Place, pilgrimage, and the politics of landscape

  • Pilgrimage, ritual, & sacred space
  • Spiritual practice; the “spiritual turn”; civil & implicit religion
  • Religion & ecology; Nature religion; Neo-Paganism & Earth spiritualities; “Geospiritualities”
  • Indigeneity, land claims, & the cultural politics of “tradition” & aboriginality
  • The politics of “ecological sacrifice zones”
  • Regional foci: US Southwest, British Isles, Ukraine, Vermont, et al.

How are places made meaningful? How do we distribute value & meaning across space, place, landscape, territory? What does it mean for a place to be “sacred”? For whom, and at what cost?

Scholars of religion argue that even the very terms “religion” and “the sacred” are relative, historically changing terms — they emerged to distinguish certain things from others, in some people’s favor and at others’ expense. “Religion” was distinguised from “magic” and “superstition” (when white European men — colonizers like the sponsors of Christopher Columbus’s trip to the Americas — wanted to distinguish themselves from those they colonized and conquered) or from “science” and “secularism” (when white European men — Enlightenment philosophes like Diderot — wanted to get the Church out of the institutions that mattered). “A religion” became an identifiable system of related beliefs and practices clearly distinguishable from other such systems (when white European men — the enlightened anthopologists of their time — wanted to classify the cultures of the world and describe and compare their features).

Where religious practices may have once been part of the political, the artistic, even the economic spheres — things were done in accordance with beliefs about sacred values — modernity has separated these into distinct and autonomous spheres of life. Religion today is found in churches and temples and in the organizations we call churches. It’s an individual option. On the template of modern selfhood, there is a place that says “What religion are you?” and numerous options are offered to fill in that place (though “atheist” doesn’t work as well in the red states as in Europe).

As religion has become an individual option, so has “spirituality” — that blurry continuum of things people do to get a sense of meaning in their lives, to feel a sense of connectedness with whatever power they believe to be “behind” or “in charge of” the maelstrom of life.

Sacredness oozes out of the very things people do: we want certain things to be set aside from others, to be treated differently, more reverently, not to be bought and sold or profaned with just any activity. And we do things in order to protect the sanctity of those things — objects, places, activities. But we do all of those things in the midst of trying to live and to succeed (often at others’ expense). In a world in which tourism is the number one industry (or close to it), sacred places become tourist spaces. Those with the money to travel do so, and the places they visit become part of their identity as worldly travelers. Those without it package themselves and their places to become worthy of tourists’ attention. And so on. (John Urry’s Tourist Gaze and Dean MacCannell’s The Tourist remain the quintessential books on this.)

What happens to the places themselves (and the people) in the process?

  • My book Claiming Sacred Ground: Pilgrims and Politics at Glastonbury and Sedona looks at these processes and their effects at two places where latter-day spiritual pilgrims have congregated. It deals with the cultural and environmental politics of landscape, of sacred place, of pilgrimage and tourism at those two places. And it examines the New Age and Earth spirituality movements — the beliefs and practices of Gaia’s pilgrims who congregate at these and similar “power places” — through the lens of critical social science (of a sympathetic kind) and ecological philosophy. You can read excerpts of the book on Amazon, or read the first chapter here.

Here’s a sample of my other writing in this topic area: