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  • Writer's pictureMichael Martin

You are Here: The Tutelar of the Place

A few days ago, I walked out of my house to do some clean-up after building a manger for my goats when I saw a car slowly driving by and the driver point to various things on the property for his passenger. I went over to introduce myself and the driver, a recently retired sailor from the navy, told me he used to visit my farm when he was a child in the 1960s and 70s to stay with his great uncle and aunt. He told me about many of the features long since disappeared: where the water pump was in the kitchen, the woodshed behind the pump house, the tool shed behind the barn. His face lit up as he revisited his childhood. It reminded me of Dylan Thomas‘s poem “Fern Hill”:

And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns

About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home,

In the sun that is young once only,

Time let me play and be

Golden in the mercy of his means,

And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves

Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold,

And the sabbath rang slowly

In the pebbles of the holy streams.

Witnessing his reverie somehow welcomed me into it.

He also told me about an Indian burial mound that had been on the property. This certainly took me by surprise. He said that the University of Michigan had excavated the site in the 1930s or 40s and that he and his relatives often found arrowheads on the land, typically when breaking up the soil for planting. I had heard this from the previous owner, and while I haven’t found any arrowheads yet, my youngest son did find a silver Indian ring when he was watching me dig postholes a couple years ago. My wife even found a scholarly article describing the site:

from John R. Halsey and Janet G. Brashler, "More Than Grave Lots? The Jack's Reef Horizon in Michigan," Archaeology of Eastern North America Vol. 41 (2013), pp. 145-192

The next day, my wife and a few of our children started to look for the site. We found a few candidates, most of them just off of our property (the farm has been broken into smaller plots over the years). Nevertheless, we felt obligated to honor the sacredness of the place by honoring those whose spirits still guard over it. The following day, my two youngest and I made a medicine wheel of stones and offered gifts of tobacco, a snail shell, a quartz cluster, a turkey feather, and some burning sage along with Catholic prayers (Nicholas Black Elk, represent!) and requests that the invisible inhabitants pray for some of our friends currently struggling, as well as promising them we would hold the land as sacred and treat it in just such a way.

Nicholas Black Elk teaching a child to pray the rosary.

The spirits inhabiting Stella Matutina Farm and environs are clearly the tutelars of the place, even though the august minds of the University of Michigan colonized their remains nearly eighty years ago. Indeed, my wife and I have always been mindful of the importance of a sacramental relationship to the land. We named our farm “Stella Matutina” in recognition of the sacredness of our vocation as biodynamic farmers (we took the name, meaning “The Morning Star,” from one of the titles of the Virgin Mary). The Welsh Catholic poet and artist David Jones was very mindful of the presiding spirits that bestow qualities upon place, as he writes in his poem (which I include in my collection The Heavenly Country) “The Tutelar of the Place”:

She that loves place, time, demarcation, hearth, kin, enclosure, site, differentiated cult, though she is but one mother of us all: one earth brings us all forth, one womb receives us all, yet to each she is other, named of some name other…

... other sons, beyond hill, over strath, or never so neighbouring by nigh field or near crannog up stream. What co-tidal line can plot if nigrin or flaxhead marching their wattles be cognate or german of common totem?

Tell us of the myriad names answers to but one name: From this tump she answers Jac o’ the Tump only if he call Great-Jill-of-the-tump-that-bare-me, not if he cry by some new fangle moder of far gentes over the flud, fer-goddess name from anaphora of far folk wont woo her; she’s a rare one for locality.

Certainly, of all the things it has lost, the sacredness of place is among the most disastrous products of (post)modernity. It’s as if we are disembodied heads, cut off from reality while we mistake data and rhetoric for the Real. The internet and social media only exacerbate this unfortunate development. Scholar W.Y. Evans-Wentz was mindful of this long, long ago when he wrote his doctoral dissertation, which later appeared as The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries:

Let us, then, for a time, forget that there are such things as libraries and universities, and betake ourselves to the Celtic peasant for instruction, living close to nature as he lives, and thinking the things which he thinks.[1]

What would happen if we undertook such an experiment? I fear that many who embrace such a vision do so in the abstract. They seem to like the idea, but prefer to keep it theoretical. Call them “armchair distributists” or “communitarian-agrarian daytrippers.” This is an un-incarnated ethos. Let it take on flesh.

In answer to our invisible, but nonetheless poisonous condition, Jones finishes his poem with a prayer:

When the technicians manipulate the dead limbs of our culture as though it yet had life, have mercy on us. Open unto us, let us enter a second time within your stola-folds in those days—ventricle and refuge both, hendref[2] for world-winter, asylum from world-storm, Womb of the Lamb the spoiler of the Ram.

A regeneration of culture can only happen with a regeneration of our relationship to nature and the presences which make it sacred.

Michael's latest book is Transfiguration: Notes toward a Radical Catholic Reimagination of Everything. He can be reached at See also The Center for Sophiological Studies' available courses, including one on The Metaphysical Poets.

[1] W.Y. Evans-Wentz, The Fairy-Faith in Celtic Countries (Oxford University Press, 1911), 19.

[2] “ancestral dwelling”

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