Boundary Issues in Sacred Spaces: Ecotone Analogies. Part I: preliminaries

I’m not a philosopher, but once in awhile I like to safety-pin on a philosopher’s cape and don a paper-cutout of their mask, and whoosh around the room jumping off of the low furniture. Occasionally, real ones will pat me on the head, and say “Isn’t he cute!” and let me play around their feet. So it was, that last year I was invited to present at a meeting exploring boundaries in philosophy of science. There, I talked about perceptual boundaries in ecology. The chatter about sacred space buzzing around BYU with the Sacred Space Symposium has got me thinking about, well, sacred space. I couldn’t go to the conference, but I thought not having joined the conversation there, qualified me perfectly to pontificate on the subject unrestrained and uncontaminated by their influence here (da-sein rather than da-sein as it were).

The reason for this meditation on sacred space, is that some of the boundary issues I explored in ecology, seem relevant to this topic. I’m not talking about sacred places as such, but rather those transitions between sacred spaces—those markers that disclose and define a sacred space. What I’m talking about can be gleaned by analogy from the temporal sacredness that Abraham Heschel places on the Sabbath:

“When all work is brought to a standstill the candles are lit. Just as creation began with the word, “Let there be light!” so does the celebration of creation begin with the kindling of lights. It is the woman who ushers in the joy and sets up the most exquisite symbol, light, to dominate the atmosphere of the home.
And the world becomes a place of rest.” p. 66.

The temporal passage from regular time to sacred time embodies both natural events such as the setting of the sun, and human actions, like setting aside work and lighting the candles, that mark and signify and symbolize the boundaries of this transition. Also at play are memory, tradition, and recognition that a boundary is being crossed. The ‘now’ being created is different from, and holier than, that of a moment ago. It is often a social act, with others present in the transition (perhaps God as the only other ‘other’).

In ecology, boundaries, or ecotones, as we call them, are often marked by physical transitions. Sometimes abrupt: as in water to land, or rock to earth. Sometimes more gradual: as in chemical gradients in soil, or as in elevational changes as you move up a mountain. There are lots of examples: forest to grass lands, coral reef to open sea. There are also landscape-level changes like that from desert to Sahel. In Hawaii there is a transition zone from rain forest, near the Kilauea Volcano crater, to the Ka’ū Desert where it rains only very infrequently. This transition zone is only a few hundred yards wide. Ecological boundaries are always boundaries ‘for something.’ Something specific. For a snake, a freeway may be an impassible boundary that for a bird is treated as nothing at all. But whatever it is, it usually evolves bringing in the perceptual awareness of ‘someone’ marking the boarder. Borders can have very well defined areas, like the trout locked into a stream from which it cannot move, to bears that have fuzzy territories, marked by their awareness of the presence and signs of other bears.

Ecological systems are also complex and this complexity grows as new layers of complexity, fold into, and blossom from, other layers. Life expands in evolutionary time to fill new niches and in so doing, creates new niches. For example, as plants left the oceans onto a barren world, they created a new level of complexity of habitats, that were soon exploited by insects, which in turn created more complexity allowing vertebrates, then birds, then mammals, then us (our physical form anyway), to enter into these complex dances as natural selection explores these spaces of possible life-types in creative ways. These new niches in turn allowed more complexity to arise and more niches to unfold into the world. This is creation. Boundaries are created in this process and they are always both temporal and spatial in nature.

Keep in mind that to be a boundary they must be perceived by such. That perceiver can be an individual or even a species (what I mean by ‘species’ perception’ is complex and developed more fully in the paper that came from this conference).

Ecological boundaries also always have historical contingency. They exist because certain features have unfolded in the way that they have, in time, because of physical processes, or additional ecological complexity. This historical contingency also means that each is unique in ways that is not duplicated. They exist for at time, emerging on the stage or earth life for a moment (perhaps a geological moment), never to be duplicated exactly or repeated.

I want to draw on aspects of ecological boundaries that I think are relevant to thinking about how we mark and delimit sacred space. Part II of this meditation will more personal and experiential (and less dry—I hope).

Heschel, Abraham Joshua. 1951. The Sabbath. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York.

Bookmark Boundary Issues in Sacred Spaces: Ecotone Analogies. Part I: preliminaries


  1. Steve Evans says:

    Steve, which side of an ecotone is the sacred side?

  2. The one on the left.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    I guess my point is that even if we like to designate certain geographies or spaces as sacred, they are sacred in a relative sense and not an absolute one. It’s not enough that a boundary be perceived; values must be attached to either side. So from an ecological point of view, how is that accomplished? If we were to take to view that the more sacred ecological area is that of maximum value/utility to a given set of flora/fauna, that would lead us to a natural definition of sacredness that is in a sense opposed to our LDS view.

  4. In part II, I’ll actually explore this a bit. But you are pointing out something important. In ecologies, the boundaries form because there is something different about the two sides such that a boundary or border forms a transition from one to the other. In our sacred spaces there must be some sort of marking that separates the two spaces. Agreed it is not enough to be perceived, but it must be perceived to mark out the sacred. But the value in a sacred space arrises just from the inherent value on the sacred, something must be in place that marks out that sacredness even if it is arbitrary or fuzzy–Like the question, “What marks out the sacred grove as sacred?” it’s not just the area defined as such say on a map, but it is also what we bring to it, it’s history and its place in our lives.

  5. i don’t know that either of the two sides of an ecotone could be assigned absolute maximum value/utility. the water side of a river/meadow transition is essential to the fish but death to the rabbit. so while some places may be sacred to all of us, others might be sacred to only one of us. do the borders really need to be perceived as such by both sides?

  6. I don’t think so in the sacred places sense. Actually, something you said sparked something interesting in my mind. Often in ecosystems, ecotones are used by a whole new community. How would that play out in sacred spaces? (Protesters at Temple Square might be an example?)

  7. (Protesters at Temple Square might be an example?)

    it’s almost midnight where i sit, and my eyes are tired. i read this as “Protestants at Temple Square”


  8. And given my skills in editing I could have written that.

  9. Gives fresh insight to the “grass is greener on the other side”.

  10. Steve–I love your writing and I love your sensibilities. Outside the theme of ecologically sacred spaces, I just watched Pres. Obama and Ellie Wiesel at Buchenwald. What enlightening speeches in a place that was infernally dark for so long! The preservation even of the ugliness that place embodied and included matters deeply to our global consciousness.

  11. I suppose part of what makes a place/thing sacred depends on what we “worship.” For the fish, water is more sacred than air, as it sustains its life.
    The ancient temple also had boundaries built within it. Everything outside of Jerusalem was considered “the world”, akin to outer darkness. Jerusalem was more sacred, and had walls as boundaries. The temple was at the center, with layers of sacredness and boundaries. Even the Holy of Holies had a veil as its boundaries. With each successive boundary, the number eligible to enter became smaller, until only the high priest was allowed into the HoH.
    Besides obvious ones like water, I wonder what ecological boundaries create an exclusivity/inclusivity?

  12. Thanks, Steve. In our woods, we have a place where there is a stand of dead pine trees . It is totally desolate and the ground is bare – just covered with dead needles. On the other side, of what is almost a demarcation line, the woods is brilliantly green and alive – the vegetation is different. My kids call it “The Enchanted Forest” because the contrast is so stark. It is strange to stand on the dividing line.

    I am looking forward to reading Part II.

  13. Sharon LDS in Tennessee says:

    I appreciate your thought provocing thoughts bringing together the natural and the spiritual.
    As an electronic magnectic field imaging photographer and a student in the aura of human beings, I have found the demarcation line is so varied and unseen, but nevertheless possible to see on film and “feel” with the human hand AND body, once you are trained to be sensitive to it. That boundry dividing can be felt with a one or more of the sensations of heat, tingling, pressure (like an invisible balloon feels when slightly depressed) or just a change in the “thickness” of the air as you walk forward.
    We have our own SACRED SPACE that we define by the boundries we put up with a combination of our whole body energy……spirit of course a major player…heart energy and MIND CONTROL is VERY important…add in the raw emotions that are sub-conscious….those can define a more SOLID demarcation we all can almost “see” in when a person is very shy…….protective of self (withdrawn)…and of course seeing the “sparks fly” when someone is angry…putting up barriers / boundries of “you better not get near me or I’ll whoop you good” type !!
    The beams of light from Divine beings….are boundries they exude as they visit from the “other side”. They are encapsulated. We are restricted. ..Unless of course they envelope us like in a transfiguration.
    So much to talk about, so little time….
    Love to all.

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