Commentary: Katherine Morris on AML Conference 2006 — Youth Literature

My sister Katherine was kind enough to write up her notes and impressions on the “Youth Literature” panel at the 2006 annual meeting of the Association for Mormon Letters:

The panel included Chris Crowe, John Bennion, Shanna Butler, Dean Hughes, and AnnDee Ellis, with Laura Card moderating.

Laura Card began the discussion by asking the question, “How have you seen LDS young adult literature evolve?” The panelists immediately deferred to Dean Hughes, who started out by mentioning how just thirty years ago Deseret Book didn’t publish fiction. It wasn’t until 1979 that Deseret Book finally published a work of fiction, which was Dean’s book Under the Same Stars, a young adult novel. “It’s significant,” Dean said, “that the first breakthrough in LDS fiction was in youth literature.”

Since Dean published Under the Same Stars, several other authors have successfully broken into the market (Jack Weyland and Chris Heimerdinger, notably). However, Dean noted, no one has made a living publishing children’s books in an exclusively LDS market. One reason the LDS market can’t sustain authors who write for children is that, although adults in the Church tend to be wary of adult best sellers, they don’t show the same hesitancy toward best-selling children’s books. This being the case, Latter-day Saint authors who write for children have to compete with the national market and so usually end up writing for the national market.

Moving on to recent trends in LDS youth literature, Dean said, “Things are picking up. Every few years now, there’s a new sensation” (this said with an accompanying nod to fellow panelist AnnDee Ellis). Latter-day Saint writers are becoming increasingly recognized in the national youth market, and Mormon themes are becoming more acceptable. Just in the last several years, Dean said, he’s not only been allowed to write about LDS themes, but he’s been invited to do so. While this indicates that publishers see the potential for new voices and perspectives in LDS authors, part of the reason publishers are interested in Mormon-themed books is because it’s becoming clear there’s an LDS market. President Hinckley’s books are always on the best seller list. Latter-day Saints might be the only ones buying them, but they certainly are buying them.

Chris Crowe talked mainly about why he believes youth literature appeals to Latter-day Saints. After briefly mentioning that LDS culture is generally quite child-friendly (meaning that we like children and we have a lot of them), Chris waxed theoretical. He said some people have observed that American culture is in its adolescence, and so it’s rather fitting that Americans would be interested in children’s books. He believes there’s a similar sort of phenomenon with LDS culture. We’re coming of age as a people, and so we like coming-of-age stories.

John Bennion said he believes that some of the best LDS literary fiction is youth fiction. He mentioned the Delacorte Press Prize–how several LDS writers have won it or achieved an honorable mention. John said he believes Louise Plummer is the best LDS youth writer.

Shanna Butler is an editor for the New Era, which stopped publishing fiction about five years ago. Dispensing with fiction apparently didn’t increase readership, so recently the New Era has made the decision to reintroduce fiction with a short story by Jack Weyland on pornography. The magazine is currently accepting submissions, but they don’t have many specific guidelines to help authors out. Though now open to publishing fiction, the New Era doesn’t necessarily have any set plans to, so submissions will be looked at on a case-by-case basis. Stories must be on a specific gospel topic and no longer than 2,500 words. Since the stories have to go through several levels of approval, anything sent in now wouldn’t be published for about a year. Shanna says the New Era is the only magazine, as far as she knows, that tries to hit such a large demographic (twelve- to eighteen-year-olds). She said that online magazines created by LDS teens for other LDS teens are filling in places the New Era leaves gaps. You’ll see things about makeup and dressing modestly that you won’t see in the New Era.

AnnDee Ellis is an up-and-coming LDS author who writes for youth. She got a publishing deal by showing her manuscript to an editor while she was volunteering at a “Writers for Young Readers” conference. The book she is currently working on is about a young LDS boy who is trying to make his way through Scouts and jr. high. The book is Mormon-themed but is written for a wider audience than LDS youth. Having overheard AnnDee telling someone the first line of her novel, I would have to say it sounds like her book will be an original addition to the corpus of LDS youth literature.

Commentary: “Wayne Booth Remembered” at the 2006 AML Conference

The only Wayne Booth I’ve ever read was A Rhetoric of Irony, and that years ago, yet this session honoring his life and his work impressed me deeply. The presenters, Rick Duerden and Neal Kramer, with Bruce Jorgensen chairing the session, brought their love, their respect, and their gratitude for their subject to the table, lending to the meeting an intelligent and gracious atmosphere that IMO elevated the tone of the entire conference. Both Duerden and Kramer had studied with and otherwise associated with Wayne Booth at the University of Chicago; clearly they felt Booth had given them important gifts, intellectually and spiritually (if the two can in truth be split out).

Jorgensen opened the session, describing Booth as one of the “very finest American critics and theorists in the twentieth century.” He said that in 1988 Booth published The Company We Keep, a book Jorgensen said he read “in big gulps.” He chose it for an award for criticism (I thought this was the AML Award for Criticism but couldn’t find record of it on the AML site) and related how Booth told him, “People ask where I got my ethical sense. I always tell them I got it at home, growing up in Mormon country.”

Neal Kramer titled his presentation on Wayne Booth, “Leaving Home and Looking Homeward.” He started by telling how “life weighed heavily on nineteen-year-old Wayne” because he felt that the dogmatic Mormon culture he grew up in “stifled his mind.” BYU satisfied some of Booth’s intellectual hunger but his belief in Mormonism failed to answer to his internal querying and “fell off rapidly.”

On his mission to Illinois Booth discovered the University of Chicago, and rumor had it that instead of throwing heart, mind, and soul into his missionary work Booth began taking classes at the U of C. Richard Cracroft, one of this session’s attendees, broke in here to say that Booth had told him that during his mission he had indeed taken evening classes at the university with permission.

Booth, Kramer said, “thought extremely clearly and well.” During graduate school Booth discovered New Criticism and then the super new critics of the Chicago school. These critics used analytical tools forged in the manner of logical techniques that Plato and Aristotle established. At this time, Booth became immersed in “serious, high-level dialogue among people about important things.” The stimulation such company provided allowed Booth to develop a point of view that “enabled [him] to read literature in a way not done before” among American scholars.

In Booth’s critical stance, Kramer said, pure reason held sway, “but it was the humanity of novels that caused Booth to focus attention on rhetoric.” Such a shift in focus returned the literary conversation to ethical and moral questions. In this way, Booth began to undermine his own enthusiasm for New Criticism.

Ultimately Booth concluded that any literary theory that disallowed inquiry into a work’s ethical stance “went wrong.” Kramer said that as Booth’s thinking evolved, his conversations always turned upon questions of ethics and morals. In The Company We Keep Booth’s goal was to prepare ground where the two groups (I took this to mean critics and communities interested in ethical and moral content and critics and communities disinterested in such) could gather and enter into dialogue. Important to Booth: “friendship, and how to put friendship at the center” of ethical strivings. Booth, Kramer said in winding down his presentation, “gives academics a possibility for how to speak well together.” Given Aristotle’s three categories of friends (friends of utility, friends of pleasure, and friends of virtue or of the good), Booth postulated that critics need to realize that “sometimes friends of utility or pleasure are fine but ought to lead to [the third category of friend, the friend of virtue or the good] where seams are effaced. We seek out conversation for living in friendship.”

Rick Duerden told how in composing his presentation he had felt torn between taking an anecdotal approach and a critical approach. He determined that a mix of both would represent Booth well.

He described Booth as “a powerful intellect combined with an open heart.” Having these qualities made it possible for him to regularly change his thinking and accommodate it to his relationships. Kramer said, “All his life [Booth] searched for what was better and truer.”

All Booth’s changes and growth, Duerden said, marked development in his spiritual growth. Duerden said, “[Booth] loved the ideal of Mormon universality where anybody can be saved or converted.”

By the 1960s, Booth was swinging around to Plato’s ideas. The Company We Keep represents the far end of the spectrum of Booth’s intellectual travels. Booth, Duerden said, moved from “stick in the mud truth to an infinitely spreading relational vision of truth.”

According to Duerden, Booth began finding his way back into dialogue with the Mormon community in the 1980s. Duerden said that Mormons were suspicious of Booth, but the intelligentsia said to the Mormon community, “This guy is the best missionary you’ve got.”

Bruce Jorgensen commented that Booth’s critical stance ultimately rooted itself in love and that the core act in loving one’s neighbor was to ask, “What are you going through?”

Duerden responded saying that Booth “resisted postmodernism and aspired to putting people back in the conversation.”

Richard Cracroft broke in at this point and told how when Booth came to BYU to give a forum address he spoke forthrightly about BYU and the Mormon culture, saying, “We’re Osmondizing BYU.” Cracroft said that the Osmonds had just a few weeks prior either made a donation to BYU or had in some other way manifested their influence. According to Cracroft, Jeffrey Holland went rigid at Booth’s words and his displeasure with Booth’s speech was palpable. At the faculty luncheon held for Booth afterward, Booth asked Cracroft how he thought his talk went over. Cracroft replied he’d never seen President Holland so steamed. “Just watch,” Booth said. “I’ll take care of that.” Cracroft said Booth went over to where President Holland was sitting, said some things that President Holland up, and soon all clouds dispersed. Booth returned to Cracroft and asked, “How’d I do?” Cracroft replied, “I think you did very well.”

Richard Bushman asked what the panel thought the consequences for Booth’s thinking might be for Mormons, especially for Mormon writing.

Both Kramer and Duerden addressed this question, but I think it was Kramer that replied that LDS “tend to feel bitterness over people as successful as Wayne Booth who “˜leave’ the church.” He told how it was not unusual for someone to say to him of Booth, “Your church must think this guy is one of the greatest guys around.” Kramer said he had had to reply, “Well, no we don’t.” But as Kramer put it, we “ought to feel comfortable praising and embracing Booth’s thinking, adding that “Wayne was always interested in helping me develop my testimony.”

This whole conversation was interesting, but here Kramer said something that really snagged my attention: “Conversations we [Mormons] think have ended have only begun.” I think he meant this not only as a comment on Wayne Booth’s critical and spiritual stance but also in general about just how much wonderful narrative and conversational matter is out there that we have not yet begun talking about in Mormon folk and academic circles.

Duerden added that in saying the things he had to session attendees he felt he was preaching to the choir. “But the choir,” he added, “sings to the congregation.” He felt that Wayne Booth’s existence and work “was an indictment of our judgement that he wasn’t LDS enough.” Booth, he said, talked people out of leaving the church.

Kramer added that Wayne Booth was “our best friend in many respects.”

Jorgensen added that he considered Booth to have lived “the kind of life President Hinkley urges us to have.”

Commentary: Plenary Session of the AML Conference

Eric has given a nice overview of the conference; I’m going to concentrate on two sessions I took notes on.

The Plenary Session was titled, “Looking Back: Memorable Moments in Mormon Literature.” Presenters included Richard Cracroft, Thomas Rogers, Margaret Blair Young, and Susan Howe. Laraine Wilkins, editor of Irreantum, chaired this spirited discussion of Mormon literature’s roots and founding influences. This session was charged with a lot of energy. Here are some highlights:

Richard Cracroft spoke first and took the occasion early on to recommend Richard Bushman’s biography of Joseph Smith, Rough Stone Rolling, and Robert Rees’s collection of writing in honor of Eugene England, Proving Contraries. Among other things (many other things), Cracroft reviews Mormon literature in his column in BYU Today. During the session, he went so far as to say that any Mormon who had not read RSR is in dereliction of duty. Also recommended to anyone interested in the development of Mormon literature: England’s essay, “Mormon Literature: Progress and Prospects,” published in David Whittaker’s Mormon Americana: A Guide to Sources and Collections in the United States. Cracroft told how his interest in Mormon literature began in 1971 and described his goal of helping to foster a strain of Mormon literature “”¦ you can read in the temple on Thursday morning.” He remains very excited about the past, present, and future of Mormon literature and is chock full of personal anecdotes about many founding writers and publications.

In his overview of memorable players on the Mormon drama stage, Tom Rogers mentioned Orson Scott Card for, among other things, Stone Tablets; Douglas Stewart for Saturday’s Warrior; Marvin Payne; Steven Kapp Perry; and Clinton Larson; although his remarks on Clinton’s poetic dramas included an anecdote where he attended a performance of one of Clinton’s plays and watched as the “audience drifted out, and then their eyes glazed over.” Having had the priviledge myself of attending two of Clinton’s plays back when, I know that Rogers’s description of audience reaction during these plays is accurate. Nevertheless, Clinton was, as Rogers put it, “a heavy self-promoter,” and his influence upon the Mormon arts scene and many aspiring writers (yours truly included) is undeniable. Rogers also saluted for their work in theater Charles Metten, Charles Whitman, Richard Cracroft, Eugene England, Scott Bronson, and Tim Slover, among others. Speaking personally on his own experience with his play Huebner, Rogers said he wrote it as a response to a challenge from Alan Keele, staying up all night to complete it. Of theater, he posed a question: Is theater an outdated and antiquated art form? His answer: Yes, but it is an impressively developed form.

In her address, Margaret Blair Young said she has lived through the second Mormon Renaissance. Her reflections on Mormon literature took on personal overtones as she spoke of her awakening to her calling as a writer, triggered in part by her reading of The Brothers Karamazov, a novel that opened her eyes to individual responsibility. She cited Don Marshall’s The Rummage Sale and Doug Thayer’s Under the Cottonwoods as works that influenced her and also said that Tom Rogers influenced her as a teacher and mentor. Her list of mentors further included Bruce Young (her husband), Gene England, and Darius Gray.

In Susan Howe’s presentation, which she was forced to shorten because the session had already run over, she referred to poetry as ” “¦ that other art form for which you can get no money and no fame.” In spite of this, there is, in her opinion, a “fine tradition of Mormon poetry blossoming right now.” As an important source for anyone seeking the roots of Mormon literature, she named the anthology A Believing People: Literature of the Latter-day Saints. She credited Clinton Larson with being the father of contemporary Mormon poetry, saying he combined principles of the New Criticism of the 50s, 60s, and 70s with Mormon themes. Howe honored May Swenson’s “original vision.” She also credited Harvest, an anthology of Mormon poetry, with ” “¦ help[ing] people realize there was a Mormon tradition.” She saluted Emma Lou Thayne and Carol Lynn Pearson for their poetic visions. Howe mentioned three volumes of poems written by her colleagues at BYU: In All Their Animal Brilliance (Lance Larson), Leviathan With A Hook (Kim Johnson), and The Well-Tempered Tantrum (John Talbot), each of which have received, among other honors, the AML Award for Poetry (Larson’s In All Their Animal Brilliance received this year’s award). Howe concluded that the “tradition of Mormon poets is alive and well.”

Between the banter among participants, the spontaneous eruption of anecdotes, and the nature of the all-encompassing topic the plenary session ran well overtime and much of it went crashing by like a train that had jumped its tracks. But it was an lively session and I thought that it and other sessions I attended went well along toward re-energizing the AML’s sense of purpose and direction. While the theme of this year’s conference was “Legacies and Destinies: the Past, Present, and Future of Mormon Literature,” clearly the conference provided the AML a healthy chance to contemplate its own roots, current state, and prospects. Attendance seemed lighter than during some years I’ve attended, which is unfortunate, given that IMO this conference had a thorough mix of academics, professionals, and just plain interested folk (like me) that gave it more breadth and texture than some AML conferences have had. And who knew Richard Bushman would be there? It’s surprises like this that keep me going to the conference any time I can manage.

Next I’ll report in detail on the Wayne Booth session, which I considered very well done and deserving of its own post.

Essay: Bird in the Hand

The belief that people hold stewardship over Earth and over every life form and square acre upon its face is taken nearly for granted in the LDS culture. But do LDS understand that stewardship, or have we merely assumed understanding, as we once assumed understanding of the relationship between blacks and priesthood? Are we fully conscious of the needs of other species in our charge, as good stewards ought to be? Are we imaginative enough to visualize the possibilities of faithful stewardship, which may include providing other species with opportunities for “¦ oh, I don’t know “¦ progression, maybe? “Bird in the Hand” is the first in a series of essays about encounters with animals (and a few plants) that left me with more questions than answers about human responsibility in the natural world.

In July 2005 my brother Jim and I threw camping gear into his new Toyota 4Runner and headed for a canyon in the San Rafael Swell. The object of our trip: try out the 4Runner on real four-wheel-drive roads and see petroglylphs at the canyon’s mouth. We arrived at the canyon at dusk and helped each other wrestle up tents in a whipping canyon wind.

After admiring the rock art the next morning we decided to explore the canyon and looked for possible routes in. To our left lay a boulder field, littered with obstacles too imposing for my taste. “We’re not going that way,” I said, but as I turned away, my eye caught rapid movement just at the edge of my field of vision. “What’s that?”

Jim didn’t answer, just looked. Focusing, I made out long black wings beating at the canyon’s wall, and flashes of white. Some black and white bird fluttered near the ground. Black and white is an unusual color scheme for birds living in sandstone deserts. And what was it doing? Curiosity drew me toward the bird. It appeared to be trying to scrabble up the canyon wall, but its feet clutched ineffectively at the dirt and rock. It beat its wings furiously trying to help itself up.

Absorbed in its mysterious task the bird didn’t notice my approach. It appeared swallow-like in body, with long, sharp, angled wings of the sort that slice air. But drawing closer, I saw those wings had a fourteen- to sixteen-inch-wingspan–too broad for any swallows I knew of. “This must be some member of the swift family,” I mused. The bird continued fluttering against the wall, prompting me to wonder if it was sick or injured or maybe old. Sometimes it slipped down the cliff face and pushed itself back up on its “elbows,” crawling in the way I’ve seen grounded bats crawl.

Wonder built in my brain, welling up, until in an irrepressible act I asked, “What are you doing?”

I didn’t expect a reply, but many humans aren’t conscious of the compelling effects of spoken-aloud questions, either upon each other or upon animals. Marketers know something about it. They use questions as hooks: “Mind if I ask you a question?” “What cell phone service do you have?” Before many people can stop themselves they answer, opening the door to the sales pitch.

But well-asked questions have music to them, a directness of intent marked by tone and tilts in the voice throughout and then again at the end. The words WHAT are you DO-ing have rhythm. Many animals know rhythm. It’s in their feet and wings–it plays in their heartbeats. Their own languages depend upon rhythms and variations in rhythms. Some studies assert that rhythm, phrasal repetitions, even rhyme act as mnemonic devices for species that employ them in their songs. Why might that be? Because at the very least, rhythm rises from the depths of the creature, from its organs and other very basic structures of the body. In all singing species, the singer is the song.

At the noise of my question, the bird stopped scrabbling. Looking over its shoulder it identified me as the source of the sounds it had just heard and turned to face me. With a drunken walk it hobbled over till it stood between my feet.

Looking down at the bird, whose head tilted up looking, I supposed, at my face, I asked, “What do you want?” The bird began to scrabble at the leg of my jeans in the same way it had the rock wall.

Years of experience with small things tugging at my pant leg or trying to climb up my body prompted me to lean over and put my hand in front of it. I bumped my finger against its underside the way I’ve seen cockatiel owners encourage their birds to step onto their fingers. Still, I was surprised when the bird stepped into my hand, folded up its long, black wings and settled against my open palm.

A bird in the hand weighs nothing. If I had closed my eyes I might have doubted that the very slight weight I felt against the skin of my palm was anything at all–flight itself, perhaps, come to rest for a moment, dimpling the skin of my open hand. What is the worth of such weightlessness? For birds born to navigate upper regions of the breathable air for extended periods of flight, as I found out later this one was, such insubstantiality translates into boundless wealth.

Overcome with wonder and the intoxication of physical contact with a willing wild bird, I could barely focus on its face. But something seemed wrong with its eyes, or maybe the bird, weakened by its struggle with the cliff, had merely closed its eyes as it rested in my hand. I couldn’t tell for certain what I saw in that black head with mere glints for eyes. Carrying the bird back to the rock face, I lifted it higher up on the wall where it had seemed to be trying to go. It stepped onto the ground there, turned, spread its wings, and sailed back to the canyon floor.

It returned to me. Again I lifted it to the rock shelf; again it turned and sailed down. It didn’t want to get up on the shelf–at least, that didn’t appear to be quite what it wanted. I had a powerful desire to help this animal that seemed to be asking something of me, but because I didn’t understand the bird’s nature or condition I couldn’t think what to do.

One obvious idea was that through accident, illness, or old age, the bird had lost its ability to fly and come to the farthest reaches of its life and ought to be “put out of its misery.” But because I didn’t know what I was looking at I didn’t feel it appropriate to dispense “mercy” as per that old and merciless cliché. Perhaps the bird had merely suffered some injury it could heal from in time.

The bird didn’t ask a third time. It fluttered away from me, its long, fine wings extended, touching elbows to the ground for stability.

Jim had stood several yards off observing but saying nothing. “I don’t know what we can do for it,” I admitted as we watched it wobble away. We continued on our hike up the canyon.

But the incident had thrown me into confusion. My usual appetite for outdoor adventure had gone and I could no longer focus on what we were doing. Questions banged in my head, all of them echoes of the big question: What had just happened?

Once at home, I looked for answers. Bird-watching friends helped me identify my bird as a white-throated swift, Aeronautes saxatalis, a bird I’d never heard of. But identifying the bird only raised more questions. My friends recommended I talk with Merrill Webb, a birding enthusiast and biology teacher at the Utah County Academy of Sciences, a charter school on the Utah Valley State College campus.

From Merrill I learned more about the swift’s remarkable qualities. A migratory species, white-throated swifts arrive in Utah during May from points south, including Mexico and Central America. An almost exclusively aerial species, they forage on flying insects and spend most of their lives in high-speed, agile flight. In Utah (and perhaps all of North America) only the peregrine falcon is known to be faster. One white-throated swift is reputed to hold the world record for sustained flight–three years without landing.

White-throated swifts don’t even land to mate. Merrill said that one of the most breathtaking scenes a birder can witness is the mating flight of these swifts as they come sweeping along the face of a cliff or through a canyon at breakneck speeds, copulating pairs tumbling through the air.

With a wingspan of up to sixteen inches, it’s remarkable that such a vigorous flyer weighs in at 1 ¼ ounce or less. Truly, I had held in my hand a creature of stunning qualities.

Now I knew something about the bird, but nothing I heard or read explained my experience. That the white-throated swift belongs to the order Apodiformes, subfamily Apodinae, which means “without feet,” might have been my first clue. Merrill Webb had mentioned that white-throated swifts have tiny, nearly useless feet. They can cling to cliff faces but climbing them or walking for any distance they cannot do.

Internet searches provided a possible key to the mystery. Birding articles from the U.K. and Europe said that if a swift becomes grounded for any reason its physiological combination of long wings and feet unserviceable on terra firma render it incapable of regaining flight.

The articles told how some who had found grounded swifts took them to the highest point they could find in the surrounding landscape and threw the birds off into open air, returning them to their lives. None of the articles I read told of swifts approaching the people who found them. But I wonder if such birds as inhabit otherwise uninhabitable spaces, especially in remote locations as they do in Utah, with few if any predators able to threaten them, might live in rare confidence like the birds and reptiles of the Galapagos Islands.

Of course the bird might have been addled by illness or injury. Or possibly the rough wind we’d struggled with the night before had brought it down. Whatever its circumstances, I understood at last that what I ought to have done to give the swift its best chance was to take it to the highest rock outcrop I could climb and throw the bird off, something that if were done to me would insure my death. And perhaps that partially explains my failure in the encounter. Thinking within the boundaries of my ignorance of this species and my own physical realities, the bird’s exigencies proved beyond me, though perhaps the bird itself had hoped for something better to happen between us.

Commentary: Find Your Own Grove: Joseph Smith and Nature Deficit Disorder

In honor of Joseph Smith Junior’s impending 200th birthday, my former stake held a celebration for its youth at summer 2005’s end on the green of a neighborhood community center. The stake provided its young people with tee shirts to wear to the event, each sporting leafy green cartoon trees captioned with the slogan, “Find Your Own Grove.”

The slogan’s meanings turn upon word play between “grove” and “groove,” with the instructional emphasis probably falling more on finding one’s own groove rather than on finding one’s own grove. The former is familiar and expected counsel echoing messages LDS youth have heard for generations: don’t follow the “world’s” fashion or behavior trends but find “a style of your own,” a manner of dress and deportment in harmony with gospel standards.

The slogan’s latter meaning invokes narrative that lies at the church’s roots, narrative in which a fourteen-year-old farm boy feels the call to discover the spiritual truth of his existence. This call compels him to seek the solitude of a forest grove to put his questions to God. Thus the slogan “Find Your Own Grove” exhorts the LDS young person to find his/her own Sacred Grove–not just a place, but personal impetus come to fruition in a place where God grants the seeker a new vision of truth for his/her life and perhaps for the world.

The desire to seek meaning for one’s life is a powerful and perhaps obvious drive. Finding a Sacred Grove where the youthful mind might feel it natural to query life’s meaning and put to God its Big Questions is perhaps more difficult. Where might a typical LDS adolescent or pre-adolescent, such as those who attended the “Find Your Own Grove” event in my former stake, find his or her Sacred Grove? Is it even reasonable to exhort our youth to follow the example of the likewise young but perhaps atypical Joseph Smith Jr.?

In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues among other points that all children carry within potential for the sort of spiritual desire that brought Joseph Smith to his Sacred Grove. He reminds us that among older religious texts not only did notable prophets and leaders begin spiritual quests at what might be considered precocious ages (ex. Abraham and Christ) but the scriptures themselves are fertile with images connecting children with the highest qualities of spirituality.

Louv observes that poets like William Wordsworth and William Blake endowed the child with native spirituality and in their poetry linked that spirituality to beauty and to nature. Louv notes that Blake himself reported experiencing childhood visions, many of which took place in natural settings: “As a child, Blake announced that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting in a tree “¦ He also reported seeing a tree filled with angels who sang from the branches.”

Louv reports that influential psychologists Abraham Maslow and Edward Hoffman shared views that the childhood quest for spiritual truth is a more widespread phenomenon than many grownups commonly imagine. Hoffman, Louv says, interviewed ” “¦ children and hundreds of adults who described their spontaneous childhood experiences “˜of great meaning, beauty, or inspiration “¦ apart from institutional religion.'”

This speaks strongly to Joseph Smith’s experience in the Sacred Grove, especially since, as Louv says, Hoffman found that among the ” “¦ triggers [of experiences of great meaning] are heartfelt prayer or more formalized religious moments” which may result in revelatory dreams or even “”¦ a visionary episode.” Louv grants that aesthetics also provides “gateways” into visionary or transmundane experiences. But in his chapter titled “The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young,” his point that “Most interesting “¦ is Hoffman’s finding that most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature” appears directly relevant to the Joseph Smith’s experience of God.

Joseph Smith states the triggers for his vision: a great excitement of mind precipitated by the contemporary religious atmosphere, the impression a scripture had made upon him, his immersion in sincere prayer. But might his choosing nature as the stage for his transcendent spiritual experience be incidental? Perhaps if his reading of James 1:5 had brought him to utter his first prayer in the vacant town square in the middle of the night God the Father and his son Jesus Christ would have appeared to him there. But Joseph chose the woods for his sanctum. His doing so suggests his haboring a strong regard for and perhaps even a trust in the solitude and stimulating qualities of natural settings.

Nature’s role in facilitating spiritual experiences, including Joseph Smith’s, might be hard for some of us to grasp, especially for those under forty years of age. As Louv argues in his book, over the last thirty or forty years two gradually occurring conditions have disconnected children from nature and from early and profound experiences with natural beauty and its energies.

First, natural environments, be they groves, forests, swamps, thicketed drainage ditches, wooded hills or mountains, or even rocky desert landscapes, have recessed beyond many children’s easy reach, resulting in a generation of young people who are complete strangers to natural wilderness, to the surprises of biodiversity, and to nature’s inspirational beauty and grandeur.

Second, nature play has become increasingly criminalized, with the result that children who might otherwise experience nature’s lessons and quickening influences are driven inside their homes or into smaller interior spaces like the corner of a room. There they become increasingly dependent on what Louv calls the “new frontier”–television, the Internet, and other electronic “worlds” that still invite exploration.

Louv acknowledges the importance and adventure of this new electronic frontier. But he argues that the cost of society’s (especially children’s) growing dependence upon it and the accompanying loss of the child-nature relationship results in what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” defined as “the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and a higher rate of physical and emotional illnesses.” He uses “nature deficit disorder” not as a clinical term but as a useful phrase to describe a condition that he says may afflict not just individuals, but families and even whole communities. Important to the LDS community is his suggestion that the loss of this vital childhood connection may result in widespread spiritual deficiencies along with the physical and emotional ones.

Concerns that “too much” emphasis upon the natural world’s awe-inspiring qualities might result in animism, or worship of nature instead of worship of God, are legitimate. But it does not follow that all instances of heightened awareness of or concern and appreciation for nature inevitably result in nature stealing God’s thunder. One need look no further than holy scripture to see how frequently nature acts as a magnifying glass for God’s meanings.

Living in an agricultural society, a society immersed in and dependent upon nature and natural rhythms, Joseph Smith did not suffer from nature deficit disorder. When confronted with the need to speak to God and to hear clearly God’s reply he sought refuge in nature on that “beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty.”

But when we exhort our youth to “Find Your Own Grove,” what are we telling them to do and where are we telling them to go? To church, certainly; on their missions and to the temple, naturally. Obviously, we’re urging them to stick to gospel-sanctioned paths, which wind away from addictions, unbelief, and moral intrigue (the “Find Your Own Groove” side of the slogan). But do we really expect each young person to seek her/his own moment of transcendent beauty and truth where the heavens open and God’s look falls clear upon the day, leaving the youth lying breathless on his or her back, staring into heaven after being stricken by life-altering revelation? If so, we’re lacking emphasis on what might be an important ingredient for such experiences: nature.

Furthermore, reducing nature and the vital Joseph Smith story to the cute word play, the syntactic cadences, and the easy catchphrasing of a TV advertising imperative (“Find Your Own Grove”–LDS church stake; “Get Your Own Box”–Cheezits) might just go to a point Louv makes when he quotes Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment: “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator–from God.”