Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Faith Works 10-15-05
Jeff Gill

So, Did They Worship Nature?

"So, Did They Worship Nature?" That was the question one person asked me after I gave a tour of the Octagon Earthworks not long ago, as a volunteer for the Ohio Historical Society, owners of the site.
I had shared the remarkable story of how recent research had rediscovered a fact hidden in plain sight by the builders 2000 years ago, the Native Americans known archaeologically as "Hopewell." The main axis of the geometric earthworks there, a circle almost as big as the "Great Circle" down by Heath, connected by double walls to a vast, 55 acre octagon, open at the corners with small barrier mounds at the breaks, points to the northwest horizon.
At that spot, the moon rises as far north as it ever does in an 18.6 year cycle. The other openings and walls of the figure point out the other main lunar rise and set points through that cycle. Millions of cubit feet of earth, moved by hand, placed with a modern engineer’s precision to orient earth to sky, for purposes we know no better than we know the name they called themselves two millenia ago.
Which made the visitor’s question a reasonable one, in a way. If there was no seasonal purpose for planting and crops involved (as we suspect for the Great Circle, a story in itself), then was this a religious thing entirely?
Perhaps, but that still wouldn’t make for "nature worship." My daily planner notes that Yom Kippur began at sundown a few days ago, ten days after Rosh Hashanah or "Head of the Year" in Hebrew. Those High Holy Days for the Jewish Faith move about a bit, because the ritual calendar is tied to lunar months. The great observance of the "Day of Atonement" Thursday closes a period marked by solar and lunar periods, but no one would argue that Yom Kippur is nature worship.
Right after Judaism marked 5766 in their new year, Islam began the month of fasting called Ramadan. In my calendar, that began Oct. 4, but it said "tentative," as does the close of the sunrise to sunset fasting Nov. 2. Tentative, because Ramadan does not begin until the new moon appears as a sliver (the crescent you see on so many Islamic flags and symbols), which varies from place to place on the globe. The local imam or ayatollah or leader will actually have to see the arc of moon in the sky to declare the beginning and conclusion of the fast, and the feasting which follows.
And the time of Ramadan moves about through the western 12 month calendar, because Islam uses a ritual calendar based on . . . yep, the moon.
What did the spiritual practice of Native Americans consist of 2000 years ago? We simply don’t know. In western cultures, the role of the world and the relationship of the visible world to spirits and higher powers has been complicated even within Christendom, and "tree hugger" now is the equivalent of the cheap critique of "nature worshipper" in another age. All faith traditions that I’m aware of point out the responsibility of believers to respect creation and the divine purposes behind the gift of life, and like most aspects of faith could stand to honored more in practice than in the breach.
We do not worship the moon or nature to want to mark our lives within the cycles drawn across the vastness of the night sky or across the natural landscape. Chartres Cathedral in France, a monument of medieval faith, has a special set of windows and plates in the floor to track the progress of solstices and equinoxes. Did they worship nature, or Nature’s God, by honoring the faithfulness of the heavenly bodies circling ‘round them?

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he has been working for the last six months on helping plan the events around and hopes to see you next Sat., Oct. 22! Or just offer regrets at

Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Notes From My Knapsack 10-16-05
Jeff Gill

Get Used To Agrotourism

Agrotourism is one of those fancy words that can slip into everyday conversation before you know it.
Maybe you haven’t used it yet, but I have a feeling Licking County will get used to it before long.
Tourism that looks at agriculture has quite a pedigree here. Lynd’s Fruit Farm has been hosting tours and greeting school groups in the fall for many years. I enjoyed being a chaperone with the Little Guy’s class last year, seeing the cider presses and selection conveyors and all the rows of trees narrowing together along the horizon. Other orchards have found that a tour, a chance to pick a bag o’ apples, and a cup of cider can, at a modest admission fee, help to cover the steadily rising costs of being in the agriculture business without being in the corporate orbit.
This summer we went back to visit my old hometown in northwest Indiana, and my folks said "Let’s go to Fair Oaks Dairy." OK, we said, since they sounded like they had enjoyed a recent visit to . . . whatever it was.
After a drive down into prairie country south of the Kankakee River, we started to see large clusters of huge new barns dotting the expansive landscape. Soon we saw signs that made it clear we were already in "Fair Oaks" territory.
What this operation is, a hundred miles south of Chicago and less than two hundred north of Indianapolis, is a giant milk cow operation, with tens of thousands of cows (bulls? Don’t need ‘em when you have syringes and a schedule) regularly climbing onto a vast 72 stall circular carousel.
The turntable was where they got milked, all under our gaze from a disease-controlled gallery only accessible from the bus bay, where we had heard a rolling tour from an area farmer who moonlighted (as so many farmers do all over) as a driver-guide, answering questions and steering us through the buildings and along the roads.
What’s so amazing here is that, on modest reflection, the inquiring mind realizes that a large business, wanting into a good market (Chicago-Indy) near a good range of forage crops and a near endless supply of sand for bedding (think Great Lakes shoreline), saw that their arrival could make for problems. Lots of acres (thousands) and lots of manure (tons) makes for a bigfoot presence in a small farming area. How do we show that we’re god neighbors and help folks see what we’re doing in a positive light?
This is America: the answer is charge admission. Oh, and put in a gift shop (lots of cheese) and a café (mostly ice cream and cheese sandwiches) with a museum only a PR staff could love, but skillfully done. My hat is off to them, and you can check them out along I-65 on the way to Chicago if you want, Buy the Colby and bring me a brick, too.
Have you been to Devine Farms or Pigeon Roost Farm for a pumpkin and a day o’ fun? Agrotourism. Stopped at a corn maze or haunted trail around central Ohio? Also agrotourism of a sort, if we’re talking about a farmer paying some of his bills by adding value to a farm visit with a few stray ghouls and sudden chain saw behind the crowd.
Even the amazing ancient history of the Newark Earthworks can participate. Here’s another fun word: paleoethnobotany. Those who study ancient plant utilization in archaeological settings, or paleoethnobotanists, have shown that this area was one of only a handful of places around the world (six, maybe eight tops) where agriculture began independently.
The selection and cultivation of specific seeds to increase yield and ensure nutrition and storage quality is what makes for beginning agriculture. The odd seed crops along with better known local plants like sunflower and squash are a unique gift of the folks who also left us the Octagon Earthworks, which we’ll celebrate next weekend on Saturday at OSU-N. We see the vast geometric shapes on the land that are left, but their microscopic heritage is no less worth of honor, and someone’s museum display or presentation.
More agrotourism.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he is but an indifferent gardener, sadly. Tell of your sunflowers, squash, and other local produce at, or see what’s happening at Newark Earthworks Day at