One morning in late July I drove a few miles of winding Route 62 in northwest Arkansas to the Thorncrown Chapel, a few rows of pews set beneath a vaulted reach of glass and wood set into a stone-wall foundation. There are no curves, but still it echoes the style of medieval Europe’s great cathedrals: the cantilevered belief that a roof should seek to commune with sky, that the highest walls are meant to gather light. It’s a modernist reinterpretation, clean lines and flat planes, of the Gothic style. The architect had envisioned a very site-specific kind of building material; he wanted beams and windows that could be carried there by hand, so there’s a human scale through the simplicity. And where each truss connected with another he placed square steel frames, on point, to form a floating window inside every wooden rib.
Outside, a mature oak-hickory forest rustled in unseasonably cool air. Inside, I sat in a single shaft of sunlight and read the story of the chapel’s design and construction, how the benefactor bought the land to build a home for his retirement but then got the idea that making a gift of the location’s beauty to the public would be a more fitting act. The rest of the story is predictable: of course the money ran out and then, after a dejected day of prayer, the benefactor quickly found a way to get work going again. A group of youth for Christ sat in matching t-shirts, their heads in their hands. I put down the pamphlet and gazed out through the altar to the woods beyond.
There is a lovely story that the Goths, as they moved from Germanic paganism to Christianity, held faithful to their sacred groves. Instead of felling the trees to build houses for their newly-adopted worship, they tied the upper boughs together, forming high, pointed arches overhead. I imagine the sculptor, Patrick Dougherty, spending a week or so in the sylvan glade, weaving together culled shrubs and branches to complement the canopy of living green. Expedient—the work of an afternoon, perhaps. A touch of whimsy in the cant of each sweeping peak. Simple, elegant, and I like to think of that idea embedded in the word itself with its two, central high-backed letters like a doorway to the past: go-th-ic.
When I was 18, I spent a 12-week quarter studying in France. Led by our professors, Monsieur et Madame Wrage (pronounced raj, not rage), we attended classes in the old city of Tours, where I first encountered scalding café au lait delivered from a vending machine in servings the size of Dixie cups. We toured the chateaux of the Loire Valley, visited the cold, gray coast of Normandy. Chateaux and cathedrals: we learned to notice whether the constructions seemed unified in style (like Chenonceau, whose ivory-tinted façade spanned the river like a riparian castle made of silk) or, like the older cathedral in Tours itself (we took two different busses to get there, on one of the cold, wet spring days that everyone said was the coldest spring in years, il y long-damn-temps, someone decided to say), where we’d see a mixture of the rounded Roman arches and the later, pointed shapes of the Gothic era. We looked at each rosace, studied the gargoyles that emerged from the structure’s skin like frightening, personified cancers we had to crane our necks back, painfully, to see. Madame’s glasses accentuated her eyes, wide-open and alert. Voila les aspets Roman, Monsieur would say, a man with birdlike movements and, though he rarely smiled, a gentle kindness hidden beneath his beard. Yes, there were the Roman aspects. And there, the peaks Gothiques.
And somehow 30 years later, in the Southern Hemisphere summer, hiking beneath New Zealand’s silver tree ferns, sunlight filtering from the upper canopy of beech or rimu to the filigree of fronds far below, I was reminded of those French cathedrals and their high, light-slicing windows, their floating dust motes suspended from—who knew?—another century or more.
Let’s track the ideas back, back, back—the little branches of language scattered on the path, a lone heel print hardened where someone stood still to think. In 14th century England, the seyntuarye was a kind of lure, a lavishly constructed place where God—otherwise unpredictably wide-ranging—might come to stay awhile. It was the Gothic ambition’s reach and drape, the contrapuntal longing, lodged in limestone, to contain the light. When Chaucer and his traveling pilgrims spoke of sanctuary, it was the building they referred to, a place where debtors or fugitives from the law could escape arrest. Not yet—why should it be?—a place for wildlife to seek shelter from the human world. And refuge? No, not yet. These words first emerging from the thorns and futhorcs of Old English can’t even dream of the meanings they’ll be put to in another 400 years. Game preserves and Indian reserves enter the North American lexicon, dragging the weight of a shared investment in objectification, in the first decade of the 19th century. And when bird sanctuaries first appear in the British Empire’s texts, they’re problematized with scare quotes: it’s a metaphoric “sanctuary,” something peculiar within the elastic application of a long-familiar term. By 1887, when the first written reference to a “bird sanctuary” occurs, New Zealand had been bound to England by the Treaty of Waitangi for nearly 50 years and the disappearance of the island continent’s endemic and exclusive species was gathering speed.
Sanctuary is the term of this anthropocentric millennium, appended to a dream so big the word expands again. Ecosanctuaries are New Zealand’s bet against the present moment. God’s house, maybe, made home again (oh, oikos) for species whose evolutionary biome, ripped by extinctions, lies in ruin. I keep thinking about these inspired undertakings, traveling to some of them and listening to the calls of birds from within their boundaries, songs which conservationists hope will carry to the surrounding landscapes. The logo for the largest of these, Maungatautari, is a mountain ringed with gold. Sanctuary Mountain, all the t-shirts say.
Since human contact, probably no more than a thousand years ago with the arrival of the Maori in their boats, 32 percent of the islands’ endemic land and freshwater bird species have been destroyed. So have 18 percent of the coasts’ seabird species; 43 percent of the frogs. While those alone are despair-inducing numbers, another 28,000 animal, plant, and fungi species are considered threatened. The forests have been cleared, in just over a century, for agriculture. “I think there is an untapped guilt out there,” reflects one activist. “So many of the farmers actually remember taking the bush off the area.”
When I try to understand the enormity of New Zealand’s ecosanctuary movement, I think about the undertaking each cathedral was for medieval Europe. Every laborer, mason, and the master-builder who set out at the project’s start must have assumed his life would reach completion well before the work itself. Construction might last decades—or more likely, centuries. And that’s the time-frame visionaries of the ecosanctuaries steel themselves to meet. The mission statement of the largest of these community-driven inland islands is as audacious as it is straightforward: “To remove, forever, introduced mammalian pests and predators from Maungatautari, and to restore to the forest a healthy diversity of indigenous plants and animals not seen in our lifetime.”
The point is, many of these species aren’t seen anywhere else in the world and the true fulfillment of that diversity won’t occur for centuries. It could take 500 years before a healthy old-growth forest clothes the hills. (“Pristine forest” is how New Zealanders refer to old growth.) Depending on the sanctuary’s size and difficulty of terrain, the fence construction shouldn’t last more than a year or so, but the project’s demands won’t diminish once the gate is shut. Each foot of fence line will need to be maintained—inspected for vandalism, storm damage, break-ins by the mammals they’re meant to exclude. Traps must be laid and checked and checked again to ensure the refuge remains pest-free. Protected populations must be watched for disease or infection. And money must be available, always, to make any of this possible. Five hundred years of fundraising.
In the narrow space of the desk, a writer’s residency I’ve been granted in the resort town of Eureka Springs, just down the street from the ornate Victorian homes from the Gilded Age, I light a candle, typing on the keyboard that isn’t backlit so I make clumsy errors in the screen’s dim glow. Most days, I am a non-believer. On four different continents I’ve gazed on many species I think are doomed: California condors. Whooping cranes—I swear it, they landed in Pottawatomie County one Easter morning and I watched them in the brightening air. Once, a hyacinth macaw that took a bit of banana from my hand. A corn crake disappearing into mist in the Hebrides. Takahe. Rifleman. Black-footed ferret. Tamandua. Stitchbird. Bellbird. The names I learn are a Babel of languages, vowels I try to learn to mouth correctly. A nonbeliever, I am bearing witness. I am testifying. What now? What next?
Header photo of Thorncrown Chapel by Whit Slemmons, courtesy Thorncrown Chapel.