Bioregional Quakerism—The Shaman and the Scientist
December 11, 2015 § 2 Comments
On both counts—as a place sacred to the People, and as a place essential to a healthy water culture in the northern Plains—I learned of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, as a holy place from some Lakota person. I don’t remember if it was Vine Deloria, Jr, Lame Deer, Black Elk, Rolling Thunder, or some other writer.
But I could also have learned it from the physiography textbook in my personal library. We may not have many medicine people who can commune directly with our landbase, but we do have earth science.
Until last year, I lived in the Sourlands of central New Jersey. This ancient igneous intrusion forms a ridge that curves eastward and northward in a long arc from Lambertville, New Jersey, to the Palisades across the Hudson River from the Bronx. It starts as the Sourland Mountains in the southwest, dives below ground and resurfaces as the Watchung Mountains, dives down again and resurfaces as Snake Hill in the Meadowlands, dives a final time and resurfaces as the Palisades. It has some outlier ridges, as well, including one that surfaces in Rocky Hill and Princeton.
Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands are the source of recharge for an aquifer—the Hopewell aquifer below Hopewell valley, which stretches south toward Trenton from the Sourlands. Like the Black Hills, the Sourlands have been invested by the Creator, by the creative process of geophysical evolution, with a sacred earth-keeping role.
I’m betting that the Lenni Lenape, the Delaware Indians, who were the original inhabitants of New Jersey and eastern Pennsylvania, treated the Sourlands in a fashion similar to the way the Lakota treat the Black Hills. It’s a mountain range—if you are willing to call hills that are only a few hundred feet tall “mountains”. (The Black Hills aren’t very “mountainous” either.) The Sourlands have great rock outcroppings, like the Black Hills, and some “caves”, hollows between huge rocks tumbled on each other. These would have made decent vision questing sites for the Lenape. It’s too rocky to farm in most places, so they probably only used the region for hunting camps.
But the Lenni Lenape are long gone from New Jersey. They no longer have a living tradition of shamanic relation to this landbase. But you go hiking there, go to Roaring Rocks and the rock formations nearby, and tell me the place is not holy. Or browse through my Geography of New Jersey textbook. Either way, you will find good reason to protect the Sourlands from over-development.
There’s a Quaker meeting in Princeton. Their meetinghouse is a sacred space. I can testify—I was married there. Nearby is this holy place, the Sourlands, a place that needs protecting. I can testify—I have hiked there a lot. That place plays an important earth-keeping role in the region. I can testify—I served on the board of a nonprofit that commissioned an ecological survey of the Sourlands as part of their (successful) efforts to get the five towns and three counties with jurisdiction over the Sourlands to revise their zoning and land-use ordinances.
So here are my queries: What does your meeting know about your landbase? Could you identify the holy place(s) in your region? Are there still indigenous people in your region whose stories and relation to the land might guide you? Do you have hikers in your meeting? Do you know where your drinking water comes from? Does your local library have a geology or physiography textbook you can consult?
If we wanted to explore the possibility of a “shamanistic” earth-keeping Quakerism, a bioregional Quakerism, a religious culture of place in which the place we lived in mattered religiously, we have several things going for us. First, we love education and respect science. Second, we already believe—because we have experienced it ourselves—in direct, unmediated experience of the Divine. And third, among liberal Friends, anyway, we already are probing in this direction, we are open to new sources of revelation, new understandings of what “the Divine” means to us—we are unfettered by the traditional conservative Christian knee-jerk opposition to “nature worship”.
But anyway, I am not proposing “nature worship”. I am proposing using our landscape in our personal and our collective religious practice the way Jesus used his. I am proposing following in the footsteps of that spirit-possessed prophet who, after being called by his Father, was “with the wild animals” in the wilderness (Mark 1:13).
More about these advantages in the next post.