Photographer's family, Sheboygan, WI, 1987
St. Michael's Chapel, Door County, WI, 1995
New leaves forming in spring, St. Joseph cemetery, St. Cloud, WI, 1999
Kettle Moraine landscape with Mary shrine, Holy Hill, WI, 1999
Dickysville Grotto, Dickysville, WI, 1999
Crucifix raising, Eagle, WI, 1996
Wayside Shrine, Portage County, WI, 1999
Angel field marker, Portage County, WI, 1999
Shrine, Novy Sacz, Poland, 1999
"Wall of Death", Auschwitz, 1999
St. Mary of the Oaks Shrine, Cross Plains, WI, 1996
This project began in the summer of 1987.
I had photographed my wife and daughters in the garden behind our house. The place and the people were the center of my world, and that's how it looks in the photo -- the family like the sun in the solar system, the house and garden revolving around them like the planets.
It wasn't just a portrait of people, but of a place, too, one which defined me, and where all of me was invested.
To get to Washington Island, Wisconsin, you ferry across a gap of frigid Lake Michigan called Death's Door. The island is a tourist destination known for its quiet pastoralism. Among its attractions is a simple white clapboard building with an unadorned 19th-century facade.
The building's sole embellishment is a huge rosary fashioned from heavy maritime line. The beads are made of fisher's floats, the crucifix a fragment of old anchor. Welcome to St. Michael's Chapel.
Inside, pine walls frame an austere space occupied by a few benches and a tiny altar. Solitude creates a meditative atmosphere perfectly aligned with the space's delicate white-on-white palette — a hymnal page, a row of altar boy's smocks, a wilting trumpet lily.
The building originally sat on the opposite side of Green Bay. One winter it was hauled miles across the frozen bay to the island where it served as community grocery and meeting place, eventually attaining higher status as a chapel, landmark, monument.
But monument to what?
Riding home I thought about the keen sense of place I felt in St. Michael's, a heightened awareness of myself and the space around me, and of the presence and value of its enduring history. The chapel's guestbook was filled with similar feelings expressed by other visitors.
Did the chapel's apparent specialness deem it, somehow, sacred space?
During this time I was reading authors such Wendell Berry, Annie Dillard and Barry Lopez about place and environmental issues. They create a vivid sense of attachment to specific places and warn of the consequences to a society losing its sense of place. I began to photograph ‘place’ with this in mind, exploring the experience of deep connection with the land.
By 'sense of place' I mean a keen mindfulness for the whole interconnected environment where we live. By it we achieve a better understanding of who we are -- individually and as a community -- and how we became that.
This project has sought common ground between sense of place and sense of the spiritual. I think that deep connection with place engenders some of the same emotions people encounter in their spiritual lives. This includes a sense of being grounded to a firm moral foundation, a feeling of membership in something larger than one's self, and engagement with the transcendent mystery and beauty of the natural world.
The landscape provides symbols we use to interpret spiritual experience. It gives us a vocabulary to express our perception of the divine.
For example, we can live our belief in spiritual rebirth as we tend a garden. Images of the tree of eternal life abound in landscape art. Evergreen trees are commonly planted in cemeteries. Obelisk monuments dotting the Gettysburg battleground evolved as a symbol from Egyptian columns representing the sun's rays -- the gift of life and promise of resurrection.
How do we honor our attachment to place?
Once, in parts of the upper Midwest, a people we call the effigy mound builders fashioned huge, figurative animal, human and geometric shapes out of earth.
Today we plant trees. We used to raise crucifixes along fields and crossroads. We built churches at the tops of our highest hills so when we looked up we would remember that we live in a holy world.
One such place is Holy Hill near the village of Hubertus, in southeastern Wisconsin. The Catholic site is officially named the National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians. It draws more than a half-million visitors yearly.
Fourteen life size stations-of-the-cross portray the crucifixion story. They lead the faithful up a steep hill to a towering neo-Romanesque church. Visitors who can climb the 178 additional steps to the observation deck atop the church earn a spectacular view of the glacial-carved Kettle Moraine countryside.
In the adjacent shrine chapel is the collection of braces, canes and crutches left by infirmed guests who believe their visit aided their cure. Next door you can buy holographic holy cards and country-baked pie.
Holy Hill's drawing power signals its role as sacred ground. It heads a short list of other religious pilgrimage attractions in Wisconsin, the next best known probably being the Dickysville Grotto on the other side of the state.
You notice something interesting working your way down to the smaller sites such as roadside shrines or cemetery art. They become more idiosyncratic, maybe the personal expression of a single individual, like outsider art.
They are vernacular spiritual statements closely linked to the landscape. These simple expressions of faith feel so natural on their sites that they seem like they could have grown right out of the ground.
Rudolph Grotto, not far from Stevens Point, Wi., really does grow out of the ground. One enters the "Wonder Cave" to follow a quarter-mile, subterranean trail of shrines. You emerge into the light (spiritually as well as physically) two stories higher past the upraised arms of Jesus, a tidy metaphor for the human spiritual journey.
Several shrines still survive near the villages of Polonia and Rosholt. Some are little brick structures similar to truncated church steeples, with Gothic windows, sheet metal roofs and topped with a crucifix. Others are simple white crosses a little more than twice the height of a man.
A little north of Polonia, just into Marathon County, I pull into a farm driveway to photograph a vivid red roadside crucifix. While I set up my camera, from the corner of my eye I follow an older man leave the house and walk toward me. Moments like these can be a little tense. Sometimes I'm told to leave.
"Hey, what the hell ya doin' there, anyway?"
The tone of Stanley Brzezinski's voice was more encouraging than his words. I'm documenting the crosses and shrines, I explained, so they will not be entirely forgotten when they're gone.
He considered this.
After a moment he began explaining how the crucifix was originally raised by his great-grandfather before 1900. The cross was equally a landmark and devotion, at a time when country roads might not be named and directions to "turn left at the red cross" helped people find their way.
When the first cross fell in a storm, the parish priest encouraged the family to restore it. Eventually the base rotted and it fell again. The cross got shorter with each resurrection until it had to be rebuilt.
Stanley made the third incarnation of the cross a few years earlier, carefully copying the form of the preceding ones and restoring the small, expertly carved corpus brought over from Poland long ago.
The proliferation of shrines around Stevens Point is unusual but not accidental.
The area is one of the oldest Polish communities in the U.S. Successive waves of immigrants brought with them the Polish tradition of expressing their religious faith through monuments on significant landscape sites.
"...Traditional Slavic consciousness saw the realm of the sacred in the whole world around us. It permeates the entire landscape, finding expression in a multitude of sacred sites which were frequently marked by shrines and crosses of almost every conceivable type", researcher Dennis Kolinski writes.
He suggests the shrines evolved from pre-Christian Slavic custom, when people built shrines "near roads and crossings, or in fields and forests, all of which belonged either to ancient categories of sacred space or the magical significance of borders and the center of spaces."
Considered curiosities in America, wayside shrines abound in the Polish countryside.
Driving through rolling farmland along the slopes of the Tatra Mountains, I passed crosses, saints on pedestals lovingly adorned with bouquets, dollhouse-size churches, mass-produced ceramic devotional statuary, and remarkable hand-carved wooden figures of the holy family.
Some of the roads were little more than livestock paths where I had to pull over to let horse-drawn wagons pass. It was the end of May. Men with scythes mowed the lush hillsides. Women in babushkas stacked the straw in slender ricks to dry, which at dusk resembled an army of brooding baga-yagas.
Children had just celebrated their first holy communion. The feast of Corpus Christi was just a few days away. And most spectacularly Jan Pawel, the Polish pope, was returning home to visit. Ribbons fluttered from homes and shrines -- blue and white for the Virgin Mary, red and white for Poland, and yellow and white for Pope John Paul.
I had come here to follow the Wisconsin Polish tradition of shrines back to its roots. And indeed, I did find a landscape marvelously rich with spiritual expressions of all sorts. The proliferation of shrines had made the landscape itself a canvas expressing religious wonder: We live in a holy world.
I was, however, most profoundly affected by a place that has seemingly little to do with myth, landscape or religion, but is certainly immensely moving as sacred place -- the State Museum of Oswiecim.
Oswiecim is a village whose native identity is itself something of a war casualty, little known to the rest of the world which instead recognizes it by its burdened German name: Auschwitz.
From the moment you pass beneath the infamous motto at the death camp's entrance ("Arbiet Macht frei!") you notice the quiet. Orderly rows of red-brick barracks parallel a grid of tree-lined streets. The only sounds are soft footsteps and whispery multi-lingual guides leading small groups of visitors.
Perhaps you are surprised by the sense of peacefulness that hushes the oddly campus-like setting. But that feeling suddenly feels shameful upon entering Block 4, the first barrack.
More than a million prisoners died at Auschwitz but they were not silenced.
Their voices speak in the rooms of Block 4. They speak from mounds of monogrammed luggage, brushes, shoes, glasses, artificial limbs, bolts of cloth made from their hair.
A table was covered with hundreds, maybe thousands, of braids shorn from women detainees. Somehow one braid caught my attention, standing out from all the others. Suddenly that single intimate detail hammered home the reality of the Holocaust.
A sense of dread grew as visitors passed the stack of Zyklon B canisters and urns of human ashes, past the hospital where the infamous Dr. Mengele conducted his experiments, and past the "Wall of Death" where the SS summarily executed more than 20,000 prisoners for camp infractions. Today votive candles flicker in the wall's shadow.
At which display did the tightening around the chest begin? The difficulty breathing, or the weakening of the legs?
By the time I reached the gas chamber most of the visitors around me were visibly affected. Many declined the invitation to enter the vault.
I lingered outside. I imagined the single-file line of visitors slowly entering the chamber as a ghostly queue of Jews. Then it was my turn.
Later I sat in a freshly-mowed field on the perimeter of the nearby Birkenau concentration camp. I inhaled a perfumed landscape of spring grasses and wildflowers, a scene punctuated by scattered, blackened chimneys poking from charred foundations. The ruins were prisoner barracks, burned by the retreating Nazis attempting to hide their crimes.
Few people were visiting that day despite the proximity to Auschwitz. Maybe they had seen enough. I certainly was emotionally woozy. I sat sharing the stillness with a few honey bees and birds. Then in the amber light of a soft evening I received an unexpected blessing.
The sense of peace I felt earlier returned. This time it did not mock me. It informed. I suddenly knew how much silence, authenticity and memory matter.
Since beginning this project I photographed gardens, chapels, pilgrimage sites, highway accident memorials, favorite rooms, landscapes of all sorts, cemeteries, roadside shrines and even nature centers. These are all spaces in which people have felt a special response, and perhaps were enticed to pause and listen to what the places said.
Of course not all the places that I found special are sacred. Some are just the common places where we live. Sometimes that is what makes them special.
In "Seven Story Mountain" Thomas Merton advises us that "all our salvation begins on the level of common and natural and ordinary things. That is why the whole economy of the Sacraments, for instance, rest....upon plain and ordinary things like bread and wine and water and salt and oil.".
Conversely, not all sacred space is special, at least not in the sense that it is always identified and set apart. The sacred is unbound. It occupies the profane as well as the profound. As writer Greg Levoy puts it, any space can be sacred when it is "where we are not separated from the divine".
I began this project asking myself what makes a place sacred. Where is our sacred ground? Does such a thing even still exist in our culture? If so, what does it look and feel like?
I end believing that sacred space is still all around us, often hiding in plane sight. It still serves, as religion anthropologist Mircea Eliade shows, as a portal into timeless myth and traditions which help us understand religious experience.
But landscape-based shrines are disappearing. Is it because almost none of us make our living directly from the land anymore? Is it a sign of our separation from the natural world, cut off from our roots?
Rootless, can we understand our places well enough to adequately nurture our communities, our environment, ourselves?
Rich Maciejewski, July, 2022.