Commentary: Mormon Sensibility

Ben Huff wondered here why so few of his fellow Mormons felt as drawn as he did to peak-of-season blackberries growing wild where his stake center’s parking lot ended and the forest began.

I remember blackberries: we had snarls of them on our land in Virginia. The berries grew plump and shiny on generousities of the southern summer, and late in the season we kids browsed lazily on fruit as big around as the last joint in our thumbs. Elderberries, hickory nuts, and wild plums flourished on our five acres, along with red clover and honeysuckle. We cracked the hickory nuts then dug out the woody meat with sticks or with grimy fingernails. I pulled apart clover and honeysuckle blossoms, searching out nectar with the tip of my tongue. I got mere wisps of flowery essence, but the high notes of such raw sweetness rang my tongue to its roots.

At the forest’s edge, sassafras mixed it up with the greenbriars. The bright green of briar cane and the sassafras’s earthy scent infuse memories of my Virginia childhood to this day. The same with sweetgum trees, Liquidambar styraciflua. When I come across these living fossils growing in Utah, such as at the eastern end of BYU’s Harris Fine Arts Center, I crush their leaves and rub the fragrant oils on my skin. The scent triggers not only memories but excites another way of being, one where my senses engage me more fully.

As Ben wondered about his Mormon comrades’ seeming indifference to ripe blackberries, I’ve wondered why I’ve never seen anybody else stop to smell sweetgum leaves. One answer: Nobody knows what they are. But the question arises, when one watches many Mormons stroll past any Nature: Do they even notice it? Or is there something about Nature and how it engages the senses that some Mormons find distracting and uncomfortable?

I was not born in the LDS church. My mother attended meetings for some years when I was a child but I didn’t become active until I was twelve. I was baptised at sixteen, the age at which my father, who never became a member, finally allowed it. Some would think this disadvantaged my spiritual life, but my deep involvement with the flora and fauna surrounding our house fostered the development of native intelligence and initiated me into realms of sacred relation where scripture, when I began noticing it, found fertile ground for its broadcast seeds, mustard and otherwise.

Years later when I met Arthur Henry King at BYU, he asked right off, “Do you write verse?” When I said yes he requested some. At our next meeting to discuss my poetry, he asked, “Were you brought up a Mormon? I am asking you these things because you are wild, you haven’t been tamed yet. That’s not to say that you should be tamed and it isn’t “˜wild’ in a bad sense. Your sensibility is wild for a Mormon.” With Arthur King (also a convert to the church), as well as other BYU professors, I spent the next several years not taming, but disciplining this sensibility. I’m still schooling it–dressing and keeping it, if you will.

At the time, Arthur’s appraisal blessed me. Try as I might I had never gotten down the Mormon rhetoric and world view as I imagined I ought to have done. My brand of spirituality, established, perhaps, during my pre-Gospel, tick-infested, blackberry-stained, greenbriar-snagged, turtle-hunting and snake-charming days, refused to blossom as a rose when I came to BYU, though I studied and prayed for righteousness. Arthur’s words that day, and those he offered over the next several years of our association, helped ease the tension between my blackberry patch soul and the surrounding rose garden of conformity that asserted itself against wilderness with hypertrophied blossoms.

In his lecture, “The Discipline of the Mother Tongue,” Arthur King said:

The whole of our life has to be creative. There is no such thing apart as “˜creative literature’ from this point of view. Whatever you write, may be creative or not creative, according to your testimony. Either we live creative lives in which we speak creatively, or we live uncreative lives in which we do not speak creatively. And from the whole of society in which we live there is tremendous pressure on us to live uncreatively, to live without effort, to live passively, to enjoy ourselves at the least expense. These are the major drugs of society. Drugs are to be defined, not fundamentally as things that do you “˜physical’ harm–because it may be possible to invent drugs that do not do you physical harm–but as things that do you mental and moral harm. All of us in this room are taking drugs to some extent. These are the influences in our society which prevent us from living vigilantly, vitally, creatively, and therefore speaking, and writing and reading creatively. There is only one ultimate defense, and that is the gospel.

Blackberries grow for the having in thorny riots at the edges of cultivated areas. Scriptures and other spiritual matter also bear patches of wild fruit at the edges of and extending beyond paved spaces and cultivated gardens of conventional religious belief. What causes some Mormons to go straight to their cars at the end of church without so much as a glance at the wild blackberries? Do Mormons really want to try them, but does something about the berries’ dark shine, about their choice of unmanaged habitat at the edges of well-worked ground, make Mormons suspicious that curiosity about how blackberries taste is some form of sin? Do our cultural drugs, whatever form they take, prevent our seeing them? Do we not speak of them in our literature because wild blackberries grow without bidding beyond the garden walls of rose-dazzled cities of God?

5 thoughts on “Commentary: Mormon Sensibility”

  1. I don’t know how to respond to the larger question. I was born and raised Mormon in a small town in southern Utah (Kanab, as many of you know) by a mother who engaged with nature (pressing flowers, picking apples, rhubarb, looking at bugs under the microscope she bought used from the science department at BYU). I used to pick the asparagus that grew along the irrigations ditches as I walked home from school.

    I do know this. My first inkling of wanting to be a voice (wasn’t sure what kind of voice then — a prophet, a politician, a writer [and I’m still not exactly sure]) in the wilderness was standing on top of the Navajo Dance Hall, a broken piece of grey rock that crowns the red hill with the ‘K’ on it that overlooks Kanab), the wind whipping my 9- or 10-year-old frame, seeing for the first time the city not as it was but as it could become.

    Also: snarls is an awesome word.
     

    Posted by William Morris

  2. I agree with you that there’s something in the Mormon soul that loves a garden and not a wilderness. I do not take this to be an indictment of Mormonism, but neither do I take it to be an indictment of you. 

    Posted by Adam Greenwood

  3. William,

    How long did you live in Kanab, and how much of what you experienced there do you think informs your writing now? (That is, how much of the Kanab boy is father of the CA man?)

    seeing for the first time the city not as it was but as it could become.  

    Is this your metaphor for the calling you feel to be a writer?

    Adam:

    I do not take this to be an indictment of Mormonism, but neither do I take it to be an indictment of you.

    No indictments intended, and none actually found. For the record, I am a great fan of gardens and when possible I grow one. I just think we understand the true nature of the garden only slightly better (perhaps) than we understand wilderness.

    Not that I think that the cultivated rose ought to lie down with the sage brush in some wilderurban peaceable kingdom. My point is I don’t believe we humans are conscious enough yet of the spiritual and physical beings of the plants and animals we domesticate to know for sure that the usual Mormon garden is all it ought to be, or better yet, to know what else we may become in relation with these other creatures. I suspect, too, that we influence the evolution of other creatures in haphazard ways. Double for the cultivated rose: Am I really the only one who looks at this plant in all its avatars and wonders “What’s wrong with this picture?” (Anyone who shouts “Yes!” better be prepared to explain!)

    Hopefully, I will be moving my family to a new house soon, one with a big lot in a truly rural area. I look forward to learning how to garden in new ways.
     

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

  4. I lived in Kanab from age 4 to 12. I believe that I’m highly influenced by my time there. Not so much (so far) in what I write about, but how I approach things. I’m not exactly sure how to articulate this, but I think that my Kanab childhood keeps me from being too civilized and cosmopolitan. I always be a little provincial, a little populist, a little wild (not that I was a wild child — but that the landscape ingrained its patterns into mine).

    ——-

    Is that that a metaphor for the calling I feel to be a writer?

    No. I don’t know that I have a calling to be a writer. It’s not exactly a metaphor — it’s an accurate reflection of my thought processes at the time, of what I thought I saw. It’s not at all clear to me what that means for what I do (and don’t do) now.

    Certainly my belief in utopias per se has changed, become more skeptical, more uncertain (at least at this time in this sphere).

    At most, I can say that I’m pretty sure it means that I want to help build Zion — but what Zion means and how I go about that, well, that’s an everchanging thing for me. At its core, though, is not my writing, but my continued desire to serve in the LDS Church and to raise my family (in spite of my major weaknesses and laziness in regards to both). 

    Posted by William Morris

  5. At its core, though, is not my writing, but my continued desire to serve in the LDS Church and to raise my family … 

    I once told a BYU professor, who was himself a writer and Mormon lit critic, that my writing was a by-product of my living and not the other way around. His reply: “You must never say that, Patty! You should always put your writing first!” Maybe we were talking at crossed purposes; I didn’t know what he could possibly mean. Community seemed of the utmost importance to me and I thought it was very important to him, as well. What was he really saying? To this day I don’t know, but I am not the sort of person who can assert her writing over and against her family, her community, or her church.

    At most, I can say that I’m pretty sure it means that I want to help build Zion

    Yes, this is what I was wondering. The child IS father of the man!  

    Posted by P. G. Karamesines

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