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Robert Penn Warren Center

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Home > Newsletter > Fall 2011 > Sacred Ecology: Landscape Transformations for Ritual Practice

Sacred Ecology: Landscape Transformations for Ritual Practice

An Interview with John W. Janusek, Tracy G. Miller, and Betsey A. Robinson, Co-directors 

Janusek, Miller, Robinson
John W. Janusek, Betsey A. Robinson, and Tracy G. Miller

The 2011/2012 Faculty Fellows Program at the Warren Center, "Sacred Ecology: Landscape Transformations for Ritual Practice," is codirected by John W. Janusek, associate professor of anthropology, Tracy G. Miller, associate professor of history of art and associate professor of Asian studies, and Betsey A. Robinson, associate professor of history of art and associate professor of classical studies. The year-long interdisciplinary seminar will explore the manifold experiences of complex ritual sites around the world and across all periods of history. Sacred ecology refers to the human experience of divinity in relation to the natural environment, real or represented. Landscape is construed not simply as scenery, but as a cultural complex in which the natural world and human practice, conceptual and material, are dynamically linked and constantly interacting. This year's program draws scholars from a variety of disciplines, including anthropology, classical studies, history of art, Asian studies, history, Latin American studies, and English.

LETTERS: How did this Fellows Program come together?

MILLER: For the past eight years, John Janusek and I have been talking about where and how our work overlaps. I have been thinking about the potential of working with students on sacred sites in Asia, China specifically, and about how that would impact my research. John has been bringing students to do fieldwork with him in Bolivia for years. Together, they have been looking at sacred places and sacred landscapes. His approach is methodologically different from mine because he comes from an anthropological background, but he deals with the same kinds of issues that I do. How do people interact with landscape? How does it inspire them to create buildings? How do they integrate building structures into the landscape? How do they modify landscape for their own desires and interests in interacting with the divinities that reside at that site? From these discussions we thought it would be productive to bring together colleagues with a shared interest in this topic and to look at it through varied methodological approaches.

JANUSEK: Tracy and I both work with sites and subjects that deal with the distant past—Tracy through the lens of art history and myself through anthropological archaeology—so we've already begun to look at the resonance of this topic. We hope that bringing together scholars from different disciplines will help us to develop new perspectives on this topic.

ROBINSON: And then I came along! I joined the faculty at Vanderbilt in 2008. I am an art historian who specializes in archaeology and architectural history, but I have research interests in landscape studies and cultural geography. Because of our shared background in art history at the University of Pennsylvania, I have known Tracy for awhile, and was also already aware of John's work before I arrived on campus. At Vanderbilt, I was looking for ways of engaging with others working on architecture and landscape, so I was thrilled when conversations with Tracy and John sprouted up around issues like sanctuary development and religious experience in natural and manmade settings.

JANUSEK: We thought that bringing together a group of scholars from additional disciplines would help us to develop new perspectives, so we decided to submit a proposal to co-direct a fellows program on this theme.

LETTERS: How do you understand the terms "sacred ecology" and "ritual practice?"

ROBINSON: We came up with the term "sacred ecology" together to capture the intersection of our interests as they emerged over a year or more. It owes something to recent reading I was doing in political ecology, which tends toward economic and political studies of landscape and natural conditions. "Ecology" implies a kind of multivariate system in which the environment is a significant force in shaping human institutions and experiences, and we wanted to bring the sacred into that.

JANUSEK: As for "ritual practice," I had been working with what I was calling "religious ecology," or "animistic ecology." In South America, where I conduct my research, I have found that many of the earliest proto-urban or pre-urban centers make distinct relations to landscape as ritual, ceremonial centers. So I started tossing around the term "religious ecology," which is aligned with the notion of political ecology that Betsey just mentioned. With regard to the sacred, we are trying to think of it as the product of recurring ritual practices. Often you will have sites that are considered sacred places of pilgrimage. The reoccurrence of ritual activities over time is what renders such sites sacred. By "landscape," we of course mean the earth, but also the sky and the cosmos more generally. Because many of the societies we study are from the distant past, before clocks were devised, I think some of our discussions will attend to celestial bodies, celestial cycles, and the construction of past calendars.

MILLER: The transformation of the landscape actually works to help people identify where these sacred places are located. Rituals and ceremonies require certain configurations of the environment, so it is often changed in order to accommodate the human interaction needed to facilitate ceremonies. This transformation demarcates the site as a place to encounter sacred beings. The human marking of the landscape helps to make the sacred quality of the place identifiable for generations to come. Part of what we are dealing with is related to hermeneutics—the interpretation and reinterpretation of place as it is modified through human interaction over time. The reuse or transformation side of the equation is something that we thought would benefit from exploration through the eyes of a diverse group of scholars.

LETTERS: Could you discuss some examples within your own work, and the work of the other Warren Center Fellows, of sacred ecology and ritual practice?

JANUSEK: The urban facet of sacred ecology is one of my key interests. I am interested in how urban centers emerge, and how they are related to sacred ecologies and ritual practices. For example, when we think about urbanism, the first thing that comes to mind is the cities we inhabit, and we have very particular perspectives about this because of our own experiences in the cities where we grew up, the cities we have visited, the cities we now navigate. These perspectives emphasize certain types of relationships or movements, such as the flow of traffic or the movement of commodities into and out of the city. Yet many cities, and most past cities, emphasize other types of relationships and movements. This is especially prominent in the work of this year's William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow, Leo Coleman. Leo focuses on contemporary urban contexts with regard to religious spaces and ritual practices which remain fundamental to contemporary constructions of identity and relationships within these spaces of dynamic movement. William Fowler and I both study urban origins in the Americas, focusing on cities like Teotihuacan in Mexico, the Inca capitol of Cuzco in Peru, and, in particular, Ciudad Vieja in San Salvador and Tiwanaku in Bolivia. All of these locations reflect the beliefs and attitudes toward landscape and sacred practices of the societies who built them. Buildings were constructed with overt references to landscape and celestial cycles. For example, a temple may have been constructed to resemble a mountain, or it may have been oriented to create a visual path with its peak and certain celestial bodies. These cities were also built out of earth and stone, so their very material foundations embody the sacred nature of landscape. A Fellow who works on a similar topic is Jane Landers who lends a circum-Atlantic perspective to sacred ecology. She works with Maroon societies in the Caribbean and northern parts of South America where African communities were settled. In these regions, specific notions of the sacred were brought from Africa and mapped onto the natural landscapes that these migrant communities settled. For example, one community held a particular type of African tree to be sacred, and when they arrived in Colombia, they assigned that sacred role to a similar-looking tree. This translation of the sacred from one continent to another offers an intriguing perspective on the continuity of ritual practice as it translates across diverse landscapes. A couple of the Fellows will focus on music as part of their research. This is perfect, because Nashville is considered a sacred place for so many people. Music is fundamental in defining identity; just think of the diverse movements and communities that have aligned themselves with music, like punk rockers, hipsters, beatniks, etc. Music is ritual practice, whether live performance or recording an album.

LETTERS: So would you consider a sacred place in Nashville to be something like Tootsie's Orchid Lounge?

JANUSEK: Absolutely. Tootsie's, or the Ryman Auditorium, would both be considered sacred places in this context. Both are full of references to the past with things like signed pictures on the walls of well-known musicians who embody the spirit of country music, and that is really important to those who come to these places looking for that connection. Outside of the Nashville example, music has been a part of ritual practice for many people throughout the world. It is certainly ubiquitous where I work in the Americas.

MILLER: The three of us have talked a lot about the total sensory experience of ritual, not just landscape or architecture, but sound and scent as well. These senses, sound and scent, are extremely difficult to reconstruct, as are elements like dance and performance. The performative aspect of ritual is something that we would like to be able to incorporate into our own understanding of the way these sacred spaces were used. Where I work in China, there is an increasing theatricality associated with temple sites over time, and it is really interesting for me to see how the placement of the theater has changed over time. For the most part, the change has gone from open spaces for ritual performance to specific buildings that are actually used for particular theatrical performances. Those buildings remind me, as a scholar, of the richness of the experience that is absent now, particularly from temples in modern China where most of the ritual practice has been eradicated. These practices are slowly being reconstructed, but they are being reconstructed from textual sources, which is an intriguing situation.

ROBINSON: I am looking at two places in my current project, both in central Greece: The Valley of the Muses, a sanctuary that is owned and operated by the Thespians in honor of those female deities who inspire poets and musicians, and Delphi, a seat of Apollo, the god of music and creativity. These two sites are, by their very essence, musical, and musical competitions were central to their religious rites. What fascinates me about these two mountain sanctuaries, though, are the resonances between the natural settings, ritual practices, and monumental development. However, one of this year's Fellows, Bronwen Wickkiser, is working with music and ritual in a more concrete way. She is studying a new kind of building that appeared in certain Greek sanctuaries in the 4th century B.C. She and her collaborators believe that the form of these elegant circular monuments, or "tholoi," are related to the performance of hymns within the religious rituals of the sites. We also have Helena Simonett whose interests revolve around acoustemology and other forms of highly studied scholarship in musicology, and the ways that music is used for understanding the world. I am particularly interested in her ethnographic studies of native Mexicans and their connections to the past through festivals and mountain retreats. Her steps from sound and music to visualization and mental images are related to ritual practice.

MILLER: Helena's research is parallel to that of Rob Campany who has investigated visualization practice as part of the sacred experience in early medieval China. With this group of scholars we hope to work with the concept of landscape not just in terms of physical landscape, but also the imagined landscape and how it can be used to ritually attain a different kind of physical place within the body. I think we are trying to move beyond our preconceived notions of the natural landscape to envisioning landscape as something modified for human use. This allows room for increasing abstraction, from architecture as landscape (including structural modifications made to accommodate ritual expression through music) to visualization as landscape—whereby an imagined place can be used as part of ritual practice. We are excited to look beyond the methodologies used when approaching landscape through archeology or anthropology, to the manner in which people understand and write about their experiences of different landscape forms. Roger Moore will bring to the table his studies of the use, destruction, and secularization of monasteries in England and the literary representation of these events. He also looks at the cultural and psychological wounds caused by the rapid desacralization of these constructed landscapes. The creation and legacy of sacred sites depends not just on the physical site itself, but on the ways people think and write about those places.

LETTERS: What, to you, connects these various sacred sites or landscapes that are geographically and temporally separated?

ROBINSON: When I think about each of the Fellow's research, one project always leads into another, whether geographically, thematically, or temporally. There is definitely synergy amongst the work that we are all doing: this group's shared work forms a dynamic matrix for co-exploration.

LETTERS: How does the topic of the Fellows Program relate to current interest and activities in sustainability and other studies of the environment?

JANUSEK: Well, as we are speaking, it is raining heavily outside, and we recently marked the one year anniversary of the massive flood that hit Nashville. That event was a reminder of the sheer scale of contemporary urbanism and of the transformations of nature that, to a great degree, produced the weather patterns responsible for the rain, and the altered drainage systems that produced the flooding. We have to move away from the idea that nature is a passive, inert backdrop to be exploited and move toward a middle ground that understands nature as an integral and dynamic aspect of human history. In many ways, the aim of our group this year is to find that middle ground.


ROBINSON: I think "sustainability" is a term of our time. It is what we, or at least a few of us, are thinking about now and hoping that more people become aware of. This earth is certainly beyond the point of what it can tolerate with regard to human degradation of landscape and resources, so we have to figure out how to go forward in a more healthful way. The investigation of responses, by other peoples, and across time, can be very illuminating.

MILLER: Sustainability is really a shift away from industrialization and the embracing of technology and the manmade environment. As John said, we can all see the effects of pollution and environmental destruction in the urbanscapes around us. The question is, how can we salvage our environment?


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