Voices Topics Info

Sarah Oliphant

            High alpine desert, stretching sky, and jagged peaks comprise the landscape that the people of Crestone and the Baca National Wildlife Refuge call home.  Many see the land as providing beyond what is needed for survival.  How one interprets and values the landscape and one’s beliefs are intertwined, and consequently build off of each other.  The harsh climate and dangerous peaks demand reverence, leading some to consider the land itself as a divine being or a gateway to the divine.  Others value the landscape for its unique wildlife and ecosystems.  What makes the land powerful for the people of Crestone and why is this landscape in particular ideal for spiritual practices?  How might natural gas drilling affect how one values the land?

Uniqueness of the Landscape

            Crestone and the surrounding area is often envisioned as a valuable resource for our time– the barely-touched landscape and the broad spectrum of religious communities are an uncommon combination.  Tamar Ellentuck, a Buddhist practitioner and co-founder of the Crestone Spiritual Alliance, states, “we are unique in our geography.  There are very few places left in the world and in the United States where you can have this kind of isolation” (Interviewer: B. Wheeler).  A place that is both isolated and spacious might be seen as an ideal location for religious practice and personal growth.  The Sangre de Cristo and San Juan mountain ranges form a vast but secluded corridor known as the San Luis Valley.  Seltong, a Crestone resident and ordained Tibetan Buddhist nun, comments on the sheer space and magnified scale of the land:

“There’s a remarkable combination here of openness, this huge valley that’s bordered on three sides, and then it just opens out into space down into the south, so you have this wonderful combination of mountains surrounding you, but then there’s all this space in the middle of it.  It’s fairly unusual because usually when you find mountains and valleys, they are much narrower than this.  Other places, the sun is on the valley floor for only three hours a day. That’s one of things I find really unusual about this because I’ve always loved the mountains, but it’s like living in the sky here.”  (Interviewer: W. Conti)

She demonstrates her own distinctive take on the land– it is more than just beautiful scenery.  There is this aspect of absence in the landscape that she values.  It is not only the forms, such as the mountains, but also the blankness of the landscape which might be why she feels it is “like living in the sky.”  This value of spaciousness is paralleled in other areas of Crestone life.  For instance, many religious groups in the area value minimal contact with the larger society, allowing space for reflection and meditation.  There is wide-open space protected by the mountains that allows for this privacy.  This quality of seclusion and detachment from society is interesting because while the landscape provides separation from the outside world, people are more noticed within the community.  All forms in the landscape stick out much in the way that no one in Crestone goes unnoticed.
Tamar Ellentuck feels the area is “the environment that’s described from time immemorial in their sacred wisdom traditions about being the kind of place where meditative, mostly quiet meditative practices, can best flourish.” (Interviewer: B. Wheeler). The fact that Seltong sees living in this area as “living in the sky” seems to be in conjunction with her Buddhist practices, where a quality of emptiness in the mind is valued.  Craig Hase of the Crestone Mountain Zen Center also describes the wide-open landscape as having an impact on similar practices.  “The more I’m here, practicing here, especially the particular kinds of practices that we do, the more I feel spaciousness and a wideness in my mind that is I think particular to this landscape” (Interviewers: P. Morgan and R. Yokum).  What is sometimes seen as important for the people in this area is what is not there.  This also runs true for some people who are not affiliated with the religious communities.  The lack of land development and industry is highly valued in the Crestone/Baca area.
The Inner Relationship with the Landscape
Whether affiliated with Crestone’s religious communities or not, the common feeling is that this specific location is very powerful.  The power or energy is often seen as a helpful source for furthering spiritual practice. It is also described as holding a kind of intensity that might be overwhelming to those who visit.  The landscape is commonly seen as holding an innate power, but there is also a notion that it accumulates this power from human activity.  In Crestone, one’s inner landscape can be transformed by the outer landscape.  The land can also be seen as “living,” and this notion is connected to the sense of power that it holds.
Debra Floyd, a storeowner of “The Village Witch” feels that it is the physical aspects of the landscape, as well as its innate energy, that has a strong affect on people:
            “If you just look at it geographically— the altitude, the harsh conditions to live in, the weather, and financially, and all of this— it constantly tests your metal. It is not any easy place to live, not at all. [It is as] if you are being mirrored, the place is just in your face all the time about whatever issues you have unresolved… [It is] high above the masses, closer to the sun, the source of spiritual power. The air is very rarified like a higher atmosphere spiritually. Its not a real comfy place, so you get the sense of traveling, journeying through life” (Interviewers: A. Jackson and C. Mckenna).
The area is often described as harsh in these ways, but it is usually not seen as being of a wholly negative quality.  A difficult environment could be thought of as a useful challenge for some, creating a strong sense of solidarity among the community and a greater tolerance for hardship.  When Debra describes the higher altitude as something that parallels a “higher atmosphere spiritually,” it shows how high points in the landscape are often thought of as being closer to the divine, or simply enhancing one’s well-being.  Because it is a unique environment, people might pay more attention to its qualities and the way one is affected by them.  Since Debra does not identify with a particular religious group, she shows how nature might be a path to the divine.  The fact that she does not see the landscape as “comfy” and feels like she is traveling even though she is a permanent resident might be seen as a parallel to the lifestyle of a pilgrim.  Pilgrimage, defined in one way, is “a journey undertaken by a person in quest of a state that he or she believes to embody a valued ideal,” (Morinis quoted in Bowie, 2006).  There is also a “notion of a sacred center with an intrinsic pulling power” (Bowie, 2006).  Debra feels she on constant pilgrimage in Crestone.  She finds the area to be meaningful by interpreting the landscape as powerful based on its history and her own experiences in the place.
            Some residents of Crestone speak of a strong relationship with the land.  Joy Kells, a volunteer firefighter and a member of the Cottonhood sustainable co-op, describes her personal interpretation of landscape and her feeling that all of the earth is sacred:
“I sit out and I look out at that mountain every day and there is a place in the mountain that is a silhouette of a woman’s face crying to the sky. And it looks like Mother Earth crying to me…I am pretty much a worshipper of Mother Earth and the sacredness of the unity of all life”  (Interviewer: A. Jackson).
Joy describes Mother Earth as crying to her in particular; she has a sense of a very close with the land.  This shows the emotional quality that the landscape can take on, as if it is a living being.  Interpreting forms in the landscape might be seen as a way of breathing life in to it.  The land might also be seen as mirroring the emotions of oneself.  There are multiple examples of strong relationships in Crestone.  This powerful connection to the land might parallel the social life of Crestone, being such a tight-knit community.  People know and value their relationships within the community, as well as with the landscape.  There is a personification of the landscape, and so activities such as natural gas drilling become even more offensive and violent.
How We Might Affect the Land
            There are a variety of opinions in the community as to whether the power of the landscape can be destroyed.  Some people feel that it can never be “unsacred”, while others feel that activities such as natural gas drilling would ruin the atmosphere.
Bill Jedis, a Crestone resident on retreat with the Dharma Ocean Foundation, believes the land will hold meaning despite physical harm done to it.
“You can’t make things unsacred, you can deface them…I expect that the mountain will always be as sacred as it is until it wears down after millions of years, and there’s also the suspicion that nature will win, it’s going to outlast us, nature has the upper hand.” (Interviewers: A. Schwartz and A. Mersereau)
While this does not speak to whether a religious organization can still function in the face of drilling, it does reveal a sense of the landscapes innate power.  Others, such as Matthew Crowley of the Shumei Center feels that their centers cannot be relocated, that the specific energy in Crestone could never be recreated. “It wouldn't be possible to replace this now that it is established,” (Interviewer: M. Haymer). Drilling would affect the notion of a quiet, pristine landscape.  It would also be in contrast with the current values that people in the area place on the landscape.
            The impending threat of natural gas drilling on the land seems to intensify people’s value of it.  Residents are now in a stage of close examination of exactly why they think the land is significant.  The land might become more meaningful now that it is being threatened.  Likewise, Lexam’s value of the land might increase, creating more tension between the residents and the company.  At this time, Lexam probably sees the landscape as somewhat “alive” with possibilities.  It becomes a bit sacred in this sense.  The land is powerful for Lexam, but in a different way than many Crestone residents.  There is a sense of mystery and power for Lexam at the subsurface level, and this is something they share with the people of Crestone.  However, if the Baca NWR is drilled, it will only remain meaningful and valuable for Lexam if there actually is natural gas.  Perhaps, if nothing is found, or when the resources have been fully extracted, the landscape will become “dead” for them, whereas those who value the area for its less tangible aspects will see the landscape as continuing to live.  Some might agree that “sacred sites often remain remarkably constant while the uses to which they are put changes” (Bowie, 2006).  This is interesting because it reveals how differently residents with similar interests might view the landscape.  Those who feel that the area will be ruined by the drilling might see the area as holding meaning that is directly related to the physical aspects of the land.  Others feel that the Crestone/Baca area will retain its meaning and sacredness despite destruction of the land.  It is empowered due to human activity, and it is something that is not innate in the landscape, but rather innate in humans.  Most people seem to have a combination of these views– they acknowledge that their activities in the land give it meaning and power, but they are frustrated by the idea of the landscape they have bestowed with such significance being destroyed.

Fiona, Bowie. The Anthropology of Religion. 2nd ed. Malden, ME: Blackwell, 2006.