Sensual Place, Sacred Space, and a Mid-Life Crisis
an adventure into Australia, and into this question
“It’s just too bloody easy to muck up places when we don’t value them for anything other than money, ‘ey? But brother, if we could come to think of places, like real places around us, not just parks and shit, but real places, man if we could again remember that some places are sacred…”
“What do you think would happen?” I ask him.
“The New Evolution. Our evolution, the next phase of it, will happen.” He pauses, then points up to the sacred site awaiting us in that shadowy crevasse of rock, beckoning us in. “To us down here, it’s just a question ‘when?.’ And honestly mate, you’ve got a lot to answer for, as an American.”
And we file in.
We’re an hour hike up into the rock-strewn, forested jowls of a rugged, coastal headland. The high tide’s waves are heard on the hot easterlies blowing bright. Tucked back into this strange curvature in the rock, with my back against the wall, I sigh to myself in my solemn silence, taking all of this in. This place we’re in is Sacred. I’m not kidding.
I’m with five other young men, each of them native to this place. I do not mean that they are Aborigines– they are not. But they were each born within fifty miles of here, and they seem to be of the mind that here is where they want to stay. This emerges neither from laziness nor some perception of nationalism, that this place is better than anywhere else, but seems to instead spring from a deeply-felt sense that here, these lands and waters and skies, is what they are as people.
Of course, much of modern Australia does resemble modern America, as can be said for so many places being shaped by the forces of “Generica.” But here, following the bread-crumbs I’m training myself to see, I seemed to have discovered a different way of people being. I’ve hitchhiked my way into a few rural, isolated valleys, and then I’ve followed surfers and parties into places yet more removed. Deep within peripheries the tourist would have no way see, I’m meeting people who are existing within this territory in ways that seem to ensnare me. I’m amongst folks living intimately with land and work, who are comfortable in their sexuality and boundaries, and are practicing invigorating hybrids of globally-inspired, place-specific spirituality. I thought I was coming to a wild and rugged continent of the biosphere– it seems I’m also confronting an equally lively eco-cultural sphere.
These five guys I’m with grew up the children of “60’s revolutionaries,” or “back-to-the-landers,” as I’ve heard them described by some of the more conservative patrons of pubs nearby, and I’m honored to have been brought into their fold. Just out of high school and enjoying what is called a “gap year,” they are all in a program known as Green Corps, which is designed for the youth’s pursuit of place-specific, ecologically-informed service work. Meeting a few times a week to work on restoration projects in the denuded cattle-country of the river-bottoms, they are actively confronting the mistakes of their ancestors and seeking to right them. They talk of leaving their homes and home-steads, communities and valleys, in better shape for their kids. As a far-flung, intentionally up-rooted American, I certainly feel self-consciousness in being around them. What might they teach me about me about me and my friends? About our own inevitable journeys to becoming men?
So it was easy enough to take them up on this invitation. We’d spend the weekend at an aunt’s coastal camp to fish and surf some, which sounded swell. But the real draw was the chance to visit a place that Yosif, the emotional leader of the crew, told me was very special to him. With the stone-serious eyes of a man thrice his age, he said “It’s sacred ‘ey, this place we’ll visit,” before letting his sober face slacken into a leaf-shadowed grin. “But don’t worry, they let us in.”
There was no “they” to let us in, nor keep us out. But apparently, the word is out, and has been for some time– that the place where the half-moon bay meets the goana-lizard-shaped headland is a space to be respected, and it is expected that you will not go there uninvited. Registered as a “sacred site” by the local band of Aborigines, whom also have a reservation-type land-holding nearby, it is one of the few coastal sites that survived the conquest and supposed “progress” of an earlier time.
But the sacred site is not the whole head-land, I’m now discovering. Instead, Yosif has led us up into the lushly forested hill-side, along cliff-bands and knife-edge curvatures, and into a rocky, rugged interior hidden within the rumbled topography. And then within this interior, we went in further, and then further again. What seemed to be one definitive edge yielded again to a crawl or a climb– what seemed a dead-end was really a trick of the eye. Further in, further in.
Yosif, Jay, Chris, Brent, Keenan, and I have all filed in, crimping and crawling and climbing and scrambling through the rock and forest din. And now Yosif, with his Amish-looking beard and wise dark eyes, announces that we are here, we are in.
Sacredness, to many of us, is an abstraction– something that cannot be held, something that slips as tenuous. But here, we’re asked to experience just the opposite– it’s total, tangible, and altogether sensuous. With a rounded, amphitheater shape to the rubbled floor and rock-bony walls, sound tricks amongst us in echos of rumored stone. I wince, flinch, rub my eyes. No artifacts, no petroglyphs, no form created by human hand or head. And yet, if it is sacred, with what instrument am I detect it?
My heart pounds from the walk in. Physical heart beating. My other, metaphorical heart? It is, I hope, wide open, trying to allow it to subsume my mind’s skepticism– trying to go further in.
Without a word, we each find seats upon one of the various stones that lie about like shards of broken…dreams?
Nearly all of the Aborigines describe some version of the “Dreamtime:” an on-going, fluid, primordial state from which this world arose and is rising. In the Dreamtime, the spirits of gods, animals, plants, and humans together roam across the same landscape before us now. The shapes of mountains and the placement of rivers; the sounds of creatures and features of a headlands; all are under the influence and spell of the Dreamtime. And as Yosif explained to me earlier, there are then certain places in the land where the wall between this world and the Dreamtime are thin. Not portals exactly, but porous. Such places, easily identified to those who know what to look for, are thought to be “sacred,” and deserve certain reverence in one respect, and protection from destruction in another.
Some tribes in the US, and some bands here in Aus, have indeed had some luck protecting their sacred places. But most have not. It is a precarious position they are in, to be arguing for a place’s sacredness to a culture and legislature that does not share your criteria of sanctity. Yet such is the story in all of the places where a colonizing people have come in and spread their own beliefs across the land like a suffocating blanket. Throughout the America’s, Australia, New Zealand, Africa (that’s so much land!), the progeny of European Judeao-Christian settlers have become an occupying force and dominant shapers of these places, often to the point of erasing nearly all marks of the previous people. Also lost, by extension, is their exquisite, indigenous knowledge of the very places that once supported them. If we are to now continue to live within these places as the new natives, as these fellows and I aspire to do, it seems that we feel a forceful, near-frighteningly furious fire to learn just what these sacred places provided.
Out of compassion, we also try to acknowledge that most of these folks, our ancestors, were but nodes in the evolving organism of that time. Whatever that force was that emerged through those first sailboats and flags, and then through the plow, the axe, the chain-saw, the tractor, the gun– whatever that was, whatever it is, it’s been bio-accumulating in the hearts of every new nations’ kids. So as the young men of our time who are taking up this work of trying to understand our place in this legacy, and trying to perhaps honor sacredness better than our forebears were willing or able, I am not surprised by our presence in this place. I’m also not surprised that we don’t really know what to do with it, not sure how to face it.
For now, we’ve all taken seats in various nooks and niches within the space. I see Chris and Jay have started making small rock cairns beside them. Yosif has lit some sage, and Keenan is lying down on his broad-shouldered back, bare-feet splayed. Brent arranges himself into half-lotus, with a full-furrowed brow. Thousand of years, thousands of other men. How to re-begin?
One question keeps nagging to mind– is this for real? As in, could one make an objective argument for the level of sacredness present here? And here the Western mind strikes up against one of its first impediments: our measuring stick. We don’t know how measure that which does not exist in our paradigmatic thrift.
In the major religions that arose from the agricultural people Eurasia, and in particular Europe and the Middle East, the theologies rise on the shoulders of gods in the sky. Gods up on high. To access and perhaps honor them one needs a place to worship, and that place then is where sacredness lives. Hence the sacred place is one that a people can physically construct, like a church or a temple. Within such structure, the approaches to the divine lead one outward, upward, into worlds beyond these.
But the Aborigines, like so many indigenous, non-Western peoples, did not build their sacred places– they discovered them. Hence their sacred places are not portable, not able to picked up and moved elsewhere the way one can go build a new church. A sacred site does not just provide the shelter that houses a holy channel: it is the holy channel.
But such a distinction, and an indigenous people’s claim to ownership and agency over the fate of such a place, holds little water in the bucket of the dominating paradigm. For in this very place we sit, which we are attempting to perceive through our spiritual capacities, another man of another culture could walk in and perceive a very different reality.
Such men have walked and surveyed nearly every inch of this and my own home continent, and they wear a certain set of glasses. These glasses allow them to walk into an area and begin seeing the values they are seeking: the land as potential profit. Whether it was musing long ago toward which valleys could become vibrant new settlements, or whether it’s the lumbermen or the speculators of today, seeing forests as standing lumber and mountains as treasure chests of coal or gold, these men represent a world-view in which sacred places have no value. None. In fact, such sacred places present impediments to extracting the riches their myths have promised. Impediments created by inferior people practicing an inferior religion. These fossil-fueled minds are as crafty with their excuses and rationale as they are with their laws and machines. What room have they for the time of Dreams?
“Well, I guess I’ll say a few things I know about this place,” Yosif begins after we all appear settled on our respective perches. “First, you need to know that this place is sacred for males only, because they traditionally came here to perform rites of passage for boys to become men. What that looked like, I really don’t know. By I know it was thought that this place was conducive for that, maybe because it was hard to get to, and they’ve spoken to me about the difficulty of transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. To becoming a man, and a man of merit.”
We think about this for a minute. “Does any one here consider themselves a man yet?” I ask, genuinely curious. For in many ways, I do find these guys to be of great character and resolve, and they seem extremely confident in themselves, in their interactions with women, and work, and place. Such traits, and the maturity and playfulness with which they embody them, strikes me as the makings of a man.
“I don’t know, I guess not ‘ey?” Chris begins, leaning back and grasping his knees. He sweeps red hair off his brow, starts fondling his bracelet’s gem-stone, “I feel really blessed to be from here, and to have a good family and good friends, but I guess I feel really untested still. Like I haven’t had to face many challenges yet in my life, and I think becoming a man probably has a lot to do with how you meet those challenges, face ‘em down you know?” We think that over. Some heads nod. A pipe is getting prepared.
“For me, I’ve been trying to be a good man for a while now, living with just my mom ‘ey?” Keenan now. “But am I like, a full adult man, ready to have kids and take care of some land and defend my home? I mean, I don’t know.”
“How about you mate?” Yosif asks, looking very directly at me. “You’re a little older than all of us. Are you a man yet?”
“No, ha, no,” I reply, laughing, both because it strikes me as funny and probably also because I feel a pang of regret or shame that I’m not. “Honestly guys, I’m having a hard time figuring out what it will look like for me. The idea of being a man in America is really complex I guess, and a lot of it seems to be about stuff that I have no interest in right now.” I’m not sure if they know what I mean. I’m not sure if I know what I mean. “We put of weight behind what we do as a career. Almost doesn’t matter what it is, but you’re just supposed to choose one and do it, and do it for a long time. And with that, you know, it’s like you a buy a house and get a pretty wife and have kids–”
“Don’t you want a pretty wife and kids?” Brent asks with seriousness. “Shoot I want a pretty wife today!”
“Well yeah man, I do, I think. But I’ve grown up and watched a lot of men, my friends’ dads and teachers and coaches, they do all those steps, do everything they’re supposed to do, and it doesn’t always work out, and it definitely doesn’t make them happy. I mean, we’ve even got a phrase for it now, it’s like this new phase in life men are almost expected to go through called a ‘mid-life crisis.’”
“That doesn’t sound too nice.”
“No, exactly!” I continue, trying not to make a speech but also trying to speak my mind. “I think we, as a culture, might have it wrong because we seem to only talk about the outward manifestations of becoming a man– you know the physical house and the lawnmower and the wife, I can only imagine how much harder it is as a gay man– but I don’t think we have any good language or culture around what has to go on within each of us to become a man….” Thinking, the time respected. “I don’t think time itself just transforms us into men. Physically it might, but there’s gotta be more to it than that…”
“Is that why you’re doing a ‘Walk-About?’” Yosif asks, wisely.
“Yeah dude, I think it is. I mean, to be honest, I’m also probably slowing down the process sometimes, partying heaps and stuff, but yeah. Well and it’s part of it. I’m getting my kicks now while I do have this freedom. And you know, I guess I’m trying to take care of my future self in a way. Living backwards or something. Trying to prevent a mid-life crisis.”
Brent suddenly bursts with enthusiasm: “Nice, that’s awesome mate. That’s your job! Write some how-to manual called like ‘How to Avoid a Mid-Life Crisis,’ but have it also sneakily be real spiritual and shit!”
“How do you know he’s not already?” Jay slides in, slyly.
“Well what do you guys think?” I ask, shifting it. “You seem to be pretty tuned to some of the ideas the Aborigines had about it. What role do you think ‘place’ may play in it?” A breeze is kicking up, hurling alternating wafts of warm and cool air through the space, against my face. For the first time I notice that the boulder that encloses this space, with a height over forty feet at least, is itself topped by a marvelously large fig tree, with its roots drooling down, grasping the rock. Like the photos I’ve seen of Ankor Wat.
“For me man, it’s all about place. I think that we’re nothing without place. The whole earth is home and I get that, but I think we’ve all gotta find a place to dig in.” This is Jay. “No offense Trev-man, but I don’t know if you can become a man while traveling. I think you’ll get a lot of ideas, and you’ll meet good men who are of their place, but I don’t know, I don’t see it. It has to be how you relate to a place, how you care for a plot of land, a community, a watershed. What’s that saying? ‘Find what you love, and then defend it?’ I think I need that to be a man. I need to put my manhood against what I love, and how bravely I care for what I love.”
“That’s beautiful Jay,” his brother says, looking down at his hands. “And I agree, but I’d add that I think I’ll always want some sacred places around you know? Not just my own land, but like, some places where I can go and check in with myself, and even check in with God. I don’t really think I’m ever going to be the type of guy who goes to church, but I know that I still like that feeling of going someplace and making offerings and counting blessings.”
“So that’s part of it too,” Keenan continues, “knowing where the sacred places are around you. Or maybe even deciding that some places are sacred to you, and then caring for them that way. I know that where I grew up, kind of just north of Sydney, that there aren’t any places sacred places recognized by the Aborigines. Well, they’re probably were, but there aren’t any that are protected like this place is. But I had a few special places I’d go to, especially when I was like twelve, thirteen, that were super important to me then. And I’d build forts and make fires and sleep out there, and that place man, that was sacred to me. It was part of my ecology. Sucks though, because it’s gone now.”
“What do you mean?” Brent asks.
“It’s gone. It’s an IGA supermarket.” We sigh with some sadness at that.
“Man that pisses me off ‘ey?! I think what our generation has to do, I mean shit we’ve got a
lot to do, but one thing I think we need to do if figure out how to do is start treating land as sacred again. Not even just some places, I mean, it’s all sacred isn’t it? It’s all holy! Right? Right?!” Brent’s getting fired up. “I’ve met some cats who are heading to Tasmania soon, young men and women, might be down there now. And they’re tired of these lumber companies clear-cutting those last ancient forests down there just to send them to Japan for bullshit paper office memos and napkins and shit, and man they’re going to go sit in the tops of those trees and not come down! I think that’s amazing ‘ey! We’ve got be ready to do stuff like that man, because the machine takes everything man. The machine doesn’t give a shit about us or about what’s sacred.”
“But we are the machine Brent. We’re it.” Yosif says.
“No I’m not hey, I want nothing to do with it!”
“Well how did we get here man? We drove a car. And we had coffee with breakfast,
and we wiped our asses with toilet paper. We’re consumers too man, and the stuff has to come from somewhere. The question is how to get the stuff, how it distributed, and how much to use. What’s the fair share.”
“And we’ve gotta thinking as one Big Mind too ‘ey,” Keenan starts slowly, “We are also the guy cutting down the trees, because he’s human too, and he’s trying to feed himself and his kids. I’m not trying to have hate for the people who put in that IGA, I just hate that it happened.”
“Well someone has to be responsible. Maybe that’s part of our problem guys. No one is responsible any more. It’s like, if there is one mind that’s sort controlling a lot of how things go, it’s a really weak, greedy mind.” Brent replies. “I know I sound tough right now, takin’ the piss out of everybody, but it’s just that I’m really scared of what’s coming ‘ey. I’m scared of this ‘Big Mind.’”
“It’s a teenage mind.” Yosif says.
“What do you mean?” I ask him.
“It’s this whole thing we’re talking about, you know, rites of passage, shifting ourselves to become men. It’s like our whole culture needs to shift that way too. This global culture acts like a teenager, just doing everything right away ‘cause it feels good, with no thought about the future.”
“We need Elders.” I say, feeling it personally; I need Elders.
“Yeah. And honestly guys, I think that’s why I’m trying to reach out more to the Aborigines who are still left around here, because they’re Elders. Not just that these dudes are old, but their whole culture is an Elder. They’ve been living in Australia for forty-thousand years, and we’ve barely been here three hundred and we’re already mucking it up,” says Yosif.
And at that we all nod. We share this feeling that Yosif is expressing, and we know it to be true. But what will it look like, if we can hold on long enough? And when we’re Elders, by age and hopefully by experience, what will we have to say?
“You know, I just thought of this,” I begin, finding my words. “But I think when we get together like this, smoke the peace pipe and try to think big thoughts, I think we’re accessing the bigger mind that we’re talking about. And I think that what we are realizing, and maybe we are the manifestation of, is really something that’s happening to the whole human expression, to the whole planetary culture.”
“What’s that?” Chris asks. “What’s happening to human culture?”
“We’re having a mid-life crisis.”
And so we smoke that peace-pipe, not sure of what words to call forth or what ritual is appropriate. But we seem to know that our culture has overshot the mark, is looking back on itself through us, and is aware that something was missed.
As we hear, wavering up through this sacred headland’s forest, the turning, the turning, of the tide.
“I wonder if we can find it in time.”