Joseph Smith went to the woods because he wished to know the truth of his existence. He did not take his longing to a bedroom or closet in his house or to a barn or shed on his familyâ€™s property (all good places for soul searching). In a forest grove, he dropped to his knees, laid out the seeds of his desire to know, and watered them with fervent prayer.
The season was right, the desire fertile, and the light â€¦ That is, after Joseph wrestled his bout with darkness, supernal light broke through, warmed the seeds bearing Josephâ€™s desire to know and split them wide. Eternal purpose, truth, and life took root on Earth in a way it had not done for centuries.
Josephâ€™s choice of forest as staging ground for putting his Big Questions to God suggests he trusted solitude and the stimulating qualities natural environments offer. Somehow â€“ perhaps in ways difficult for us to imagine because potential Sacred Groves are harder to come by than they were in Josephâ€™s time â€“ nature might have facilitated the emergence of the modern church. Whatever else, the Sacred Grove provided everyone involved, including its Creators, geopositioning for the gospelâ€™s restoration. Joseph Smithâ€™s account of what happened to him when he went to the woods to pray bears many labels. Among them should be that itâ€™s one of the worldâ€™s most striking moments in nature literature.
Through Joseph Smithâ€™s First Vision, Mormonism stakes its claim in the grand tradition of finding God in the wilderness. Couple this claim with our belief in eternal progression, add the central role repentance plays in our lives, and we really have quite the lenses for gazing upon the grandeur of the Mystery. With our growing LDS scientific and cultural communities, LDS literary nature writers ought to abound. In fact, given the LDS belief that thereâ€™s a mustard seed god in each of us, one would expect more Mormon writers to be chronicling its growth in the creation. So â€¦ where are our records of discovery?
A while back, I wrote another post wondering where the LDS nature writers are. Stephen Carter, who among other things writes for the satirical gazette The Sugar Beet, offered these delightful (to me) remarks:
May Swenson, the nature poet, is a relative of mine. Which explains why my dad was reading a book of hers one day. According to my mom, when he was finished he commented, â€œMayâ€™s just too in love with this world to see the next.â€
I think that comment says a lot about why so few nature writers come out of the Mormon tradition. I know a lot of Mormons who donâ€™t think twice about environmental stuff because they believe Jesus is going to come with his very own Super Fund in just a little while now. So why worry?
And then thereâ€™s the idea Joseph Smith put forward that the world, in its perfected state, will resemble a big ball of glass. It seems that the majority of the ideology popular among Mormons these days leads us to be suspect of this world. After all, Satan has control over it, right?
And, the telestial kingdom is supposed to resemble this world. Meaning that there are at least two spheres more exalted that this one.
Thereâ€™s also the idea that, as gods, weâ€™re going to be big real estate developers in the sky, with no constraints put on our creative abilities. Which doesnâ€™t lead one to think about resource management.
Sheesh, I hadnâ€™t realized how much stands in the way of Mormons being environmentally minded. Much less potential nature writers.
Possibly, Mormons are having more spiritual experiences in nature than they report because they feel shy about calling them â€œspiritual.â€ In response to my Times and Seasons post, A Walk into the Moon, â€œDarrellâ€ made the following comment:
â€¦ I had a night class in Portland and drove home up the Columbia Gorge on the Washington side. There is a turn-off just a few miles from my home called Cape Horn. I pulled off the road, exited my car and watched the moon as it reflected off the Columbia River. The river far below, the mountains, the trees, Beacon Rock (off in the distance) were all â€œaglazeâ€… I watched a barge glide through the water, lights glowing even in the bright moonlight. It was almost a spiritual experience. I offered a prayer of thanks for being in this place in this time in my life.
Questioned about what would have made this moment a fully spiritual experience for him, Darrell replied:
I definitely understated the experience. You are right it was spiritual, I should not have used the word â€œalmost.â€ Perhaps I was comparing it to some of the experiences that I have had in the temple. However, more than once, as I have hiked through these woods and mountains and among waterfalls, I have felt as close to God as within the walls of the temple.
Like any good language, good nature literature has power to invoke the sacred. For some, reading nature writing produces restorative effects similar to those of actually being out in nature, prompting peace or inspiration for how to solve spiritual and practical problems. At the very least, decent literary nature and science writing informs, thereby raising consciousness. So, in my quest to understand the role nature writing could play in Mormon literature, I have some questions for our Times and Seasons readers:
1) Do you read, write, or care in any degree for literary nature and science writing?
2) Do you feel disengaged from the nature/environment discussion?
3) What in Mormonism provides your spiritual grounding for caring about the well being of this planet and the people and creatures that inhabit it?
4) Have you had spiritual experiences in nature?
5) What ingredients do you think meaningful nature writing should include?
Given the setting for Mormonismâ€™s opening scene and its progressive doctrines, Mormons are in a unique position to produce world-class literary nature and science writing. The fact we donâ€™t appear to be doing so suggests a serious case of talent-burying.