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The Human in Natural Sacred Landscapes

December 10, 2009

Croagh PatrickRecently I’ve been thinking about manmade landscapes in relation to my research on the Croagh Patrick pilgrimage, and the more I think about it, the more I realize how much human interaction with the mountain and its surrounding area has been essential to its status as a sacred site.  On its own, Croagh Patrick has a striking and imposing presence which is likely why it has attracted pilgrims for thousands of years (pre-Christian and later on, Christian).  But once that initial engagement began, human interaction with the mountain began to change it.  One way in which this occurred was the creation of three cairns on the shoulders of the mountain, which may be burial cairns or simply monuments erected by ancient peoples (they have never been excavated, so it is hard to tell).1st Cairn These cairns have now been incorporated into the Catholic pilgrimage experience as penance stations, and its easy enough to imagine them as part of the mountain itself since they are constructed of the same stone that covers the entire trail to the summit.  The trail is another manmade structure that is easy to overlook as a part of the ‘natural’ landscape.

At one point along the trail, the ground plateaus before becoming very steep for the final ascent to the summit.  From this plateau you can see down into a small valley on the south-east shoulder of the mountain where stones have been arranged into initials, words and short phrases by previous pilgrims.  Here, again, is human intervention in the landscape. Considering the sacredness of the site and its situation in nature,  should we consider these stone ‘tags’ a form of graffiti? In some way, they can come off as offensive when they appear abruptly in the rural landscape that spreads out before the pilgrims’ eye; what was supposed to be an encounter with nature has become an encounter with other pilgrims’ detritus.  On the other hand, these stones can be considered as sacredly significant as the cairns that are found along the pilgrimage path, made up of the same stones, and created with a similar intention to that of the stone ‘tags’: a designation of this particular site as unique in this landscape and therefore deserving of special recognition in the form of a monument, and a testimony to man’s presence in this special place that will remain long after he leaves it.  As future pilgrims greet these constructions, their presence informs the experience of the pilgrims as much as the natural landscape, bringing them closer to past peoples who thought of this site as sacred thus enhancing the sacred status of the natural site.

What would happen if Croagh Patrick was cleared of all this ‘ritual litter’?  If the cairns were excavated and removed, the stone ‘tags’ dismantled and the small chapel on the summit torn down, in an attempt to return the mountain back to its ‘natural’ state so that it could truly be a natural sacred site?  My belief is that much of the site’s significance would be lost, not because its sacredness is solely based on its manmade meaning, though that meaning certainly plays a large role in the mountain’s significance.  Rather, by preventing pilgrims from physically ‘inscribing’ themselves on the site, the site is unable to ‘inscribe’ itself on the pilgrims, and the spiritual experience of encountering the sacred is lost.  The pilgrim’s inscription can take place in many responsible and irresponsible ways, from simply walking over the land to irreversible destruction (its conceivable that allowing mining for the gold under Croagh Patrick could be considered a form of inscription, but this would leave the site desolate for future pilgrims).

These considerations have left me wondering “What is the appropriate way to interact with a natural sacred site?” There has been much debate in the US about non-Native American use of Native American sacred sites and what should or should not be allowed at those sites.  Not only do questions of possible environmental degradation arise, but issues of appropriation and respect.  As I continue my research I will be considering similar questions as well as this biggie, “Where does man fit into a natural landscape?”

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