Watching the deer
Sacred Ground: Part II

Sacred Ground

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From "Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders (in Wonder and Other Survival Skills):

autumn leaf"Traditional peoples distinguish between tales of the everyday world and tales of the spirit world, between history and myth, between profane and sacred. The distinction rests, of course, on a belief that there is a spirit world, an order that transfuses and informs the changing surfaces we see. Visions of that sustaining realm may be sought through spiritual discipline, but they may not be summoned. If they come, they come as gifts, unforeseen. By telling stories, we conserve the memory of their passing, and we prepare for the next illumination.

"I'm aware of some grave objections to stories in general and to sacred stories in particular. In Aspects of the Novel, E.M. Forster offers and opinion that is widespread among literary sophisticates when he refers to story as 'this low atavistic form.' According to Forster, stories preserve 'the voice of the tribal narrator, squatting in the middle of the cave, and saying one thing after another until the audience falls asleep among their offal and bones. The story is primitive, it reaches back to the origins of literature, before reading was discovered, and it appeals to what is primitive in us.'

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"Over the past century, our craving for story has provoked sighs from the likes of Henry James, Gustav Flaubert, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabokov, and Samuel Beckett. Their sighing proclaims them to be civilized, modern, free from illusion; they have left the cave to dwell outside, where stories shrivel in the harsh light of reason.

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"As for a belief in the sacred, that, too, according to many scholars, is a holdover from our benighted past. In Cosmos and History, Mercea Eliade argues that myth, ritual, taboo, every grasping for a transcendent reality, merely expresses our desire to abolish time, to resist change, to escape mortality. Nowhere is the desire to escape from 'the terror of history' more nakedly revealed, according to Eliade, than in 'primitive' societies. His examination of the uses of myth in ancient culture leads him to a rhetorical question: 'May we conclude from all this that, during this period, humanity was still within nature; had not yet detached itself from nature?' The moral is clear: so long as we seek an order outside of time, we remain primitive, childish, perilously close to the beasts; only by detaching ourselves from nature, weaning ourselves from sacred stories, and accepting the terror of history as the sole reality, can we become fully human.

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"Having read Eliade, not to mention Freud and Jung, one would be hard pressed to deny the psychological component of myth. But to go to the opposite extreme and claim that myth is nothing but a projection of psychic drama is equally simplistic, and perhaps more dangerous. That danger is that in our narcissism we will be content to think and speak and care only about ourselves.

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"Joseph Campbell avoids both extremes by arguing that myth enacts two dramas at once, that of our psyche and that of nature. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell surveys the sacred stories from many ages and cultures to suggest that mythology speaks not only about the unconscious but also about the cosmos:

" 'Briefly formulated, the universal doctrine teaches that all the visible structures of the world -- all beings and things -- are the effects of a ubiquitous power out of which they rise, which supports and fills them during their period of manifestation, and back into which they must ultimately dissolve. This is the power known to science as energy, to the Melanesians as mana, to the Sioux Indians as wakonda, the Hindus as shakti, and the Christians as the power of God. Its manifestation in the psyche is termed, by the psychoanalysts, libido. And its manifestation in the cosmos is the structure and flux of the universe itself.'

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"This is the belief that Barry Lopez found among hunting peoples, that Bruce Chatwin found among the Aborigines of Australia. You can hear it voiced by the Lakota shaman Black Elk, by the Kiowa novelist N. Scott Momaday, by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh, or the Christian mystic Thomas Merton. You can find it in the essays of the biologist Rene Dubos, of the anthropologist Loren Eisley, and of the physicist Freeman Dyson. You can trace it everywhere in Emerson's work, as in 'The American Scholar,' where he asks, 'What is nature?' and answers, 'There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.' In their various accents, these voices declare that a spiritual landscape does indeed flicker and flame within the physical one.

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"I believe that this doctrine is widespread because it is true, or at least it is as close to the truth as we have been able to come. Sacred stories arise from our intuition that beneath the flow of creation there is an order, within change there is permanence, within time there is eternity. Everything moves; yet everything is shapely. The Apache word for myth means literally 'to tell the holiness.' By telling the holy, sacred stories ground a people or an individual, not merely in a landscape, but in the power that create and preserves the land."

Nattadon 9"Telling the Holy" by Scott Russell Sanders can be found in Wonder & Other Survival Skills, a slim volume of essays from Orion Magazine by Sanders, Diane Ackerman, Rick Bass, Anthoney Doerr and others (The Orion Society, 2012). The poem in the picture captions is from Cries of the Spirit: A Celebration of Women's Spirituality, edited by Marilyn Sewell (Beacon Press, 1991). All rights reserved by the authors.


In The Support Of Myth

Sad, even sadistic books
About snarling mindless crooks
Who much more up in further air
The rich who pile up toot share.

It is as tragic as a land of sand,
No water, no life, no hope or joy, and
The nothingness of life, bathed in sin.
Do we swallow this like cheap gin?

Wonders seen and told as a story,
Of long love, of the way to some glory
Not of gold or jewels or any cash.
The goodness of magic comes in a flash.

So many tales have survived. We tell
Truth that seems far fetched, and well
Done a fairy tale can be sung or told
To the young, by the belief of the old.

"The rich who pile up toot share" was a typo and I forgot what word it was supposed to be.
I shall leave it or if I remember I will make it known. Perhaps toot share is something crummy in another language.

What a nice reminder of where we come from, of the secular world that would separate us from our roots. It's good to remember that recent wise men [he quotes mostly men] thought it necessary to deny the past by calling it primitive.

In "Why We Garden- Cultivating a Sense of Place" Jim Nollman writes that we are moving into a biocentric world view - a life centred point of view, to quote,
"We are starting to sense that human beings are no longer at the centre of the Earth's purpose. Our species is, rather, one integral aspect of the greater interdependent network of nature." (p101)
In Europe in the 17th C (the Age of Enlightenment) there was a consciousness shift from a god centred point of view where our life on Earth was seen as a form of punishment to an anthropocentric world view where the world appeared to be made just for humans who were made in God's image & everything in Nature appeared to be made for human use and accommodation.
This thought is behind the economic rationalisation that is causing so much planetary destruction of forests, oceans & loss of species at this time.
By moving into a biocentric world view where the whole planet is sentient we have to look after & listen to Gaia, tell her stories, not exploit her! 

I agree. And the whole essay is wonderful. It's this particular essay that first drew my attention to Sander's work, and I've been reading my way through his back-list ever since.

The lack of women mentioned here is my fault, I'm afraid, in choosing this particular passage to quote. Later in the essay he cites Terry Tempest Williams, Leslie Silko, Gretel Ehrlich and Ursula Le Guin as examples of writers doing it right. (As indeed they are.)

I don't know Jim Nollman's work. Thank you for that, Mo.

"We tell Truth that seems far fetched."

That's the truth of it indeed, and very well put.

"The goodness of magic comes in a flash." YES of course!


Offal and Bones

". . .the audience falls asleep among their offal and bones."
--E.M. Forester

Not just the indigenes, Mr. F,
in your casual privilege.
We all fall into that dream,'
carrying our ancestors and our shit
in a bag that pillows our sleep.

The best tales meet us halfway,
walking up the driveway of that house,
little red wagon drawn behind
full of personal history,
like a child with her best toys.

We bring ourselves to your story,
carry it back enlarged, engorged,
engaging us on the next step
of that long mourn of a journey
we call life.

Think of that next time your write,
next time you sit in your high tower
and think the tale you tell
is all about you when really
it's all about us.

©2015 Jane Yolen all rights reserved


Sander's essay reminded me of how much Forster's Aspects of the Novel pissed me off the first time I read back in university, which happened to be at the very same time that I began studying myth & folklore.

Thank you for the perfect response!

I got so het up about the quote, Terri, I used the word THAT too many times in the poem and must go back and do a revision. But you get the gist of it.


This reminds me, however, of the time I sat with a group of fellow writers at one of the Mythic Journeys conferences in Atlanta, watching a presentation by the Joseph Campbell Foundation on the life and work of Campbell. As it went on and on, talking about man after man after man who'd ever influenced or been influenced by Campbell, Ellen Kushner leaned over to Jane Yolen, Midori Snyder, and me and said brightly: "Of course, that was in the olden days, before women existed."

Ha, ha. It's great to read a 'great' using too many THATs when all het up.

I think it oddly perfect that I have not spent time with Forester or Eliade. This quote: "The moral is clear: so long as we seek an order outside of time, we remain primitive, childish, perilously close to the beasts; only by detaching ourselves from nature, weaning ourselves from sacred stories, and accepting the terror of history as the sole reality, can we become fully human..." is what for centuries created cellular memory of conflict, and soul loss. In her book Ka Honua Ola, Kumu (teacher) Hula and keeper of Hawaiian cultural knowledge Pualani Kanaka'ole Kanahele translates and offers meaning for contemporary application, of the traditional myths of the Pele Clan. In these chants and myths are the inseparable multiple meanings and connection human has to all that is. Without access to both language (because it was prohibited) and land (because it was stolen) Eliade's would have continued to seal the 'portal to the expanse of ancestral memory.'

Sacred Ground is unwrapping through the lifetime work of teachers (like Kanahele). I am grateful to be alive to the correction.

I love this excerpt, especially the last paragraph ... "to tell the holiness", sigh, that is perfection. And I love too the conversation in the combox, because this is what makes the essay come truly most alive. It seems somehow to connect us in this modern world with the storytellers in their warm, blood-nourished caves - a cord of still-sung myth, of understanding, that may have become frayed now but we keep hanging on, we don't let it break.

(Hilarious story by the way about the Mythic Journeys conference.)

Reading this (esp. the Forester quote) bought Walter Benjamin's essay on "The Storyteller" (Der Erzähler) to mind. Maria Popova summarizes the gist of it wonderfully here:

That's because I had just said to Ellen, "Have you noticed the only photos in the slide show that had a woman in it was the one with Campbell's mother?"

It was the FIRST Mythics Journey with that brilliant Outsider Art show you curated.

I never went back.


I'm always pleased when you comment. It's like a little gold star. Rhyming has the choice to find the exact unexpected word.

I so admire you, Terri, Ellen, Midori and Terri for being the vanguards of existing women
in this early notice; women made up myth out of truth. Also, of course Ursula rattled the as yet unopened door. Recently I read that those ancient drawings on cave walls were likely to have been women.

Too many "thats" is better than dissing Myth. Ratatat-tat that.

Maria Popova is a such a gem of a conduit. I love her work, and enjoyed this link. Thank you Cathie.

Forrester and his cronies may contend that if we embalm ourselves in myth ,we are moving away from reality and remaining primitive, child-like. Yet , what they fail to perceive is how the landscape tells its own story of struggle, hunger, change, revelation, dance and war. It relates these elements of drama, of life through the action and nature of its plants, animals and weather. It provides a mirror in which humankind can see reflections of itself and thus; express that knowledge and primal awareness in prayer, stories and faith.

Hunger and Thirst

With splash and speed,
an osprey grabs his fish
aerating the water. Rushes tremble

and a spider plucks
her glistening string
among their wild leaves.

The moment throbs
vibrating in this key
of cool, of green, of granting.

Somewhere else
with grace and sprung legs
gripping the heat

a brown hare
runs through the desert
desperate to find

any moisture. A drop
shimmering clear
on a cactus needle,

a soprano's note
held long, hoping to break
the Summer's drought.

Hi Jane

Your poem speaks volumes and I say AMEN to these lines

Think of that next time your write,
next time you sit in your high tower
and think the tale you tell
is all about you when really
it's all about us.

and I say YES -- Just the perfect balance in this perspective, these lines --

The best tales meet us halfway,
walking up the driveway of that house,
little red wagon drawn behind
full of personal history,
like a child with her best toys.

Really enjoyed this one!
Many Thanks!


Hi Phyllis

Love the cadence, sharp wit and details in this poem! Your defense of myth is right on target --

It is as tragic as a land of sand,
No water, no life, no hope or joy, and
The nothingness of life, bathed in sin.
Do we swallow this like cheap gin?

You capture the idea of story without myth so perfectly in that strope. I agree whole-heartedly!

Enjoyed this,
Thank you!

An old coworker had a cartoon in his office, with a boardroom table of men and one woman. The caption read, "That's an excellent suggestion, Miss Saunders. Perhaps one of the men would like to make it." After the recent shakeup in Canadian federal government, the leader of the federal Green Party (Elizabeth Mayes) sent out a post talking about the importance of gender equality in our new Cabinet. I wrote back and told her that I disagreed, that what is needed is not gender (or race, religion, sexual orientation...) Equality but gender neutrality. Better yet, gender blindness. Hire people for skills and abilities alone.

That's taking us away from story, however. When I read about the objections to story in the post above, I was reminded of the angst surrounding the controversy of delisting Pluto as a planet (and subsequently relisting it as a dwarf planet). I don't think Pluto really cares what we call it as neither label is as important as its own assessment of itself. Those who share stories, tell stories and read stories know of their value - to them - and if person A is unable to find value in that, that's sad (to me) but each is entitled to his/her own opinion. As I was advised once, "What's important to remember is not that these things are important, but that these things are important to some people." ~ MNP.

There are many paths up the mountain, and I think we lessen our burden when we realize that not everyone is trying to get to the same place.


Right on! We, the land and all creatures are brutally in need of water. However it looks like
we will have two month of rain. I do so hope. If nobody sees me I might do a dance for water. "A soprano's note held , long...." and chanting and dancing for the earth.

I love your photographs. I pour over them and take in all the little details, colors and shapes. If I ever visited there, I think it would be quite eerie wading knee deep through the deja vu.

I completely agree with everything you say here about sacred stories and loss of language and land. I haven't read "Ka Honua Ola," but I'll seek it out now. Many thanks for the recommendation, dear lady.

As for Foster and Eliades, I have mixed feelings about them; like most people, they were complicated mixtures of the good and not-so-good. Although "Aspects of the Novel" infuriates me, I love some of Forster's own fiction -- although of course it must be viewed through the political and cultural standards of his day and not our own. And although there's a lot about Eliade's life, mythic ideas and far-right politics that I find distinctly uncongenial (to say the least), his book on alchemy opened a door for me when I was a young student of myth; and his work on shamanism, though now recognized as flawed, sent me off on paths I'm glad to have wandered. He was also a man who deeply loved nature. A complicated person indeed.

My personal aim is to honor whatever I find good in such writers, and to remind myself that the things I object to, and the attitudes I abhor, grew out of lives and life experiences so different from mine as to be almost unfathomable. Not that this excuses sexism, colonialism, etc., since nothing can; and not that it makes these things any less harmful; but it puts them in historical context...

...which in turn gives me hope, for it shows me how the world is changing. Slowly, much too slowly, but it *is* changing.

Thank you for the link, Cathie. I'm a big fan of Maria Popova, and Benjamin's essay is a gem.

Your poems are just word perfect. And once again, I also love the prose leading into the poem....

Thank you kindly. I'm not a trained photographer by any means (and I have friends who are, so I know the difference!) but I try to capture my love of this place with my little digital camera. And Tilly, of course, helps!

Jane: Charles Vess and Karen Shaffer curated that art show, not me, but I completely agree that it was brilliant!

I went back for the second Mythic Journeys conference and I'm very glad I did. They truly took criticisms of the first conference on board, and the second one was terrific, and terrifically inspiring. Less Campbell-worship, more interaction and equality between mythic scholars and creative artists, more women involved over-all, more speakers from non-Western cultures, and they even addressed the hideousness of the hotel conference space by filling the halls and rooms with art and shrines and other mythic decor. I loved it.

There was a movie about myth made from interviews with some of the speakers at the second Mythic Journeys conference, if anyone's interested:

I'm not in it (I couldn't make my schedule mesh with the filmmakers'), but other folks from the Mythic Arts field are there: Ellen Kushner & Delia Sherman, Brian & Wendy Froud, Ari Berk, etc.

Ah right! Of course they did. My apologies to Charles and Karen. The older I get, the less I remember what is and remember what I want it to be, or think it was.


Grin--love hearing that from a poet I admire.


Mutual Admiration Society, folks. Just move on. (Waves hands mysteriously.) Nothing to see here.

Aww, shucks. Thank you, Phyllis.

Oh lordy, me too. :)

Since this isn't the right place for political debate, we'll have to agree to disagree on gender/race/class equality as I'm a great supporter of it.

As for Story, yes, of course, it's a personal choice when writers like Forster chose to dismiss our great human heritage of myth, and when they encourage their readers to likewise dismiss it; just as it's my personal choice to be annoyed by being so urged! But as you say, myth itself will certainly survive the Forsters of the world, as it always has done.

I love Sanders' essay not because it's likely to change the mind of anyone who views myth as Forster did, but because there are those today who *do* love myth but are ashamed of that love, who have been taught that myth and sacred stories are "primitive," childish, useless. Thus I'm glad when writers like Sanders argue for their value, and do so with such gentle erudition, warmth, and clarity.

I think you'd love the whole essay, Sarah, if you can get hold of it. It chimes with so many things you write about.

Hi Phyllis

I will also be doing " a water dance" and hope the forecasters are right! We are in desperate need of rain and it must be copious amounts. Thank you so much for your words and thoughts! I deeply appreciate them!

Take care

Hi Phyllis,

Thanks so much for these keen and wonderful comments regarding my poem! I ,too, will do a water dance when the rain comes!

Take care

Hi Phyllis and Terri

Your kind words and keen perspective, here, are so sincerely appreciated!! I thank you both so much for taking the time to read and contemplate my thoughts, both prose and poem. That means so much to me!

Many Thanks!

Hi Terri: I've often said that emails, forums and the like aren't truly a dialogue but a series of monologues. However, I don't want a misunderstanding of my comments to leave a bad taste in your mouth so I'll try again, mostly because I believe we agree. I'm not arguing against equality; I'm envisioning a world where that isn't even considered, where it's considered so intrinsic that people don't even think about it. It may be that fighting for equality is a step in that direction but it begins with a basic tenet that inequality continues to exist. Mother Teresa is often quoted as saying that she would never attend an anti-war reality, but she was entirely in favour of a pro-peace one.

Two stories that I trust will illustrate what I'm talking about. There was a show on TV a while back called 'Third Rock From the Sun', about three extraterrestrials living on earth. I remember John Lithgow was one of the cast. I watched a part of one episode and that was more than enough for me (wasn't my style) but I remember it because there was a discussion about race and one of the characters said, "In case you haven't noticed, I'm black." John Lithgow said, "Right", took a Post-it Note and wrote "Nina is black" on it and stuck it on her forehead because from his (non-human) perspective it didn't make a difference. He didn't see it.

The other story comes from an old Métis friend of mine. When she grew old enough she sought out elders to teach her but most of yhose she approached wouldn't take her on because of her mixed heritage. She finally found someone who would apprentice her and when my friend asked her teacher why she would work with her when others wouldn't because of her blue eyes her teacher looked straight at her and replied, "Do you have blue eyes? I didn't notice." It wasn't that she was different; it simply didn't matter. I wrote a poem once called, "What colour are souls?" because what I look at is what's in people's hearts.

As a biologist and a photographer I am continually amazed by the incredible beauty and diversity of the world in which we live. Is the ant equal to the grasshopper, the bull moose, the bacterium or the oak leaf? Who would even ask such a question?

In my opinion (and everyone gets one!) if you want to celebrate being black, white, Native, Thai, Muslim, Buddhist, Christian, gay, straight or in love with Santa Claus, great! What concerns me is that too often these ideas are not used to celebrate diversity but used as an excuse to highlight discrepancies and in so doing create inequality where none NATURALLY exists.

The emphasis behind my letter to Elizabeth Mayes was that if you're a firefighter, police officer, surgeon or working in any number of critical roles, do you want to question that the person beside you is there for ANY other reason than that s/he is the best PERSON for the job?

That's all I was trying to say...sometimes I talk too much.


Mike, no need to explain, I know your heart is in the right place, that we agree on the basic subject of equality, and where we differ is simply in the politics of how to achieve it -- a subject on which there is certainly a wide range of opinon. But this blog isn't meant to be a place for political debate, and this thread of discussion has strayed off-topic. Catch me in a pub over a glass of good single malt whiskey sometime and I'd be very happy to talk politics with you, rather than here. It would no doubt be a lively discussion. Hugs, T.

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