I worked for a week at a project near the town of Needles. Its purpose was to clean up an incursion of hexavalent chromium seeping underground toward the Colorado River upstream from where the City of Los Angeles draws its drinking water. But there was a problem. The local Mojave tribe claimed the pipeline cut through its sacred space, the Mystic Maze, a series of furrows created by the ancient ones before the dawn of human memory. The project manager showed me an aerial photograph. He told me it was best visible at dusk or dawn, when the shadows were right. So, one evening I stood on a hill and looked out over the desert, but I saw nothing.
This got me thinking about sacred space. Are some things more sacred than others? Sure, it’s nice to think that everything is sacred, but if everything is sacred, then nothing is sacred. For something to be sacred, it must be set aside, distinguished from the things that are profane, or at least mundane.
My job took me to environmental clean-up sites in small towns all over America. I decided I would spend my off hours looking for the sacred places everywhere I went. Sometimes I went on intuition. Sometimes I enquired from the locals.
Hilltops were often sacred. If there was a cross on a hilltop I would usually find that the natives considered the place sacred long before the cross was erected, and the Christians were just picking up on energy already established. Point in case: Portland’s own Council Crest, so named because the elders of the tribes used to council there, laying the foundations of peace between them. Later it was thought the name came about because elders of the various Christian churches met there to discuss the evangelization of the city.
I would climb to the top of every sacred hill and place a small cairn of stones. Burial mounds, old colonial graveyards, caves, certain bodies of water, places where mysterious orbs of glowing light were sighted, were all deemed sacred, or at least spooky.
Conversely there are places that have been profaned by human activity. Wounded Knee comes to mind, or the site of the Whitman massacre near Walla Walla, Washington. Like many others I picked up an eerie vibe at Chaco Canyon, where the Anasazi people built a complex civilization, then abandoned it suddenly, as if fleeing some unnamed predator.
A shaman takes ordinary objects- wood, deerskin- and bends them into a drum. He plays it for many years at ceremonies and the drum becomes sacred. People gather in a certain place to sing, pray, dance, sit in collective silence, merging their energies, longings, joys and fears. The vibrations gather and linger. You walk into such a place and you can feel it.
Not all things and places are sacred. If we start by making our bodies and hearts sacred, we will leave some holiness in the things we touch, the places we go as we travel through our lives.
 — Jim Nail