In the absence of the sacred

NATURE’S MIRACLE — Donnie Fowler’s stepdaughter, Abby Morrison, then 12, stands under the cross on Hacker’s Hill, created by nature during a 1997 lightning storm, and since lovingly reinforced and cared for by the hill’s caretaker, Donnie Fowler. With the pending sale of the hill to Loon Echo Land Trust, Fowler and the hill’s owners, Conrad and Jeff Hall, hope that at least this religious symbol, if not others, can remain, without violating laws governing separation of church and state.

When I first met Gordon “Donnie” Fowler, I couldn’t speak. I was gasping for breath, after jogging all the way to the summit of Hacker’s Hill.

My sudden appearance and heavy breathing jolted him up from the chair where he sat meditating. “I thought you were a moose, making all that noise,” he blurted, his mouth agape.

I was just as shocked to see him standing there, alone amid the tall pines of the panoramic picnic area. It was 17 years ago, the summer of 1994, and — other than the beer-drinking locals on a Saturday night — Hacker’s Hill didn’t get too many visitors back then. Certainly not a solitary man, sitting in silence.

But his face was kind, his smile was quick, so we sat and talked for a while. I told him how good it felt to finally jog all the way to the top without stopping, and how daily jogging on the Quaker Ridge Road (I lived nearby at the time) forced me to focus on the essentials of life — my breathing — and quiet my monkey mind. He told me he’d gotten permission from Hacker Hall, who owned the land, to park a little camper up on the hill, so he could still his mind, too — and figure out what God wanted him to do.

Being a spiritual seeker myself, I admired his resolve. He’d left his job with an interfaith group in North Dakota, working with state prison inmates, to return home to southern Maine after his father got sick. Now two competing interests were calling him, and his heart was conflicted. So where did he decide to go to get answers? To the same spot that he, as a youth, had once gone to hang out and party. He had sat there and fasted for a week. He struck a deal with Hacker, who had become discouraged by the trash and had pretty much closed it off — he’d keep it clean, monitor people’s comings and goings, and, in return, daily access could be restored.

“I figured if I cleaned it up then they couldn’t resist God,” he says now.

The spirit of the Quakers, who settled Quaker Ridge in the early 1800s and built a Friends Meetinghouse at the base of Hacker’s Hill, must have been calling him, even then. Come, they said, to a church without walls, where there is only nature and beauty. Where no human voices will be heard. Come, listen, fill your soul, and find the truth within.

He began simply enough, that summer and the next two summers, by picking up trash and creating natural landscaping — moving rocks to make walls, and logs to make benches. He used an old push mower to trim the grass in the picnic area. While exploring the wooded hillside, he found three old wagon wheels, which he used to create a living memorial to “Hacker Hall, a Man of Vision,” who knew how special the hill was when he began haying it in the 1960s, and chose to pave a road up there and keep it open in the summer to the public.

Donnie and I became friends, on the hill and off, and I watched his sense of purpose grow. His next project on the hill was a wishing well, a few short steps down the hillside, with a simple printed message: “Make a wish, say a prayer, the spirit of the Lord is everywhere.” Here was the first overt declaration of his religion, discretely and tastefully done. I knew Donnie’s Christian faith (he is a licensed minister) guided everything he did, but he never tried to push his beliefs on those who didn’t wish to hear. From the day we met, he said he hadn’t come to the hill seeking visions, or to watch the heavens open up and angels appear. He wrote something that he shared with me, which I kept all these years:

“For six days, I observed, read, prayed and concentrated on heavenly things and earthly things. I became more aware of the unbelievable landscape, the colors, the flowers and the hills. The world’s greatest artist was with me, guiding me, encouraging me to trust Him, without an audible word. He in His own ways had answered all my prayers, with His wisdom from heaven.”

So he kept trusting, and mowing, and picking up litter. Then, one summer afternoon in 1977, as he sat on the hill with a friend watching a thunderstorm roll over, an amazing thing happened. A lightning bolt struck one of the pines, creating the shape of a cross.

Who could dismiss such a clear sign? He called me, breathless, knowing I worked for a newspaper. “You’re not going to believe this,” he said. The story that ran in the Sun Journal had legs, as they say, and was picked up by others; for Donnie, it was a HUGE high-five from on high to keep on truckin’, brother, you’re on the right track.

The tree broke off a month after the cross was created, falling across the road. Donnie piled up the debris, burned it, but the cross remained — and he has tended it lovingly ever since. He stained it and put a metal cap in it to keep water from freezing the cross and splitting it; he even gave thought to having it encased in glass, but the cost was prohibitive. Soon, an informal group began gathering on Sundays for worship. An anonymous person donated a chainsaw carving of Jesus holding a child, which Donnie gracefully accepted, placing it in concrete. The last religious symbol to appear was the sign at the bottom of the hill, with a depiction of Jesus.

“If all of it goes, it ain’t going to hurt God a bit,” Donnie says now. “This hill is bigger than all of us.” He knows the Hall family need to sell the hill, and is glad Loon Echo Land Trust stepped up to the plate and has raised over half of the $800,000 needed to buy the top of the hill’s 27 acres. A big chunk of the funds — $220,000 — from the state’s Land for Maine’s Future Program, may require removal of the religious items, according to an informal opinion from the Attorney General’s office, although LELT’s Executive Director Carrie Walia said she’s hopeful for some kind of compromise.

“I didn’t clearly understand it before, and we’re a little sad that this controversy has happened,” said Walia. “We realize now that their love is for the cross, and not the other religious structures. We hope the state won’t be heavy-handed about this thing.”

No, it won’t hurt God’s feelings if all signs of religion go, Donnie tells me, but to him it seems wrong; it’s like denying who created the hill in the first place. That’s why, with the Hall’s blessing, he asked the American Center for Law & Justice to weigh in, and they’re challenging the AG’s stance on grounds it violates protections of religious freedom.

Donnie doesn’t want to do anything to harm the goal everyone shares, to preserve public access to Hacker’s Hill. But as the caretaker of this space that’s taken on such a sense of the sacred under his watch, he is right to point out that there is more than a natural history to be preserved. In the absence of the sacred, what we’re left with is less.

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