January 21, 2013

haunting landscapes; or, to love a mountain and feel guilty about it: some thoughts on homelands and diasporas

by stan thayne

I grew up loving mountains. If you have read Jared Farmer’s book On Zion’s Mount, then you will understand why, in particular, I loved a mountain called Timpanogos, which stands at the northern end of Utah Valley. But my love was not exclusive to Timp. I also loved Cascade to the East and Lone Peak further north and Nebo to the South; King’s Peak, Baldy, Haydn’s Peak and all the granite moraines that form the Uinta Mountains; Devil’s Castle, Twin Peaks, Mount Superior, and the Pfeiferhorn in the Wasatch range. And things just got better as you moved north: the Sawtooths, the Wind Rivers, and the Tetons in Idaho and Wyoming, and Beartooths and Absarokas in Montana. And beyond those were the Canadian Rockies and the Chugach and Brooks Range of Alaska—the mountains I dreamed of.

But I felt a little guilty loving mountains so much. I knew enough of Mormon history to understand that, if things had gone as planned, I would not have grown up in the mountains, in the West. I would have grown up in Missouri, in Zion, where there are no mountains—or nothing that I, as a westerner, would have recognized as such. I knew that I was supposed to be in exile, in diaspora, and I felt that at least a part of me should lament that fact. I was supposed to be longing for the return, the long-awaited day when the Saints would go marching back with songs of joy to build Zion in Jackson County. But I sort of secretly hoped it would not occur in my life time—or at least not until I was very old and had gotten my fill. I would miss the mountains, the skiing, the trout streams, the backpacking and rock climbing and simply gazing up at them. I knew that I should be weeping by the rivers of Babylon, but instead I was fishing in them. And I was loving it.

I am not the only one to feel the ambivalence of that attachment. The Saints were not long in the Salt Lake Valley before they began referring to it in their hymns as their mountain home, their “lovely Deseret” (a Mormon word), and, even , their Zion in the mountains—even as many of them still longed to return to build Zion in Missouri and anticipated doing so in their own lifetime. There is an ambivalence in that longing that I think many of the Saints share. Our attachments to the mountains are haunted by the anticipation of another desertion of those places we have learned to love (even if we have not always cared for them as we should) and a return to a place many of us have never been (or may not care to go, for good). The Saints carried the memory of Missouri with them to the Great Basin and, for some at least, that memory has been a little unsettling. Would the return be the ending of diaspora, a re-gathering to the homeland? Or another exile? Or both?

Perhaps this ambivalent multi-valence is simply the inevitable result of people in motion over land—people who tell stories and who story the landscapes they inhabit. Those stories displace and replace, subsume, appropriate, and re-invent, co-exist, conflict, and harmonize with the stories that formed the landscapes that preceded them—and will proceed them—leaving the West a palimpsest of all who have moved across it—in exile or diaspora, to settle, unsettle, and be unsettled from the lands they shaped with their stories as well as their actions. I hope that Jared Farmer has only gotten us started in peeling back the layers of those stories upon stories upon stories that haunt the mountains and lakes and valleys and streams of the region we call the West—a region haunted by all the places people bring with them, and which haunts in turn all the places they go.

And now I find myself in exile again. Not in Zion, in Missouri, and not in the West, but in graduate school in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. In the American Southeast. It is a very nice place and I have nothing to complain of. I have learned to love it. But it took me a while to grow accustomed to the absence behind and above the trees. I still confess a little longing—intense at times—for some elevation and for big open spaces. But I also feel I have come to understand my relationship to the West, to the lands I grew up in, in new ways.  Zora Neale Hurston put it well in reference to her study of African American folk culture in the American South.  Adapting her words to my circumstances: “When I pitched headforemost into the world I landed in the crib of [the North American West]…But it was fitting me like a tight chemise. I couldn't see it for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment.” That in itself is a little unsettling. But hopefully Ralph Waldo Emerson was right when he said that only so far as we are unsettled is there any hope for us. And so I remain in diaspora, peeling back the layers of the landscapes that haunt me, dreaming, at times, of return.

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