I was at dinner with four women a few weeks ago to discuss protecting a nearby place of significance – what we would call a wahi pana. It is a ravishingly beautiful spot: a hanging valley overlooking the ocean, with groves of ancient native trees, flowers, ferns, orange trees, ginger, and bamboo. Most of the time there is a stream running through it, which, in this semi-arid district with its porous volcanic soils, is a wonder in itself. Naturally, this spot so blessed by nature was inhabited and beloved by the kanaka maoli – the native Hawaiians – for long centuries, until contact with the West decimated their population and nearly destroyed their culture. More recently, in the last few decades, it has been a religious retreat site. The Tibetan Buddhist philanthropists who currently own the land have other priorities on the mainland U.S. and so were talking of putting the property on the market. It was feared that the land could fall into the hands of owners who would treat it in the usual American way and plop down a trophy house so as to command the most sweeping view of the coastline. This would be a gut-wrenching desecration of the tangible and intangible qualities of the little valley.
It was natural and reasonable, then, in introducing ourselves to each other, to explain what we found so valuable in the land and where we drew that value from – what tradition of ideas, myths, perception, and spiritual practice were mixed in with our relationship to the land. And these were astonishingly diverse and yet non-conflicting. We were none of us there to convert the other or to establish the truth of our path.
My friend Lianne has been a temple dancer in the Charya Nritya tradition of the Newar people of Nepal. In this dance art-form, she embodies Buddhist dakini (goddesses) in her dance as a form of meditation and as an offering to her audience and the gods. She had been to many religious retreats and ceremonies held on the land, and the memory of those experiences are dear to her. “Hawai’i, my teacher Lama Tharchen Rimpoche once said, is a dakini realm, a realm of earth energy, as is so clear with this volcano bringing forth new land from the deep earth.”
Elizabeth is a well-known expert and practitioner of the Inka traditions of the Andes mountains. She made a trip to Peru as a graduate student and was initiated into the Inka tradition, which teaches the principle of anyi, or reciprocity with nature. She spreads the earth-centric teachings of the Inkas in workshops around the world. Elizabeth and her Inka teachers have come to the land to speak with the stream when it was not running hardly at all. There are points of confluence between the Andean tradition of the Inka and the Himalayan tradition that is represented by Tibetan Buddishm. “We must have confidence, each of us, in her own knowledge,” says Elizabeth.
Alyson is a self-taught shaman. To be more accurate, she is a bee-taught shaman who has been instructed directly by the bees through dreams and visions. Alyson is also a bee-keeper and maker of beautiful organic gardens wherever she lives. Sometimes she keeps a bee-hive in her kitchen. Before I knew of her shamanic connection to bees I had heard her speak about keeping bees to a group of agriculturalists and was deeply impressed by her insights into the intricate lives of bees. “After I was taught by the bees, I felt very alone with this knowledge. It took me many years to understand it and to find others who had had similar experiences.” Alyson dreams of building a bee temple such as were common in the Mediterranean long ago.
Julie is a practitioner of the gentle art of lomilomi or Hawaiian healing massage, which is a holistic art that addresses the person as part of a community as much as an method of manipulating muscles. She also is versed in Hawaiian chant, which is a tradition that names and praises places for their natural, and therefore spiritual, beauty. “I went to the land just to help out as a cook for an event there, and I felt the land speak to me.”
What connects these tradition is their grounding in the earth, in living bodies, both human and animal, in a sensitivity to the living world. This earthliness is something that has largely bee expunged or sublimated from the monotheisms of the Book. Sublimation has led to alienation. Religious worship is practiced indoors, in more or less monumental and enclosed churches from which nature and non-human living things have been excluded. The spirit of place is overcome by this exclusion. This is not to say that monotheists are incapable of appreciating the Creation, but that other, earth-centered traditions might better allow for the appreciation of a place for its own self, for its particular qualities, its spiritual presence and its natural beauty.
It is also to say that the dominant capitalist conception of reality is deeply inadequate; unable to register the living qualities of the world. Remedying our inability to fully describe the world we live in, as well as to describe the kind of world we would (at least most of us) like to live in – a world that is vibrant, thriving, vital, egalitarian, healthy, beautiful, and ecologically sound – is critically important, but there is not one way to do so. How to make the case in a capitalist system that land is not just a function of acreage and exchange rates? That some places should not be for sale? That some qualities of place are more significant than any quantification of use or productive value? That there is magic in the world if we would only let ourselves feel it?