Uploaded 25-Feb-10
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“The Holy Land is Everywhere”: Ring Mountain

Black Elk said, “The Holy Land is everywhere.” Among the various political, religious, or just plain smart-ass sloganeering buttons that I own, the one that bears this quote is my favorite. It is pinned to my camera bag.

On the Tiburon Peninsula in eastern Marin County, California, within sight of the City of San Francisco, stands a saddle-topped hill called Ring Mountain. It’s rather smallish to be called a “mountain.” It’s only 602 feet tall.[1]It is nearly completely surrounded by suburban housing developments. Looking out from the summit toward the north gives an almost intimate view of the yellow cell blocks of San Quentin Prison. Welcome to the Holy Land.

Don’t judge sacred ground by its appearance or its surroundings was one of the lessons I learned here, and I learned it with a jolt – like sticking my little fingers into a cosmic electric socket.

I walked the slopes of Ring Mountain twice, in January and February of 1981, and neither before nor since have been so deeply affected by the power of a place. Most of what I know about Ring Mountain I have learned over the years since my encounter with it, so what I felt there was not based on preconceptions. It was a pure, direct infusion of qi, or prana, or diya, or….it was a vibration, a note, an unsettling harmonic or an etheric disturbance that came from a combining of the song of the soul of the place against the jangling discordance of what modern humans had done around and upon it.

When I left there after my first visit, I was literally dazed and confused, my synapses overloaded. Sitting in my Page Street digs back in the City telling my friends about my day, I actually felt hung over. I had walked alone and unprepared into a zone of primal intoxication. I had to go back.

Which I did, a month later, not alone and better prepared, so that when I left the second time I did not feel like an ambush victim but came away with enough of the spirit of the place embedded in my cells that I have continued ever since to revisit Ring Mountain in memory, in writing, in reading, and in dreaming. So let me tell you now what is in this photo and what I have learned about it.

The most compelling presence on ring Mountain is Turtle Rock (I didn’t even know its name – or the mountain’s name, for that matter – in 1981), a chunk of contorted blueshist[2] the size of a two-story house with attached garage. It rests upon the east summit (at right). Then, at the lower left edge of the shadow below the left skyline, there is the largest of some thirty boulders upon which ancient people left enigmatic petroglyphs.[3] Unlike our glacially deposited “erratics” in the Adirondacks, the boulders of Ring Mountain are called “exotic blocks.”[4] Rising above the left skyline, directly in line with the petroglyph boulder, is the sharp summit of Mt. Tamalpais. For the native people of Marin County, the Coast Miwok, that is the First Place,[5]the place where the world began. So I got two sacred sites in one picture. Nice work, Phil.

Turtle Rock: very heavy, very dark energy here – not evil, not even a hint of that – but extremely yang, warrior-like, implacable, and more than a little menacing. And there was this feeling I had: it was as though I had entered into the realm of something profoundly alien. I learned only a couple of years ago that Turtle Rock and his blueshist brethren and greenshist cousins scattered across the hillside had been hitchhikers spewed up from a deep ocean rift and had ridden the floor of the Pacific eastward until it subducted, dove deep into the underworld beneath North America[6]– much as it still does north of Cape Mendocino.

Some of what made up the ocean floor was scraped off against the edge of the continent and mashed together into a long pile we call the Coast Ranges. These boulders, though, were dragged down to a hell of not much heat but enormous pressure. Though they did not melt, they were squashed and kneaded and twisted until they were metamorphosed, their atoms forming new relationships, making new molecules making new minerals.[7] Then they rose, transformed, like a flock of tellurian phoenix birds, squeezed up through the softer “Franciscan mélange” (the scrapped-off stuff), almost to the surface.[8]

As the mélange eroded away around them, they came to rest where we see them today, where the Miwok have been seeing them for the past 3,000 years[9], and where those who preceded the Miwok, going back perhaps another 5,000 years,[10]saw them and left their marks on many of them, and on one in particular.

According to one writer, the geological story of Ring Mountain is “among the most violent in all of the San Francisco Bay area.”[11]Though we can draw whatever conclusions we want from the available evidence, no one was there to witness the unfolding of this amazing saga. We are left to trust in a priesthood bearing rock picks and microscopes. We are presented with a geologic mythos which retains its credibility only so long as we maintain our faith in science.

That there were petroglyphs here was something which I actually had known about Ring Mountain before I made my first pilgrimage to it, and to see them was my sole motivation for going. What I found did not match my expectations. Instead of figures of shamans and spirit animals, all I saw were circles. They were silent except for the eloquence of their simplicity, and I didn’t know what to make of them. It didn’t matter. It was the place itself that captivated me.

No one is sure when these markings were put here or what they mean. Estimates of their age range from 2,400[12] to 8,000 years.[13] Some say they were the result of fertility ceremonies; some say they were meant to assure rain and good crops; some say they represented a successful hunt.[14] Additionally, there is a theory that such geometric petroglyphs reflect the “entoptic” (within the eye) patterns “that are generated by our neuroanatomical system, which all humans share.”[15]

These patterns arise in hallucinatory states and in trance.[16] From their cosmic journeys, the shamans would record their visions in the face of the rock, be it in iconic form (animals, etc.) or geometric. Finally, the presence of the petroglyphs “marked this…as a location where supernatural power reached close to the surface of the earth.”[17]

In this light, it’s worth noting the response by contemporary Coast Miwok representatives to a proposal to “disguise [recently] scratched graffiti by in-filling…with surface bonding acrylic paints.”

“We were informed that the living spirit of the stone would not be honored by physical interventions on the stone itself. What was done was done….”[18]

Finally, I did not know, as I explored this open space, this free space, that a battle had been on-going over whether Ring Mountain would remain as it had always been. “Development interests” owned it, the Reed family having sold it after generations in possession of what had been the first Spanish land grant north of the Golden Gate.[19] Eventually, the Nature Conservancy gained ownership (1984)[20], and the land was later transferred to the county for a park and preserve.[21]

So I wonder, were I to go back now and wander those same slopes, would the dark force I felt before still be there, or would I feel something else: something less heavy, less austere, something more welcoming. Was what I had felt a manifestation of the situation, of the threat that this sacred landscape was about to be obliterated under cul de sacs of “upscale homes” and an attempt by the mountain to defend itself from that threat, with Turtle Rock being the lens which gathered and focused and projected that defiant power? One can only imagine; just as one can only imagine that same boulder being squeezed up through two dozen miles of overlying strata to rest where we see it today.

One more thing: it seems fitting here to quote the last words from the last page of Sharon Skolnick’s book, “Dreams of Tamalpais.”

“You would say, ‘Thank you mountain, you gave me this medicine.’ You have to say something. You don’t just take it and go. Say something.”[22]
Milton “Bun” Lucas (Pomo/Coast Miwok)[23]


[1] Horst Rademacher, “Ring Mountain Rocks: Marin’s Exotic Geology Exposed,” Bay Nature April-June 2007: 10.

[2] “Blueshists on Ring Mountain,” Blueshist and Ring Mountain TSAW Project, 8 Oct. 2009 <http://www.marin.cc.ca.us/~jim/ring/blue.html>

[3] Rademacher p. 13.

[4] Rademacher p. 12.

[5] Sharon Skolnick, Dreams of Tamalpais (San Francisco: Last Gasp of San Francisco, 1989) p. 33.

[6] Rademacher p. 12.

[7] “Blueshists on Ring Mountain.”

[8] “The Geologic Foundations of Ring Mountain,” Geology of Eastern Marin, TSAW Project, 8 Oct. 2009 <http://www.marin.cc.ca.us/~jim/ring/rgeo.html>

[9] Ginny Anderson, Circling San Francisco Bay: A Pilgrimage to Wild and Sacred Places (Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006) p. 47.

[10] C. Michael Hogan, “Ring Mountain - Carving in United States in The West,” The Megalithic Portal, 17 may 2008, 30 Sept. 2009 <http://www.megalithic.co.uk/article.php?sid=19244>

[11] Rademacher p. 10.

[12] Rademacher p. 13.

[13] Hogan.

[14] Anderson p. 48.

For notes 15 - 23, see "The Holy Land is Everywhere": Appendix A

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“The Holy Land is Everywhere”: Ring Mountain