Deciding what's sacred in a region


January 07, 1995|By TOM HORTON

How can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land?

Listen to the words, a moving statement of modern ecological sentiment, attributed to Chief Seattle almost a century and a half ago as his response to federal offers of a reservation:

The earth does not belong to man, man belongs to the earth. . . . When the buffalo are all slaughtered, the wild horses all tamed, the secret corners of the forest heavy with the scent of many men . . . say good-bye to the end of living and the beginning of survival.

In recent decades the speech has been quoted worldwide, made into a best-selling book for children, excerpted on T-shirts and showcased in Joseph Campbell's PBS series, "The Power of Myth."

A tiny problem is that the chief never said it.

We now know that the powerful words are mostly the product of an ad writer's script, created for a 1971 Southern Baptist Convention film. The "hoax" -- the ad man never attempted to disguise what he did -- has been exposed in many places, from the New York Times to Reader's Digest.

More intriguing to me is how popular the sentiments remain despite the little green lie about their origin. Ralph Lutts, a Virginia scholar who writes compellingly about the nexus of science, sentiment and nature, offers this explanation: "It appeals to a hunger in our culture for a spirituality that embraces nature," a theme, he says, that increasingly we will recognize in controversies involving the environment.

The fib also indicates modern reticence about our kinship with nature; we find it better to put words in the mouth of an early 19th-century Native American than to accept them as the ringing truths of late 20th-century white man.

Seattle did give a most poignant and eloquent speech in 1854, a sad and gracious acceptance of his tribe's powerlessness to resist movement to a reservation.

Lutts recently sent me what researchers now call a reasonably close translation of what the old chief said. It lacks the sham

version's modern, over-arching, ecological themes of connectedness.

But Seattle's real words speak well to a promising, grass-roots trend of communities around the Chesapeake Bay and nationwide to reinvent and rediscover their environmental and cultural roots.

"It matters little where we pass the remnant of our days. They will not be many," Seattle said.

But the White Father in Washington should realize just what land and place meant to the culture he was about to disenfranchise, the chief went on. "Every part of this soil is sacred . . . every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove, has been hallowed by some sad or happy event. Even the rocks . . . thrill with memories . . . and the very dust responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours."

It might seem a long way from the tribal lands of Seattle's Pacific Northwest to the shores of the Annapolis Peninsula, containing Maryland's capital and bounded by the South and Severn rivers and the bay.

But next Saturday, Jan. 14, residents and public officials will gather for a "summit conference" there to identify and map what organizers are calling the region's "sacred places."

The meeting is the outgrowth of an initial summit in October that drew more than 200 persons interested in building a vision for the peninsula's future that retains and enhances both its human and natural communities.

It will be, to say the least, a challenge. State planners say Anne Arundel County, with about 4 percent of Maryland's land, suffered 10 per cent of the state's forest loss from 1973 to 1990 and lost a total of nearly 30 square miles of forest and farmland. If trends persist, the county stands to lose an additional 60 square miles by 2020.

And in substantially developed areas like Parole, retail and office space will double by 2020, and housing will triple or quadruple. No less than nine road projects are proposed to ease the projected traffic snarls.

The sacred places concept is an attempt to articulate what citizens value about the places where they live and use those guidelines as a litmus test for the quality of development, said Anne Pearson, an Annapolis resident and a director of the local Alliance for Sustainable Communities.

The concept was developed and successfully used in the declining Outer Banks town of Manteo, N.C., several years ago and has spread in various forms to other places, she said.

Sacred places may range from a marsh along Weems Creek to a traditional community gathering spot, such as the Eastport post office, summit organizers said at a recent planning session.

They may include a farmers' market, a pocket of urban green space designed to double as a storm water basin, or a certain view of the water or public access to the shoreline.

They are not just spots to be preserved forever, but also guides to allow development to retain a certain look or feel that was important to people, said Paul Massicott, an official with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, who is also a summit organizer.

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