By Dustin Autry
What is a shrine? Whether a box, an alcove, or a demarcated spot, it is a sacred site dedicated to a person, deity, idea, or something else worth veneration or remembrance. It could be a saint, or a town’s war dead; in a less formal sense, it may be a shrine to a beloved actor’s career or a sweetheart. Those crosses on roadsides marking sites of tragedy qualify as shrines.
Shrines may be simple and plain, or cluttered with memorabilia or objects of significance. What they all have in common is that they are sacred space, in the sense that they are set apart from the mundane (“setting apart” or “dedicating to” being among the translations of the Latin sacrare). In this sense, even a non-religious or civic shrine is made sacred, for it is set apart and dedicated for some form of awe, respect, remembrance, or veneration.
What sort of shrine would a naturalist have? I’ll tell you what this one has.
A section of valuable bookshelf space has been set aside (literally made sacred) for a space to, not worship, but to make me aware of greater things; to remind me of moments I spent in wild places, and to center myself.
The large, flat stone that makes the central “altar” of my shrine is from a massive wall on my family farm – a structure sacred to me. A century or two ago it was a bridge or perhaps a mill dam. The lichen-spotted rock rests on a bed of leaves taken from the same location. A number of objects lie on or about the stone, each with its own history.
First is a small dumbbell-shaped flint nodule of a sort common to southern England. This particular one was collected on a hill overlooking an early Saxon settlement of the 6th or 7th century. Both the flint and the stone on which it sits likely felt a horse’s hoof at some point, for that form of powered transport changed little in the intervening 11 or so centuries. That only began to change in my Grandfather’s lifetime.
Also atop the of the altar are four projectile points, all found by me personally in my Coastal Plain wanderings. My archeologist friend reckons the newest is from the Late Archaic cultural period – maybe 3,500 years old, give or take. At that time, across the ocean, Egypt was pulling back together its fractured remains into a New Kingdom, while the Bronze Age Britons were putting their finishing touches on Stonehenge.
The oldest of these points is from the Early Archaic, which means it was shaped by a hunter-gatherer 9,000 years ago. To view the sea, the maker would have had a longer walk in his day than I in mine, for the sea levels were a fair bit lower. Similarly, European Mesolithic hunters roamed lands that have long since drowned in what is now the North Sea. The first farms were already established in the Fertile Crescent, the Nile, and the Indus Valley; the peoples of Mesoamerica had begun cultivating squash, but domestication of maize was still a millennium or so in the future.
The most powerful technology humanity has ever produced did not exist in the Early Archaic. Before alphabet, before ideogram, before any known proto-writing, a young hunter learned the vital skill of knapping points at the knee of an elder. In time, the youth would gain finesse and wisdom at this craft and would in turn teach others with few alterations in form.
Take a moment to think about the span of time. Four artifacts, variants of the same technology, collected in a radius of 50 miles, and spanning half a dozen millennia. Why, the device I write this on largely functions on technology younger than I am, powered by technology that was only commercially available in my great grandfather’s time. For that matter, the earliest known writing was developed some 6,000 years ago – the timespan covered by those four spear points.
But let’s move on to the next temporal talisman: a molar from a cave bear, gifted to me by a friend. The provenance is unknown beyond Europe or Asia, but the species probably died out around 24,000 years ago. Perhaps the owner of this tooth cast a wary eye at early humans, or Neanderthals; it is possible it never scented a two-legged rival in all its life.
Across the stone lies a sliver of mammoth tusk, from the dwindling permafrost of the northern tundra. These ancient elephants faltered and faded away as the ice drew back around 12,000 years ago; whether their demise was solely from a changing world or whether humans helped them along is a point of contention.
Now we take an accelerated leap back in time – several epochs, each measured in many millions of years. I won’t ask the reader to imagine such a span of time as a million years; you truly can’t. Instead, I will say to imagine that you can imagine, and that will have to suffice. Leaning against the base stone is a permineralized bone, the fossilized rib of a Triceratops; this fragment of what would have been a 30-foot-long beast was also a gift to me. The final days of the dinosaurs in which this second-most-famous species lived were still a long time indeed, for this genus arose some 2 million years before it (and most dinosaurians) died out.
And then there’s the spiraled shell of an ammonite. This is the only one of the various items I bought (at a fundraiser). The varied orders of these cephalopods appeared on the scene in the Devonian Period and persisted until the general extinction at the end of the Cretaceous Period – a span of over 300 million years, half again as long as mammals have existed.
Remember the orders of magnitude between the flint and the spearheads, or between the mammoth and the dinosaur? Here we go again, as close as I can track life to the earth’s beginning. Four roughly rounded, striated marbles, represent those most ancient of times. These are stromatolites, the fossilized remains of the silty structures left by colonies of cyanobacteria.
These microbes arose as far back as… are you ready?… 3.5 BILLION years ago. Their peak was 1.25 billion years ago, after which they declined as the world grew more hospitable to things that would graze on them. It should astound you to realize that these microbes persist in hostile environments today, so you can find active stromatolites in Australia and South and Central America.
There are other history lessons in this shrine beyond the vastness of the span of life. Here is a leaf from an American chestnut – a young sapling ensconced on a University campus and not in imminent danger of blight. But this pressed leaf is a reminder of the billions of chestnut trees which succumbed, in less than half a century, to a fungus blight transported carelessly to our shores in nursery stock. It represents only one of many species we have negatively impacted in our time in this land and on this earth.
Two more palm-sized stones are worth noting. One was smoothed by the milky waters of the Hoh River on the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State. The other gained its rounded shape rubbing against a billion of its brothers under the waves on Jasper Beach, Maine. With a stone in each hand I can bookend the Lower Forty-Eight States.
At the altar’s centerpiece is the awen symbol on ash wood. Awen, in Welsh tradition, means inspiration, whether a flash of insight or slow-burning creativity. It serves to pull together the stories of all the objects in the shrine, and to focus my own mind in telling those tales.
This small sacred space is a place to remember moments spent in wild places, and the goodwill of friends. It is a place to remind myself of the impermanence of lives but the tenacity and adaptability of Life. It is a focus for contemplation and meditation, reminding me to set myself apart from the modern world for a few moments to think about the larger world, both what is tangible and what is beyond human comprehension.
Consider what you have enshrined in your life, and why.