Spiritual Pilgrims at Mount Shasta, California [*]

By Huntsinger, Lynn; Fernandez-Gimenez, Maria | The Geographical Review, October 2000 | Go to article overview

Spiritual Pilgrims at Mount Shasta, California [*]


Huntsinger, Lynn, Fernandez-Gimenez, Maria, The Geographical Review


ABSTRACT. Even the casual visitor cannot fail to notice unusual activity on the slopes of Northern California's Mount Shasta. Prayer flags, altars, and crystals are found in the meadows; drumming, chanting, and meditation are commonplace. Non-indigenous spiritual pilgrims have found Mount Shasta a sacred place. An amorphous group of spiritual seekers, these are sometimes referred to as "New Age" adherents or "Crystal People." Within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, the situation of this sacred site exemplifies the difficulties of reconciling nonsecular claims to public lands with secular management mandates. Spiritual activism at Mount Shasta includes recently successful opposition to development of a Forest Service-endorsed ski area. Using a questionnaire survey and interviews, we compare the characteristics, activities, and attitudes toward resource management of spiritual pilgrims and others who visit Mount Shasta's meadows. Conclusions are drawn about the environmental values and concerns of all visito rs and of spiritual pilgrims in particular, including some that bear on pilgrim activities and ecological restoration efforts. Keywords: Crystal People, Mount Shasta, New Age, pilgrimage, power point, U.S. Forest Service.

The power of such a mountain is so great and yet so subtle that without compulsion pilgrims are drawn to the mountain from near and far, as if by the force of some invisible magnet, and they will undergo untold hardships and privations in their inexplicable urge to approach and to worship the sacred spot. Nobody has conferred the title of sacredness upon such a mountain; by virtue of its own magnetic and psychic emanations the mountain is intuitively recognized to be sacred. It needs no organizer of its worship; innately, each of its devotees feels the urge to pay it reverence.

Lama Anagarika Govinda, quoted in Bernbaum 1990

In 1992 the U.S. Forest Service undertook a meadow-restoration project on the slopes of Mount Shasta, California, within the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. The goal was to limit and reverse soil erosion accelerated by the tangle of user-created trails and campsites scattered throughout the delicate high-elevation heathers and grasses. Even the most casual participant in that restoration project could hardly fail to notice an unusual use of the meadows and springs. Crystals were placed in and near the water, particularly Panther Spring, sacred to the Wintu Tribe. Prayer flags were tied to tree branches, and pictures and poems were left on small rock altars in the meadows and near springs. The crisscrossing trails led to altars and to the denuded edges of Panther Spring, where many people came to collect water. Nude sunbathing, drumming, and chanting were frequent activities nearby. Because we believed that restoration of the meadows was impossible without greater understanding of these public land users, we c onducted a survey of visitors to Mount Shasta over the following year, asking people why they visited, what they did there, and what they believed about the mountain. We also interviewed local residents, Forest Service land managers, and community leaders.

The Mount Shasta vicinity hosts a concentration of what are often referred to as "Crystal People" or, sometimes, "New Agers." This is an amorphous, diverse, and poorly defined group whose spiritual beliefs fall outside the bounds of mainstream religion and who are found in every corner of the globe. Their beliefs can be described as a synthesis and creative expansion of various branches of religious thought, including Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, and, characteristically, neo--Native American belief systems. The use of crystals and herbs for various purposes is almost ubiquitous, as is the designation of power points or sacred sites, often based on the native sacred sites of local indigenous people. Mount Shasta has long been such a spiritual center.

Federal lands such as the national forest that includes Mount Shasta have been described as a fluid mosaic of shifting formal and informal claims (Fairfax and others 1999). …

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