All photos by David Ashwanden
A lot of the time, one hears tales of natural landscapes being destroyed: flourishing, paradisal ecosystems interrupted to make way for what generally seems to be a poor exchange: a bit of petroleum, perhaps; a shopping centre, or even a parking lot.
Raising awareness of such operations is important, and the question of whether or not a particular piece of land should be developed often seems even more pertinent when the land in question has a deep cultural or spiritual significance. Yet it seems equally important to explore how we relate to such events, and the extent to which we understand our own impact on sacred spaces.
It seems for every environmentally-destructive operation there is a reaction against such destruction. One example is Greenpeace’s Stop the Tar Sands campaign (1), whose focus is on the destruction of Athabasca, the ancestral homeland of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (2). Though Athabasca is in modern day Canada, the campaign is based in the UK; a recognition that in our increasingly interconnected world we can have an affect on things seemingly far away from us. Another example of this is the case of Quemado. Quemado is a mountain in Mexico which is currently the home of a community of Wixarikas (known in Spanish as Huichol), who have one of the oldest unbroken pagan traditions in the world (3) – i.e. they are still practicing more or less the same rituals which they have practised for thousands of years, rather than is the case with many earth-worshipping traditions, which have been revived after being lost (see for example 4). Quemado has recently come to the attention of some people in the UK, as the Wixarikas’ homeland is being threatened by plans from the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp and Real Bonanza (6), who both wish to dig up the mountain in order to extract silver from it. This article (5) reports on how the Wixarika used to inhabit the Wirikuta Desert, a place which still remains holy to them and to which they still continue to make a month-long pilgrimage each year in order to harvest the sacred plants which grow there.
The definition of holy
It seems clear that there are many better things which could happen to Quemado Mountain than to be turned into one more habitat-destroying and inefficient mine; and it is admirable that people are taking up the cry of those whose homes are threatened by such entities as the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp. One thing that seems as though it could be seen from a slightly different perspective, however, is the article’s pointing out the fact that Quemado is a holy mountain – so even more reason for it to be respected. Yet the article itself points out that the Wixarika only live in El Quemado now because they moved there to escape various waves of colonialism in Mexico; “conquistadors, missionaries, slavers, settlers, ranchers, and the murderous Catholic fundamentalists, Los Cristeros”; and even consumer-capitalism (5). Their ancestral holy place is the desert to which they travel every year for the sacred mescalito or peyote (Lophophora Williamsii) harvest. This is not to say that El Quemado is not holy or should not be respected; but rather to throw into question the whole idea of how to define what is holy anyway. the article seems to imply respect for the Wixarika’s homeland as a sacred space; yet the website it is published on is a UK-based one, far away from the mountain in question and the culture which is being held up as admirable; one whose people have “pure open hearts, extreme honesty, zero bullshit, a genuine spiritual focus, utter reverence for Nature, and who exist in a permanent and instantly tangible magical reality” (5).
Perhaps one way in which we can truly learn from such a culture is to bring this kind of thinking into our own lives. The mountain was not holy before the Wixarikas moved onto it; what does this say about mountains? What does it say about the places where you live?
Making Sense of Where we Are
It is of great importance to respect the world in which we live, and if anyone feels they see an imbalance which they wish to set right, they should try to change it. But any change we attempt to make “out there” is going to be severely reduced if we do not look at how we can create more harmony and balance in our own lives. Where you live, is there a place which is generally worshipped? Does your culture make a pilgrimage to somewhere special?
Chances are, if you live somewhere like the UK then your immediate answer to such questions would be “no”. Yet it is worth thinking into this a little. Perhaps you do not feel a particular pull from the place you live; but why do you live there? Maybe there are no places deemed “special” by your country, race, belief system, town, village or even friends which you relate to – but isn’t there somewhere which you find special? This could be anywhere; from the particular way your room feels when you sit in that chair at a certain time of day, to the notable majesty of the tree you pass on your way to work every day. If there are special places in your life which you like to visit, take a moment to consider what makes them attractive to you. Perhaps it is that you can relax there; that you feel a sense of beauty or peace, or you can come together with friends or family and so feel more connected and integrated.
The examples of what such places could be are as many as there are people. It is worth recognising, however, that if you have somewhere which evokes any of those feelings in you, this could also be defined as “holy”. That doesn’t mean that you need to start a religion about it; merely that it commands your respect, and therefore, perhaps, it can help you feel more respect towards yourself and by extension, to everyone else.
Feeling the connection
That you can make your own life more magical by respecting your immediate environment still extends to the rest of the world. Yet rather than following campaigns whose stated aim is the prohibition of something – such as stopping the tar sands – it may be more helpful to look at what we can create. In choosing to sacred-ise the world around us we can help to engender a culture of mutual appreciation. For example, rather than trying to decry the silver companies, which after all are made up of humans who almost all probably believe they are doing the right thing, it may be more beneficial to look at how your own activities fit into the proposed mine. Silver is used a lot for jewellery and decorations; but much more of it is used to create electronic equipment such as phones and laptops (6). Perhaps by choosing to reduce the demand for silver, by using recycled electronic goods and opting for products such as Fairphone (7) over brand-new goods, we can show that the silver mine is not only destructive to the ecosystems around it and to the Wixarika culture, but it is itself irrelevant.
Making Sacred Spaces
Your holy place could be anywhere; from the local nightclub where you never fail to let loose and have fun with your friends, to that quiet bend in the river under the cliffs where you sit alone, undisturbed by all except the occasional passing sheep. The key thing about the Wixarikas is that they made the Quemado Mountain holy when they began living there. They show their respect to and appreciation for the mountain in countless ways. One admirable thing which humans have is the ability to change our environment. When done carelessly and without thought this leads to such clear ecological disasters as the Athabasca Oil Sands and the Canadian First Majestic Silver Corp’s plans for El Quemado. Yet when done with conscientious respect it is marvellous what we can create.
Greenpeace, 2015. ‘Stop theTar Sands’. http://www.greenpeace.org/international/en/campaigns/climate-change/stop-the-tar-sands/
Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.acfn.com/#!about/c1enr
Stacy B. Schaefer, Peter T. Furst, People of the peyote: Huichol Indian history, religion & survival. UNM Press, 1998. p. 236
Bonewits, I, 1979/2007. “Defining Paganism: Paleo-, Meso- and Neo”. http://www.neopagan.net/PaganDefs.html
Psychic Deli, 2013. “Occupy Quemado: Holy Mountain or Holey Mountain?” Psychedelic Press, 1/3/13. http://psypressuk.com/2013/03/01/occupy-quemado-holy-mountain-or-holey-mountain/
Lewis, Dr J, 2012. “Huichol Indians Protest Silver Mining Plan at Sacred Mountains”. Silverseek, 23/2/12
Ferre, E.C, 2015. “The Many Uses of Silver”. http://geology.com/articles/uses-of-silver/
Fairphone, 2015. “About Us”.www.fairphone.com/story