On 1st March Piatkus publishes Sacred Land. Written by broadcaster and theologian Martin Palmer, this fascinating book takes the reader on a unique journey through our landscape and explains how the people of Britain once believed themselves – and all they created – to be part of a greater, more sacred, story. That belief has shaped our landscape, from stone circles and long barrows to the design of our town and churches, and it’s a story that’s there for all of us to discover, whether we live in a town, village or in the countryside. Here, Martin Palmer discusses what inspired him to write the book.
Many different forces and influences have come together over my lifetime to inspire me to write Sacred Land. The seeds were first planted by my family – a magical godmother who loved to tell wonderful stories, a mother who had been an atheist and became a ‘sort of’ Christian and a father who loved God and shared this love with all those around him. As a result of these influences, I grew up in a world imbued with a heady mixture of enchantment, scepticism and faith, so there were lots of bewitching stories but they were always rooted in the land, in ancient sites, old churches and the lives of the countless generations that have lived upon the land we now call Britain.
In the early 70s, aged 18, I went to work as a volunteer in a Hong Kong orphanage and fell in love with Chinese culture, which was redolent of the ‘sacred’ but under threat from the Cultural Revolution. It was there that I learnt that the idea of the sacred landscape was universal but, while Chinese culture celebrated this, we in Britain seemed reluctant – embarrassed almost – by any such idea.
When, in my early thirties, I became the religious advisor on environmental issues to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) and to HRH The Duke of Edinburgh, I suddenly found my past made sense of my present, as I was now working with every major faith tradition worldwide, helping them protect their sacred lands. One of the most enlightening moments came in the early 1990s when I was in Russia. Two Orthodox Christian bishops rolled out a map and showed me how Moscow was built according to the Book of Revelation and seemed to be constructed according to what I can only describe as Christian Feng Shui. The bishops were astounded by my surprise, believing that I should have known this, for, as they said, ‘all of your old cities follow the same pattern’. Amazed, I returned to Britain and started to ‘read’ the towns and cities around me in a new way, discovering that, indeed, each of our old towns and cities tell a fascinating sacred story.
In 1995 I launched the Alliance of Religions and Conservation (ARC www.arcworld.org) and a few years later, with WWF, the Sacred Land Project. The project has helped to protect hundreds of historic, ecological and sacred sites in Britain and overseas. We have now helped sacred land projects from Mongolia to Mexico, from China to Canada and from Indonesia to India.
Now it’s time to ‘come home’. And writing Sacred Land feels like a homecoming. I have learnt so much about how we human beings like to see ourselves as part of a ‘greater story’ and how this is a sacred story, even if most people in the West are only starting to realise this. Sacred Land is very much a handbook designed to help anyone, anywhere in Britain, look with new eyes and with a new understanding at their environment, from ancient fields to churches, from city maps to burial mounds, to discover the sacred stories that can be found in their everyday surroundings.
But there is a further purpose to this book; one which my wonderful editors, Gill and Jillian, have encouraged me to draw out. Our ecology and society has collapsed four times in the last five thousand years – sometimes through human abuse of the environment and sometimes because the climate has changed. Each time this has happened the sacred story of the time has died as well.
We are possibly on the edge of a fifth such collapse. What is the ‘story’ we feel we are part of now? Is it in any sense sacred or is it just utilitarian? Can we change our story if it is driving us towards ecological chaos? And are there lessons to be learnt from the past and the stories which lie, to this day, just below the surface of our environment?
I believe there are and I hope you will join me in the adventure of finding them. . .
Martin Palmer’s Sacred Land is out now. It is also available to download as an ebook from all the major ebook retailers, so you can add this title to your Kindle, iPad, Kobo or Sony Reader.
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