Art, Religion and Politics

In April of 2004, I went through a life experience. My debut play Farewell To Eden, which had premiered at UVSC, and then had been chosen by the Kennedy Center’s American College Theater Festival’s Festival to be one of ten plays throughout California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Hawaii and Guam to compete for a chance at the national festival. Continue reading “Art, Religion and Politics”


(Technical note: it is appropraite to italicize or underline the titles of plays, but for some reason my computer does not allow this, so I’m using quotation marks).

I was a Freshman in high school. My familiarity with Mormon Theater was pretty much limited to particpating in BYU’s summer theater camp for youth (EFY for drama geeks) and watching the VHS versions of “Saturday’s Warrior” and “My Turn On Earth” (which, like many Mormons of my generation, my family had grown up with). C.S. Lewis had recently ignited my imagination towards religious literature through a book of his poetry which I had stumbled upon at the library– thus I was exploring religious themes through my poetry and early playwriting. Yet it was a general Christian religiousness, with very little of strong flavored Mormonism. Then one of those seemingly everyday occurences happened in my life that changed everything: my parents took me to a play at BYU.
Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” was certainly not the “Saturday’s Warrior” I had grown up with. Here was something more challenging, more bold, more intelligent– and it created more of a change on my inner, spiritual geography.
Then the next year I took a good friend on a date to see Eric Samuelsen’s next play at BYU, “Gadianton.” Even more so than “Senator Smoot,” this play struck very deep chords within me. I didn’t then, nor do I consider myself now, a liberal (I rather buck at political labels, actually. I think they’re too confining). Yet this play was able to present to me the plight of the “laborer in Zion” under the whims of the business elite in such an intelligent, persuasive and spiritually personal way, that what natural barriers and prejudices I had built up in myself melted against the sheer humanity and vision of Samuelsen’s work.
As George MacDonald “baptized” the imagination of a young, atheistic C.S. Lewis, Eric Samuelsen baptized my imagination into a new life of Mormon Theater. Suddenly I didn’t want to veil the Mormonism in my writing, but, instead, celebrate it. Suddenly I wasn’t an artist who happened to be a Latter-day Saint, but, instead, a Latter-day Saint artist.
Since then I’ve thought a great deal about this shift. Most (not all) of my plays now revolve around Mormon characters and Mormon themes. My specific religious background and inground permeate my work.
Yet the question arises: is this really a good thing? Does this peculiar focus on our religion limit not only limit the Mormon playwrights’ audiences, but also the playwrights themselves? And is this the case with all fields of LDS art?
Theater is an especially interesting case study with this particular question of LDS art. Theater is riddled with obstacles as it is. James Arrington, in a radio interview which he and I particpated in promoting one of my plays, called theater the “fabulous invalid.” Doomsayers thought that radio would kill it, that film would kill it, that T.V. would kill it, that VHS then DVD would kill it. But theater has survived. But only barely. Yet throw Mormonism into it, and can it still stand on its own two feet?
Unlike, say, something like the LDS visual arts or even LDS Cinema, who, despite their own struggles, at least have the ability to provide a wider distrubition for their products to members of the Church across the globe through items like prints, books and DVDs– Mormon Theater does not have that luxury. Mormon Theater has to struggle with a limited geography. There are a few cases that a show has a touring company (as with “Saturday’s Warrior”) or that it’s innate nature allows the artist to pick up and go (like Arrington’s one man “Farley Family” shows or his “Here’s Brother Brigham”), but for the most part Mormon Theater hasn’t any mobility. It has the far flung hope that “if you build it, they will come.”
Then let’s take into account other factors. A play will usually only be successful if it can play in New York or some other prominent city and then attract a major publisher like Samuel French or Dramatic Publishing to pick up the rights and then advertise it in its catalogues and sell it to regional theaters, community theaters, universities and schools. And even a great deal of those are rarely performed again. Most Mormon plays have not been picked up by such publishers and even those few who are (such as Tim Slover’s “Joyful Noise” or LeAnne Adams’ “Archipelago”) generally do not have Mormon characters or overtly Mormon themes. There is a local publisher, Encore!, who has picked up Mormon plays such as Slover’s “Hancock County” and James Arrington, Marvin Payne and Steve Perry’s “A Trail of Dreams.” But looking on Encore’s website (which posts where else the plays have been performed), I could only ascertain that “A Trail of Dreams” has been performed in a handful of places (usually by LDS Church groups) and “Hancock County” hasn’t seemed to have gone anywhere beyond its excellent performances at Brigham Young University (although there was an excellent DVD that was made by the BYU cast).
Then there is the culture of the national theater market. Those plays which have been able to incorporate Mormon characters and themes usually at least have a veiled antagonism towards the Church or its policies. Tony Kushner’s pulitzer prize winning play “Angels In America” has done this famously (although it, fortunately, contains sympathetic Mormon characters, it certainly is attacking the Church on it policies towards practicing homosexuality). Then there was the one man show by Steven Fales (an excommunicated member), “Confessions of a Mormon Boy”– again taking issues with the Church’s stance against homosexuality. Even one of Mormonism’s most famous and skilled playwrights, Neil Labute, cast his Mormon characters in “Bash: Latter-day Plays” as homophobic folks who are willing to kill a homosexual passerby (by the way, are we seeing a trend here in regard to the role that the world wants us to play in their art?).
Admittedly, the Church’s core culture is chiefly conservative, especially on moral issues like homosexuality and abortion, while the national theater’s core culture is chiefly liberal. This puts those involved in both cultures in quite the pickle– stuck in between a rock and a hard place. The tensions that result usually play out into one of two scenarios. First, the tug of war leads the LDS Theater artist to abandon his craft and turn to law or financial planning or some other such practical occupation, dabbling only in theater as a hobby– perhaps acting in a Hale Center Theater play every once in a while or writing a road show when called upon. The other scenario is that the LDS Theater Artist will be so enraptured by the lure of theater that he will leave the Church, often after dabbling in immoral or alternative lifestyles. Yet there are a few who stay– but they usually teach at a high school or a university to pay the bills. There are a very elect few who actually make it big time in a Broadway show or through regional theaters (and even those usually end up in film and television).
So for those of us who have a passion for Mormon Theater, why do we even try? Why not just relent, leave it as a hobby and take the good advice all of our family and friends give us and take a nice desk job?
Well, the best answer I can find for that question is that Mormons believe in prophecy.

Spencer W. Kimball has said, “In our world, there have risen brilliant stars in drama, music, literature, sculpture, painting, science and all the graces. For long years I have a vision of members of the Church greatly increasing their already strong positions of excellence till all they eyes of the world will be upon us….For years I have been waiting for someone to do justice in recording in song and story and painting and sculpture the story of the Restoration, the reestablishment of the kingdom of God on earth, the struggles and frustrations; the apostasies and inner revolutions and counter revolutions of those first decades; of the exodus; of the counter-reactions; of the transitions; of the persecution days; of the miracle man, Joseph Smith…”

John Taylor has said, “You will see the day that Zion will be far ahead of the outside world in everything pertaining to learning of every kind as are today in religious matters. God expects Zion to become the praise of the whole earth, so that kings hearing of her fame will come and gaze upon her glory…”

Boyd K. Packer has said, “The reason we have not yet produced a greater heritage in art and literature and drama is not, I am very certain, because we have not had talented people. For over the years we have had not only good ones but great ones. Some have reached great heights in their chosen fields. But few have captured the spirit of the gospel of Jesus Christ and the restoration of it in music, in art, in literature. They have not, therefore, even though they were gifted, made a lasting contribution to the onrolling of the Church and Kingdom of God… They have therfore missed doing what they might have done, and they have missed being what they might have become.”

Orson F. Whitney has said, “We shall yet have Miltons and Shakespeares of our own. God’s ammunition is not exhausted. His highest spirits are reserved for the latter times.”

David O. Mackay has said, “Away back in the days of Nauvoo we find drama introduced by the Prophet Joseph. We find acting in that drama men who later became prominent leaders in the Church. Among them was the man who succeeded the Prophet Joseph, Brigham Young. He, imbued with the necessity of influencing people in their amusements and of using their recreation as a means of instilling virtue, integrity, and honesty, brought to these valleys that spirit.”

Brigham Young has said, “If placed upon a cannibal island with the charge of civilizing the inhabitants, I would construct a theater.”

Those are wonderful words of comfort, but will words, even words of prophets, be able to get us through the strains and realities of life? Personally, I feel my situation very keenly right now. I am just barely through my first year of marriage, not yet finished with school (a little behind, actually), living in my parents basement apartment, stuck in a dead end job, and having our first son coming in about a week. What RIGHT do I have do dabble in the arts, when my beautiful wife Anne and soon-to-be-born son Hyrum, will be depending on me to make a living? What RIGHT do I have to not only put my feet onto such an unsure path, but also the feet of those I love?
These are not questions easily answered questions to be batted away with a, “Oh, you don’t understand the fate of a tortured artist.”
But the best answer I can give, again, is that I believe in prophecy.
Most of those who remain faithful in the Church AND faithful in their art do so because they feel that have been called to do so. With them, I can only answer such queries into my life with, “The only RIGHT I have to do this, is the right God gave me.” I, like many Latter-day Saint artists, have had many spiritual experiences that have confirmed my path. I won’t go into the details, because they are sacred, but let’s just say that such experiences can not be easily discarded or explained away.
I take comfort in the example of Joseph Smith. God gave him a mission– what did that mission give back? He went into one failed business enterprise after another (sometimes, like the Red Brick Store, they failed because he was too giving and honest). His family (and the Church) drifted from one community to another. Hatred, persecution and misunderstanding poured down upon their heads, their ideal of Zion failing time and time again. He held his dead son in his arms because he continued to follow the impractical commands of God. He was shoved into a dark, cramped, unsanitary, oppressing jail while his wife and children wandered homeless in the snow. His wife showed a degree of displeasure with him at the end of his life, threatening to divorce him (who can blame her, coming up against polygamy?). Eventually he would die, a sacrifice for a community and a Church he was trying to save. Emma would eventually leave the Church he founded, taking his children with her (which, if we can trust Mosiah Hancock’s account, Joseph knew about and prophesied about). The only one of his sons that would come even close to accepting the harder doctrines he taught in the Nauvoo period was David Hyrum Smith, and, because of his involvement in spiritualism (at least that’s my interpretation), he went insane and died in a mental hospital. There was no security for the Smith family. At least not in this life. The Church gained by his life and sacrifice, but when it came to the “profit” of Mammon, I’m sure many a financial planner would consider him a failure.
What RIGHT did Joseph Smith have to throw his family into such uncertainty? Only the right that God gave him.
So is that the fate of the LDS artist? Insecurity and a history of hardship? Perhaps, but then we’ll be ushered into the Kingdom of God, if we are faithful. If that’s the case, I’m okay with that. However, is there no way to make this a successful venture instead of a noble, lost cause?
Eric Samuelsen has suggested something very interesting in an essay which was published in BYU Studies, titled, “Whence Mormon Drama? Look To a Theater. He wrote, “What playwrights need is a theater. The great eras of the world’s dramatic literature have tended to come after the establishment of theater and theater companies sufficiently robust to support them… In short, we will never develop a satisfying Mormon drama until we have established and supported a theater from which such drama might emerge. The Mormon Shakespeare needs a Mormon Globe.”
Ironically, I had just such an idea of supporting myself in theater by owning a theater, about the same time in my life that I saw Samuelsen’s “The Seating of Senator Smoot” and “Gadianton.” I hope that someday it comes to pass. But there have been others. The ill fated “Nauvoo Theatrical Society” founded by Scott Bronson and Thom Duncan, opened with a splash, but (as far as I can tell) faltered from a lack of publicity and word of mouth. It was a shame, for they put on some very fine productions of some of the best playwrights Mormonism has to offer. There are rumors, however, that (much like the Nauvoo Temple) they will rise out of the ashes soon, a phoenix, brighter and more glorious than before. Let us hope that this happens.
If such establishments cannot become solidly rooted soon, then we will press forward with faith, like Arrington’s “fabulous invalid.” Often pushed down, but never defeated. Often discouraged, but never despairing. If the Lord can clothe the lilies of the field, then he can clothe his chosen artists, writers and their families.

About Shawn P. Bailey

I am a recovering humanities nerd, a former English major who exclusively pursued unmarketable knowledge until the day I applied to law school. That decision–law school–felt like giving up on becoming a writer, but it was the culmination of an honest assessment of what I lacked. A wealthy patron, for example. Continue reading “About Shawn P. Bailey”

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.

News: Room, and a Heck of a View

At long last, a dream is coming true. I’m moving to the desert! Specifically, the SE Utah desert, but that lands me pretty close to important deserts in CO, NM, and AZ as well.

The house itself–an old manufactured home–is not much to look at. It needs a lot of work but sits on an acre and a half surrounded by farm, pasture land, and desert. Finally, enough room to grow butterfly gardens, heriloom tomatoes with names like brandywine, green zebra, and Cherokee purple, and potatoes called Yukon golds. While I work outside, I’ll enjoy views that fly away south for miles. See for yourself:

Imagine the night skies and flashfloods of stars we’ll be privy to!

Growing up in rural Virginia, I enjoyed free and frank nature play with wild animals and native plants in clean air beneath boundless skies. I have no doubt my early and intense relationship with nature helped foster the busy understory of my spiritual life and creative sensibilities.

I didn’t transplant to the West without a struggle. For one thing, the summer light here paves everything over. Not until a friend followed through on his offer to take me to the desert’s uncivilized parts did I begin to see the possibilities. The two days and two nights I spent in a canyon in southern Utah changed my life.

In Man Made of Words, Scott Momaday says, ” … the storyteller’s place within the context of his language must include both a geographical and mythic frame of reference. Within that frame of reference is the freedom of infinite possibility.”

In 1990 I lost the geographical angle of the relationship Momaday describes. The birth of a daughter who had in utero suffered severe brain damage from a viral cytomegalo infection sealed me off from the landscape that I had taken into me and that had taken me in. Besides mourning the loss of my daughter’s future as I’d imagined it, the years-long effort of helping her decide whether or not she wanted to come out to us kept me away from pilgrimages to mystical places. Yet if I hadn’t developed such a thick connection previously to place and to beauty, I might not have had the reserves needed to make it through the epic undertaking of helping my daughter emerge from the cave-in trapping her.

Since my daughter began to stabalize I’ve been able to venture off periodically, but she doesn’t take my absences well and more than half of the times I’ve gotten away I’ve either had to return early or I’ve returned home to dire circumstances precipitated by my absence. Other times I didn’t even make it beyond the trip’s planning stage. Moving down closer to my locus mundi I expect to strip away some of the peril my pilgrimages, necessary to my wellbeing, hold for her. My husband and I will be able to recover from years of stress. My two ambulatory children will be able to experience rural life along the lines I enjoyed for the first time in their lives.

Again, from Scott Momaday:

It is a great good in returning to a landscape that has had extraordinary meaning in one’s life. It happens that we return to such places in our minds incessantly. There are certain villages and towns, mountains and plains that, having seen them, walked in them, lived in them, even for a day, we keep forever in the mind’s eye. They become indispensible to our wellbeing; they define us, and we say, I am who I am because I have been there, or there. There is good, too in actual, physical return. 


I’ll be out of touch for a while as we finish packing and moving but expect to return with posts exploring such subjects as children and spirituality, the history of the LDS concept of stewardship of the earth and whether or not it needs an overhaul, and the Old Testament’s unsung hero Judah. I’m developing a series on irony and a post titled “Why Poets Need Logic.” Last but not least, I’m looking forward to finishing an essay I’m really excited about: “Joseph Smith and Nature Deficit Disorder.”

Thanks for reading my posts at A Motley Vision (and many thanks to William for inviting me aboard). It’s been a pleasure and I’m learning a lot through participating in the bloggernacle. Oh, and Merry Christmas!

Essay: By What Way Is the Light Parted?

(“When the Morning Stars Sang Together,” by William Blake)
In 2001 I took my kids to a southern Utah park for their first camping trip. We pitched our tent then went hiking in time to witness a spectacular desert sunset. Boy, I couldn’t wait for the sky to darken and show my son and my daughter stars like they’d never seen them. I even had a speech prepared: “Look at those lights. Those are places where other things happen than happen here. We’re not the only show on the strip; don’t think your life is the only thing happening. There’s always more going on than you know.”  

But at nightfall, the couple in the next camping spot lit a lantern that blasted away darkness for a thirty-foot-plus radius, with glare shooting out farther. Our view of the night sky ended up being no better than what we had at home across from a streetlight.

Later on most other campground lights recessed behind tent flaps or went out. Our neighbors settled in beside their lantern and played cards till eleven. Worn out from the long ride down and the hike, my kids fell asleep. I lay staring into glow illuminating our tent’s interior enough I could see my children’s sleeping faces.

Astronomers have long complained that loose light interferes with observing astral environments and events, but CNN reports that national parks now consider light pollution a threat to wildlife rhythms and humankind’s wilderness experiences. Indeed, satellite photos taken at night show a North America that shines from dark sea to dark sea. That sounds pretty, but the schemata of personal, municipal, and commercial lighting can’t compare to conjunctions of the moon, planets, and constellations as they speak about that community of lights to which we belong.

Light pollution’s problems extend beyond mere nuisance or damaged aesthetics. For instance, during May through September pregnant sea turtles of several species flock to southeastern and gulf state beaches of the U.S. to lay their eggs. No one knows exactly how turtles find these ancient nurseries. Some suggest the old sea roads turtles follow to nesting grounds exist by virtue of genetic memories; others think each hatchling imprints on its place of emergence as it scrambles from its nest to the surf. However they know them, these routes are calculated upon frequencies and intensities of moon- and starlight, along with other urgent signals.

Nowadays when they arrive at traditional nesting sites, turtles are likely to find them polluted with resort, condo, and parking lot glare. Rejecting lit beaches, some turtles choose darker if otherwise inferior nesting sites. Some wander in confusion in the water where they may drop their eggs. Many turtles come ashore anyway, dig nests, lay eggs, then bury them. Drained by the effort, they seek shiny visual cues to guide them to the sea. Streetlights mislead some onto roads where automobiles injure or kill them.

Evidence shows sea turtle hatchlings orient on the nearest luster. Decades ago this was the ocean’s surface, luminous with moon- and starglow. Now too often they stray into lit swimming pools, parking lots, or pile up in confusion beneath lamps to die of exposure or to be eaten by predators. Or instead of fluttering towards the sea, they flap into abandoned beach fires. Or following streetlights, they tumble into roads where traffic kills them.

Turtles aren’t alone in suffering disorientation because of bad lighting. Night-migrating birds often die by the thousands when their flocks, traveling airways around human developments, tangle with floodlit smokestacks, guide lights, lit windows in high rises, and lighted transmission towers. The Fatal Light Awareness Program reports that collisions with lit structures destroy over 100 million birds annually. Speaking for FLAP, Michael Mesure said, “More birds die each year through collisions than died in the Exxon Valdez spill.” His protest here is against inequity: the highly publicized Valdez disaster resulted in an outpouring of volunteerism, punitive fines, and calls for change. Yet the vastly greater number of birds dying as a result of light pollution has drawn no attention, no fines, and little change.

Unaware of light pollution’s impact, we cultivate light in inefficient gardens nearly everywhere we live. Nearer than celestial lights, these weedy beams crowd out native stars. For many nocturnal species, the volume at which we broadcast light compares to our neighbors for a block around turning up their sound systems to a maddening blast. Thus we render incoherent this gorgeous energy many origin stories deem an organizing power.

One reason people give for squandering light is that it scares away wolves–whatever’s out there that wants to eat you. It’s an old fairy tale: light equals safety. So more light ought to equal more safety. But does it?  

Many outdoor lights send nearly one-third of their illumination upward, frustrating intentions to make walkways safer. Since it takes the eye time to adjust from bright light to darkness, floodlights installed to enhance security actually create unsafe shadows, providing cover for those who do wish to skulk. The bulbs of garden-variety “cobra” streetlights direct beautiful-in-principle particle-waves and glare into the sky, through bedroom windows, and sideways into the eyes of passers by, contributing to atomobile or auto-pedestrian accidents.

Scientists investigating constant light’s effect on humans have discovered our brains need heavy darkness to produce melatonin. Melatonin regulates our sleep cycle and maintains our immune systems. Intrusive nightlight from streetlights or brightly lit parking lots inhibits melatonin production, resulting in sleep interference, which results in decreased job efficiency, increased risk for accidents, and vulnerability to illnesses. New research suggests melatonin inhibits the growth of, even destroys cancer cells. Studies show a higher incidence of breast cancer in women who work night shifts beneath lights which slow their melatonin output. For anyone fearing wolves in the dark cancer is a real wolf, but rather than repelling this wolf light might actually enable it.

Of all our choices that have resulted in molecules, particulates, and waves streaming, radiating, and wafting wild, light pollution is the easiest and cheapest to fix. But we have to start thinking about the problem. More than just a modern convenience, light is a power and glory with qualities demanding our respect.

Many species take light literally, meaning that light pollution affects their decisions as misinformation does, which makes light pollution akin to careless lies. The same may hold true for humans. Like turtles and birds, we, too weigh in our minds the significance of light. Poets, scientists, shamans, and prophets have all found in night and day’s clarities revelatory beauty and sublime metaphors for relation, including spirituality. The LDS cosmos includes that whole glittering wilderness swaddling our Earth. But light pollution dims views of our context in creation, especially as it manifests at night. How might the Milky Way’s fading from sight affect our sense of awe and accompanying affinity for the sacred? How might the loss of common vistas for wonder turn aside our arts, or even our sense for human progress? Whatever else it does, light pollution muddies the night skies. Many children can’t see the stars anymore from where they live or don’t know why they should desire to. We’re in danger of raising up a generation who can’t hear the heavens sing or see them dance. How will they know which way to fly?

Commentary: Tell Us A Story

Last week I visited Michael Olson’s AP English high school classes in Spanish Fork, Utah. Michael, who also runs The Payson Chronicle, asked that I discuss “the writing process” with his students and talk about tensions that may exist between what the reader got from a story and what the writer intended in writing it. He wanted me to read from my novel, too. I hadn’t stood before young students in years. I’d forgotten how much work it takes to keep a class of kids together, moving in some meaningful direction.

In both classes enough desks stood empty that the room itself seemed to hang between sizes. The students sprawled a-gangle in their seats. The classroom atmosphere reminded me of a teenager’s bedroom, an enclosure filled with draped clothes and tossed comments, all being rapidly outgrown. I liked these kids; I envied Mr. Olson’s good fortune in getting to know them. An unstated quo vadis* hung between us, a specter of my interest in them, one I supposed only I could see. I’ve loved students since my days teaching English 115 and Philosophy 105 at BYU. I miss the whole teaching adventure.

Sometimes the kids sat up sharp listening; sometimes their heads sank onto desktops. Some appeared to be out cold, but I learned I couldn’t trust appearances. A student might lie slumped onto her desk like a spruce tree branch overloaded with snow, then she’d spring up suddenly and split the classroom with a question. The rustle of notes passing back and forth underlaid all words spoken aloud like subtext.

I proposed that when it came to storytelling the storyteller ought to allow the audience to play a strong role at times. “A good story should contain some of the qualities of a good stone soup. Do you know the story “˜Stone Soup?'” Some thought they did. They tried to tell it but faltered; they’d forgotten. When I discovered this gaping hole in their education I tried to fill it. College-bound students shouldn’t leave high school without knowing about “Stone Soup.”

Whenever a word or two snagged their interest, questions flew: What? Where? When? Why? How? “How do you know,” they asked, “when to use who and when to use whom?” The question seemed to cause genuine distress. I tried to reassure them. “Don’t worry about it. The English language is evolving, that usage is dying out.” I joked it would be gone in thirty years. “But I notice when you speak you use it correctly,” Mr. Olson said. (Who/whom is one of his pet peeves.) “I’m the last one. When I die, it’ll be gone,” I said. The students weren’t satisfied; I saw in their eyes they still wanted to know what I knew, but I let the matter drop. Let who/whom remain a trick we grammatical nerds keep dark.

“What is “˜archetype?'” “What does “˜esoteric’ mean?” “What does it feel like when you see your book on the shelf at a bookstore?” If I spent an hour answering each of these questions, I imagined I’d still see that look, the one that says, “You’re not telling us everything.” “But why do we have to experience evil?” one young woman asked. This was in the context of archetype and the archetypal story’s engagement of the conflict between good and evil, not only as it plays out upon story battlefields but also as it rages in the hearts of readers immersed in the struggle. How could I demonstrate in a few minutes that even a question like “Why do we have to experience evil?” has a dark and dangerous side?

I couldn’t; I took the easier road. “The cool thing about reading good literature,” I said, “is that you can confront evil in a relatively safe manner, in a text, often in a familiar and secure location, rather than going out and finding evil in more dangerous and unexpected circumstances.” Blank stares. “Where do you read?” I asked. “In my bed.” “In the living room on the couch.” “In the car.” “All safe, comfortable places. If you become frightened, you can stop and find yourself back in familiar surroundings.” An idea struck me. I asked, “Do you read folktales in school anymore?” They shook their heads no. I pitied them for their loss of fundamental narratives, plain yet well turned-language that supports imagination. I told them how, when I was young, I cut my reader’s teeth on such stories as “How Bear Lost His Tale,” Aesop’s fables, Br’er Rabbit tales, etc. Then came a surprise, one that erupted spontaneously in both classes and that snagged my attention. “Did you bring any good stories for us?” they asked. “Tell us a story!” The shine in their eyes was like the glistening of tongues whetted by appetite.

At this point, speaking with them became easier; no longer was there any need to keep them together. At the prospect of hearing a story they all ran up to me in complete attention and we gathered around that linguistic fire ring where people meet to tell and hear stories. I read an old Kalapuya tale, “Coyote Takes Water From the Frog People,” then tales of my own making that I’ve put in my novel, a different one to each class: “The Fox That Was Raised By Dogs,” “Why Is Coyote So Smart?” The subtext stopped rustling. In both classes students’ faces opened like morning glories in the first real sun that had shined into the schoolroom.

Looking back I realize that stories were what these students wanted all along. As a storyteller, I should have known that. I see the undying need for good narratives in my own children, in my fifteen-year-old’s retained interest in bedtime stories, albeit more complex ones that when he was eight. It’s in my eight-year-old’s astonishing appetite for Grimm’s Fairytales and her willingness to engage more complex stories when I read them with her older brother. I hear it in my disabled daughter’s cooed “yes” when I ask if she wants me to read to her. I have my own hunger and thirst after fine narrative, original to my earliest consciousness–the need to engage and be egaged by story that I myself have never outgrown.

Thank you, Mr. Olson’s AP English students, for calling my attention to an important matter I’d overlooked. I learned a storyteller’s lesson from you: If I speak to students again, high school or otherwise, I’ll go better arrayed with stories and do what comes naturally to a storyteller facing a young audience. Inbetween tales I’ll dazzle the class with such esoterica** as what archetype means and when one ought to use who and whom, rather than doing things the other way around. Whatever I think I know about evil, grammar, and how I feel about being an author I’ll let the stories tell, because good stories, even modern ones, contain the stuff of ancient wisdom; they’re much older and smarter than I.

*quo vadis: Latin; literally, “Where are you going?”
**esoterica: mysterious matters