Sacred Dirt

Volume 49, Issue 1

Imagine, for a moment, a forest, perhaps a redwood grove, with sunlight slanting through the trees. If you have ever stood among the redwoods, it is hard not to feel a sense of the holy, what the theologian Rudolf Otto described as the “numinous.” In his book, The History of Gardens, landscape scholar Christopher Thacker observes: “The first gardens were not made, but discovered…. In the oldest accounts, such spots [natural features felt to possess a mysterious quality of difference from their surroundings, such as a clearing in the forest, a valley, or island] are the gardens of the gods.”

Redwood trees exude a sense of the primordial; they can live thousands of years and have existed on Earth as a species since long before humans. It is easy to forget that vegetation is key to life on Earth: plants provide the oxygen that we breathe, and plants, in turn, need carbon dioxide. This relationship is now out of balance as humans are producing vast quantities of carbon dioxide, too much for the Earth’s vegetation to use or sequester. As a result, the Earth is heating up, creating change to the planet’s climate, and deforestation is a major result.

The idea that humans and the Earth live in a reciprocal relationship, and that contact with nature is beneficial or healing to humans, has long been an intuitive understanding. But in the last 25 years or so, a growing body of empirical evidence supports that contact with nature, especially vegetation, has a beneficial effect on human physical and psychological health. This includes lower blood pressure, reduced muscle tension, and elevated mood. These are many of the same beneficial effects of a meditative or contemplative practice.

This idea of creating a sacred place in which the power of nature can be experienced as a numinous presence certainly exists, at least for me, in artist Walter De Maria’s “New York Earth Room.” The artwork is located in a New York City SoHo brownstone; climbing a flight of stairs visitors are startled to see three feet of black dirt covering the entire floor of a former apartment. It is an inaccessible place of contemplation, it is a garden about the soil. Soil is millions of years old, and, again, it is easy to forget, but soil sustains life and all gardens and forests. In Gilles A. Tiberghein’s book Land Art, De Maria is quoted saying of this work, “The earth is not only there to be seen, but also to force people to think about it,” adding, “God has given us the earth, but we have ignored it.” While it is very rare for a contemporary artist to speak so directly to the transcendent (giving the project and his words a great deal of revelatory power), the garden has often been seen as the meeting point between “Heaven and Earth.” The German writer and philosopher Rudolf Borchardt wrote, “The human being embodies a tension between a nature which has since been lost and an unreachable Divine Creator. The garden stands at precisely the center of this tension.”

A rarified space such as De Maria’s “New York Earth Room,” and even more ordinary spaces like community gardens, remind us that the soil of our Earth is worthy of our attention and even reverence. Ancient archetypes of forest and clearing continue to resonate qualities of healing and the numinous to us in settings both sacred and secular.

The author is a professor of landscape architecture at the University of Minnesota and a multimedia artist and designer working in sculpture, installations, and site art. This essay was adapted from a longer piece that appears in Transcending Architecture, edited by Julio Bermudez (CUA Press, 2015).