The crux of the matter

By Frank Daggett

“The cross can stay, but everything else must go,” was the statement made to Casco selectmen.

A bolt of lightning blasted a tree on Hacker’s Hill in Casco, instantaneously vaporizing its sap, blowing the top into the sky and sundering the trunk. The top landed in the split at a nearly perfect right angle, forming a cross. As the land passes from private to public ownership, the legality of leaving this religious symbol was discussed, leading to the decision that it can stay, but all other religious symbols must go.

Coniferous trees must go, because they’re widely recognized as religious symbols, namely, “Christmas trees.” Deciduous trees must go, because Christians, Jews, Muslims, Native Americans, Hindus, and nearly all religions, recognize them as symbols of the cycles of birth, death and rebirth into new life — for the same reason, butterflies and moths must go. Lest this treeless landscape be viewed as suitable for sheep grazing, remember that the Koran and both Hebrew and Greek Bibles take the lamb as a religious symbol. May the native ungulates roam the hill? “As the deer yearns for running streams, so my soul yearns for you, my God” (Psalm 42) — these religious symbols must go, too. When all the religious symbols are removed, all that would remain is the cross, ironically created by what insurance law recognizes as “an act of God.”

THE CROSS — The Hacker’s Hill cross, seen behind a crown-of-thorns, only looks like a religious symbol; because it’s natural, some nature preservationists say it can’t be preserved.

The idea that freedom of religion restricts religious symbols in public places makes about as much sense as saying that freedom of the press means you can’t read this paper in public. If there is a Maine law restricting even historic religious symbols on public land (a questionable claim), then it’s unconstitutional. The Muslim chaplain who prayed at the burial of Osama bin Laden not only displayed religious symbols, but even performed a religious ceremony on public property (an aircraft carrier) and was paid with tax dollars, all in keeping with his oath as a U.S. naval officer to defend the Constitution. Presumably, loyal Americans visiting Casco cannot be accorded the same rights given to one of America’s worst enemies.

Ignoring spirituality is a symptom of the continued alienation of humanity from reality. For centuries, we’ve been trying to convince ourselves that we’re apart from or above nature, building more advanced shelters but always surprised when nature wins out and damages or destroys those structures. Now, some are trying to convince the rest that our spirituality is offensive to those who say that there is nothing beyond ourselves, that inspiration is a delusion. This is a great danger to the preservation of the natural environment, as well as to the quality of human life itself. If there are no values that transcend the group of people who espouse it, then nature is only valuable if a majority says so, valueless if they do not. Yet at the root of all human problems — environmental degradation, greed, violence, abuse, undue stress, selfishness and injustice — is the failure to recognize the numinous aspect of human life.

Those of us who find inspiration in nature — while hiking in the woods, climbing a mountain peak, boating in a lake or stream, taking a walk on the beach, appreciating the transcendent beauty of a sunrise or sunset — are performing a religious act. May our response, in awed silence, in speech, or in art, always remain free.

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