The road skirts the reservoir – although acres of wood and swamp lie between, the presence and weight of all that water can be felt, even from inside a speeding car.
This is where I grew up – in the shadow of lost towns and an unintended wilderness. There was a public park and a visitor center – places to hike and picnic and fish – but most of the reservation was either off-limits or hard to access. My dad worked there, so growing up I was able to wander roads that long ago had been erased from any map. There was eerie silence, shadows in the woods, the wind and water, stone foundations and crumbling walls, wells hidden beneath fallen branches and leaf litter like tiger traps. It was and is a haunted place – and it is where I go, even now, when the world is too much or I feel lost in my own life.
I’ve talked about this place here before. I can’t seem to help myself. It is the landscape of my heart and the setting for what might pass as my own personal mythology. I believe that everyone has a place like this. The place, when you were a child, that you set all of your stories in, or where you imagined magic might still be possible.
Place is power. The ancients knew this. The location of settlements was often practical or strategic – the placement of temples and sanctuaries reflected different needs and intentions. The consistency of sacred places through time is something remarkable. It made sense to build a church or mosque on a site already devoted to worship and with plenty of reusable material at hand – but there was also, at these sites, a profound sense of the sacred – partly from years of focused worship, partly from the nature of the location itself.
I’m not telling you anything here that you don’t already know. But I’ve been thinking a lot about place lately.
I found a wonderful, long out of print book about the valley. It talks about the towns and villages and the people who lived there. It was written by a woman who – traveling west – came upon the area quite by accident. She was charmed by how remote it felt, despite being only a few hours away from several large cities, describing it as a place lost in time. Sadly, the seeds of its destruction can be seen in this charming travelogue – remote, backward, and sparsely populated, the valley had little or no political clout to protect it. What surprised me about the book, however, was how well it described the intangible – the way the valley felt then and still feels now. It is a lonely place.
There is a wonderful book published by Hampton Roads entitled Encyclopedia of Earth Myths: An Insider’s A-Z Guide to Mythic People, Places, Objects, and Events Central to the Earth’s Visionary Geography. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in mythology and the spirit of place. It’s entries are impeccably researched and quite extensive – too long to excerpt here, although I offer you this taste from the passage on Hollow Hills:
The terms Hollow Hills or sidhes are clues to Earth’s vast visionary geography, and refer to the openings into this realm through physical landscape features such as hills, caves, mounds, rock faces, or human-made structures.
Earth’s visionary geography consists of 100+ different types of portals, doorways, or openings into the planet’s subtle landscape. These different types have multiple copies, so that, for example, a Hollow Hill, sidhe, or landscape portal to the Rich Fisher King of Celtic lore is through any of 144 Grail Castles accessed at sacred or holy sites around the Earth. In all, there are many thousands of gateways into the Otherworld, each accessed through a physical site.
Thus Hollow Hill or sidhe can refer accurately to any of these 100 features.
Often the sidhe or Hollow Hill leading to Tuatha de Danaan is already hallowed and culturally recognized as such, or at least it carries an aura of numinosity. Places known as god’s sidhe or King Arthur’s Hollow Hill, or even the fairy mounds, are functional passageways from our physical realm to their numinous one and, as the Tibetan visionary…said, those of “pure vision,” what the Celtic lore calls “second sight,” may enter and visit with the gods and spirits.
Hindu sacred geography lore calls such places tirthas, or spiritual fords, where one can safely cross the “river” between physical and subtle realms. The ancient Druids used the term nemeton (from the Latin nemus meaning “Heaven”) to indicate a sacred center, sanctuary, or enclosure, such as a grove or woodland clearing, as a place of spiritual exchange between terrestrial and celestial worlds. Similarly, the Romans spoke of a locus consecratus, “consecrated place.”
The Maori of New Zealand use the term wahi tapu, which literally means “sacred place,” but the wider connotation of which is “windows to the past.” Such places provide genealogical links to the Maori ancestors, original stories of creation, and events that define individual tribes within their landscapes.
Such a portal site is hollow in the sense that, to physical perception, the inner aspect (varieties of Light temples, or celestial residences) seems to be inside the physical aspect, rendering the latter a hollow quality. Or the inner aspect can be seen as overlapping, enveloping the physical, or even as much larger than it.
What is your sacred place?