Rural economic developers may be overlooking treasures hidden in plain sight: the diverse places that residents consider sacred.
A cougar crossed the road.
I was driving a small stretch of East Texas highway, my daily commute, when in a moment — in just seconds, as she raced away — a sacred place was created. I didn’t have a spiritual or religious experience, but the door to wildness opened a crack and I peeked through. A look, a memory, was seared into my mind. I will never forget the sight of that cougar. I will never forget the feeling of awe as I watched her. And whenever I pass that stretch of road, I will look for her again.
How do we identify places as sacred? From one perspective, social, historical, and collective consistency designate a place as sacred. People go to certain spots repeatedly to do certain things (rituals) associated with some aspect of the supernatural. Belief, behavior, symbols, placement, and even architecture come together to produce a place that a group recognizes as significant. For a sacred place to endure as such, the knowledge and experiences associated with it are repeated and passed down through generations. We can all list places that meet these criteria: churches, synagogues, temples, cemeteries, to name just a few, and as well as Stonehenge and the kivas of Chaco Canyon.
But how do we as individuals identify sacred places? How do we bond with certain surroundings through systems of belief — faith? Could thinking in these more individual terms help us design public spaces better? How could this knowledge enhance community development or re-development?
To address these questions, sociologist Tom Segady and I designed a pilot study using a method known as photovoice. Members of a community are given cameras and asked to take photographs in response to a set of questions. Volunteer particpants take photographs and in a journal explain why they photographed what they did. Using this method, we wanted to find out (1) what landscapes or landscape features people identify as sacred and (2) how individuals engage their environment through faith.
Originally we had wanted to work with representatives from as many religions as possible, but for the pilot, we decided to work with Christian churches located in Nacogdoches, Texas. We recruited 36 volunteers from seven different churches to participate. The average volunteer was 47, white, female, and married, with an annual household income between $30,000 and $60,000. Participants in our sample were also well-educated; over half had completed a college or advanced degree. After attending a training session, each volunteer was given a “point and shoot” camera and a journal and asked to take photographs in response to three guiding questions:
(1) As a person of faith, what do you value in your landscape?
(2) What landscapes or landscape features best reflect your relationship with God?
(3) To what landscapes or landscape features do you attach spiritual significance and why?
One year later, at the conclusion of the pilot study, we had collected 329 photographs with associated journal entries.
What the volunteers supplied was truly astounding. Each journal took us on a spiritual journey, not only through the life of each author/photographer but through Nacogdoches and the surrounding area. Our participants photographed a mix of natural, public, and private landscapes. They photographed, recorded, and interpreted everything from traditional sacred spaces, such as churches and cemeteries, to playgrounds, parks, and family pets. On the project webpage you can watch video compilations from each participating group. These videos reveal the range of landscapes and features photographed as well as the particpants’ various interpretations of sacredness and spiritual significance.
Subjects, Groups, and Themes
Three types of landscapes were photographed: public (40%), natural (36%), and private (24%). Across all three categories volunteers focused more on landscapes carved out of natural settings (parks, gardens, etc.) than on built landscapes and features (buildings, monuments, etc.). Built landscapes and landscape features were photographed but these scenes made up only about a quarter of the total number of photographs taken. (For more detailed information on the types of landscapes and features photographed, cluster charts are linked to the project webpage.)
Within these categories, volunteers had definite favorites for subjects. Among public landscapes, the most frequently photographed places were parks and public gardens, with an emphasis on paths and trails. Churches and cemeteries, also categorized as public landscapes, came in a close second. Within this group, churches, particularly church exteriors and associated prayer gardens, were the most popular subjects, followed closely by cemeteries.
Within natural landscapes, our volunteers focused primarily on vegetation, trees being the favorite subject. Finally, private landscapes focused on gardens, with an emphasis on flower gardens.
While the breakdown of the types of places interested us, we were most intent on knowing how our volunteers interpreted and interacted with these landscapes as sacred places. Using both the journal entries and the photographs, we identified 11 themes, divided into 3 groups: the individual, making connections, and life. Within the individual, we included photos and journal entries that expressed the author’s personal relationship with God, a personal spiritual journey or pilgrimage, and the identification of an individual sanctuary. In making connections, we grouped photos and text that spoke of the presence of God, connection to the divine, God’s love, and connections to family, community, or humanity in general. Finally, in life we identified the themes of living or still waters, cycles or resurrection, the preservation or sacredness of life, and creation or nature.
Among the three groups, 43% of the photos and text were included in making connections, 35% in life, and 21% were included in the individual.
It is interesting to note that across all the photos and text, no matter what their theme or grouping, approximately 25% of all the journal entries identified a place as sacred if it had been associated with the memory of an event or specific emotion that may or may not have occurred or originated at that location — like my cougar encounter. In other words, a fourth of all the places considered sacred evoked a memory or emotion; “I remember” and “I feel” were the most commonly used phrases in these entries. (For future study, we have developed a model incorporating the use of memory in identifying sacred places. See the project webpage.)
Ramifications and Possibilities
This small study showed us how individuals relate to their environments and process their surroundings, how they assign meaning to places on a day-to-day basis. Our volunteers engaged their environments through the minutiae, establishing a “personal relationship” with landscape features. Instead of looking at broad vistas, they focused on details. They attended to the individual tree, not the forest. We believe that this relationship with the environment, as voiced by our participants, is an extension of the individual’s perceived “personal relationship” with God (when this interaction is viewed through the lens of faith), actualizing and giving it tangibility.
What does this mean pragmatically, in the larger world? We believe that in the planning and design of public spaces particular attention needs to be paid to the small space and small details. People need to be able to interact intimately with their surroundings, as it is through such interaction that they assign it meaning. Once meaning is assigned, as demonstrated through journal entries, individuals revisit locations, not to accomplish specific activities necessarily but to engage their surroundings at a spiritual level.
How can these ideas be put to use in economic redevelopment? Unfortunately many small towns have empty spaces downtown where buildings have been abandoned and allowed to collapse. In a previous photovoice study in Overton, Texas, I asked members of the community to photograph landscapes they valued. One structure, Tandy Reid Post 362, did not get photographed even though volunteers identified it as a particularly meaningful place. They did not photograph it because they had heard it was to be torn down; thus they had purposefully “disconnected” from it.
As this structure has yet to be demolished, perhaps it could be put to use, rehabilitated as a pocket park in the downtown area. According to Alison Blake, “One of the unique and exciting characteristics of pocket parks is that they may be created out of vacant lots or otherwise forgotten spaces.” In addition to providing a respite from day-to-day activities, such small-space parks present individuals with opportunities to engage their environment directly, in ways that may build spiritual attachment and lead to repeat visits. If located within downtown areas, such parks may stimulate economic growth as more people may utilize existing services, and such services could potentially expand.
Small parks and gardens enhance a community. This was recognized in 1914 in Tyler, Texas, when a newspaper columnist wrote, “Flowers and gardens help a town morally. They keep people contented. The influence is felt in everyday life. They keep people in a pleasant frame of mind that is felt in every circle, even in business. They help.”
Our project suggests that the columnist was right: gardens help a town “morally” in that they allow people the space and time to interact with and reflect on their surroundings, helping them make broader connections and perhaps eventually assigning spiritual or sacred significance to a location. Once that significance is assigned, the individual makes a commitment to the place, returning to it to renew the experience.
In the Future
This pilot study focused on Christian groups in a rural area. In the future we hope to expand the research, recruiting groups from a variety of faiths and including participants in urban areas also. Based on our initial findings, we have even more questions about how individuals interact with their surroundings through faith, and we wonder if what we found in Nacogdoches will hold true in different places, across different religions.
Already, this research brings to the forefront two ideas: that people should be given more opportunity to connect personally to their surroundings and that through these connections people build spiritual attachments and commitments to a place. Having greater understanding of how people are bound to their surroundings spiritually can only be of assistance in the design, development, and re-development of public spaces leading to increased community well-being.
Kelley Snowden is an Adjunct Professor who teaches geography in the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas. She is also a research associate with the Center for Regional Heritage Research at SFASU. Her colleague, Tom Segady, is a sociologist with the Department of Social and Cultural Analysis at SFASU. This pilot study was conducted with a grant from the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects at Stephen F. Austin State University, Nacogdoches, Texas.