May 7, 2010

Religious Bodies & Western Landscapes

by Quincy D. Newell

I’ve been pondering bodies in the American West lately. Religion is, of course, often understood as an intellectual, doctrinal matter – it’s about what you believe. We struggle, in religious studies, to get our students (and sometimes our colleagues!) to remember that religion is about more than this – that there are literal bodies involved. Right now, as I write this, my students are my living, breathing reminder that bodies are involved in everything we do. Even the most intellectual exercise, like the final exam my students are taking, is a physical activity as well as an intellectual one. I look around and I see students stretching hands that have wearied of writing; cracking knuckles and bouncing legs; raising hands and asking for relief from the most physical of discomforts – tissues for running noses, bathroom breaks for full bladders. Religion is about bodies – bodies born, bodies dying, bodies dancing, kneeling, joining hands, giving voice to creeds and chants and prayers and songs. But that’s religion around the world – I’m wondering if thinking more about embodiment can help us understand religion in the American West. What’s special about religious bodies in the American West? Perhaps it’s just because I live in Wyoming, but I think the environment has something to do with it – the problem of adapting these religious bodies to an environment that is not prima facie suited to human habitation, or adapting that environment to habitation by religious bodies.

The West has long been an object of attention for environmental historians, and it’s an environmental shift that some historians use to define the boundaries of the region. I’ll not rehearse the “where is the West?” debate here – it seems to have gone dormant, and it’s best to let sleeping dogs (and dead horses) lie. I’ll merely remind you, dear reader, that some scholars have seen environmental factors such as the lack of rainfall as the primary, defining characteristic of the region. That and other characteristics made this place a forbidding one for human settlement. Of course, various groups of Native Americans lived in the West quite successfully for eons. But places like Laramie, where I live and work and where, even in early May, we have snow banks and days full of wind gusts topping 50 miles an hour (two days ago they were warning of 80-mph winds in the western part of the state) -- as I say, places like Laramie have only been the sites of year-round human habitation since the late 19th century.

The last century or two have seen humans in the West progressively distance themselves from, and then fetishize, this harsh environment. Jared Farmer’s book On Zion’s Mount, which Tisa Wenger wrote about here not too long ago, explores one example of this progression in detail; Lynn Ross-Bryant’s work on religion and the national parks explores others. There’s a religious aspect, then, to the way humans relate to the environment out here in the West that seems to be missing – or at least less prevalent – in the east. The explanation for this seems simple: eastern landscapes don’t threaten human lives the way western landscapes do.

National Public Radio recently ran a remembrance of Floyd Dominy, the man responsible for the Glen Canyon dam, who died last month at the age of 100. (Listen here.) The same kind of non-specific environmental religiosity that values places like Mount Timpanogos and Yosemite National Park ran through the piece – but in an apparently opposite way. Dominy declared himself the “messiah” of water development and Elizabeth Arnold describes his enthusiasm as “downright evangelical.” Here, the environment was not fetishized so much as demonized: humans needed saving from this parched landscape, and Dominy saved them. He tamed the land by controlling the water – and along the way he flooded the harsh, wild landscapes that outdoors enthusiasts and environmental activists cherish. In part, it was Dominy’s work that allowed humans to separate themselves sufficiently from their environment to be able to fetishize it subsequently. (Those who extol the spirituality of the southwestern desert landscape, for example, live well-hydrated lives because of Dominy’s dams.)

There’s a lot more to religion in the American West, of course. But, especially in the early years of white settlement in the West, I think the relationship between religious bodies and their natural environment bears scrutiny. Weber tells us that religions and economic systems shape one another, but religions and natural environments also have effects on one another. Dominy’s sense of himself as a “crusader” was surely shaped by a Christian ethos that took God’s command in Genesis 1:28 to “subdue” the earth (I’m using the language from the KJV) as justification for altering the natural environment to make it suitable for human habitation. Other readings of Genesis and other scriptures have undergirded environmental movements. And surely the environment has guided religious peoples’ interpretations of their scriptures. Would the Mormons have placed so much emphasis on the prophecy that the desert would “bloom like a rose” if they had ended up in the Pacific Northwest (where it rains a lot)? It seems unlikely.

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