Politics of place 

How exactly does ground become hallowed?

Most of us live far from the island of Manhattan in New York City, where a local zoning matter has turned into a national argument about what might be built near "hallowed ground" or a "sacred place." But it is the sort of controversy that pops up often in the West, from Martin's Cove in Wyoming to the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona.

As everyone knows, on Sept. 11, 2001, Islamic terrorists flew two planes into the World Trade Center in New York, collapsing both towers. All told, nearly 3,000 people died in the attacks—2,753 of them in New York at "Ground Zero."

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That's the "hallowed ground" we hear about when politicians denounce the "Ground Zero Mosque," which is actually two blocks away and is more of a community center than a mosque. And within those two blocks are bars and strip clubs and fast-food joints—hardly anyone's idea of the sacred.

Just what does it take to sanctify a piece of real estate? Native Americans speak of traditional holy places, as with the San Francisco Peaks north of Flagstaff, Ariz. The Navajo say they mark the boundary of their homeland and offer a place to collect herbs for healing ceremonies. The Hopi say the three 12,000-foot summits are home for half of each year to ancestral kachina spirits who bring rain.

But to most Americans, hallowed ground means "something really terrible happened here." President Abraham Lincoln used a variant of the phrase on Nov. 19, 1863, during his brief remarks at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg, Pa. Something terrible happened there—the bloodiest battle of America's bloodiest war with nearly 60,000 casualties.

As Lincoln explained matters, it wasn't the invocations of the preachers, but all that blood shed by Americans shooting at other Americans, which made for holy ground: "...The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it."

The Civil War gave us some other hallowed ground. Or so says a history of Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, which calls it "America's most sacred ground." It wasn't the site of a battle; it's a burial ground for warriors, one that started out as an act of spite. Arlington was a plantation owned by Robert E. Lee, who resigned from the U.S. Army to command the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Arlington was occupied early in the war by Union soldiers, and to be sure that Lee would never want to return to the estate, Union Gen. Montgomery Meigs began burying Union dead on the grounds—more than 16,000 before the end of the war.

So in the East, we have bloody battles and spite to sanctify American ground. How about out here in the West? Consider Martin's Cove, about 55 miles southwest of Casper, Wyo., and the Mormon Handcart Visitors Center. While it may be rather out-of-the-way today, four major routes once ran through it—the Oregon Trail, the California Trail, the Pony Express and the Mormon Trail that took Latter-day Saints (LDS) from Iowa to Salt Lake City.

Some of those LDS pioneers made the trek, not with teams and wagons, but pulling 300-pound handcarts. One group of nearly 600 Mormons, the Martin Handcart Company, left Iowa City in late July of 1856—too late to beat the weather, which caught them with a Wyoming blizzard in early November. They found some shelter against a bluff near the Sweetwater River, but were stalled for five days. Some 56 pioneers died of cold and exposure before they could resume their journey.

The Mormon Church bought an adjacent ranch and has tried to buy Martin's Cove from the federal Bureau of Land Management. When the BLM balked, Mormon lobbyists got Congress to order a 25-year lease to the church, which in turn inspired litigation from the American Civil Liberties Union and the Alliance for Historic Wyoming.

Why the LDS push for the property? The manager of the church's visitor center explained in 2005, "It's sacred to us because so many people have died here." In other words, something terrible happened there, and that sanctifies a place.

As a history buff, I'm all for preservation. But I don't get how tragedy creates a sacred spot.

For all I know, my home might sit on such land. In late April 1855, Col. Thomas Fauntleroy led a punitive expedition against the Utes north out of the San Luis Valley and over Poncha Pass. They surprised 150 warriors at a bonfire. One U.S. soldier died and two were wounded; about 50 Utes were killed. Still, I've missed experiencing any reverence or awe on that account.

Perhaps that's because I was raised in a different spiritual tradition, by parents who were hard-shell Baptists. Though I've strayed far from that straight and narrow path, I still remember being taught that God was everywhere, not in a "place." In Sunday school, we learned that God buried Moses in a secret spot, so that the grave could not become a shrine.

Given that, it's hard for me to see any tangible spot as hallowed or sacred—especially when it was the site of death, bloodshed, tragedy and horror. We might suffer less tragedy and bloodshed if people gave up on the concept of "hallowed ground" and quit fighting over it.

Ed Quillen is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Salida, Colo.

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