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An Altar

When did I first encounter graffiti for myself? Beside a parking lot, just close enough to be noticed through the trees but too far back to recognize, a little up a slope, at the end of a trace left by its seekers – an altar.

It seemed to me like an altar – not a place for worship, but a place for rites. A low, long trapezoid of rain-dark concrete. From the unknown depth of the leaves that hid its base it rose like the peak of a buried pyramid. It may have gone deeper than I imagined: I later identified it (I forget how) as the base of one of the struts of a world war watchtower for German submarines.

The surface was covered in scrawls and scratches of nonsense and gibberish. There were English letters, English sounds and arrangements of sounds, but no English meanings – no regularity of language or code, only the dreamlike suggestion of meaning that can be grasped onto, but not held, smooth, slippery, bottomless. What promise of secrets! Surely if there were deep unseen machinery in the world this was the place to discover it.

I copied down a small page full of symbols and signs. I have lost it since – but even while I kept it I avoided looking at it. It felt like admitting an intruder.

Those who carved and marked this altar meant only secrecy, not mystery, and only privacy, not ritual. I was a child Kircher of small-town hieroglyphs, willing significance from mere meaning.

But to know that I was foolish does not cheapen the experience. Nature shows its dominion in more than overgrowth and decay. Nature guides the accumulation of anonymous and inscrutable human marks as surely as it guides the tracks of vines and the webs of spiders. Such places feel sacred because they bear witness to what we otherwise conceal: we, too, are part of nature. The god who loves his beetles is the same god who loves us. We are building his altars.