No Unsacred Places

THE LIGHT WAS GRAY before the orange of full dawn, enough to see outlines and objects, potholes and gravel, but not yet enough to make out the details of things. It was a Sunday morning. I was on my way to work—a priest preparing for the sacred things—vested in spandex and Lycra, pedaling my bike through the back roads of west Little Rock. I was commuting, as I do on my best days, by bike. It is my time of moving meditation, the mode of travel by which I arrive most refreshed, most alive, most healthy—my body becoming whole without subtracting from the world.

I made the turn from the old highway, left onto a newer road with an old French name, bike lanes running along either side. There are still large tracts of forest here, pine and hardwoods mixed over the rocky hillsides. This was once timber-company land, and from the size of the trees, I’d guess the place had been cut 40 years ago. Though young, as forests go, the woods echoed in the morning light with the zing of golden-crowned kinglets, the seee-se-se-se of white-throated sparrows—a chorus as good as any choir in any other sacred space.

I often talk with people about God, the name many of us give to the personal beyond—beyond space, beyond time, beyond being—and yet here, present with us in some way. Like all ultimate realities, God is confusing and contentious and best not brought up in polite company. As a priest, however, it is my work to say the name, to speak the sacred, even in the everyday. I have found through my conversations that everyone from conscientious churchgoers to those doubtful of the divine all feel something sacred in the wildest parts of the world. Whatever the explanation for that feeling, from an evolutionary advantage to the proper perception of a space sustained by God-given life, the sacred sense remains.

The road rose over a hill, the first of several climbs. My breath quickened, I could feel my heart beating against my shirt, and I stood to push toward the crest. And then I saw something large and dark lying in the road over the white icon of a cyclist painted on the pavement. I unclipped my right shoe, braking to stop and see what it was. There, spread across the blacktop, was a bobcat. Its spotted coat, just visible in the early light, was clear; its muscular form, stopped in a run, still looked powerful.

I have seen only one living bobcat that I can remember. It ran across the road when I was on a summer break from college doing bird research at the Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge. It was an early morning like this one, and the large-yet-familiar form of a cat had darted across the road a few yards in front of me. Now, here was one of these beautiful and elusive beasts, dead and up-close. It had been hit by a car, its life sacrificed for speed, just as many animal and human lives have been sacrificed before. Somehow, though, this particular animal’s death seemed like a premonition that morning.

It was the next week that the trucks came—bulldozers, circular saws spinning from mechanical arms. Within a week, the woods were burning brush piles and dozer-scraped mud; a stack of the sellable timber sat by the road. Had the bobcat been disturbed by surveyors tying their bright ribbons from the trees? Had she somehow sensed her home was no longer safe, that the road must be crossed to find another place? I cannot know, but as I now ride past those former woods that are slowly taking shape into another tract of housing, I think of that bobcat’s death and the cutting of those woods as a common desecration—a sacrifice of holy things for enough speed for long commutes and enough square feet for dedicated entertainment rooms.

“There are no unsacred places, / there are only sacred places / and desecrated places,” the poet Wendell Berry has written. If religion has anything to offer, I think it is the ability to see and name the sacred and desecrated—sacred and desecrated bodies, sacred and desecrated lives, sacred and desecrated places. And as I’ve moved into my vocation as a priest, I’ve come to realize that most of the time they are never purely one or another. The sacred and desecrated are often mixed, the light pushing through the dark.

Several weeks after the trucks arrived and the cutting began and all the trees had been hauled away, I rode again past the spot where the bobcat had lain dead and the forest stood alive. Now it was all mud, clear of even a blade of grass or dried leaf—no evidence of the woods that had been alive with a neighborhood of creatures.

As I looked back over the cleared ground, I saw the muddy ridges of a bulldozer’s tracks, twisted in the circle of a turn. The way the orange light of the morning sun cast shadows on the tracks made them look like the prayerful path of a labyrinth. The backhoes and dozers were rumbling to life, so I was too timid to trespass the site. But looking across that muddy labyrinth, I was tempted to go out and walk it, to recognize that no amount of clearing could obscure the fact that this is still sacred ground.

Ragan Sutterfield’s most recent book is Wendell Berry and the Given Life.