Finding the Sacred in Infrastructure

Several years ago, when I was living in Houston, I had a seemingly inconsequential thought that grew and shaped itself until it transformed the way I see the world. Houston can do that to you.

Certain times of the year, large flocks of large, black birds will congregate on the power lines. It’s clearly multiple flocks, because there’s often squabbling over territory, and a terrific fluster of wings as a group of birds will decide as one to move from one set of lines to another, and another flock will switch lines in response. I was stuck in a traffic jam, probably somewhere in Midtown, under an impressively large set of these various flocks. There must have been thousands of these birds in the few blocks that were in my sights. I was sitting there for several minutes, waiting for whatever had blocked up traffic blocks ahead to clear watching the flocks fly from line to line, and I noticed that there was a certain section of lines that all the birds were avoiding. None of them would land on it, none of them would even fly near it. A seemingly silly thought just popped into my head.

The must be where the ghosts are sitting.

Because of course ghosts are attracted to power lines. And birds can see ghosts.

This probably should have been just the kind of thought to let pass. But traffic jams in Houston can last a long time. And so I started questioning why the ghosts are attracted to power lines. Maybe the power running through the lines was like a magnet for the ghosts, keeping them trapped there. Or maybe it wasn’t the power lines at all. The sky a few feet above our heads was a network of trapped spirits. That putting up these lines all across the world had unintentionally disrupted the flow of spirits through the aether.

This seemed a little grim. And adding coating the plant with ghost flypaper to the list of sins that the human race had committed against the planet just seemed like a line of thought with the potential to end badly. Besides, I felt sorry for the trapped ghosts. these were, after all, disembodied human spirits, deserving of respect. So it occurred to me that maybe the ghosts were just there sitting on the power lines. What they were really after was the telephone lines. The ghosts could float from line to line, like the birds, and sit on the lines listening to the conversations as they ran through the telephone lines, waiting to hear a familiar voice pass by, or just keeping up with the gossip of the living.

Çatalhöyük was one of the first cities in the world, standing above a broad, flat plain in what is now modern Turkey. The city’s heyday was around 9,000 years ago, when somewhere upwards of 7,000 people lived within its walls. While we don’t know a tremendous amount about the people who lived there and their culture, we do have quite a bit of evidence of their burial practices, which are remarkable — they buried their dead under the floors of their houses. Often beneath the hearth, or beneath the bed. This is something which has always struck me as remarkable. We know very little about the exact forms their beliefs or practices took, but having the dead within their homes suggests a profound sense o connection. It also suggests a deep sense of permanence. When grandpa is under the floorboards, you’re not moving anytime soon.

A sense of permanence and a sense of connection. Or, two of the things which are most frequently and prominently noted as absent in any opinion piece about what’s wrong with America today. What exactly is impermanent and what it’s disconnected from will vary according to political inclination and exact degree of grouchiness, but the sentiment is nearly inescapable.

That physical connection to the dead is one that we can see in Çatalhöyük, at Stonehenge and across the Neolithic landscape, and in living cultures all across the world. It’s a sense of continuity with the landscape, and with the culture. It’s a way which allows for both a personal and a communal connection with the dead.

That connection with the landscape is something worth exploring a little more. The culture at Çatalhöyük, the culture that built those vast funerary monuments on the Salisbury plain, these were cultures that lasted for thousands of years. Their ideas about the dead, about their relationship to the dead, and how those were reflected through the landscape had vast amounts of time to grow and adapt themselves to encompass that landscape. Because there is an interaction between culture, geography, and climate that extends into how we see our connection with the supernatural. If you’re part of a culture that happens to live near an active volcanic field with a tendency to crackle with noise and steam, it’s not hard to see how this shapes itself into a belief that the dead carry on in some way underground. From this, locations where people can connect to their ancestors become sacred spaces.

Multiple difficulties present themselves in finding this sense of the sacred in the American landscape. First, there’s the fact that these Neolithic cultures, and other cultures where this sense of connection is still strongly expressed, were by and large much more monolithic than the diverse set of cultural interactions that makes up American society. We can’t really assume that everyone we encounter has the same underlying set of beliefs about how the universe operates in a way that someone in a Neolithic village of a few hundred people could.

Second, the American landscape is new. Very new. Sure, there are mountains and rivers that have been around for unfathomable stretches of time. But the landscape that most of us inhabit, the actual physical world we spend most of our time in, the roads, the houses, the shopping centers, are all remarkably new. My house is considered old by American standards, and yet it’s younger than my father. The landscape is also continually changing and being rewritten. We live in a landscape where we are surrounded by buildings that used to be a Pizza Hut.

There’s also the fact that American cultural beliefs about the supernatural are frequently imports from other continents, other landscapes. These ideas often don’t entirely fit with American geography. This is not a landscape that lends itself naturally to the habitations of elves or trolls. An excited teenager choosing a witchy name is going to go right for something involving “raven” or “wolf,” and skip right over something more indicative of the landscape like “possum” or “raccoon.” I say this knowing that there are indigenous cultures with their own histories and their own language, but the relationship of those cultures and their beliefs to the dominant culture is complex enough that it needs to be dealt with separately For now, just understand that we’re talking about the culture that began with the European invasion. From that perspective, our vocabulary for the supernatural is inherited from other cultures in other, faraway lands. We lack a natural expression for the ideas of the sort of liminal experiences our landscape makes more likely.

And that landscape includes a lot of power lines.

Part of what’s missing in our language in discussing the Supernatural is the way the language we use is very binary in how it constructs these experiences. A space is sacred or profane. It’s something to be worshiped or feared. The liminal nature of the experience is lost, particularly because we live in political environment where there is strong institutional control over what is considered sacred. The spaces that are allowed to be called sacred in America are ones that are associated with religious or political institutions. Our only shared cultural communion with the dead, our national Day of the Dead, is focused exclusively on the military and often transformed into an exercise in jingoism or an excuse for mattress sales. The bounds of the sacred are often set by forces which serve the dominant power structures. Liminal experiences which fall outside those established bounds of the sacred are categorized are characterized as being profane, as being haunted, or mocked. Or usually both. The haunted house is a space which is simultaneously culturally feared and ridiculed. And then exploited for cash.

Exploitation and America also go hand in hand. The relationship between control of sacred spaces, the drive for profit, and the need for a liminal language adapted to the modern American experience was somewhat forcefully driven home to me some years after that experience in Houston, when we were living in rural Kentucky. We had bought a house in the middle of town, just down the street from a small 19th Century family graveyard. This was a plot which was literally in someone’s side yard, in a neighborhood filled with small Arts & Crafts bungalows. Curiosity drove me to dig a little deeper into the cemetery’s origins, and I found an 100 year old survey map and discovered that there had been a plantation house nearby and the graves were those of the family that had owned and run. And that our home, our neighborhood, had been built on the edge of this ground. There was also a note on the map that somewhere in the area where the unmarked graves of approximately fifty people who had been enslaved during their lifetimes. These graves would have been where our neighborhood was.

I was unable to discover any record of what had happened to the graves when the neighborhood had been built. My suspicion is that they joined a long list of similar graves that had not met with a respectful end.

We’ve since moved on from that home, several times, and whenever I tell someone about this almost invariably the first question out of their mouths is “Was the house haunted?”

This is a question I find very difficult to answer. And the reason I find it so difficult to answer goes back to those bodies at Çatalhöyük.

We do not know, we can never know, the names of those under the beds and under the floors of the ancient Anatolian city. We don’t know what vision of the afterlife the people who placed them there held. We don’t know what consequences they would have expected for that afterlife as a result of our disturbing those graves.

In some ways, the men and women who labored in those fields in central Kentucky are as anonymous to us as those who lived on that plain 9,000 years ago. We will probably never know what became of their bodies. We will probably never know their names. Any records we have of them would treat their lives as footnotes. Their existences as balances in a ledger. As property.

Was that house haunted?

Who am I to speak for someone else’s dead?

What view of the world would I be committing to, how would I be saying I believed the universe operated, if I said yes? What am I, if believe that their souls are somehow trapped on earth, that they are denied freedom in death as they were denied it in life? Empathy must extend to the past. If I take the experience of someone’s life, and reduce that to a narrative to use as an excuse when my pen goes missing, it seems like it’s an act of dehumanization. An act of spiritual violence.

That’s the problem with hauntings, with seeing liminal experiences through an inherited lens of antiquated ideologies and systemic injustice. Seeing a space as haunted means that we are seeing the spirit in relationship only to ourselves. That the purpose of the dead is to give legend trippers a cheap thrill.

In that house, I was in someone else’s Çatalhöyük. I was surrounded by the dead to whom I had no knowledge of, but a deep and intimate connection with, because of being born an heir to the maddening complexity and contradictions of American history. If there were spirits there, I owed them an unimaginable debt.

I could choose to be haunted by that.

Or I could choose to recognize it as sacred.

It was around then that I started thinking again about those ghosts on those power lines in Midtown Houston. And when walking around the neighborhood, I really started paying attention to just how omnipresent telephone poles and power lines actually are. How they criss-cross every street and every place we go. How following their lines draws a new map of the neighborhood, whole different routes to follow, a set of entirely different paths existing just out of reach above our heads. I finally saw what those birds were trying to tell me all those years ago in that traffic jam. Power lines are liminal spaces. And they’re everywhere. We are surrounded by liminal spaces.

It’s that choice I made in the narratives of ghosts being trapped on the power lines and ghosts listening in and trying to connect with the living. We are surrounded by the liminal, and when swimming in the midst of the duality we have the choice to see the experience as sacred.

We are deeply embedded in this country in a land of telephone wires, of highways, of motels, of a landscape that used to be a Pizza Hut. We prize a few old buildings, occasionally dip into a national park or two, but by and large the landscape we actually live in goes unnoticed. Unnoticed in a way which I think would be unimaginable to our predecessors who built those fantastic monuments across the world, or even to cultures where there is a shared connection with the dead. This is the landscape we live in, and it’s not going to go away any time soon.

I left Houston over a decade ago, and Kentucky is rapidly becoming the distant past. I find myself now in a city with a complex relationship to infrastructure. Detroit is also one of the most staggeringly beautiful places I’ve ever been. It’s also a place which, outside of its borders, many people are simultaneously afraid of and ridiculing. But it’s a place that people who come to expecting to find it haunted are often disappointed when the people who live here tell them that no, it’s actually sacred.

This project is an attempt to take what I’ve learned from decades of studying folklore and the history of the supernatural and find ways to share that sense of the sacred with others. To see if there are ways we can find together to consciously take on the work of building belief, embrace our native liminal spaces, and discovering a language we can use to speak to the spiritual in our own landscapes. To recognize the ghosts on the power lines as ancestors, and to embrace the irrational as a means of building a shared culture. To recognize our dependence on each other, our debt to those who have gone before, and to try to build a set of tools for those who come after us to make the world better.

The highways, the motels, the roadside spirits that are considered in this project can be seen as literal, or as metaphorical, or in good liminal fashion as both simultaneously. Our roads our haunted because we have legacies to deal with, but we can choose to travel down those roads and see them as sacred. To recognize that we are simultaneously deeply affected by and capable of shaping those narratives. To realize that changing the culture changes reality, and we have for the first time in human history the capacity to build the tools to make that change for a deliberately better reality.

That seems like something that’s worth talking to few ghosts for.