Of Earth and mountains, sacred and mundane

It was one of those climate-change stories that, at least briefly, made headlines. On Aug. 19, a group of about 100 people, including Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdóttir, gathered at the site of the first Icelandic glacier lost to climate change: Okjokull. A plaque titled A Letter to the Future stated, in Icelandic and English: “In the next 200 years all our glaciers are expected to follow the same path. This monument is to acknowledge that we knew what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.” 

Roughly equidistant from Okjokull are two legendary mountains, one, Snaefellsjokull, is near the end of a peninsula pointing to Greenland, and is renowned both as a “power center,” radiating healing power and as the site of Jules Verne’s novel, “Journey to the Center of the Earth.” The other, Hekla, to the southeast, was for centuries regarded as the gateway to Hell, a reputation founded on its long history of prodigious eruptions. 

On the other side of the world, in Tibet, there is the four-sided Himalayan Mt. Kailas. The source of four major Indian rivers, Kailas is regarded as sacred by four religions: Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism and Bon. 

Humans have invested mountains with divinity for millennia. Mt. Olympus was regarded as the home of the Greek gods; it was on Mt. Sinai, in the Sinai Peninsula, that Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments, while Mt. Mira, near Mecca, is thought to be the site where Muhammed received his first revelations of the Quran. 

To my knowledge, never in the history of the United States has a mountain of any height been recognized as radiating healing or as conferring a blessing on those who make a pilgrimage around it, as in the case of Mt. Kailas. From the days of the Plymouth plantation, land on this continent has been viewed as mundane: an area to be measured, fenced, exploited, with ownership officially certified in the form of a deed. In the United States, the only ground that is considered hallowed is ground on which people have been killed, as at Gettysburg and Arlington, or as the result of terrorist attack, as at Ground Zero. 

In the western hemisphere, the Navajo regard four mountain ranges as particularly sacred and throughout the United States, indigenous people have long regarded certain sites — both high and low and including lakes and rivers — as sacred. (The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s legal battle to prevent the Dakota Access Pipeline from desecrating sacred land is presently being fought out in the U.S. District Court, in Washington, D.C.)

Shed blood alone makes American land sacred. The rest is open to drilling, dynamiting, mining and logging, as evidenced by President Trump’s Aug. 27 instruction to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to exempt the 16.7-million-acre Tongass National Forest in Alaska from logging restrictions, and the administration’s decision to shrink the Bears Ears National Monument by 85%, thus opening for exploration and extraction more than a million acres of land regarded as significant to the spiritual life of several Southwestern tribes.

The words “one nation under God,” solemnly uttered with hand over heart while reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, ring as hollow as the Liberty Bell when that nation’s leader shows no mercy to the Lord’s creation, but instead pursues a course of pillaging, plundering and poisoning both the land and the water from sea to shining sea.



Jon Swan is a poet, translator, and free-lance writer, whose articles on environmental issues have appeared in several magazines, including Tikkun. New and collected poems can be found on-line at jonswanpoems  He and his wife live in Yarmouth, Maine.