a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Both mythology and topography provide for people and cultures ‘maps’ of the world. …But all of us, individually and culturally, live in the mappings of our imagined landscape, with its charged centers and its dim peripheries, with its mountaintops and its terrae incognitae, with its powerful sentimental and emotional three-dimensionality, with its bordered terrain and the loyalty it inspires, with its holy places, both private and communally shared.
Diana Eck, India: a Sacred Geography
In Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer suggests that myths can help us reshape our attitude toward the earth and its diverse inhabitants from greed to gratitude. This, she suggests, can lead to a more sustainable way of being in the world. The earth-diver origin motif found often in the lore of American indigenous people points to a relationship between land, place, and the shared efforts of diverse inhabitants.
Ours is a landscape robbed of myth, and our myths are deprived of place. Mythic dislocation – the increasing isolation of people from their natural and human environments, and from the lore that laces them together – is one of the consequences of our culture of technocratic consumerism. But while such dislocation may be a symptom of our cultural disease, displacement – the disruption of the comforts of quotidian experience – can chart new meaning for us, deepening our appreciation of the life around us. In other words, displacement can grace us with place.
A glance toward the Misty Mountains can illustrate this point. When, in The Lord of the Rings, Frodo and Company embarked from Rivendell, each of them found deeper connections to each other, their world, and themselves through their displacement, finding instead a stronger sense of belonging. This self-discovery was especially true of the Hobbits, for whom the Shire was transformed from a habitation numbed by familiarity to a home through adventures in strange lands and the wide range of characters they met along the way.
I am a case in point for the beneficial impact of displacement. Growing up in the West, near mountain ranges and the Pacific Ocean, I like to imagine myself as most comfortable and “at home” in the wilderness. There, relationships come easily, as the trees stand in quiet communion, brooks cackle and guffaw, and people draw on the camaraderie of the wild to shape their interactions with other humans. Instead of the anonymity of occupational identities, playful trail-names cultivate stories, generosity, and companionship. It is in the wilderness where I sleep best, feel most relaxed, and abide in gratitude. The sacredness of wild spaces is intimately connected to its aliveness undeadened by plough or girder.
Having moved to the Midwest two decades ago, however, I have developed a love for eastern Iowa as well, and for the city of Dubuque in particular. Iowa has had well over 90% of its landscape transformed by modern human activity, one of the highest percentages in the U.S. There is no wilderness here. Even nature preserves are patches between endless miles of farmland, roads, and settlements. Here, an hour of walking unexposed to the wounds and scabs of cultivation or civilization would be a rare occurrence indeed. Here, the land is hostage to humanity’s innovation and ambition. But it is beautiful nonetheless. Not only visually, but also because here there is a deliberate partnership between humans and the land (albeit an unequal one). Unlike the vast urban masses and suburban land-scrapes in many other locations, in Iowa, one is constantly aware of the land and grateful for it. Even in its cities, we are only a few minutes away from striking reminders of our connectedness to the earth.
Dubuque is lovely. Golden bluffs watch over its urban heart sculpted by the sensual curves of the enormous meandering Mississippi, while Victorian and Craftsman homes in all their elegant variety nestle along ridge-bent roads, and wood and prairie nature preserves rest an easy bike ride from my mid-city house. It is a place that hasn’t forgotten its rootedness, as evidenced by the abundant maples and sycamores and walnuts and elms and ash and hickories adorning its streets like icons in a sanctuary.
The city’s physical grace, however, is only part of my fondness for it. What has really made it a “place” for me, a home inhabited by tales and belonging, are the diverse relationships it has cultivated, as fertile as the miles of tillage that surround it. Just as I have come to appreciate the remarkable beauty of Iowa’s physical landscape – so initially alien to me – I have also grown by venturing into the imagined topographies that map others’ cultural experiences of this city in the Driftless region.
While I am a lifelong Christian, I have long been interested in religious diversity, having studied Islam, Judaism, and Hinduism. Still, I had not set foot in a mosque before I moved to Dubuque, had seldom visited a synagogue, and had spent only a couple of uncomfortable hours with Hindu saints. In this city, however, I have built deep friendships with the imam of the mosque, a president of a synagogue, and many others from those communities. I am now a frequent participant in juma prayer and I am well-known at the Temple. The hospitality I have experienced amongst them makes me feel as though I belong, regardless of my Christian identity, my very white skin, and my limp, monolingual tongue. The interfaith community we have built together is the strongest extended community I have ever experienced. We are part of each other.
Sadly, churches everywhere have too often become definitively territorial, areas where ritual comforts can assist us in ignoring others’ experiences of life, and where the role of relationships is to confirm biases and affirm fantasies of self and society. These so-called “sacred spaces” are better termed sacral territories, “sacral” connoting an inherent magical quality held exclusively by a select group. My experience teaches me, on the other hand, that true sacred spaces are where images are invitations to otherness, where space is an open realm for discovery, time is infinite, and where people find stories together.
“Children of Abraham,” the name we have given our interfaith community in Dubuque, is defined by displacement; all are intentionally crossing liminalities in order to encounter other people in terms that go beyond self. Through generous listening, we enter into the experience of others who orient around religion and worldview differently. Because the city has small populations of non-Christians, representation is unequal. But alongside the presence of Muslims, Jews, Agnostics, and occasional Buddhists at our monthly gatherings of 120-150 people, we draw from multiple Catholic and Protestant congregations, including Social Justice Christians, Fundamentalists, and Mormons. We have significant participation from five college campuses, two seminaries, three convents, and around two dozen churches. We are enfleshed by participants from every decade of life between their teens and 80s.
Every person who participates in Children of Abraham, either once or as a regular, is stepping out of a comfort zone and into the “displacement” of a beloved community. We take this displacement around the city, into public areas, colleges, churches, and other places of worship. As we do so, we help to grow sacral territories into sacred spaces.
A couple of months before the official opening of the new and only mosque in the city in 2017, I received an email from a priest in the Dubuque archdiocese: “The Catholics in Dubuque would like to give a welcome gift to the new mosque. Do you think that the Muslim community would be open to that?” The Muslim community was deeply touched by the gesture. We spent time considering what passage from the Qur’an we would have painted above the niche. A Saudi student made a calligraphic rendering of Surah 49:13 that was then enlarged and painted above the niche by a local muralist. The translation worked out by the imam and me is placed prominently at the entrance:
O People. We have created you from a male and a female and made you into branches of humanity and different gatherings into nations so that you may come to know each other. Behold the most honored among you in the eye of God is the most deeply conscious of Him. Truly, God is all-knowing, all-aware.
The community decided to place the plaque stating that the gift of the mural is from the Catholics in a prominent position, right next to the pulpit.
The muralist, who had never stepped inside a mosque before, was moved by the project. She researched styles and forms to beautify it beyond any of our expectations. The sign company who initially put me in contact with her donated the plaque at no charge. This resonated with the experience of the builder of the mosque, who, despite his initial hesitation at taking the job because it was for Muslims, became so passionate about the project that he insisted on including a dome that was not in the original plan. He was able to design and install a dome that is both consistent with traditional styles and unique to Dubuque’s mosque.
Our largest interfaith gatherings each year are at the mosque and the synagogue. Often, over two hundred people pack in with standing room only, some even remaining outside because of a lack of space. These are people who willfully step into unfamiliar spaces, not only to learn and stretch themselves, but also in order to show solidarity and support, especially in light of the growth of Islamophobia and Anti-Semitism in the nation and world. It is these sorts of experiences of displacement that give a location character, that make a city a home, that distinguish a place.
Such acts of solidarity begin to rebuild the cultural map of our community. As our relationships grow into stories, our imagined landscape begins to shift. There are still many mappings here, but increasingly they can depict a shared sense of place, intersecting with each other rather than being palimpsests obscuring competitors. As Eck says about India, in Dubuque, too, “landscape is relational.” Its textures and topography become more refined and visible as the city more deeply sees the colors and shades of its diversity, that its people “may come to know each other,” though it still has far to go. For me, this city’s cultural topography has become mapped onto the prairie and riparian ecosystems that were once so unfamiliar.
As the diverse group that made up the Fellowship of the Ring roamed and rode and ran through Middle Earth, each member discovered themselves anew in their encounter with each other and with the new lands they traversed. Not only did they grow personally through their displacement, they also found belonging and a true sense of place they could not have known without such discomfort.
Our personal stories can become richer as well when we venture beyond our easy comforts to learn from and about others. We may not be consciously creating myths, but as we step out the door and into unfamiliar terrain, learning the lore of others from different worldviews, we build their stories into our own. And whether the road leads into a mosque or the wilderness or to a dinner table – our imagined landscapes bloom before us like bee-balm in summer.
John Eby is Professor of History at Loras College and leads the Children of Abraham interfaith community in Dubuque, Iowa. He received his Ph.D. in Medieval History from the University of Washington in 1998. He is the co-author, with Fred Morton, of The Collapse of Apartheid and the Dawn of Democracy in South Africa, 1993, published by the Reacting Consortium Press through the University of North Carolina Press in 2017.