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?