Frank Joseph (ed.), Sacred Sites Of The West: A Guide To Mystical Centers (Hancock House Publishers, 1997)
As an Australian, I have long had a fascination with the spiritual power of Aboriginal faith. More than 10,000 years ago, the Australian Aborigines gave rise to an animistic spiritual tradition in which they infused the earth and the land with stories of spiritual beings, stories they call "dreamings." The various thousands of dreamings explain how and why particular land formations came to be as they exist today. The Aborigines also attributed "song-lines" to these dreamings, so that, if they could remember the way the songs were sung and the order in which they must be arranged, they would essentially be able to create a musical map of a continent that is roughly eighty percent desert. If they could remember the songs properly, they would never lose their way across a country that looks the same for thousands of miles around: they would know which dreamings lie to the north, the south, the east and west, and so they would know what kind of terrain they were heading towards. Essentially, what they possessed was a spiritual guide to the physical world.
Like the Aboriginal spiritual traditions, many Native American traditions are largely ignored or misinterpreted, or glossed over and romanticized beyond recognition, and for this reason a book like Sacred Sites Of The West is most welcome. Editor Frank Joseph's collection of essays concerning the mystical centers and spiritualized land formations of Native Americans serves as a concise, informative, and gripping investigation into how our modern world has lost or abandoned the last tenets of these animistic traditions, as well as a practical guide to the ways in which we may embark on a journey to rediscover them.
"Among the essential ingredients of any sacred site," Joseph writes, "is its power to excite a sense of wonder in those who come to feel themselves nurtured by it." I believe those words are true. I also believe that the sense of wonder that Joseph writes of is extremely difficult to convey in words alone; you must experience it to understand it. I believe now that Joseph comes as close as a writer can come to conveying that experience in words. He achieves this by collaborating with several other writers to offer a collection of thirty-seven essays, each of which follows a more-or-less identical formula that only hints at the sense of wonder these mystical centers can provoke, rather than attempting to explicitly convey it.
The essays are divided into nine sections. Each section accounts for a different area of the United States and Canada Alaska, Alberta, British Columbia, Montana, Oregon, Saskatchewan, Utah, Washington, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories and each of these is prefaced with a map of the area. The essays themselves focus on a spiritual site of particular significance, with a brief introduction to the site followed by a clear examination of its mystical significance, complete with instructions on how, where, and when to best access the area. This format is more effective than a standard handbook tour guide: first it tells us what to expect from these sites, then it piques our interest with a hint of mystical overtones, and finally it tells us exactly how to get there and experience the mysticism for ourselves, and, in so doing, it makes us want to get up and go. If armchair traveling is more to your liking, you might want to give Sacred Sites a miss because it's a sure thing that you'll have your hiking boots strapped on in no time.
Most impressive of all is the book's adventurousness: it's not afraid to veer off into controversial, off-beat territory. Alberta's ancient Lac Saint Anne and British Columbia's legendary Keremeos Mound are featured right beside less spiritual and more paranormal phenomena such as the Sasquatch and the Ogopogo monster of Lake Okanagan, not to mention the more contemporary spiritual sites of Washington's Stonehenge replica and the Thunderbird Park totem poles.
The book manages to convey a sense of wonder with surprising frequency, particularly in the editor's own account of the annual gathering of eagles that descends on the town of Squamish in British Columbia, so beautifully conveyed that I could not resist reproducing a portion of it here.
"This somewhat eerie, certainly awesome location possesses some unknown, numinous quality that occasions one of the great events of the natural world," Frank Joseph writes of Squamish and the stone monoliths that tower over it. "Each autumn, a few days after the fall equinox, an annual wind descends on the Squamish vicinity. It is caused by the thunderous beating of innumerable pairs of gigantic, powerful wings. They beat together in such dense numbers, they collectively form an impossibly huge, black sky-beast with thousands of eyes, talons and beaks, roaring on the gusts of afternoon turbulence like a terrible, thousand-throated god. This is the yearly arrival of eagles [more than 3700 of the enormous birds] possibly the greatest convocation of its kind on Earth."
In Sacred Sites, impressive phenomena is presented as a gift wrapped in impressive prose. Most of the essays are extremely well-written, considerably well-researched, easy to read with sharp and insightful observations, and are captivating on a stylistic level and a narrative level, as well as a factual one. Even if you're not interested in the non-fictional elements, the stories associated with these sacred sites are intriguing enough to keep you hooked.
Of course, occasionally, there's a cloud wrapped around this silver lining, and it comes in the form of Joseph's questionable talents as an editor. "It is seldom, if ever, in our busy world that we have the opportunity to be so completely alone with self," writes Florence L. McClain of the Utah Canyonlands. "[But] this place is indifferent to human presence. It remains whether we go or stay, live or die. Each individual has the choice of how profound or superficial the experience will be." These are true words also, and poetic ones at that, but they hint at the book's only noticeable underlying pretension: a strong tendency towards the promotion of schmaltzy New Age ideals. Don't be mistaken: this is not an all-pervasive fault. Frank Joseph himself contributes roughly thirty of the thirty-seven essays in the book; these simplistically spiritual ideals manifest in almost every essay except for his own. The worst instance comes at the beginning of the book in the form of suggestions for effective meditation techniques to try out while visiting these sacred sites. Later in the book, L. Christine Hayes writes in-depth of a message she received which was, she says, channeled to her by "an other-dimensional being" during a visit to Zion National Park in Utah.
Of course there's nothing inherently wrong in writing essays from such overtly spiritual angles it is the focus of the book, after all but because such suggestions for the encouragement of mystical experiences included in this book appear in only a handful of the essays, they skew its overall effectiveness as a guide, and they unbalance the solid objectivity of the remainder of the collection. Moreover, for all the talk of how "each individual has the choice of how profound or superficial the experience will be," several authors have a tendency to cast an explicitly spiritual and personal light on these mystical centers, and such tendencies really don't leave much room for individual interpretation at all. Perhaps it's just me, perhaps those readers who do hold spiritual beliefs will get more out of these features than I did, but, although I wrote at the beginning of this review that I have long held an interest in spiritual affairs, it is only an interest, not a belief. As such, I wish the editor had paid more attention to ironing out the personal bias of his writers, since that bias renders some portions of the book uneven, or self-indulgent, and worthy only of skipping over; but, then, these portions are too few to bother reading in-depth, and too superficial to mention here. You'll know them when you see them, and when you do it's best to move on to the next chapter. Their presence, however, suggests that Joseph is better as a writer than as an editor. His essays are consistently the best ones on offer in Sacred Sites Of The West, and thankfully they comprise the majority of the book.
Is a guide like this, then, a modern-day companion to the lost art of the song-line? The maps in here suggest as much, as does the editor's almost subliminal fixation on remnants of primitive geomancy, "that ancient science of interpreting the landscape in spiritual terms." There's no way to do the opposite, to interpret the landscape in physical or literal terms, without being boring or nonsensical; Joseph himself readily admits to this in his essay on the Northern Lights when he writes, "Nature is unbowed, unconquered, serenely eternal, unique in all the world for reasons more profoundly felt than readily verbalized." With those words in mind, I'd like to think that Sacred Sites complements the song-lines and dreamings and totem poles and sacred sites of primitive peoples in that, while those things were designed by ancient civilizations as spiritual guides to the physical world, here we have a collection of writings that act as a physical guide to the spiritual world. Despite its significant but sparse shortcomings, Sacred Sites Of The West manages to capture and convey the awesome mystery behind remnants of civilizations that are now largely lost to us; as such, it is an invaluable tool through which we can re-join the path towards a form of spirituality we may have otherwise ignored or neglected to see altogether. And if nothing else, it's also a great read.