Sacred Landscape

Earlier this week, I was listening to a lecture1 by Alan Garner on the link between legend and landscape. He first retells a legend told to him by his grandfather — a mason from a village in Cheshire, like most of Garner's relatives, going back to the 16th century. The rest of the lecture is the fruit of Garner's own research into the land of his childhood and a beautifully allusive reflection on the way that shared memory, embedded in a specific place, can lead the attentive down into the subterranean chambers of the human reality.

What I find remarkable about Garner is his openness to the potential that this deepest human reality might itself open on something beyond the human sphere. He identifies the wound we inflict on ourselves by only accepting truths that can be framed and verified in the scientific register. But in soaking in his story, I'm convinced by his claim that to encode and uncover the supernatural as embedded in the land is one of our most human intuitions.

In Catholic historical contexts, that intuition was not dismissed, but incorporated into the medieval sacred landscape of holy people and holy places. Relics, pilgrimages, and even ambivalent places on the edge of towns — the liminal zones Garner describes — grew up alongside a thoroughgoing Christian faith. This is the "enchantment" that was lost (there are competing theories about how) in the coming of modernity.

The Problem of Displacement

Garner is one of a handful of children's book authors whose imaginative world centers around the idea of pagan survivals — in language, landmark, and supernatural encounters. He writes the kinds of books set in the kinds of places that are exactly reminiscent of my favorite books in childhood. He is a man rooted in his own home as an inheritance, working in an imaginative world that he did not invent and that was not absorbed third hand, from a book. His home is where he learned, as he says in an interview, “the rockness of rock and the treeness of trees.” As an adult reader, his lifelong belonging makes me envy him. And my envy is not, I hope, just sentimental, Anglophiliac nostalgia run wild.

On the other hand, if Anglophilia is a kind of bookish recognition of the appeal of continuity, perhaps it makes sense to be wistful about it in light of the rupture inherent in American life. I grew up in the Northwest and I live in the Southwest: historical rupture is the only story we have, whether we are telling the stories of Native Americans or settlers of European origin. My distance from the longue durée history of the landscape cuts both ways. For me, both prehistoric Native American and European village life is something I can mainly only encounter through books. I think for Phoenicians, this is even more evident, as much of our local history is younger than some of the trees in the hills where I grew up. There are some physical continuities in the landscape to uncover — I'll get there in a minute — but I think the tribal elder Garner quotes could demand of us, with not a little justice, "If this is your land, where are your stories?"

Stories about Phoenix?

If it's stories he wants, I don't have them! The plight of the Phoenician transplant is that most of her friends and coworkers are transplants, too. We can learn local history from books, but it doesn't reach us as completely unless we hear it from someone else. The sense of belonging I feel for the place I grew up is a function not just of my childhood spent outside in it, but also of my dad's stories and explanations, dripped out over the course of two decades, and of the unassuming exchange of place-name and anecdote that happens in places where the majority of people belong.

I was lucky enough to move in with a local last year, my friend Becca, who remembered to tell me at one point, after we'd been renting our house for months, that a prehistoric Hohokam canal used to run along the hedgerow of our backyard.

I could not rest until I'd sussed out what exactly she knew, how she knew it, and whether I could verify it with my almighty library research. The plan hatching in my mind was to conduct my own excavation — the Bastables meets The String in the Harp, or something (and do please let me know if you get that reference). If I could find something and know that it was really old, could imagine the life lived hundreds of years ago in the place that I live now, something fundamental would fall into place in my life in Phoenix.

My twin sister was in town, and we pelted to the public library. We paged through books of old city plans from early in the century and only succeeded in confirming the kinds of generalities we already knew: the Grand Canal, the prehistoric remains, the early settlers. The local history collection was impressive, but overwhelmingly consisted of books that were library use only. I went home feeling the familiar frustration of the researcher — and the fainter disquiet of the researcher who senses that maybe no library at all could quench this particular thirst.

"Oh, and I forgot to say," my roommate told me sometime later. "The tree behind the yard is the oldest Mesquite tree in Phoenix."

"Really?" I asked. I wanted it to be true. I wanted proof it was true.

"At least, that's what the tour guides say who walk past on the street."

She said something more about the multiple trunks growing out of a single root structure, the obscure arboreal calculations I didn't understand and can't remember but don't exactly want to. It's a tree, not a hill or a stone — but I like to be living alongside something oldest.


  1. You can listen to this lecture on iTunes U, under the Bodleian Library's collection (BODcasts) — it's #50, part of the 2010 Oxford Literary Festival, and entitled "By Seven Firs and Goldenstone: An account of the Legend of Alderley."
Kristen Wegener