyotes I have met, I would say it would be an honor to be among them! And I am sure that Katie and all her coyote friends are in the all-loving embrace of the One who crafted all of us.







Dominus Vobiscum

Dominus VobiscumAs a youngster in the 6th grade of a Catholic grammar school in Chicago in the 1950s I trained to be an altar boy. I recall those days with a lot of fondness–though of course not all aspects of those days! It was my first exposure to the Latin language in an active way. I could actually say Latin words! Of course for years I had listened to the Latin in regular Mass attendance. It seemed like such a mysterious thing. Even though, like a good Catholic schoolboy I had a missal that translated those mysterious, evocative phrases into straightforward English, the Latin is what I loved. The words seemed to say more than what the translation indicated. And I think this “more” is very important.

The Latin translates very simply into “The Lord be with you” which the priest proclaims several times during the Mass. (Of course I am only referring to the Roman Catholic Mass, not the Lutheran, for example, or even the Anglican, but this example may very well hold for them also.) In that era the altar boy would then respond, “Et cum spiritu tuo” which translates as “And with your spirit also.” The Mass would begin that way, proceed on this recurring theme, and end on this note. Even though it was only between the priest and the altar boy, the dialogical dynamic at play was very obvious, and in fact the altar boy was really a stand-in of sorts for the whole congregation. The rest of us would follow this with our missal and say the words in our hearts. After the Vatican II liturgical reforms the Latin vanished and the vernacular version took over and the dialogical nature of the moment became accentuated in that the whole congregation was called upon to respond.

Ok, so the words “Dominus vobiscum” translate into “the Lord be with you,” but what does all that mean? Is it simply a kind of wish, like “have a good day,” or is it more like a statement of fact: the Lord is with you? Either interpretation is possible, but I think the latter is the “bullseye” if you will. Let’s take a step back. Imagine entering an old Catholic church, one built well before Vatican II. You enter a dim, quiet space surrounded by stained glass windows, frescoes, statues, candles, the faint scent of incense, etc. It all speaks of a Presence. (Actually this would be more true in a Russian Orthodox church, but we won’t go into that!) All the artistic renderings concern stories and myths pointing to a critical “call and response,” a deep vision into the heart of Reality, a dialogue of Love, etc. Even before the priest begins the Mass with “The Lord be with you,” the whole ambience speaks of that Presence. And when the whole congregation answers “And also with you,” it affirms in words that it accepts/realizes this Reality as the Ultimate Truth.

Now there are certain special “sacred spaces” that point to this reality in a somewhat different way–an Islamic mosque for example, or even certain monastic churches that have been stripped bare and this “emptiness” speaks of the Presence in its own way. But apart from that I am afraid that I have found so many post-Vatican II churches that are rather weak in this regard in that they have created a rather sterile environment reinforced by an English translation/attitude of the liturgy that is more in keeping with “Have a nice day,” “Nice to meet to you,” etc. In part this is a vast cultural problem in that our language is “flattening out,” becoming less able to articulate or even imply the deeper realities. You get a sense of that if you compare the letters written in the 19th Century by ordinary people compared to today’s emails and text messaging. So the result becomes not only that the “deeper realities” become more difficult to refer to, but in fact they become seemingly more unreal.

So then this leads us to a big theological issue. The dialogical nature of the language in the Mass in its current English seems to fix us to a purely dualistic vision of our relation to the Divine. This is one view of Christianity about which I discussed here. The Biblical stories and myths and the hagiography in its traditional renderings seems to reinforce that dualistic vision. (Abhishiktananda railed against a kind of absolutizing of that language.) There is a “Divine Other who is truly “other,” and you stand in relation to that “otherness.” But then again, traditionally there was also the narrative of Christian mysticism which took all these renderings and picked up on a much deeper truth here than just purely dialogue. This dialogue, rendered either in language or in art, was merely one way of beginning to awaken to a true nondualistic vision of our relation to the Divine Mystery. Granted, Christianity’s main mode of expression is always going to be dialogical in an I-Thou manner, but we can either stay fixed in that or we can gain a sense of something deeper going on within that dialogue. Recall that consummate dialogical narrative from the Resurrection stories in Luke, the two disciples on the road to Emmaus. They are depicted as encountering the Risen Christ who opens their eyes to the meaning of the Scriptures. They conclude: “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road while he opened to us the scriptures.” (Luke 24: 32) That “burning of the heart” is not just a feeling thing, an emotion, but a sense of something much deeper in the meaning of the words and symbols of all our encounters with the Divine Reality. The Lord be with you. And with your spirit.