I am facinated by the way in which a place carries with it the memories of a people. The Civil War provides an example of what I am talking about. The trauma of that event is seared into the landscape of the eastern United States.
When I lived in the DC area, I was always facinated by the street names. If you are in the District of Columbia, lots of streets and parks are named after Union heros from the Civil War — Faragut Park, Du Pont Circle, etc. Cross the Potomac into Virginia, and the street names change. You have Confederate names: Jefferson Davis Highway, Lee Street, etc. When I lived in New England, I always noticed the way that every little town in Massachusetts, Maine or New Hampshire had, without fail, a kepi bedecked statue of a Union soldier on the common to remember the fallen dead of that town. Now I live in Little Rock, and to a certain extent the symbols are once again reversed. On the lawn of the Arkansas state capitol there are two large monuments, one to the Arkansans who sacrificed for “home and country” in the service of the Confederacy and another for their mothers. A few blocks to the south stands Central High School, were Governor Fabus stood in the door and vowed that black students would never enter, regardless of what the “n—-r-lovin’ yankee judges” said. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and Fabus backed down. I work with a women who remembers the helicopters landing on the football field during her English class.
One of the reasons that I love Utah is that the landscape itself bears the marks of Mormonism: The gridded streets following the plat of the New Jerusalem revealed in Jackson County, the rows of poplars in the small towns, the absence of farm houses as you drive through farming country (one of the purposes of the Plat was to allow farmers to live in the town), the temples and tabranacles that the little towns orbit around, the 19th-century “duplex” polygamist houses that you can still see in some parts of Salt Lake and Provo. One of the best books on Mormonism, in my opinion, was written by a non-Mormon and captures a sense of what I am talking about. It is not a history or cultural study or anything like that. Rather it is a story of place, almost a travelogue: Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country.
As I have blogged in the past, there are things about Utah that bother me. However, I miss the richness of the memories implanted on the land. Even though I am an American, I can’t help but feeling like a bit of a “stranger in a strange land” as I make my way each day through a landscape that tells of different epics of brother against brother and those who overcome. I can never feel the connection with those stories that I feel with the one whose memory blankets our lovely Deseret.