... Conversations with People at the Leading Edge.

the Centers of Worlds

Howard Mansfield


. . . essayist and reporter. Known for unusual and thought-provoking insights, Mr. Mansfield is author of five books including The Bones of the Earth, The Same Ax Twice and In the Memory House. He contributes to publications including the New York Times, American Heritage and Historic Preservation. He and his writerly wife Sy Montgomery are known in their home state of New Hampshire for many things, including the fame gained by their late pig, 750 pound Christopher Hogwood.


When was the last time you felt real? When the building in which you were or the tree under which you sat at the bend in the river was "enough"? When you had a sense of the sacred and could identify the center of your own world, your axis mundi?

Howard Mansfield believes a key source for today's general sense of disquiet is the lack of this axis mundi. He also thinks it accounts for some of why Americans are all-appetite, craving many centers and many places because we lack a central "landmark" in our lives, a fundamental connection to the earth.

This, he says, is an ancient urge we all share, quietly calling us to a revolutionary idea: Celebrate the ordinary. Look at things. And by looking at them, really start to see them. Lift up the everyday from invisibility.

Remember, he says, for millennia and up until now, trees, rocks, the few people we knew, the animals around us, the sky by day and night was our world by day and by night in dreams. Those things -- sticks and stones -- were holy. Sacred. He reminds us of the time when all religions treated the landscape as sacred, from special trees to creek-side shrines.

Many cultures still regard stones as the bones of the earth, he says with a nod to the title for his latest, lyrical book of essays. Stones are considered animate and alive, a belief he thinks is still inside of just about everybody. That sense is what he believes calls forth our response to various places we decide are our homeplace ... our axis mundi. The place from which we organize our world.

Even as most of us live amidst the noise and clutter for which Mr. Mansfield offers us an alternative, he reports this longing to be connected to the earth is bubbling up in unexpected places, an outbreak of an old-time affection for the land, a pre-Christian sacred attachment to sacred sites.

Ever the story-teller, Mr. Mansfield draws his examples from as far afield as Switzerland and Lithuania, New England and the American South. Have you noticed those homemade monuments to a fatal accident? They are an axis mundi for someone, an irresistible response to unnatural cemetery rules. We miss those lambs and mounds of earth and the chance to tend to flowers at the site, he believes.

Mr. Mansfield has witnessed Americans' tremendous disquiet amidst the ersatz. While we all love kitsch, he says, it's not real, doesn't get at the heart of that for which we genuinely hunger, is never "enough." Mr. Mansfield's alternative? Remember who we are. Respect the sacred that has been lost -- the earth and our connection to it. When we displace the earth, he says, cover it up with asphalt, poison it with chemicals, despoil it, we break an essential connection with all of life. Isn't it time we "get real"?

   [This Program was recorded December 11, 2004, in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.]

Edited Excerpts of the Conversation:


Conversation 1


Howard Mansfield defines the appealing essence of "Yankee" and suggests why this deeply American character-set matters now, more than ever.


Conversation 2

Mr. Mansfield explains how his origins as a "flatlander" distinguish him from his fellow New Englanders. He draws on his own heritage, exploring the continuing importance poet Walt Whitman offers Americans. Mr. Mansfield describes the vitality of his occupation as a “flaneur.” He tells of a time when landscapes and ordinary buildings would have been regarded as sacred, real and "enough." He gives examples of America as all-appetite.



Conversation 3

Comparing market-driven America's ubiquitous "ersatz" with millennia when the authentic was sacred, Mr. Mansfield introduces "axis mundi." He tells stories of the deep appeal stones, with their apparent solidity, have for humanity, and the paradox that stones, like everything, are forever running back to the sea. They are simply ticking to a biological clock quite different our own, Mr. Mansfield says, expanding. He tells the story of the "Washington elm," one of a series of Mr. Mansfield's tales of people's poetic approach to the truth outweighing mere facts.


Conversation 4

Calling us to concentrate on the sense that change is the rule, Mr. Mansfield also reminds us that the past had its own lively set of challenges. He tells a series of universal stories, set in New England. Expressions of cultural aspirations lead the conversation to a look at American restlessness. Mr. Mansfield sets forth some of the many ways people's old "axis mundi" are being overturned. One of his examples is the worldwide chemical boom of petrochemicals which has silently turned the entire world into a gigantic experiment in which we all are the guinea pigs.



Conversation 5

Our love of stones connects Mr. Mansfield to his stories illustrating growing resistance people are expressing to modern constraints on how we are allowed to express grief. He suggests today's increasingly stripped-down cemeteries have evoked a strong response that is part of a growing sense that people long for a connection to the earth. Stories arise from places as distant as the mountains of Switzerland and town meetings in the American Northeast.


Conversation 6

Today's built-landscape too often diminishes us, Mr. Mansfield summarizes with a story. In the face of tremendous disquiet, he says, we all need time when we just "are," in the presence of what is authentic. Start with the earth itself, he suggests. Connect to it. And when you displace the earth, remember you also are displacing that for which we hunger -- the reverence for living things.



Related Links:

Among Mr. Mansfield’s growing number of books are The Bones of the Earth, published by Shoemaker & Hoard, The Same Ax Twicepublished by University Press of New England and In the Memory House a Fulcrum Publishing book.

In many ways this program is a simple continuation of a conversation we began with Howard Mansfield in New Hampshire four years earlier.

In The Next Enlightenment Walter Truett Anderson looks at many of the subjects Howard addresses in the context of globalization.

As a cultural anthropologist, Mary Catherine Bateson suggests that we live in “a time of great choice” with consequences similar to those discussed by Mr. Mansfield.

In much of his poetry and in his public life Robert Bly has urged us to reintegrate our fragmented selves.

Part of James Carse’s prescription is to treat life as an “infinite game.” And he urges us to write our own gospels.

Arthur Ciaramicoli argues for “empathy.”

Phil Cousineau says that a “pilgrimage”can help provide focus, clarity and purpose. Howard Mansfield would probably say that one can take that pilgrimage within a mile of home.

In a different way, Bruce Feiler points to the importance of travel and to a specific axis mundi.

In PrairyErth William Least Heat-Moon took a close-up look at a small part of Kansas; Blue Highways made an axis of the road; River-Horse got close to America’s rivers.

Hugh Masekela showed us that being alienated from the land is to be alienated from oneself.

Frances Mayes transferred her soul from the American South to Tuscany.

Carl Patton believes there is a sense in which even cities can be natural places.

We can paraphrase Jacques Pépin to say that meals are the axis mundi of human society. The best meals are the ones shared with friends.

Alexandra Stoddard says that hearth and heart are closely entwined.

Amy Blackmarr tried living a simple life in a complex world.

From February, 2000 'til March, 2005 we produced several hundred one and two-minute programs for CNNRadio International and, later, for These programs were excerpted from our 1-hour conversations with hundreds of "leading edge" individuals. Included was this segment with Howard Mansfield: "Meetinghouse".

And, here's a little background information on Paula Gordon and Bill Russell, the Program co-hosts.


Our lives have been immeasurably enhanced by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas. It was she who first introduced us to Howard Mansfield's work. It is a gift that has kept on giving, and for which we are very glad indeed.

Mr. Mansfield and his wonderful wife went to extraordinary lengths to make possible this program. We thank both of them for going above and beyond -- in their lives and in their work -- in making their vital, timely ideas available to us all.


Quick buttons

© 2008  The Paula Gordon Show.
All materials contained on this website are copyrighted by The Paula Gordon Show and may not be used for any commercial purpose without the express, written consent of Paula Gordon.  Non-commercial use is permitted and encouraged provided that credit is given to The Paula Gordon Show, appropriate urls cited, links are provided where possible and meaning is not altered by editing.