The Box Canyon

Almost three years ago, director Nate Clarke and I hiked into the Box Canyon, a narrow space defined by inward cuving rock walls reminiscent of an "upside down cathedral," to borrow the description offered by poet Malcolm Guite when he recently visited the same space with us.  And certainly it became a sacred place for us in some ways. 

Nate's original idea was to see this unique location become host to a series of live musical performances that we would film together. Over the next few years, that initial concept took on a more fluid and evolving form as we invited all sorts to join us in the canyon to share with us thoughts and musings that might inspire and challenge us.  Now, with an entire library of films to show for the countless hours we spent in that canyon, I'm excited for you to be able to explore the box canyon with us by watching the films created in that place and inspired by what we learned there.

Here are a few of my favorites.  I encourage you to visit and explore the entire series.

Far removed from his hometown of Cambridge, England, poet-priest Malcolm Guite performs his sonnet “The Singing Bowl” in the Box Canyon at Laity Lodge. Miles beyond cell phone service and paved roads, in the stillness of the Texas Hill Country, he calls listeners to become like the Tibetan singing bowl, an inverted bell that reverberates into sound when a beater (or finger) is run around its rim. The bell is empty and silent until acted upon by someone. But then it produces a beautiful, harmonic sound. “Become an open singing bowl,” Guite invites us. Quiet yourself as the canyon is quiet. Hear your breath. Listen to the blood moving within. “And when the heart is full of quietness, / Begin the song exactly where you are.”

When we met Kelley McRae and Matt Castelein at the Box Canyon entrance, we realized that perhaps we had not sufficiently described the hike ahead. Kelley’s shoes weren’t exactly designed for trails. Both were wearing guitars. We knew that slick rocks and rope-enabled climbs (however modest) awaited our crew—maybe filming Kelley and Matt in the deeper reaches of Box Canyon was not such a good idea after all. But the late afternoon hike was nothing too daunting for a couple who had sold everything to take up a life on the road in pursuit of music. Unfazed, Matt and Kelley led the way. Matt even played guitar as we walked. They helped each other negotiate the climbs: swapping guitars, holding ropes. The sun was setting when we reached our destination. We spent a few minutes talking about their experiences on the road—the joint blessings and burdens that make up a life. When they finally got around to singing “Stay Close to Me,” kicking up dust as they kept time, the song took flight.

The Box Canyon involves a sort of ritual. It starts when we meet in front of the Great Hall to begin the short hike over. Always the same hike into the same canyon. A place within a place. Every time we finally arrive, there is a moment in which we simply, and quietly, look around. We take it in, for both its spaciousness and containment. For the effect it has on sound. For how the water has changed since we were there last. For any new rocks that may have fallen from the cliffs above. Then a spot is chosen. Songs are sung. Conversations amble. With every visit, all that transpires is in some way a response to the place itself. It has been said that “sacred place is ordinary place, ritually made extraordinary.” If anything extraordinary has ever happened—or will happen—in the Box Canyon, surely it depends on such repeated attention to this precise place. Looking again, and finding something new. To discover the universal, we begin by attending to the particular.