The Landscape of Memory

February 19, 2004 | 19 comments
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I am facinated by the way in which a place carries with it the memories of a people. The Civil War provides an example of what I am talking about. The trauma of that event is seared into the landscape of the eastern United States.

When I lived in the DC area, I was always facinated by the street names. If you are in the District of Columbia, lots of streets and parks are named after Union heros from the Civil War — Faragut Park, Du Pont Circle, etc. Cross the Potomac into Virginia, and the street names change. You have Confederate names: Jefferson Davis Highway, Lee Street, etc. When I lived in New England, I always noticed the way that every little town in Massachusetts, Maine or New Hampshire had, without fail, a kepi bedecked statue of a Union soldier on the common to remember the fallen dead of that town. Now I live in Little Rock, and to a certain extent the symbols are once again reversed. On the lawn of the Arkansas state capitol there are two large monuments, one to the Arkansans who sacrificed for “home and country” in the service of the Confederacy and another for their mothers. A few blocks to the south stands Central High School, were Governor Fabus stood in the door and vowed that black students would never enter, regardless of what the “n—-r-lovin’ yankee judges” said. Eisenhower sent in the 101st Airborne and Fabus backed down. I work with a women who remembers the helicopters landing on the football field during her English class.

One of the reasons that I love Utah is that the landscape itself bears the marks of Mormonism: The gridded streets following the plat of the New Jerusalem revealed in Jackson County, the rows of poplars in the small towns, the absence of farm houses as you drive through farming country (one of the purposes of the Plat was to allow farmers to live in the town), the temples and tabranacles that the little towns orbit around, the 19th-century “duplex” polygamist houses that you can still see in some parts of Salt Lake and Provo. One of the best books on Mormonism, in my opinion, was written by a non-Mormon and captures a sense of what I am talking about. It is not a history or cultural study or anything like that. Rather it is a story of place, almost a travelogue: Wallace Stegner’s Mormon Country.

As I have blogged in the past, there are things about Utah that bother me. However, I miss the richness of the memories implanted on the land. Even though I am an American, I can’t help but feeling like a bit of a “stranger in a strange land” as I make my way each day through a landscape that tells of different epics of brother against brother and those who overcome. I can never feel the connection with those stories that I feel with the one whose memory blankets our lovely Deseret.

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19 Responses to The Landscape of Memory

  1. Karen on February 19, 2004 at 3:08 pm

    Nate,

    Having lived in many of the same places you have (and in Boston at the same time…by the way, hi, it’s been awhile…) I can certainly relate to your observations. I live just off of Lee Highway in No. Va., and noticed a sign for a business on John Mosby Drive on the way to work in D.C. this morning. Come on. Celebrate who you must, but Mosby?

    Your thoughts about Utah also struck a chord. I also have my issues with Utah…which for some reason culminate in this horrible claustrophobic feeling I get everytime I go into the WalMart in Springville…but I digress. I guess my attachment for Utah is in the landscape and the gospel, and somehow they’re interconnected for me. Everytime I fly into Salt Lake I sing “Oh Ye Mountains High” in my head and everytime I drive along the east bench portion of I-215 I compare the dry brush on the mountain with the green valley and think, you go Brigham–way to irrigate. (But, honestly, then I also have that guilty, shouldn’t we be concentrating on desert friendly foilage and save the water feeling–but not the point here.) I guess that I see civilization in Utah as a testament to the faith of people who gave everything for a radical new religion. And then I wonder how my faith compares. I guess after you have those same thoughts over and over, they just sort of sink into your identity, and you become connected to the land.

  2. Nate Oman on February 19, 2004 at 3:21 pm

    nice to hear from you karen. I had forgotten about John Mosby Drive.

    The other thing you get around DC are all of the plaques stuck in odd corners of suburban N. Va. noting that this or that fort once stood here. The ubiquity of these things is a continuing testimony to the fact that there was a time when Washington D.C. was the most heavily fortified city on earth.

  3. cooper on February 19, 2004 at 3:33 pm

    Cool. I love to hear stories of Utah. Even Karen’s description of driving about brings pictures to my mind. While our stay in Utah was short there are things there that make me feel at home. Heber – what a neat place. Such snow in the winter! And nothing beats Spanish Fork Canyon in the fall. Timp. Now there’s a mountain!

    We currently reside in a community in SoCal that used to be a farming community. It has become a commuter haven for all of those working in Orange County. I have lived here since I was a senior in high school, departing at times to go to school and to live in various places for short times and then to return. My daughter pointed out once how she thought it was so funny that all of the streets in town running north and south are named after ivy league colleges. (I had never put it together) What is so funny was that very few of the high school kids actually go to college. It is a strange place. Even the mountain in the valley has an S on it to signify one of the high schools, but everyone knows it really stands for “stuck”. Some make it out and become successful, most however stay and lead day in, day out lives. Needless to say, we got out and then returned. It was a native american community and legend has it that if you’re born under the shadow of the great mountain you can never leave. Thus our return – my husband was born here.

    My favorite place in the whole world though is Texas. The first time I went was like going home for the first time. Then to visit the Alamo and west Texas was incredible. West Texas is where you can actually smell oil in the air! I love it. Then there’s little Bartlett, a small farming community with the earth as black and rich as coal. The people are friendly and welcoming. Austin and the Texas government, going to the gallery and listening to the state senate argue over the needs of the citizens of the great state! The fact that they have their own militia and can secede from the nation if need be, shows their inclusion yet independence. I long for Texas and the bluebonnets.

  4. Blake on February 19, 2004 at 4:26 pm

    I feel kind of left out that I don’t have the same connections to Utah as many Mormons do. I grew up in Southern California and did school in New England and (currently) D.C. I have some distant family whom I hardly know in Utah, for certain, but that connection was always too weak to create a real association for me with the state. My only experiences with Utah, until I married, were short trips for different activities. My wife, although from Denver, has quite an extensive familial network in Utah, and so my connections have increased (although my visitation frequency is about equal). Consequently, I don’t really understand the connections Utahns (and even some non-Utahn Mormons) feel with that state.

    I’ve noticed, with part amusement and part exasperation, that at social gatherings many Utah Mormons (and this is especially true of those from the Salt Lake area) instantly connect on the topic of high schools. My exasperation extends from the frequency of these discussions, and my amusement from the topic itself. Why high schools? It seems like such a juvenile and nostalgic topic. (Perhaps it’s precisely its nostalgic quality that justifies itself.)

    My wife has suggested to me that perhaps part of Mormons’ affinity and fondness for Utah is that its culture and geography (as Nate suggested) are enmeshed with their religion. Like most Mormons, I value my religious beliefs highly; however, for me, Mormonism is not associated with any specific geography. That must be why I am so confused by this tendency of Mormons to have an inordinate (in my view) attachment to Utah.

    An aside: I too greatly admire Wallace Stegner, and also recommend his fiction. He wrote my all-time favorite novel: Angle of Repose.

  5. Nate Oman on February 19, 2004 at 5:00 pm

    Salt Lake City high schools, especially along the East Bench are place holders for all sorts of other social cues.

    East and West High School represent the “core” Salt Lake suburbs. These are areas that were built up mainly before the Depression. It is amazing the degree to which there are northern East Bench families that have inhabited the northern East Bench (and hence East High School) for generations. This is where the old-line Salt Lake City families and the Utah/Mormon aristocracy live. For example, this area has produced a disproportionate number of GAs and prominent Utah politicians. The families are frequently inter-married, or related. I married into a wonderful, north East bench family (I have nothing but good things to say about my in-laws). Nevertheless, I am amazed at the extent to which my wife is related to people.

    In contrast, if you went to Skyline, Olympus, Brighton, etc. then you are from the southern East Bench. This represents the outer ring of SLC suburbs, areas that were built up since the 1970s. Those who live here are much more likely to be recent move ins to the state, many of them — like my parents — did not grow up in Utah at all. This does not, of course, mean that these move ins are non-Mormons. Quite the opposite. The south East Bench is now more Mormon than the old Mormon elite heartland of the north East Bench. However, on the southern east bench you are much more likely to encouter people who grew up in small towns in Idaho or Wyoming and then settled in the “big city.” The families are less interconnected, less likely to have representives in the top ranks of church or state, and are less likely to have deep roots in Salt Lake.

    Then of course, you have the west side high schools. Having grown up on the east bench (south), I have a less nuanced sense of the cues. The west side is universally less wealthy than the east side. However, there are other distinctions as well. For example, Taylorsville High School represents a post-1970s suburban community. A couple of miles away is Bingham High School, which represents an old, non-Mormon minining town at the foot of the Oquir Mountains.

    Blake, I expect that many of the “what high school did you go to” conversations that you heard occured in the Cambridge, MA wards. To the extent that these ward are populated by Utah transplants, they are likely (especially among undergraduates) to come from north East Bench families. They are simply getting oriented. It is not that these people are snobs (some are; the vast majority are not). It is just that they are using fairly reliable place holders as a way of locating the social origins of particular Utahns. Note, I don’t think that most of them would even consciously articulate the social groupings that I have laid out, but I nevertheless think that they are there.

  6. Greg Call on February 19, 2004 at 5:14 pm

    Nicely done, Nate. Where I saw the SLC high-school focus the most was on my mission. The kids from SLC all knew what HS the others went to. There was even kind of an unspoken rivalry between the east side SLC elders and the west side SLC elders. Silly, really, but probably just a natural way to impose familiar distinctions and order among kids that are away from home for the first time and virtually indistinguishable from one another in most ways.

  7. Karen on February 19, 2004 at 5:40 pm

    Although a more innocuous explanation could be that finding out what high school someone went to is the beginning of the ever familiar “do you know” game. You can’t find out you’re second cousins with your new visiting teacher unless you start finding those common ties.

    Having said that, I’m chuckling, because I bristled a little at your explanation of the high schools. Very accurate assessment of East/West, but you started to lose the distinction as you moved south. I would argue that Olympus, Skyline, Highland, and Granite, are more depression/WWII communities, with Alta, Brighton, Cottonwood etc. being the 1970s+ areas. My Olympus high neighborhood was subdivided in the depression, and many people still have chicken coops in their back yard to prove it. My family has been in the same ward for four generations. Roots go deep in Salt Lake. People don’t move, and yes, there is a ton of intermarriage.

  8. Nate Oman on February 19, 2004 at 5:45 pm

    Karen: I do think that there is an important distinction between the North East Bench and the South East Bench. The most obvious way of looking at this is to contrast Sandy (almost entirely built in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s — mostly 80s and 90s) with Harvard/Yale Avenue neighborhood just to the South of East High School. I will grant you that Olympus/Skyline and Highland are transitional, although I group Highland with the North East Bench. Still, the neighborhoods around Olympus, even if they are not all new, have certainly become much more dense in the last twenty years. The same is not true of Sugar House or the area to the immediate south of the U. of U.

  9. Russell Arben Fox on February 19, 2004 at 5:59 pm

    I hated high school. (Sorry, the thread threw me into a flashback there.)

  10. Melora on February 19, 2004 at 6:38 pm

    There are certain novels that are so connected to their landscape that they simply could not be set elsewhere. Death Comes for the Archbishop, or any Cather, typifies this. I have thought that I would like to teach a class about the landscape of fiction, or something like it. Also Edith Wharton, although there you have to include the social dynamic inherent in the location, as well.

    Talking about the high schools you went to (no matter where you’re from) is always tedious for anyone else in the room. Since I never meet other Coloradans out here, I don’t get to exact that torture on anyone.

  11. Kristine on February 19, 2004 at 10:20 pm

    Nate, how much is this the landscape of memory, and how much is the landscape of imagination? I’ve never lived in Utah, yet I can get nearly weepy over a row of poplars, because Stegner’s prose is so deeply embedded in my sense of my own Mormon-ness. (And it is such lovely prose–after “still they came. And they came singing…” why should anyone try to write about the Mormon hegira anymore? Really.) The attachment to a landscape seems to require a certain mythologizing, even fictionalizing.

    How will Utah fare as the mythic home of Mormonism as the church grows and more and more members have no connection at all to Utah? There’s an interesting experiment in claiming sacred space for Mormons going on here in Massachusetts–the missionaries and others in our stake are heavily focused on the city of Salem, trying to reach critical mass for a branch there, and there is much quoting of D&C 111. I wonder if other places will go through this reinscription of their Mormon past–maybe Tennessee will get monuments to murdered missionaries or to B.H. Roberts–the possibilities are pretty numerous, I would think.

  12. Nate Oman on February 19, 2004 at 10:27 pm

    Kristine: It is an interesting question. For example, I meet in the Benton chapel. Benton is a small town south of Little Rock. In the 1830s, Wilford Woodruff made a missionary swing through this area and got chased by a mob in Benton. He washed off his feet as a curse against them. It is a dramatic story of place!

    Similiarly, many of the members of my ward have made the pilgramage to Western Arkansas where Parley P. Pratt is buried. Also, folks — non-Mormons — around here still have memories of the Moutain Meadows massacre. The immigrants were from Arkansas.

  13. nate oman on February 19, 2004 at 10:29 pm

    Kristine: A related point is to realize how closely related are the ideas of memory and imagination. Speak it softly around the historians, however.

  14. Gordon Smith on February 20, 2004 at 10:55 am

    All this talk about Utah high schools, and then Russels steps in with, “I hated high school.” I almost fell of my chair laughing! Ditto that!

    My wife went to Highland, and everywhere we go we play the high school game with people in the ward. Sometimes I adopt Highland by proxy when Sue isn’t there just so that I can have something to say.

    Whenever she meets someone from East who graduated at roughly the same time (1979), they feel compelled to relive the state championship basketball game, in which Highland beat East, even though East had the superior talent. After hearing about that game I-don’t-know-how-many-times, I feel like I was there. It’s amazing how important events like that can be for one’s sense of identity.

    Just a thought about Nate’s original post. Being back in Wisconsin for the last two years, I have noticed that I do not feel like an outsider here. This is home, for better or worse. The land has a familiar look, and I have come to appreciate the beauty of rolling farmland in a way that I didn’t when I was young. We have lived in some very lovely places — Utah, Oregon, California, Delaware — but I could tell from the landscape than none of them were “home” to me.

  15. Adam Greenwood on February 20, 2004 at 3:54 pm

    ‘Utah’ is a little too narrow, Nate. Let’s say ‘Deseret,’ and include the folks from my part of Zion, down here in the dustly little towns of Northern NM and Northern Arizona, and along the Gila and the Animas, and down into Mexico. For me Zion always includes cottonwoods growing down by the irrigation ditch and cedars in the hills.
    We wear boots and string ties and we are the necessary leaven to you people from the centerplace who have too much confidence in yourselves and you folk of the diaspora who have had to retreat to your homes and your private places.

  16. William Morris on February 20, 2004 at 6:48 pm

    :applauds Adam:

    I spent most of my childhood in Kanab and spent many hours playing in or near irrigation ditches and cottonwood trees. As much as I enjoy Utah Valley it always seems fogged up with too much memory and family and Church. I prefer the clarity of the red-rock desert of Deseret. At heart I’m a sage brush Mormon, I think.

  17. clark on February 20, 2004 at 7:50 pm

    I thought Missouri was Zion?

  18. sid on February 20, 2004 at 10:05 pm

    I grew up in Australia and India, and joined the Church while I was an undergrad at the Univ of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Read Wallace Stegner whil i was in the process of working with the Elders getting ready to be baptised. Joined the Church, but due to serious health problems, I have been more or less Ann Arbor bound over the past fe years, and so havent been able to travel to Utah and really experience what Zion is all about. So, I read all y’alls comments with the great deal of interest, and am trying to add th it to my mental portrait of what Deseret/Zion is like!!!!

  19. Adam Greenwood on February 21, 2004 at 2:07 pm

    Sage brush Mormons. I like it.