When I was a child, I used to wander down to the wooded ravine behind my house. I was drawn to one spot in particular where the stream collected in a pool before trickling down a series of rock ledges. I’d sit for hours beneath the shaded canopy, listening to the gurgling water and breathing in the fresh forest air. I don’t remember my thoughts, but what lingers is the powerful stillness and sense of awe that filled me. I know now it was the kind of transformative place that Tom Stoner and Carolyn Rapp write about in their book Open Spaces, Sacred Places. It was a sacred place -- one with the power, writes Stoner, to offer respite from daily stress and even “spark a spiritual awakening.”

Unfortunately, few of us make time to visit nature’s sacred wild spots. But that doesn’t mean they can’t be created closer to home. Indeed, as Stone notes, they’re more necessary than ever in our tech-crazed, urbanized world to keep us connected to the healing power of nature -- and to each other. Stoner and his wife, Kitty, concluded this after stumbling upon one such sacred space in London fourteen years ago -- a tree-filled park with benches and meandering paths nestled inside a ring of buildings that transported them from the city’s hustle-bustle into a pocket of peace.

This epiphany led them to found the TKF Foundation, which has since fostered the creation of more than 100 such sacred spaces in the mid-Atlantic region. Open Spaces, Sacred Places profiles twelve of these projects using photographs and firsthand accounts from “Firesouls” -- inspired individuals who garnered community support to make them happen.

There’s the Meditation Garden at the Western Correctional Institution in Cumberland, MD, an oasis of calm built by and for inmates (see photo above); the Amazing Port Street Sacred Commons in East Baltimore, a garden and labyrinth carved out of a drug-ridden neighborhood; and the Garden of Little Angels at the Franklin Square Hospital in Baltimore, a healing garden for parents who have lost infants. All are different, but each contains common elements that Stoner says elevate ordinary gardens into sacred spaces: A distinct portal or entryway, an enclosure to provide a sense of safety, paths leading to specific destinations for exploration and reflection, and an openness that welcomes all.

Of course, words and photos (even ones this gorgeous) can’t evoke the profound inspiration that comes from actually absorbing the sights, smells and sounds of a sacred space through your own senses. I found myself longing for more and larger photos to better capture the power of these places.

Even so, these stories and pictures inspire. They show what’s possible with creativity, vision and a loving community. Particularly moving are the quotes adorning the book’s margins from visitors to these gardens (a waterproof journal is located at each). They offer proof that these places are indeed sacred, that nature -- even small slices -- has the power to change lives and nourish souls. Warning: a walk through these pages may awaken your inner firesoul and have you breaking ground for a sacred space of your own.

Open Spaces, Sacred Places
A new book explores the green sanctuaries in some of the world's most unexpected places. An MNN review.