Sunday, February 16, 2014

113. The Sacred in Secular New York

     This post is about the sacred in New York – a bizarre notion, given the invincibly secular nature of the city.  Maybe there is no sacred here, and yet maybe, just maybe, there is.  We’ll see.  I’ll go at it in three parts.

The Sacredness of Water

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                                                                                       Elke Wetzig
     On the radio recently I heard an interview with Vandana Shiva, an Indian environmental activist and author who is fighting against the privatization of water in her country.  “For us,” she said, “water is sacred.”  She also noted how Indians see the Ganges as their mother.  She then described how Coca-Cola had come to a small village in the state of Kerala in southern India and opened a bottling plant there.  This might sound like progress and was no doubt presented as such, but the plant consumed all the water in the area, forcing the women to walk miles to obtain water for their households.  Outraged by this, one of the older women organized the others and launched a campaign to get rid of the plant.  As a result of their efforts the village council refused to renew the plant’s license, causing the plant to shut down.  “What shall I tell them back in Delhi?” Vandana Shiva asked the leader of the struggle, Delhi being the capital, where the government was making deals with foreign companies like Coca-Cola.  The leader replied, “Tell them they drink the blood of my people.”

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Bathing in the Ganges.
Biswarup Ganguly

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A formidable foe, bigger than life.
Paul Arrington
     This interview and all that Vandana Shiva said impressed me greatly, above all her emphasis on the sacredness of water.  Primal peoples and traditional societies all over the globe believe in this, just as they see the earth as their mother, but we in the developed societies, being obsessed with science, find this notion strange.  Water is certainly necessary, precious, essential, but … sacred?  No, to our ears that sounds strange.  Yet it inspired the village women to take on the mighty Coca-Cola Company and, against all odds, defeat it.  To view water as sacred may be a tough sell in a city like New York, the victim recently of two powerful hurricanes whose flooding caused vast damage, but the water we’re talking about is of course fresh water, not salt.  And I do think that we should give this idea consideration: the sacredness of water.  In some strange way it reaches to my depths, it resonates.

     As I have often said before, New York City came into existence because of water, salt and fresh, and could not exist without it.  Its large harbor, and its location at the mouth of a navigable river, the Hudson, stretching deep into the interior of the continent, predestined it to flourish as a trading post and port, then as a  metropolis, then a money center, and then a cultural center, too.  Where there is commerce, money will accumulate, and where there is money, culture and the arts will follow.  But it all began with water, and the city’s fate will always be linked to water.

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Pete Seeger in 2011.
Jim, the Photographer
     But will that water be clean?  We don’t think of water as sacred.  We have thought of it in the past as something to be used, to be exploited, and the result has been pollution.  Finally, after the pollution reached alarming levels, we began to be aware of the problem.  The late Pete Seeger was a pioneer in the fight against pollution in the Hudson.  Though he was born and died in the city, he lived most of his life in Beacon, a river town about midway between New York and Albany.  In the 1940s he acquired land there and built a one-room log cabin on a hillside overlooking the Hudson, hewing the wood and laying the stone foundation himself, and later adding a bedroom for his wife.  In time he became aware of the river’s pollution, which was so bad that wooden boats from the Caribbean would sail up the river, so its poisons would kill the worms and other parasites that were boring into their hulls.  Loving the river, Seeger launched a campaign to clean it up.

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The Clearwater sailing on the Hudson.


     In the late 1960s Seeger raised money to build the 106-foot river sloop Clearwater, modeled on the Hudson River sloops of yore; its name proclaimed his goal: to clean up the Hudson’s dirty water.  To get the sloop built, he and his allies had to go all the way to Friendship, Maine, to find a shipyard capable of the task.  Launched in 1969, the sloop has plied the  Hudson ever since, educating people about the river’s pollution and the dangers it imposes.  Seeger even sailed the Clearwater down to Washington to serenade members of Congress and, in so doing, educate them as well.  As a result of his and others’ efforts, Congress passed the Clean Water Act of 1972.

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Another formidable foe.
     To pass a law is one thing; to enforce it is another.  There was still plenty of pollution in the Hudson, so the Clearwater sailed up and down the river, stopping at river towns along the way to tell schoolchildren and adults about pollution, and posting the names  of the greatest polluters, with General Electric’s at the top of the list.  For years GE’s facilities at Hudson Falls and Fort Edward, about 50 miles north of Albany, had been dumping tons of toxic polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) into the river, contaminating the entire river and its fish, as well as humans who drank that water or ate the fish.  In the course of my hiking in the Hudson Valley, I encountered the sloop more than once, and on one occasion enjoyed a short sail on it and talked with the crew.  I even volunteered to do a stint on it, but cancer reared its ugly head and I had to give that up and have surgery (successful) instead. 

     In 1977, thanks to the Clearwater’s efforts and others, PCBs were banned in the United States.  But what about the PCBs  already in the river?  In 1983 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) declared a 200-mile stretch of the river, from Hudson Falls to New York City, to be a Superfund site requiring cleanup, but GE started the necessary dredging only in 2009.  What was happening in the meantime?  Faced with dredging costs of an estimated $460 million, GE, like any U.S. corporation worthy of its name, fought the cleanup tooth and nail.  It lobbied Congress, attacked the Superfund law in court, and funded a media campaign to spread disinformation about the usefulness of the cleanup, alleging that dredging the river would in fact stir up PCBs.  Finally, in 2002, a landmark decision by the EPA ordered GE to create a plan to remove the PCBs from the river.  After further delaying tactics, GE finally began dredging, a process that is still under way.  Given its past maneuverings, GE requires close supervision throughout.  As the kids said in the 1960s, “Corporations have no souls.”

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The Hudson, looking north from Bear Mountain Bridge.
Can we fish in it?  Can we swim in it?

Rolf Müller

     So even if we today don’t think of water as sacred, we at least appreciate its importance and campaign long and hard – inspired by the likes of Pete Seeger – to keep it pure and clean.  His motto: “Think globally, act locally.”  And that is what he did.

The Idea of the Holy

     Pete Seeger’s songs were often pacifist and contemplative in nature, even spiritual.  Was he religious?  In the conventional sense, perhaps not.  But one can be spiritual without being overtly religious.  “I feel most spiritual when I’m out in the woods,” he told an interviewer.  “I feel a part of nature….   I used to say I was an atheist.  Now, I say, it’s all according to your definition of God.  According to my definition of God, I’m not an atheist.  Because I think God is everything.  Whenever I open my eyes I’m looking at God.  Whenever I’m listening to something I’m listening to God.”  Saying this, he speaks for many Americans today.

     Personally I think that anyone who sees a night sky filled with stars, or a sunrise or sunset, will experience some hint of the spiritual, even of the sacred or holy.  But in the city one rarely has the full experience of these things.  Can a city resident experience the sacred or holy anyway?

     In his book The Idea of the Holy (Das Heilige, 1917), the German author Rudolf Otto examined the nature of the holy.  He saw the experience of the holy as involving three things: a feeling of awe, of something weird or uncanny, yet fascinating; a feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming might; and an awareness of tremendous energy.  Deep in all of us, Otto insists, is an irrational yearning, a need of the overabounding and unutterable. 

     Let’s face it, to experience such feelings in a noisy, congested city ain’t easy.  The Hebrew prophets forsook the settled areas of Palestine and went out into the wilderness to get clean with God and hear his commands, then returned to civilization to preach and proclaim and inveigh.  To experience the holy requires silence, and in the city there isn’t much of it.  Yes, a believer can take refuge in a church or temple or synagogue, but how many of us today are true believers?  We need silence, for in silence the spirit speaks.  But where can we find that silence?  Pete Seeger points the way, for even in the city or near it, we can find places of sanctuary and silence, places where we can be alone and experience something at least a little bit akin to the holy.  In my experience I can name five.  They won’t work for everyone, but they have worked – modestly – for me.

My Five Secret Spots

     Of course they aren’t really secret; they are there for all to see, but most people ignore them or pass them quickly by.  I have mentioned some of them before in different contexts.  Here they are.

Tanner’s Spring

     Well known to bird watchers and photographers, but to almost no one else, Tanner’s Spring is a small pool of water in a wooded area on the west side of Central Park near the park’s 81st Street entrance, accessed by either of two short paths of wood chips.  One of two natural springs in the park, it is named for Dr. Henry S. Tanner, an advocate of therapeutic fasting, who in the summer of 1880 fasted for forty days and nights, drinking only water from this spring.  Since he survived, it was thought that the spring must have magically concentrated nutrients, but this seems doubtful; it is simply a spot where migrating birds often gather to drink and bathe.  I have seen warblers and tanagers and sparrows there, but even when it is barren of birds, it is a quiet spot where you can sit quietly on a stone bench, relax, reflect, and feel a bit of what Pete Seeger felt in the woods: something spiritual, maybe even, in the woods all around you, God.  In silence the spirit speaks.  And a spring gives forth water, which means it gives forth life.  Again, the sacredness of water.

The Wildflower Meadow

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Green-headed coneflower, eating up the sun.
     Another special spot for me is the Wildflower Meadow at the North End of Central Park, especially in late August, when many of the flowers achieve full growth.  We think of wildflowers as dainty little earth-hugging plants flaunting charming bits of color, but here, towering above us, are tall coreopsis and cup plant and green-headed coneflower, hardy composites rising to nine or ten or twelve or rarely even fifteen feet above the ground, thrusting their greedy yellow light-gobbling flowers at the sun.  They are dazzling, and for us lowly earth-bound mortals, humbling. 

     Here I always get a hint of what visitors feel upon viewing the giant sequoias of California: awe at the mightiness of nature, its ability to humble us, to put us in our place.  In other words, the feeling of powerlessness in the face of overwhelming might, one of the feelings that Rudolph Otto associates with the experience of the holy.  But only a hint.  To my knowledge, no one was ever won over to God or the gods by looking at a wildflower, not even one that towers far above us. 

The Meadow at Pelham Bay Park

     Here is another meadow, quite open to the public and quite ignored by them, which makes it just that much more interesting for me.  It is accessed from the picnic area at Orchard Beach, but only if you know which path to take, since there are several false starts leading nowhere.  After failing to find the right path and giving up on the Meadow many times, I finally learned to watch for a threesome of trees, two of them sycamores, and to get my bearings from the location of several distant buildings.  Doing this, I then found the one right path and followed it into some underbrush, zigging and zagging a bit over dry ground, and emerged in an open weedy area where the noise of picnickers and the more distant bathers faded, and I had the whole place to myself, with the occasional exception of a nude male sunbather, another initiate whom I could easily avoid. 

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Fruit of the staghorn sumac.

     What I found in the Meadow were the hairy bright red fruit of the staghorn sumac, and  early goldenrod and mountain mint and other wildflowers, and silence.  Above all, silence.  Sitting on a smooth outcropping of rock, watching puffy white clouds drift across a clean blue sky, I was immersed in silence, in the gentle fullness of summer, and maybe, just maybe, in God. 

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Silence, for sure.  Something more?  It depends on the observer.

     There’s lots to ponder here.  A public space, found only by the knowing few.  False starts, and then a secret path: seek, and ye shall find.  Silence, calm, peace.  

The Groin of Summer

     I have described this spot before, a low, wet area on Staten Island’s Red Trail that I have often visited on a hot, muggy day in August, and that I have never had to share, even briefly, with another passing hiker.  There, thriving in the rich, moist soil, are a bunch of thirsty wildflowers: boneset, its hairy stem with paired veiny leaves thrusting clusters of white flowers; Pennsylvania smartweed, with tight spikes of tiny pink flowers; and above all, rising to seven feet, a thick growth of  New York ironweed luring bumblebees and cabbage butterflies and swallowtails to its flat-topped clusters of flowers of a bold purple hue.  I have christened this spot the Groin of Summer because it seems the very essence of the season, secret, fertile, moist, hot, and sensual.  Before hiking on to higher, drier ground with different flowers, I have always lingered there, reluctant to leave a very special spot that I won’t see for another year.

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New York ironweed.  One of the boldest purples I have found in nature.

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Uma, the Mother Goddess, consort of Shiva.
She comes in many forms.
     Yes, the Groin is profoundly sensual.  Far from hinting of the spiritual and sacred, it seems to suggest the very opposite: the Slut of Sluts, Eve, Big Mama, the vegetation goddess whom so many pagan religions and primal societies the world over have worshipped under many names, and who has haunted my psyche, emerging in poetry and even a previous post (#59) of this blog.  

As Eve the Temptress she was shunned and abhorred by the male-dominated early Christian Church, until pressure from below – from the people – forced the male hierarchy to acknowledge her, to accept and embrace her as the pure and compassionate Virgin, the spiritual face and persona of the many-faced, inevitable, and inescapable Great Mother.  So the Temptress became the Pure One, Madonna, the Goddess who pleads for us all on the Day of Judgment.  And boy, let’s hope she’ll do a good job of it because, if you go that route, most of us are going to need some help.

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Eve tempting Adam.  Here, the serpent too is female: a double threat.
A Raffael mural at the Vatican.

The Virgin Mary, by Nikolaos Doxaras, ca.1700.
Eve redeemed; nothing sensual here.

 The Giant Stairs

     The last of my special spots is the Giant Stairs, a huge jumble of rocks and boulders that over the years, even centuries, have fallen down from the Palisades, that towering wall of dark gray rock stretching for miles along the Jersey side of the Hudson River.  The Shore Path of the Palisades brings you to this stretch, which I have clambered over several times, rarely meeting another hiker along the way.  To hike this quarter-mile stretch always took me forty-five minutes, since you hike up, down, and around the fallen boulders, some of which teeter under your feet.  Lizards, small mammals, venomous copperheads, and other creatures lurk in the dark tunnels and caves and crevices beneath the boulders, but you never encounter them, since your noisy clambering gives them plenty of warning to get out of the way.  The hiker treks the sun-drenched face of the boulders; the creatures keep to the depths. 

     So what is there of the spiritual or sacred here?  A reminder of the power – seemingly capricious and unpredictable – of Nature, or whatever force underlies or inspires Nature’s doings.  I have told elsewhere (post #104) how, on May 12, 2012, a huge face of rock came crashing down from the cliffs, dumping a fresh layer of boulders onto the Stairs and sweeping a whole growth of trees into the river.  Because the slide occurred in the evening, the Stairs were clear of hikers and no one was injured.  But like any sudden and unexpected manifestation of Nature’s power, it was alarming and humbling, worthy of the savage God, jealous and unpitying, of the Old Testament.  Skeptics will scoff at the suggestion of a divine intervention, but deep down in most of us lurks the fear, irrational and unavowed, of just such a God-wrought calamity.  Reason has its limits; even the most secular aren’t always sober and sane.

     My five spots are all gateways to silence, portals of dream.  They invite quiet and reflection, provoke fantasies of Big Mama or Yahweh, some awe-inspiring Other that we aspire to or might want to avoid.  My fantasies, of course, no one else’s.  Another hiker might get no hint of the sensual Eve in the Groin, no thought of a punishing God while scrambling over the Giant Stairs.  Maybe we find what we already know and contain within us; maybe we seek because we have found.

     The silence of my special spots points me back to another German scholar, Max Picard, and his work The World of Silence (Die Welt des Schweigen, 1948).  Picard’s silence, which is mine as well (see post #55), is all around us, embracing our little universe of noise.  We come from it, we in the end go back to it.  It is a complete world in itself, uncreated and everlasting, distant, yet close.  When we talk to one another, it is always there, listening.  It reveals itself in the dawn, in the aspiration of trees toward the sky, in the descent of night, in the change of seasons, but above all in the silence of our inner selves.  Art can convey it.  Cathedrals were built around silence, are reservoirs of it.  Today the marble statues of Greek gods lie embedded like white islands of silence amid the noise of our world.  The cities of that world are reservoirs of noise.  As for the radio (Picard was writing before the advent of television), one can imagine what he thinks of its incessant babble.  But in sleep, if it is deep and soothing, we can return to the great silence of the universe.  And beyond that silence is Being, the Creator. 

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                                                                                                                                                                                Henry Mühlpfordt

     Even in the babble and bustle of New York, then, one can experience a silence that leads us back to the spiritual, the Other, the Creator.  Maybe most of us will settle for that silence, or a slice of it, and proceed no further, so as not to discombobulate our snug and comfy secular self.  But if we look quietly at some bit of nature like my special spots, we will find that silence.  Or in a museum.  In the South Asian galleries of the Met, I never fail to marvel at the sinuous, twisting body of a bejeweled, limbless, full-breasted dancer who seems the very embodiment of the sensual, and am awed by Shiva, delicately poised on one foot in his cosmic dance, and by the sublime calm of a nearby Jain seated in meditation.  

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These images too convey silence, rich, meaningful, profound.  How can that silence, even when tinged with eroticism, not be spiritual as well?  And in Shiva and the Jain, as in Buddhas anywhere, the sacred shines forth; how can we not acknowledge it, revere it?  Without some form of the sacred, our lives would be incomplete.

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       Two strikes on WBAI:  Tired as I am of station WBAI's endless appeals for donations, one fund drive coming hot on the heels of another, I did decide a week ago to make another modest contribution.  Since the opera program early Sunday morning probably has only a small audience, I like to contribute as one of their supporters.  But when I tried a week ago, the volunteer answering the phone didn't know the program and advised me to phone back when I knew its name.  Alas, the program's host never mentioned the name.  Strike one.  Today I tried again, knowing the name -- Through the Opera Glass -- and got a recorded message: "The extension you dialed is not available at this time."  This, in the midst of a fund drive with desperate appeals for money.  Strike two.

      Two phoenixes come to New York:  Two phoenixes, one male and one female,  made of shovels, hard hats, pliers, saws, screwdrivers, plastic tubing, drills, and other salvaged construction debris from China -- the creations of Chinese artist Xu Bing -- now hover overhead in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Morningside Heights.  No, I haven't seen them, only photos of them in the New York Times, but they look epic in proportions, monumental.  Weighing over 12 tons together, the huge birds required over 30 hoists and 140 feet of trussing to lift them into place, one in front of the other, so they seem to soar.  A curious addition (for about a year) in a magnificent Gothic-style church, bearing an implied message about modern industry and labor, though in their present setting the artist sees them as having a sacred quality.  And so, once again, the sacred in New York.

      Coming soon:  Freedom, Fakery, and Freaks: Coney Island.  After that, who knows?

      ©  2014  Clifford Browder


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