The Religion of Place

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“It’s just…I feel like this place just has so much more significance than where we live….It’s so much more unique. Nothing looks like this, anywhere else, not exactly, you know what I mean?”

“No, I don’t know,” she threw her reply back at me testily, and I could hear we were about to do more than just debate this. “What makes any place anywhere more or less ‘special’ than any other?”

“Well, you know, like, I look at it from this viewpoint: if the people who are native to an area believe their land to be holy or cosmically significant or something, then it is. That’s just how I feel about all folklore and traditions. Add that to the geologic significance of what we’re looking at right now, and you get…well, like a kind of holy land….”

“I think that’s pretentious and unnecessary.” Her sideways darting eyes promised daggers as soon as they weren’t required to watch the highway. “This is just a place, like any other.”

“But it is true that basically every part of this continent was originally home to some native population who thought that their ancestral lands were either holy, or connected to the spirits or gods, or even like the birthplace of all human beings or something. It’s documented! Anywhere you set foot in this country, some Indian or explorer or trader or wanderer has set foot there before, and there was probably even some legend about it or something like that! What makes a place significant if not the high regard that its natives hold it in?”

“So, doesn’t that make it so that every place is equal to every other? What you just tried to explain simply boils down to this: every place is special and unique. So by that logic, no area can be more significant than any other!”

I felt as if we were running down two separate paths, but in opposite directions. “Look, babe, I admit, every place is unique. When we lived in Athens, i read somewhere that the Oconee River, especially around southeastern Clarke County, near where we lived, well, it had been considered a holy river by the Creek Indians who lived there like back in the 1600’s, before all the white people moved in and founded a town and then a university. The thing is, the Oconee has a lot of the same features as most rivers in the Southeast, and it’s not like it’s anything as important as the Mississippi, but still, to the people who lived along it, it was the most important river in the universe, much holier than all the other rivers out there –”

“How do you know that?” She interrupted. “Do you know what those people believed about other rivers? Did you talk to them?”

I was really sliding downhill fast on this one. “Ok, I don’t know everything they believed, but my point was that because it was their home, to them, it was the holiest place in the world, and it was the center of their world. It was what made them, them. They made it holy, by seeing it for how unique it really was, and is. There is only one Oconee River in the whole world that runs through that valley specifically, and any other river by the same name would be different just by virtue of being somewhere else, and having a different history.”

“Yeah, but you sounded like you were claiming that all of this,” one hand left the wheel to gesture at everything outside of our little blue box hurling down the interstate, “was more significant than anywhere else in the world!”

“Well, it’s more significant to me than most places in the world.” My voice sounded nowhere near as strong nor as convincing as hers.

“Is it ‘holier’ to you than the mountains where you were born, that you love so much?” I was pretty sure I could hear scorn creeping into her voice.

“Well, of course not, where I am from will always be the most significant place to me, personally, just like all these places I’m talking about were for the native peoples who lived there. But, I just meant that this place has to be like, more powerful, or older, than anywhere else, or holier or more significant something – I mean, just look at it!!”

“I did. And I am,” she admitted calmly, and her eyes softened as they looked around us. “It’s beautiful, and truly so, and it’s very unique, but it’s still just a place. Just because most places on this planet don’t look anything like this one, doesn’t make this one better than them.” The sneer was back. She was leaving me no quarter. “If you think about it, even the Grand Canyon is just a hole in the ground.”

WHAT??!” I couldn’t believe the blasphemy my ears were enduring. “How could you say that? And you’ve even been there, you lucky jerk!”

“Yes, and I was bored after being forced to sit there for an hour. It doesn’t change, you know. What it is, strictly speaking, is just a rift in a plateau. Just a wide hole in the ground. It’s all the fuss everyone makes over it that gives it so much meaning. I guess it’s the biggest canyon in America, but does that fact actually do anything to make the place better than somewhere else? It’s only a measure of comparison, not of worth. Worth comes from people’s subjective viewpoints. To some people, it’s the most interesting hole in the ground they will ever see. Me, well, I’d rather see all the different holes out there before I start playing favorites.”

That was when it hit me. She’d been trying this whole time to lead me to see this: every inch of dirt on every continent is special, just as each human being is unique from all others, no matter how similar we all are – because no two objects can occupy the same space, or one existence. Aren’t even identical twins still always slightly different from each other in certain small, difficult-to-detect categories? I truly believe that each part of this land is unique and special and holy, even if those facets sometimes get covered up by concrete or water or asphalt or metal. Truly, no place can be better than any other, except according to someone’s own subjective opinion. Places all mean different things to different people, and to compare them is not only to ignore objectivity, it is a hypocrisy against the Religion of Place. The thick forests I know, crowded with trees, could not survive on a New Mexico mesa, but they have been and still are an intricate piece of the environment that makes me who and what I am, and allows me to live. Everything is connected, and all that Zen, but there is nothing to be gained by comparing. To truly compare, one would first need to know absolutely everything about absolutely everywhere, and surely such vast knowledge would bring with it the wisdom to avoid subjective comparisons altogether. For why would we want to focus on just one area, place or thing, at the cost of missing out on something else?

NB

All words, works and art on this website are the sole creation and intellectual property of Nicholas Biddle unless otherwise credited. They may not be reproduced or used in any way without permission and due credit given. Thanks for listening (reading), children!!

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