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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Spirit Houses

Air Date: Week of

On a recent trip to Southeast Asia, Living On Earth commentator Sy Montgomery discovered the meaning of "spirit houses" - miniature buildings that are erected to appease displaced entities in the wake of human encroachment.


KNOY: On a recent trip to Southeast Asia to look for an unknown species of bear, naturalist Sy Montgomery found a world full of other beings as well. Beings you can't see. They're spirits. And, as Sy learned, just like us, spirits need a place to call home.

MONTGOMERY: You'll see them at the edge of shopping center parking lots. They're outside restaurants, gas stations, and hotels. An Internet cafe in Bangkok even has one. All over Thailand and in neighboring Laos and Cambodia, you find little structures atop short pedestals that look at first like elaborate bird houses. But they're not for birds.

These structures are called spirit houses. Some are quite well-appointed. The one by our hotel in Jomtien Beach, Thailand, for instance, was flanked by two tiers of flower boxes and had a whole herd of stone and carved teak elephants massed outside the house proper. Another spirit house outside a travel agency in Chiang Mai had tiny Christmas tree lights strung all over its pagoda-like roof. At night they winked like fireflies.

In Southeast Asia, where ancient animus belief thrives alongside Buddhism, spirits are everywhere. There are river spirits. There are mountain spirits. At least one hill tribe in Thailand believes there's a spirit who presides over the cooking of tofu. Unlike gods who are worshiped and ghosts who are feared, these sorts of spirits are -- well, rather ordinary. They're like neighbors. But neighbors who you don't want to offend.

And that's why the people build these spirit houses. They're for the spirits who animate that particular place. These spirits might include, say, the one who lived in the tree that used to grow where the house now stands. Or the spirit who might have inhabited the soil now paved over for the gas station or parking lot.

And that's why they need houses, you see. Because as it was explained to me, all these spirits had a perfectly good home until some human came along and usurped it. The spirit houses, I'm told, provide alternate housing, so they won't haunt the old place that the person has taken. So, as well as providing a handsome structure, the property's new human owner also makes daily offerings to the spirit. Fresh rice, bananas, sweets, flowers, and fragrant incense.

To some, this ancient animus practice thriving amid modern hotels and Internet cafes might seem a bit odd. But one could argue that we need spirit houses more than ever in this crowded modern world. Spirit houses remind us of an ancient truth: that resources are finite. That space is finite. And that in our hunger for more houses, more hotels, more shops, more gas stations, we continually disrupt and displace other beings. Beings perhaps as varied and complex and needful as we are.

Another thing I noticed: the food offerings are usually gone by morning. My scientist friend ,Gary, says that birds, bats, and ants eat the offerings, not spirits. But what matters to me is that the offerings are taken, nourishing souls who live among us like neighbors. And who, like us, are hungry and eager to go home.

(Music up and under)

KNOY: Commentator Sy Montgomery is author of "The Curious Naturalist: Nature's Everyday Mysteries."



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