Tag Archives: Sacred sites

For Val, With Love

I wanted to do a bit of sorry business to commemorate the day. Val Plumwood died on February 29, 2008, and although we only get to mark the anniversary every four years, she is certainly not forgotten. The impact of her feminist, ecological philosophy continues to grow, year in, year out.

Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato
Val Plumwood, photo by Kumi Kato

In Aboriginal English, sorry business refers to the social process of grieving. It includes not only the actual funeral, but also the on-going work of remembrance and of cleansing and renewal. The term sorry business can also be used in re-establishing peace after violence, and can thus refer to rituals of remorse and restoration.* As a writer, I often turn to the written word to express my feelings, and this year I revisited Val’s essay ‘Journey to the Heart of Stone’. The essay is pro-stone, so to speak, and rests on the point that stones and other ‘inorganic’ matter have not been well-served in western dualistic culture. In her words: ‘The culture that refuses honour to stones refuses honour also to the great earth forces that have shaped and placed them. The eviction of spirit and honour from stones and from the earth is one of the greatest crimes of modernity.’

Toward the end of her life Val was increasingly interested in forms of writing that would help readers think beyond and outside the ‘sado-dispassionate rationality of scientific reductionism’. Her question as a writer was: ‘How can we re-present experience in ways that honour the agency and creativity of the more-than-human world?’ Her stone essay offered two fascinating stories of her relationships with stones.

Val's home at Plumwood Mt.
Val’s home at Plumwood Mt.

The first story tells of how she got to know stones in the course of building her home with foundstones. As she walked the country around the mountain looking for stones, she also contemplated another dualism: between respect and use. The logic of this hyperseparation is that things which are used (by humans) are positioned as mere matter or, in the case of stones ‘dead matter’, and thus are placed outside the realm of respect. Val learned both to respect and to use the stones. She writes: ‘The foundstone worker must be sensitive both to the individuality of stones, in shape, for example, and to their membership of a kind, to differences in parent material indicating strength and malleability.’

Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis
Arnhem Land stone country, Darrell Lewis

In the second story Val writes about bushwalking in the ‘stone country’ of North Australia. She had great respect for Aboriginal culture and country, and while she detested appropriation, she was keen to move her thought closer to Indigenous ways. Through her own philosophical lens and lived experience, she was seeking a practice that would free us western folk ‘to re-write the earth as sacred, earth exploration as pilgrimage, earth knowledge as revelation.’

The ’stone country’ story woke up vivid memories for me. My most profound engagements with stone have taken place during decades of living with and learning from Aboriginal people. In the course of travelling in country, and in the course of working on land claims and documenting sacred sites for registration, I have witnessed the respect with which Aboriginal people engage with country and with sacred sites. I have been privileged to visit many sites, many stones.

Jasper Gorge
Jasper Gorge

Sacred sites are non-ordinary places, and most are places where the evidence of creation endures. I’ll share a brief example from one of my most beloved places. In Jasper Gorge (NT) the brilliant sandstone cliffs were formed by the Dreaming (creation ancestor) Black-headed Python as she came travelling through the country. The shape of the gorge is identical to the tracks snakes leave in the ground, but of course much larger. Throughout the gorge there are individual stones that show evidence of her actions. A split stone, for example, was formed when she cut it with her string belt.

Split rock in Jasper Gorge
Split rock in Jasper Gorge

Here and at many other sacred sites throughout Australia stone does what it is so well known for – it endures. In a world where living beings have short life-spans, coming into life and leaving again like ripples on water, stone holds the stories and the evidence from generation to generation. My Aboriginal teachers were very explicit about this. Someday we’ll be dead and gone, they’d say, but look! That stone [or that hill, or that cliff face] will still be there. People said that Dreamings came out of the ground, and that the Law is in the ground. Creation’s bedrock stands as foundational and enduring testimony.

Cliff face, Jasper Gorge
Cliff face, Jasper Gorge

The most iconic stone in Australia is, of course, Uluru. Formerly it was known as Ayer’s Rock and now is known colloquially as simply ‘the rock’. It is near the centre of Australia in the midst of arid, red-soil country with dusky green and yellow spinifex. Uluru’s dignity and presence, the profound wonder of its size, and the striking country that surrounds it, combine with the fact that it is a major sacred site. The legal status of the rock is testimony to an era in which Aboriginal people’s aspirations for self-determination were taken seriously. It was claimed under the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) 1976; Uluru and surrounding area was returned to Aboriginal Traditional Owners, Anangu people. They agreed to lease the area back to the government as a National Park, and to retain joint management of the Park. This happened in 1985, and the area now also has World Heritage listing.

Uluru, melalouise (CC)
Uluru, melalouise (CC)

Uluru is awesome in every way.

People come from all over the world to visit. Uluru inspires reverence, and while reverence is experienced in much the same way by all humans, it can be acted upon in different ways. Anangu have asked people not to climb the rock. They regard the practice as disrespectful and irreverent, as well as dangerous. And yet, many visitors actually want to express their reverence through climbing. There has been no resolution to these conflicting views about climbing, but Anangu people have invited visitors to walk around Uluru rather than climb.

Walking trail, Dot W (CC)
Walking trail, Dot W (CC)

Many visitors souvenir a small piece of the great rock. No one knows how many pieces of rock and baggies of soil are taken away each year; people don’t announce that they are doing this. It is illegal, and large fines apply. But it is known that this happens, because every year stones and soil are returned. Often the person includes a letter expressing their regret at having taken a piece of the rock. Some people state that they had bad luck after having taken a piece, but many others simply say they felt sorry about what they had done and wanted to return the piece of rock.

The returned fragments are called ‘sorry rocks’. The term is a local invention. Sorry rocks arrive from all over the world. And then there are the offerings. No one knows how many pieces of crystal or other offerings are buried around Uluru. Whether people take fragments of the rock away or bring offerings to the rock, they radically testify to the power and presence of the great rock, and undermine the idea that this stone is ‘dead matter’.

A French visitor took away two stones. They returned 220 grams of material, along with a letter addressed to the rock itself:

“I wanted to take away some of your magic with me for the rest of my travels, for the rest of my life even. I realise it was wrong to do so, therefore I am sending both pieces back to you. Forgive me for being foolish and thank you for letting me spend time with you and absorb your beauty.”

The term sorry rock taps into remorse and a desire to put things right. Sadly, sorry rocks can’t be returned to their precise place of origin. No one knows exactly where they should go, and in fact some of the material people return hadn’t come from Uluru in the first place, according to geological analysis. Anangu people don’t want unsourced fragments dumped at the rock, and there may be quarantine considerations, so sorry rocks are used in road building. They end up as rubble. It seems that aabout 350 parcels are returned each year, an unknown fraction of the amount that is taken away. The largest stone to be returned was 32 kilos (70 pounds). But numbers are not really the story.

Uluru, sue10749 (CC)
Uluru, sue10749 (CC)

The gleaming presence of Uluru draws visitors to itself and sends them away feeling profoundly moved. You don’t have to be Aboriginal to know that here you are at a source, a foundation. Uluru, and all such sacred sites, are bedrock from a western philosophical perspective as well as from Indigenous perspectives. I am drawing on recent work with the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, and his insight that ethics is at the foundation of everything. When people are moved by the presence of the rock, they are summoned into relationship and thus into the realm of ethics. Creation – the coming forth – is already an ethical call. It is a summons to consciously recognise the power of creation, and it offers no justification. There is nothing subtending it,  as Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower write: ‘Nothing is beneath – not objects, Gods, force fields, or language – not knowers, actors, beliefs, or doctrines.’ One cannot go deeper than this.

People come face-to-face with Uluru, and something happens. Here one is acted upon. The face of the stone summons  people, and they are  touched. How beautiful it is to sit quietly at the base of the rock; to know that here is the deep of the deep, the foundation of the foundation. From creation until now and for generations to come, here is life’s meaning, its power and beauty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

*In Australian national life, the ‘Apology’ for the suffering of the stolen generations has merged Indigenous uses of the term ‘sorry’ with public issues of apology for past wrongs. Feeling sorrow and saying sorry seem to have been conflated, and I agree with the view that the practice of saying sorry is not large or generous enough to re-establish peace.


To gain a better understanding of Val’s work, a good source is Eye of the Crocodile, a collection of her essays that was assembled and edited after her death by Lorraine Shannon. It is available online (read here) and includes an introductory essay telling more about Val’s life and thought. Her heart of stone essay is published in 2007 in the book Culture, Creativity and Environment, edited by Fiona Becket and Terry Gilford.

A recent book of short essays, also available online, owes a lot to Val’s philosophical work (read here).

Two essays of mine give in-depth accounts of Jasper Gorge and of the interplay between the ephemeral and the enduring (read here and here).

To hear one of the Anangu Elders tell some of the Dreaming story for Uluru, watch here. A ‘fact sheet’ about ‘sorry rocks’ is available online (read here).

My words about creation and ethics are inspired by Jim Hatley’s work, for example , his essay ‘The Original Goodness of Creation: Monotheism in Another’s Voice’, published in 2012 in the book Facing Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley & Christian Diehm. The quote from Ed Mooney and Lyman Mower comes from their essay ‘Witness to the Face of a River: Thinking with Levinas and Thoreau’, published in the same book.

Val’s analysis of the respect-use dualism is discussed in recent comments by Russell Edwards and Jim Hatley, and will be the subject of a future essay.

Russell Edwards’ comment (below) contains a link to a remembrance article that Jackie French wrote in which she describes Val’s house building skills (read here).


Arts of Motion

I was delighted to discover that there are mermaids in Bhutan. I know them well from North Australia but hadn’t expected to meet them in the mountains.

Mermaid, Paro Dzong
Mermaid, Paro Dzong

In the Bhutanese national language, sacred sites that are visible primarily by geological or geographical features are called ney. The English translation is ‘sacred natural site’. According to experts at the ISE conference, these are ‘living and breathing natural places of retreat and worship, where enlightened masters throughout the ages have brought blessing power, and where pilgrims and spiritual practitioners perpetuate and fortify the energy until today. As a result, these revered and cherished sites have been protected from external forces that might disturb their sanctity…’

Many of the sites hold stories of how Buddhist teachers encountered and subdued local spirits, turning them toward Buddhism. To anyone sensitised to conquest in settler societies, the story of take-over looms large, and the history of Buddhism in the Himalayas and Central Asia is indeed a story of competing religions. The stories are everywhere. When Deki, Dechen and I walked in the hills to visit the rock painting of Guru Rimpoche (a notable demon-subduer), we crossed a suspension bridge, as discussed in a previous essay. We were just up-stream from a rock formation that testifies to the efforts of a goddess to cross the river to meet the Guru. Her bridge was destroyed by a demon.

Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.
Do Zam, where the Goddess tried to cross the river.

And yet, now that a millennium or more has passed, the outstanding aspect of these stories is how inclusive and protective they are.

And indeed, the need and desire for protection are never done with. A ney is a place where nature, culture and spirit all come together. The wider story concerns a sacred geography that continues to offer respect to local deities (nep). These figures, resident in mountains, rivers, stones, and other ‘natural’ features, remain on earth and guard their local areas. One type belongs in and protects water. All lakes in Bhutan are sacred, and mermaid-goddesses inhabit and guard them. We visited one such lake, Baritsho (bari = bamboo; tsho = lake) within the Royal Botanic Gardens. Here people of the region gather to make offerings of respect and to enjoy blessings.

Baritsho, Royal Botanic Gardens

Mermaids’ benign protection is not only for lakes. A number of the temples we visited had a little pond with mermaids outside the entrance. Perched in tiny  artificial lakes, they bring their protective presence to temples too. The temples themselves, with their geographical positioning adjacent to flowing water and with their mermaid and other presences, testify both to Buddhist teaching and learning as well as to the local area with its unique guardians.

Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong
Mermaids in pond, Paro Dzong

Over the past few years Bhutan has conducted a formal survey of ney. According to Sangay Dhendup of the ‘Division of Cultural Properties, Bhutan’, 197 sites have thus far been recorded. The objectives of this admirable project were spelled out in his fascinating conference presentation: to better understand history and heritage; to assert the value of cultural practices; to preserve little known traditions that are important to local communities; and to provide a reference point for the future. He linked with these sites with biocultural conservation. As explained in the conference booklet: ‘… these revered and cherished sites … [create] important buffers and corridors for biodiversity’.

The awkward term ‘sacred natural site’ testifies to the on-going difficulties posed by the west’s nature-culture binary and the warping effects it has in the context of heritage. Cultural heritage is man-made; natural heritage is not. Where these two types converge the term ‘mixed heritage’ is used. ‘Mixed’ does not, indeed cannot, do justice to the sites it purports to categorise. At most it shows just how arbitrary and ultimately unhelpful the nature/culture categories really are. But there is another problem that twists up out of the binaries. Where is the sacred? If heritage is either natural or human, the great multitude of local guardians, demons, goddesses and protectors, along with all the Buddhist manifestations and metamorphic presences slip out of the story.

A great gem of Tibetan wisdom is expressed as a puzzle: A prayer flag flutters in the wind. Which is it that moves, the flag or the wind? Answer: Neither. The spirit moves them both.


This way of understanding and experiencing spirit carries us far from binaries and exclusive categories.

Spirit is that which moves through everything, and that by which everything moves.

I thought of this great gem frequently while I was in Bhutan where so many sites, including temples, weave geography and spirit. The action of stones, water, plants, lichens, animals and other forces combine with the actions of human history and culture, and with the activities of greater-than-everyday beings to produce sites of co-mingled power. Prayer flags and wind, prayer wheels and flowing water, mermaids and lakes and temples: such co-constitutive prayers and protection offer multiple blessings.

There was one sacred natural site that spoke very strongly to me. At this place in Bumthang the story moves across two stones and involves the subjugation of a demon. The first stone is where the demon was hiding in the form of a snake. The second stone is where the large bird took the snake and bashed it. The second stone bears the imprint of the large bird’s footprints.


Mr Balaram Gurung took a small group of us to this place, and in response to subsequent emails through which I sought to ensure that I understood the story correctly, he wrote:

“Regarding the story about the two stones, I also tried to collect as much as evidence as I could from some reliable religious people. They all say that the same story has been conveyed from generation to generation and has been taught to children by their parents who all know the story about the stones. So to add up to your story, let me elaborate a little about the names of the places where these stones lies. They say: ‘the place where the big stone lies is named as duefog (due – demon  and fog – hillock, small mountain) and the single stone with garuda’s foot print is named as Jachhung thang (Jachhung – Garuda and thang – plain).”

Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)
Garuda in Thimpu, Ping (CC)

I brought a Jachhung (Garuda) mask home with me. The more I look at it, the more I see. There is the bird who killed a snake, and the powerful Jachhung who subdued a demon, and there are stones, the hillock and plain, Mr Gurung and all the religious people he consulted, dancers and masks, and all the people across generations who told the story and kept it alive.

The story travels, too. Knowledge of Garuda moves all across South and South-East Asia. This marvellous bird — his name and iconography change, but his protective action is everywhere loved and revered. Like prayer flags in the wind, spirit moves through all.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Acknowledgements: On-going thanks to Mr Balaram Gurung and to Deki and Dechi.  Thanks as well to Mr Sangay Dhendup who gave such a terrific speech at the ISE Congress in Bumthang.

Resources: Except for information that is specifically acknowledged, most of the information in this essay came from signage at sites and from Wikipedia.