Making Nature Sacred: Literature, Religion, and Environment in America from the Puritans to the Present

By John Gatta | Go to book overview

1
Landfall

The New World as New Creation

Hayle Holy-Land

Nowhere in literature of the American colonial period is the sheer excitement of landfall following the ordeal of oceanic passage better conveyed than in Thomas Tillam's verses “Uppon the First Sight of New-England June 29, 1638.” Even before touching shore, the immigrant poet opens his lyric by saluting the coast ofMassachusetts as “holy-land.” Little is known about Tillam, or about why he soon returned to Europe from a place he had greeted with such zeal: “Hayle holy-land wherin our holy lord / Hath planted his most true and holy word.”1

In any case, the apostrophe now seems to epitomize a vision of sacred ground in the New World that would remain in sight, through many different frames of perception and shifts in focus, to our own day. In the essay “Walking,” for example, Thoreau later described his travels in Massachusetts as a sauntering, or “sort ofcrusade,” toward a latter-day “Holy Land.” Retreating from profane civilization, Thoreau is drawn to the darkest woods he can find or to thick swamp, which he enters “as a sacred place,—a sanctum sanctorum.” And for seventeenth-century Algonkians, the elements and organisms of Southern New England had already been animated by nature persons, already permeated with the sacred presence of Manitou, before English settlers arrived.2

For most modern readers, though, the impression Thomas Tillam conveys of New England's holy land is terribly disappointing in the end, despite the rush of emotion with which he begins. We want to know how someone in his circumstance will react to the new look of this land—to its towering oaks, its huge flocks of passenger pi-

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