George Handley on Mormonism and the environment
BLAIR HODGES: Welcome to another episode of the Maxwell Institute Podcast. It’s the official podcast of the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship at Brigham Young University. To keep current with developments here at the Institute, you can check out our blog at maxwellinstituteblog.org.
I’m Blair Hodges and today I’m joined in this episode by George Handley. He’s an environmentalist and Brigham Young University professor of comparative literature, and he’s the author of the book Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River. The book describes itself as a blend of nature writing, local history, theology, environmental history, and personal memoir. You can email questions or comments about today’s episode to email@example.com, or join the conversation on our Facebook page.
BLAIR HODGES: Alright. We’re here with George Handley. Thanks for joining us, George.
GEORGE HANDLEY: Thank you for having me.
HODGES: First I just want you to tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do and say a little bit about your job here at Brigham Young University.
HANDLEY: Okay. I teach in the department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature. All my degrees are in comparative literature, specifically Latin American and American literature. I do a lot on what’s called environmental humanities, or eco-criticism, looking at the relationship between literature and the environment. I’m now serving as chair of the department of Humanities, Classics, and Comparative Literature. I’ve lived here in Utah… I was born here and moved back in 1998 after leaving as a young boy.
Writing Home Waters
HODGES: The thing that I want to talk to you most about today is a book that you published a couple of years ago called Home Waters. It’s a unique book. I haven’t actually read a book like this before. It’s sort of a combination of eco-history combined with some theology combined with a little autobiography and you’ve got some elements of literature in it where you’re quoting different authors. I’m unfamiliar with the genre. It’s listed as “Nature Writing/Memoir.” Is that a common genre? Or is this something that you’ve—
HANDLEY: It’s a tough one to describe. Yes there are memoirs, of course, and there’s of course lots of nature writing, that is somewhat autobiographical. I had originally thought I would write sort of a brief history of the Provo River just as a sort of service to protecting the river and helping raise awareness about it, but while doing that I was reading a book by a literary critic named John Elder called Reading the Mountains of Home and in that book he devoted roughly a third of his attention to writing about Robert Frost, he lives in Vermont, and then he decided to relate the poem to the geography of Vermont, and then he told his own story in Vermont while he was doing all of that at once. I thought it was one of the most interesting, fascinating books I had read in a long time. He was a literary critic like I am and it just sort of gave me permission to do something a little bit different in this book.
HODGES: So you’re sort of reflecting on the geography of Provo, this is Provo Utah; it’s where Brigham Young University’s located. Have you brought your literary criticism tools to bear on landscapes? Have you connected methodologically some of the tools you use in literary criticism with how you interpret landscapes?
HANDLEY: Yeah. Environmental humanities is a growing field that is looking at the relationship broadly between culture and nature and certainly artistic representation and nature. Not just nature as a theme or nature as a background but really aggressively looking at ecological understandings present in different representations of the landscape. The general assumption is that ecological understanding needs greater attention in our society today and so a lot of eco-critics like myself look at culture to try to mine either philosophy, religious thought, novels, poetry, landscape paintings, for their ecological understandings and then sort of use that as a pedagogical method in the classroom. So I was already engaging in that sort of teaching but in relationship to the natural environment I found myself relating to the environment, not only as someone who studies the humanities, but also as someone who is LDS and a person of faith.
Finding Home Waters
HODGES: And also like someone who is enthusiastic about just being in the outdoors, right? Because a lot of the book talks about your experiences outdoors. With the Provo River you sort of trace the Provo River back to it’s headwaters and then followed it through its various windings and how it’s been adjusted due to human engineering and whatnot. You hike and you fish and you talk about the outdoors. One of the ways you start off that way is talking about your friend, John. This is kind of the beginning of the book and maybe the beginning of the idea of your home waters. So take a second and talk about that experience you had with John when you discovered your home waters.
HANDLEY: Well I’ve lived in the East; I did all my schooling in California, and was teaching in Arizona before coming to BYU. In Arizona in particular, and I narrate some of this in the preface to the book, but I had some friends there who were very interested in the intersection between religion and the environment and the importance of a sense of place. I started reading quite a bit about that and I think I really wanted to live somewhere in a deeply rooted way. I really admired a lot of the families that I knew in Flagstaff who were like that. I mean I remember sitting around a campfire in a Boy Scout event and there were three generations of one family sitting by that fire and I just thought, “Wow, that’s a beautiful thing. I really like that.” I just didn’t know if Flagstaff was going to be the place for me to do that and when I took my job here at BYU, because I had been born in this state and had pioneer roots and so on, it just felt like, “Okay, this is the last move I hope I ever have to make.” So I was very intentionally trying to cultivate a deeper relationship with the land.
So I’m actually not by disposition or by background a really serious outdoorsman. I mean I’ve done a fair amount of backpacking, but probably no more than the average person. I’m not a mountaineer and I don’t rappel and things like that. I consider myself a pretty modest outdoorsman, but I made recreation an intentional activity to try to understand where I was living. I sort of felt that inhabitation requires reconnaissance, right? If I’m going to live here and I’m going to live here for a long time I need to be pretty deliberate about what I’m doing with my free time and so I always try to make my recreational activities, I mean I made a deliberate decision over the course of the year. I had a partial leave during that year and some other circumstances that allowed me to build this into my schedule. But basically over the course of twelve months I kept a nature journal and I said, “Every time I go out I’m going to go out on the Provo River watershed somewhere, and I’m going to write about it.” In part because I felt like the landscape deserved love and cherishing and that kind of treatment, but I also wanted to understand my relationship to the land in a more profound and personal way.
When I got here I had a very close friend, he’s still a close friend but no longer here in Utah, but he was here and he was ecstatic about the chance to teach me fly-fishing, which is something I had never learned as a boy. My grandfather owned a cabin that he had bought in 1966 when I was just two years old and I told my friend John, I said, “Well, gee, my grandpa owns this cabin on the upper Provo River. I don’t know what the fishing’s like up there. We used to fish with worms, but come up with me.” He helped me pick my fly-fishing equipment out and everything and taught me how to fish up there. Of course what we discovered is the fly-fishing is phenomenal and he couldn’t believe my luck that I had just moved back to Utah and basically had this stretch of river that was available to me any time I wanted. So we had a great time.
Friendship with John
HODGES: So you went up there with John and in the book you describe your first catch. You describe it really well. At the end I’m going to have you read a little section from the book here that I think is one of the guiding keys to the overall book.
“I have fished many waters since John and I first drove to the cabin, but I will always prefer the rawness and untamed quality of those upper stretches of the Provo, above the dams and away from the pressure of development. They have indeed become my home waters. A place of return and renewal. A chance to explore and reanimate the imagination of memory and a way to explore the ever tenuous reasons for my belonging here.”
HODGES: So you’re up there really reflecting on this stuff. Was John aware that this is how you were approaching this, as an opportunity to connect strongly with the landscape?
HANDLEY: Oh yeah. He’s a soul brother and somebody with whom I shared very personal and deep conversations. He was as interested as I am in literature and in the west and in aesthetic beauty. He was an art major in college, so he was somebody who responded physically in a visceral way to the beauty of the landscape around us. Even though he didn’t have Mormon pioneer roots and wasn’t born in Utah he loved it like a native. So that was contagious. We just fed off of each other.
HODGES: There’s an interesting narrative arc in the book with your relationship with John and you’re actually quite candid about the things that come up between you and difficulties that John has, and you’re quite candid. So I’m interested to hear how he feels about that aspect of the book because it in some cases becomes pretty personal.
HANDLEY: Yeah. That was a difficult thing. John was the one who suggested to me very early on, for all I know it was that first day, saying, “You need to write a book about the Provo River,” and you know, “You need to put your pen to paper and do this.” We had talked a lot about environmental stewardship together too so he was very encouraging of my pursuit of that as well.
When it got around to the time that I was writing the book he had already undergone a significant emotional breakdown and mental health issues had taken their toll on his circumstances and he was no longer living in Utah, but we were in constant conversation and I told him I was starting to write a journal about the Provo River, and so on. He continued to encourage me and eventually when I had material ready for him to see that was about him I said, “I’m not going to publish a word of this if you don’t want me to, and I certainly could disguise you beyond recognition if you want.” He was very clear that I shouldn’t do any of that, and I should just leave it as it is. He was willing to let me publish what’s in the book.
Choosing to Write About Death
HODGES: There’s another really personal element to the book alongside your experiences with John. It struck me that you juxtaposed death and life in the book. After you describe this first catch, which is an exhilarating time, you’re out in the wilderness experiencing the river and the fish and just describing it very poetically, and you suddenly shift to talk about your own brother’s suicide, something that occurred years ago. I wondered about that juxtaposition. How you decided to put those things together, this wonderful discovery of home waters, switched right over to a discussion of your brother’s suicide, which is obviously a difficult topic.
HANDLEY: There’s a little bit of a long story to that. I’ll try to summarize it quickly. In 2000 I had the visit of the poet Derek Walcott from the Caribbean came to the Utah Book Festival and I was his sort of host and took him around for several days. He’s a kind of person who meets somebody and immediately wants to know if they write poetry, and if they don’t write poetry he doesn’t wasn’t to spend any time with them. I did write a little bit of poetry. He asked and I showed him some poems because he demanded them. He gave me some criticism. He said, “You’re trying too hard to write like a poet. You need to write some prose for a while and try to quiet your voice down.” I said, “Well what kind of prose?” And he said, “Just seek anonymity in your prose.” In some of his own writing he talks a lot about the annihilation of the self in the natural world and in the places where one finds oneself. That’s sort of when you find your voice, not through trying too hard.
So that was in the background part of what got me going on this nature journal. It so happened that he came back again in 2004. At that point I had written quite a bit of this nature journal and in anticipation that he might ask me to see what I was writing I had prepared ten or fifteen or twenty pages of this journal for him to look at. Sure enough he asked so I gave it to him. We were actually driving down to Zion National Park to do a reading down there and to show him the park, which was a great experience. On the way down he was reading the journal and I was driving the car, my wife and his wife were in the car. He was quiet for about twenty minutes or so as he was reading and then he demanded that we pull over. We were in Scipio, where there’s a Dairy Queen—
HODGES: I think that’s it in Scipio.
HANDLEY: And we pulled over into the Dairy Queen in Scipio and we sat down and he said, “There’s a lot of pain in your writing. I want to know why.” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” but he said, no there is. I thought this is a writer’s fantasy or something; this is fiction in his head that he’s made up. I said there were just descriptions of trails, there are descriptions of rivers and water. He said, “No, no, they’re motivated by a pain and I want to know where that pain is coming from.” I again just kind of didn’t know what he was talking about basically. So he said, “Well have you ever experienced any serious trauma in your life?” And I said, “Well I did. My brother took his life in 1982,” so this was twenty plus years later and I said, “But I can reassure you I wasn’t thinking about him when I was out on these trails.” He didn’t care. He just sort of insisted that there was this quality to what I was writing that was infused with a kind of suffering. Then he said, “You must write about that,” and I said, “No, I’m not going to write about that. I’m not interested in talking about it, not that I’m repressing it, I just don’t have any interest in it.” So we got back in the car and went along.
We stayed in a bed and breakfast down in Zion that night and I had a dream that night that I recount in the book about fishing where I’m pulling in this fish and the next thing I know I’ve got a baby boy in my arms. I woke up very emotional, weeping, feeling like something miraculous and beautiful and strange had happened to me. I couldn’t understand, I couldn’t make sense of what it was, but it really shook me. At that point I realized I’ve got to write about my brother.
So it was almost immediately after that, even though I had done this nature journal, I started writing about his death in some detail and connected it to fishing. Then I realized the book had to be sort of about death and suffering in relationship to nature, and nature’s recompenses for that suffering in some way. Just one other detail to that is that as I was getting near the end of the book I submitted the book to, you know, you typically send it out to some people who’ve been selected to write blurbs for it. One of the people who was going to write a blurb for the book and read it, Steve Trimble, who’s a good friend of mine, and he said he wanted the chapter about my brother right up at the front of the book. I said it’s like a house of cards. If I move that chapter, it’s located at a certain place on the river, a certain time of year, the book is really structured quite carefully, I can’t move it. He said, “Well then you need to talk more about him earlier in the book,” because it just surprised him too much.
So I actually rewrote those opening chapters and I came to a very profound epiphany at the very end of the book that I had been writing this book about the river all along precisely because of what I suffered in the loss of my brother’s life and that it was not disconnected in any way, but it was all deeply connected. So there’s a mystery to that. Why would natural beauty move us? I mean it’s a mystery in and of itself, and why it moves us the way it does, why it sometimes makes us want to weep, or feel overwhelmed, and feel like nothing in the vast universe of things like Moses does when he collapses after seeing the creation. I think that is in relationship to the things we’ve suffered and lost and I think nature is both promising of renewal but it’s also a reminder of our mortality because it’s where our bodies go, right? Dust to dust. It’s where we see visually, you know, life and death moving in cycles. We don’t like to be reminded of that. So sometimes we’re afraid of the natural world because it reminds us of our mortality.
Conversations with Grandpa
HODGES: You also capture sort of the… you don’t fall into the trap where you’re always leaping into the sublime, either towards the tragic or the sublime element of things. There’s also a little bit of the mundane middle ground, especially with the experiences you talk about with your grandfather. He’s the one who purchased this cabin that you ended up going to and towards the end of his life you talk about him wanting to build a dock. He wanted to fish with you but he couldn’t go out in the middle of the river, and he proposed building some sort of dock out there. Talk a little bit about that because that shows an interpersonal relationship that’s not romanticized. It’s just this exchange that you had with your grandpa that for whatever reason really resonated with me for its mundanity.
HANDLEY: Yeah. Well he couldn’t believe we were catching big fish out of that river, and many fish, and he was a little jealous. He was ninety-three when he died, and this would have been just a year or two before that. He was not moving very well, although he was a pretty vigorous man most of his life. As I was describing how he had just never learned how to fly-fish really.
HODGES: Plus he was a man of his times, right? Like he would go hiking in dress shoes or something.
HANDLEY: Right. Yeah, yeah. So he wanted to know the details of how you did it. So as I was describing it to him I could just hear the sadness in his voice, like, “Well I guess I’m never going to be able to do that, am I?” Then he just sort of, very almost sadly, proposed this idea of, “What if we built a little dock, some would wood out on the stream, and I could just stand out on the wood. Then I could cast forward. Do you think that would work?” He had an aneurism on his aorta that was like seven centimeters long at that point. We knew it, he knew it, and he knew he could die any minute. The doctors had said, “You’re too old to operate on, so you’re just going to have to hang on.” We both kind of didn’t pursue that. There was just this sort of poignant feeling, without saying anything, between us that wow, that’s probably a crazy idea.
Mormon Paradise Myth
HODGES: I enjoyed that that was even included. Someone might say that didn’t really go anywhere, but I think the experience itself took me as a reader someplace. This relationship that you had, it was a really touching part of the book.
Anyway, we’re here with George Handley. He’s a BYU professor. He’s the author of Home Waters. The next thing I wanted to talk to you about is the Mormon element of the book. You’re a practicing member of the LDS church, but you wrote this book for a wider audience than that. It was published by the University of Utah Press and they publish quite a few titles on Mormonism, but this one wasn’t in tone at least directed just to Mormons. This is a book that could appeal to a lot of different readers.
One thing that interested me is how you delved into some Mormon history. This week was Pioneer Day, so we’re celebrating the pioneer trek, the Mormons entering the valley, and the story that people typically hear is this band of vigorous pioneers that brave the wilderness that came out to the middle of this desert and turned it around and using their sheer grit and their faith they made it blossom as the rose. That’s a point of pride for Mormons. LeGrand Richards in his book A Marvelous Work and a Wonder makes a really big deal out of Mormons making Utah blossom as the rose, it’s something to be so proud of. Environmental historians haven’t really taken that view of the Mormon entry into the valley. So I was hoping that you could talk a little about how environmental historians understand that myth of Mormons entering this desert wasteland and flipping it into a paradise.
HANDLEY: Yeah. Well there’s a lot of complicated issues there. One is that there’s a narrative in environmental thought that is quite prevalent that it’s almost deterministic, because it’s a declenchenist narrative. It’s a narrative of the fall, basically, that as soon as human beings, at least westerners in particular, move into an area its degradation begins. Mormonism wanted to sort of offer a different narrative about the significance of Mormon arrival in the west instead as the fulfillment, at least one fulfillment, of Isaiah’s prophesy about the desert blossoming as a rose. That’s actually a very essentialist narrative, right, that there’s inevitable progress that happens when human beings begin to labor in the land and transform the land, that it’s all for the better. I find both of those narratives really unpersuasive in terms of what history actually looks like, in terms of what we do to the environment. Sometimes we have messed things up far beyond our intentions. Many times, in fact, but sometimes we’ve been capable of doing the right thing. We’ve done some really great things.
The implication of both of those narratives is that either on the one hand the only way to help the environment is to stop doing anything altogether, get human beings out. That’s not a very practical solution. Or more human engineering will fix the problem, and more technology will fix the problem. I just sort of resisted both narratives. As I did the research on the environmental history of Utah, I was shocked at how negative some of the non-Mormon historians were about the Mormon arrival. Not just because it was negative, but because it was actually quite ignorant of Mormon theology, and Mormon belief, and Mormon practice.
Religion and Environmental Stewardship
HODGES: I have a few examples here. Donald Worster says that Mormons are the Lord’s beavers. He wasn’t saying that as a compliment, he was sort of depicting them as these sort of people that come in, lay waste, build up a dam, and that sort of thing. Another writer writes that the early Mormons banished themselves out to the desert. He’s not taking into account the Mormon experience there, or another one says that Mormons have made a great project of subduing nature, erecting some towns in places so barren and dry and steep that only missionary zeal can conquer it. So this is a narrative of antagonism with the desert is what you described. And you sort of push back against that narrative.
HANDLEY: A little. I mean I do acknowledge I think it’s a fine line. I’m trying to split some hairs, but I do think it’s important for Mormons to recognize that we did transform the desert in some very negative ways, and continue to do so. I mean that’s a major concern of mine. But I don’t believe in this sort of categorical judgment that these authors have offered, nor do I think those positions are informed by a more intimate understanding of Mormon culture and Mormon belief and Mormon practice. Like I say, I think they’re exhibiting a kind of prejudice. I mean to say that Mormons banished themselves is absurd on its face.
It was also another critic that I found whom I actually know had said that Mormonism is the only religion in America that has an explicitly anti-ecological stance. I actually spoke to him about that and said where in the world did you come up with that information? He acknowledged that he made an error and that he did not even remember. There was some study that I think he found that I found that had said that Mormonism was one of the only churches in America that did not have an explicitly pro-environmental branch or institution of their church organized to advocate for stewardship. That’s true. That is not the same thing, of course, as saying that they have an anti-ecological stance.
When I moved here to Utah I became very aware that being concerned about the environment and being Mormon for a lot of people on both sides of the issue is not a natural marriage. A lot of Mormons felt like, “Oh, the environmental issues. That’s for people who don’t have faith, people who don’t trust in God’s purposes.” Or, on the other hand, environmentalists who say you can’t care about the environment if you’re religious because again the assumption is if you have faith in God and God’s purposes then you shouldn’t be overly worried about what we’re doing to the environment. These again are narratives of almost determinism and predictability that I think really are quite comforting because there’s no ethical deliberation necessary when confronted with an environmental problem.
Blossoming as a Rose
HODGES: One of my favorite lines in the book is you sort of resituate the idea of what it means to see the desert blossom as a rose. You basically say that a lot of early Mormons who came into the Wasatch Front here assumed that blossoming meant something that would happen at our hands, that we would have to do, rather than something that would happen with our eyes, and something we could come to see, that the desert could blossom as a rose according to our perception of the ecology there, not because of coming in and making it something that it was never intended to be, i.e., like a garden paradise.
HANDLEY: Right. Well, yeah, and Mormons should be very familiar with that logic, right? We know that perception and attitude have a great impact on our ability to see things that we otherwise wouldn’t see. So if we are looking at the land and always comparing it to what isn’t there, we’re always feeling like something is needed to add to it, and that is the mentality with which we approach nature, that nature always needs our improvement, it’s insufficient on its own, there’s a real impoverishment of what the creation is in that view. I think that’s an incredibly insulting view to God’s creations.
There is self-sufficiency to the world and an independent beauty that doesn’t need us. It’s there. It has its own source of wonder and integrity. To the degree that some of these critics are right, that Mormons maybe have forgotten to be able to see beauty on its own terms and to appreciate what we have, what our circumstances are as blessings in and of themselves then I think we need to the learn that. That actually takes some unlearning because modern society and technology have engrained in us this sense of, you know, “I’m improving nature when I have air conditioning,” and so on and so forth. I enjoy those blessings as much as anybody else, but if we’re not able to appreciate what it means to be in a semi-arid desert for example and what the limitations that might impose on us might be, or if we can’t look at our valleys in Utah and say, okay, these valleys are shaped in such a way that they trap pollutants a little more readily than other places in the country, so that might mean that we have to live within a certain kind of restraint that maybe someplace else we wouldn’t need.
HODGES: There’s a geographical context to where we are. The amount of emissions in Utah, for example, have a different environmental impact than in another geographical setting. So it seems to me that we’ve really wanted to create a… It’s like how the church has our buildings all around the world and we feel comfortable going into them because this is familiar to us, this is home, and you can go anywhere in the world and have that. It’s almost like environmentally we want that. When we go to Arizona we want to be able to walk into an air-conditioned building and feel the same in that building as we would in some other place in the country.
HANDLEY: Speaking of Arizona, when I lived there I remember the director of the botanical garden in Phoenix came up to Flagstaff to give a lecture. He said every time he gets school kids in there he asks the kids how many of you live in a desert? Usually no more than half of them raise their hand. They don’t even know they’re living in one. So this idea that I mentioned earlier of reconnaissance and inhabitation, that’s the old way of life that human beings have had for thousands of years. You had to know where your water sources were, you had to understand the weather patterns, you had to understand the flora and the fauna and know the patterns of the land in order to survive.
Since we’ve now adopted a method of life that essentially makes it possible for us to be anywhere and nowhere at the same time and it doesn’t matter what our circumstances are. That’s the danger we’ve created for ourselves because the fact of the matter is we all always are some place in particular that has certain characteristics and certain limitations and certain restraints. If we always are thinking that we can engineer ourselves out of those restraints we’re not learning something fundamental about what it means to be embodied and to be on this earth.
Environment in Politics
HODGES: I think one of the difficulties is it becomes easily politicized. Land, location, and resources. So we’ve talked about the idea of us thinking that the world needs our improvement, but I think there’s also a sense of utilitarianism where the earth has been given as a gift for use. So there’s the old Mormon pioneer saying of “Make it do, wear it out…” Whatever. I don’t remember.
HANDLEY: Make it do, or do without.
HODGES: Yeah, that. Right. So we sort of do that with the earth where we have this thing to use, so if we’ve got oil here, or if we’ve got resources here, we need to use those things to the best of our advantage. They’re gifts that God has given us. Then when you’re faced with contemporary environmentalism your book’s theme is that these political issues, these decisions that we make socially about how we use our environment, involve what you call recompenses.
So the decisions that we make have consequences. You refer to them as recompenses. You’re referring to Isaiah. There’s a verse here, it’s actually the one where Isaiah talks about the desert blossoming. He says, “Let the earth hear and all that is therein the world and all things that come forth of it. For the indignation of the Lord is upon all nations,” and the Lord here promises a year of recompenses. He talks about the rivers turning to burning pitch. There’s this really environmental description of a falling, of a destruction. You’re making an argument that… you compare to this to ecological law. That when humans live out of balance with the environment that they’re in, they can expect recompenses. On the other side of the coin, when they live within those constraints, when they try to fulfill those ecological laws, there’s a blessing, there’s a recompense of blessing. That’s a theme that sort of reoccurs throughout the book. So I want you to talk a little bit more about that idea of recompense.
Choosing to Change
HANDLEY: Yeah. I think essentially what I was getting at is that we can’t imagine… I may give an example, if you pray for rain, but then you never try to conserve water, that strikes me as an imbalance, theologically. It just doesn’t feel right to me. Brigham Young said to pray as if everything depends on the Lord and then act as if everything depends on you. So if you pray for something and what you’re praying for as early pioneers is that the desert will blossom as a rose, that you’ll be able to survive in this climate, I’m entirely sympathetic to that ambition that the early Mormon pioneers had and I’m very moved by what they did and how they survived. Of course I’m indebted to it, those are my ancestors. But as human civilization has moved forward we now understand more than ever before about what our impact on the environment is and a lot of that impact is quite negative at this point.
When I see us in a position now where we’re refusing to make changes in order to adapt our lifestyle in the context of this new understanding then something seems wrong to me. I don’t have an argument with the idea that God gave us the blessings of this earth to be used. The scriptures are pretty clear on that, but they’re also clear that he gave us this earth to please us, to please the eye, to gladden the heart, to liven the soul. For smell and for taste, for the senses. He wanted us to have aesthetic experiences in the natural world, he wanted us to use the natural world with judgment and with care and with modesty and it seems to me that if we find out that our use of a certain resource is hurting the environment, then it makes sense to look for other, better solutions. I think God intended us to use our ingenuity.
There was a time when we used horses and carriages and streets were filled with manure. People might have argued back then, I don’t know if they said, “We don’t want to go to the automobile because this is the better way.” I’m sure that was a difficult transition. But on the other hand we all saw the advantage of getting rid of the manure. Now we know that the use of fossil fuels is creating problems for us. It’s not an argument against the idea that something like fossil fuels were a gift to say, but now maybe we need to use more ingenuity, more creativity, and move beyond that. We’ve got wind, we’ve got sun, we’ve got geothermal energy, those are as God-given as the fossil fuels so I don’t see why if that’s our logic why we don’t look aggressively at all other options.
HODGES: Other gifts from God that aren’t—
HANDLEY: Yeah, and see if we can’t find a way to live in greater balance.
HODGES: Like I said, it easily becomes politicized, right? So it can slip into, like any political topic, environmentalism can easily slip into binary stereotypes. So what are some stereotypes about environmentalists that you’ve heard where people sort of stereotype an environmentalist’s position unfairly?
HANDLEY: That’s a good question. I’d say that often the assumption is that they’re not religious and even if they are not, I think that’s unfair to assume that that’s necessarily a negative. But there is the assumption that environmentalists are people who are more secular. My experience of many years in the environmental community is quite the opposite. In fact worldwide there’s more happening across world religions right now in deep concern for the environment from the Catholic church to Buddhism and Hinduism and Islam and many different forms of Christianity, Judaism, both leaders at very high levels, the Dalai Lama and the Pope and so on, to local grass-roots religious organizations who feel, including Evangelicals and Baptists, and Mormons now, who feel concern about the environment and want to rally people of faith to act on behalf of the earth in answer to the responsibility that we have as stewards. This is fundamental to what it means to be, in the Christian context, a Christian, but in other religions to be Jewish or to be Muslim and so on.
So that’s one stereotype. I would say that the other stereotype is that environmentalists sort of don’t like people, or that they don’t like families, or they prefer nature over humanity. I again find that to be erroneous and a stereotype. Sure, I’ve seen extremism in environmentalism, and I argue with that extremism when I see it, pretty vehemently, but on the whole I’d say a lot of environmentalists are motivated for their kids. They’re motivated for their great-grandkids. They’re thinking about future generations. They’re not thinking just about the polar bear or about the spotted owl or the tree. They’re thinking about the human community and the human future and I think that’s something that we can all get behind. There are a lot of stereotypes about Mormons too. We were just talking about some of them. I’ve argued with those stereotypes as well.
HODGES: To put the shoe on the other foot though what are some stereotypes that you’ve heard from the environmental perspective about people who don’t share that same sensibility or who aren’t concerned as much or sort of make opposing arguments? There are stereotypes about the other side of that conversation.
HANDLEY: Yeah, I think this is a tough problem, but I think a lot of people who are very concerned about the environment and when they see people who aren’t the immediate assumption is that they have no love for nature, that they are motivated by greed or they’re motivated by indifference, if you can be motivated by indifference. But they’re acting out of indifference. They don’t care about beauty or they don’t care about animals or they don’t care about beautiful sunsets or anything. I think it’s actually a very rare person who doesn’t respond to nature in a positive way and doesn’t feel appreciative of natural gifts when they experience them. Some people’s anti-environmentalism is more anti-federalism or anti-government or it’s anti-democrat or it’s anti-secularism, and they just use environmental issues as their football that they’re fighting over with the other team. I think that’s unfortunate.
We’ve got to stop wrestling with each other and start caring for the world that all of us share. It’s not a Mormon earth and it’s not a non-Mormon earth, it’s not a republican earth or a democrat earth, it’s not an American or a Chinese earth. It’s God’s creation for every one of us.
HODGES: There’s an excerpt that I want you to read kind of on that topic. You talk about the need to resist cynicism. That can be difficult because it can be easy to feel like what I do doesn’t really make a difference or just kind of throw my hands up in the air. So this is an excerpt on the book from that issue.
HANDLEY: “Having left the choked highways of California behind me I was beginning to learn that cynicism and detachment are no better ingredients for building a sustainable culture than negative protectiveness and loyalty, which is another way of saying I committed to strive to make a home here in this liminal space between waters bounty and the desert, between wilderness and civilization, because doing so would be a more effective resistance to this wretched progress than any amount of chafing. I could only hope that I just might stand a chance at learning something that most urbanites have long since forgotten. The only real cure for perventualism is not dictated by our awareness of the size and diversity of the human family alone but also by our awareness of the staggering size and diversity of the more than human community of nature.”
So yeah I wrote that in… It was actually sort of in the context with a conversation I had with some friends of ours from California who were feeling a little sorry for us because we had moved to Provo and they thought that Provo was a sad backwater of preventualism and so on and the homogeneity was inherently a bad thing or a problem. While I recognized where that was coming from, I was raised in Connecticut, schooled in California, had always been a tiny minority as a Mormon and suddenly I was in this super majority in Provo and it was a little weird and a difficult adjustment to undergo. But I thought that on the other hand something about these smaller more intimate communities meant that I had to know people a lot better than I had to in some sort of urban context where I’d lived and not only that the natural world here in Utah in particular is, the natural world of course is ubiquitous, we’re always on the earth, we’re always in nature.
There’s something about living here along the Wasatch Front where you can step outside of your front door and within very short time be in a place that could kill you because of natural events or be in a place where you can really feel alone and vulnerable in a really powerful and renewing way. I think that’s what people hunger for when they are constantly hiking up canyons and going for bike rides and walking or running on trails, is that they’re wanting that. The fact that it’s so close and proximate to where we live in Utah has a potential to build a really powerful kind of community.
Again all I wanted to say was appreciating cultural diversity is a value, I share that. Appreciating biological diversity is another value. Those are not mutually exclusive. Those ought to be mutual goals in a good community. A good community, a good society, knows where it lives ecologically and it knows its history in terms of its multicultural roots. It’s not a community that only sees itself as one tribe and that was what maybe I felt needed tweaking in my experience here was that we could do a better job in the Mormon culture of the Wasatch Front in Utah of understanding other histories, other people who came here before and after and during the Mormon arrival here, and people who were here of course already, the Native Americans, and we could do a better job of understanding where we are ecologically.
HODGES: Another Mormon theme that you bring up repeatedly is this idea of embodiment and the importance of embodiment and how it feels to be a body that God created a place for bodies. There’s a beautiful line where you say that the body is the cup in which to drink the world. So you’re getting really poetic here. It’s a beautiful sentiment. The body is the cup in which to drink the world. So this theme of embodiment just keeps cropping up. You find yourself not only in a physical body but also embodied in geographical settings.
HANDLEY: Well the thing is one of the arguments against the Judeo-Christian tradition in recent decades especially given our environmental concerns is that it’s not a good thing for us to value the spirit over the body to the degree that we disparage or denigrate or degrade the body. Mormonism shares that attitude, right? When we think of, and maybe this is an unfair stereotype, I think it is, of say older Christians notions of the fall and of the body, but nevertheless if we assume for the moment there’s a Christian tradition that says the body is in inherently sinful, it’s inherently degraded, it is just a passing stage—
HODGES: Especially in early Gnosticism, right? Where they were saying the material creation was made by an evil God, salvation comes from escaping it. So at least we can say it was definitely in Gnosticism—
HANDLEY: Exactly. So you just suffer through this and get through this—
HODGES: Escape it.
HANDLEY: Escape it and get on to something better. While you’re here don’t be deceived by illusions. Don’t get overly attached to earthly things. That attitude has contributed to an anti-environmental ethos. When you say why bother caring for something if it’s going to die anyway? We on the other hand in a theology of embodiment have to look at that differently. By the way our attitudes about the body are similar to our attitudes about the earth. If heaven is the preferred location and earth is the dangerous place where we fall into sin so easily and we’ve got to get out of here as quick as possible, that’s a mentality that doesn’t lend itself really well to sitting around and appreciating beauty, let alone taking care of it. There’s this sense of “the sooner I get out of here the better.” Oddly enough Mormons have adopted some of those attitudes even though our theology says this is actually where we’re aiming for. We’re trying to get here.
HODGES: The earth will be—
Earth as the Celestial Kingdom
HANDLEY: The earth will be the Celestial Kingdom, right? God is a God of flesh and bone and the attachment or the marriage between the spirit and the body is necessary for my progress. I must learn how to bring those two together in some sort of harmonious relationship and in fact it’s not just a necessary evil partnership, it’s actually a glorification. So by that I understand to mean if God says, “I gave you the earth so that you have food and raiment, but I also gave it to you so that you have pleasure, that something happens to you when you look at my beautiful trees that I’ve created and you look at my beautiful animals and you contemplate a river bend and you feel spiritual in the very moment that you’re experiencing something very sensual. What does that mean? That means your body is actually becoming a vehicle of spritual enhancement and renewal. It’s not an obstacle that you’re bypassing. It’s actually the portal through which spiritual experiences of the deepest kind become possible.
HODGES: There’s a great section of the book that I’ll have you read as well. The way I would sum it up is you’re saying the physical world isn’t a place where we discover our alienation from the divine, but where we discover that the divine has a place within the stuff of material and mortal existence, like it’s part of it. It’s not something that we’re estranged from God with; it’s something that we can reconnect with God through. This is a section that you kick off talking with your son, Sam.
HANDLEY: “It seems to me that when my son Sam announced one day upon entering my bedroom, ‘I want to be an animal,’ he was expressing the spirit’s unique impulse to explore the dimensions of physical experience. ‘Which kind?’ I asked. ‘A lizard, a fish, and a bird.’ When pressed for his reasons he was equally deliberate and forthcoming, ‘To be fast, to swim, and to fly.’ Precisely because the life of the body is so thoroughly enjoyable it surprises me just how often I crave the chances to be startled by those small discoveries that I am something more than flesh and bone. Emily Dickinson was right. Doubting keeps belief nimble, and doubting the ultimate reality of my biology seems only to intensify the simple pleasures of the flesh, which is why I am drawn to this place at the side of a river in the mountains. I must at least admit this to myself. Earth is an odd place to find myself, and the oddness of it is precisely what makes it so intoxicating. This is a one-time affair. Never did we repeat it again and I want all of it. Children pulsating and growing in my arms, this aspen half-dressed in yellow with that dead black branch extending itself into the air for no one, this compost with its nuggets of pine tar under these feet here, now. Even without Moses striking the rock, God’s hot pebbles on human lips or stones illuminated by his fingers touch. Who can miss the earth’s glow?”
HODGES: That’s George Handley, an excerpt from his book Home Waters. Going back to something you mentioned a minute ago, you talk about eschatology, end time’s culmination. Are there elements of Mormon theology that have hindered an environmental awareness? If there are I think this might be one of them, the idea that Jesus will return to the earth, it will be renewed and receive its paradisiacal glory, so in the meantime we don’t have too much to worry about. God’s going to take care of it. These people that talk about climate change, these people that talk about running out of resources and things, don’t worry about it. God has it under control.
HANDLEY: Yeah. Boy, that’s a real tough problem for a lot of Christians, not just Mormons. I mean Mormons are of course maybe even more conscious of the idea of being in the latter days, given the title of our church, but what I try to do in the book is try to think more deeply about eschatology and about the idea of the end. Death, Wallace Stevens the poet said, is the mother of all beauty. What he meant by that was because we are aware that something is ending or will end or that will never remain the same we actually cling to it even more. So when you think about a child, you look at a child, certainly the idea that the child is mortal causes us to love the child intensely. Every parent worries, right? That the child will not live to full adulthood and so on. But it’s not just a mortal death that we’re afraid of. There’s also change that’s a kind of death. If you’re like me, I look at my little kids when they were young and I would get weepy just over the fact that they weren’t going to stay that way.
HODGES: My wife and I, we just talked about this last night. We have a nine month old and we started grieving just this week about, you know, we love this little nine month old but she’s going to go away in a sense.
HANDLEY: Yeah, and when you look back at pictures it gets worse.
HODGES: Oh good.
HANDLEY: So there is that. I think that’s beautiful. I think that’s why contemplation of death and being reminded of our mortality is very valuable. So I thought, well look, why is the idea… I mean when you think about Christ coming, Christ coming is a reminder of our death. I actually had a very, and I recount this briefly in the book, but I had a very personal experience after I went through the temple for the first time when I was getting ready to go on my mission, where I dreamed that the Second Coming was coming and I was floating up into the sky. I had been taken up. I remember in the dream, I mean I was excited, I was like, “Oh this is interesting,” but I was sad because I remember I realized my life was over, that the end had come and I wasn’t going to be able to enjoy another soccer game or a nice hike on a mountain or listening to great music at the Symphony Hall, it was all gone; it was all taken from me. I thought maybe we’re just not thinking well enough about the end times because if we thought about them profoundly it would cause us to feel more appreciation to want to slow down, soak in every bit of experience we can, and be profoundly grateful and full of love for the gift of existence.
That’s what that ought to inspire in us, but unfortunately we’ve adopted a very nihilistic attitude of, “Well the earth is going to die anyway, why should I bother taking care of it?” I’ve pointed out a hundred times over to people whenever that comes up, I’ll say would you ever say that about your own body? Would you say that because you’re going to die and resurrect you might as well pollute your body all you can right now, cause hey, the fact is you’ve got a chance and you’re going to get a brand new one, spanking clean, it’s going to be the best thing ever. Why aren’t we out partying all the time?
HODGES: Yeah. Eat all you want, do all you want, yeah.
HANDLEY: Yeah. So it’s eat, drink, and be merry for tomorrow we will resurrect.
HODGES: Right. Yeah exactly.
HANDLEY: I mean that’s essentially what we’re saying to ourselves when we say—
HODGES: About the earth.
HANDLEY: About the earth, why bother taking care of it if it’s going to die anyway? If we thought it through it’s a profound disrespect for Christ’s creation and for his atonement. He is the center of what this earth is all about. He is the creator and the atoner and to say that I’m going to mistreat something because I’ve got this guaranteed contract is to me a profound expression of ingratitude for that gift. So, yeah, it doesn’t make a difference what we do in some sense, but it makes all the difference what we do in a spiritual sense, right? Because it says something about what kind of integrity we have and what kind of profound appreciation we have for what Christ did.
HODGES: It’s interesting that that came up for you in the context of the temple, and you talk about the temple a few times throughout the book. I kind of feel like the temple ceremony itself is one of the most frequent experiences that Mormons have reminding them of the importance and majesty of God’s creation. This may be the most ecological moment that average temple attending Mormons experience. So here’s an excerpt from the book as well that sort of talks about the temple experience in this context.
HANDLEY: Well first I start this passage out with a quotation from the Book of Moses, “‘These are the generations of the heaven and of the earth when they were created in the day that I the Lord God made the heaven and the earth and every plant of the field before it was in the earth, and every herb of the field before it grew. For I the Lord God created all things which I have spoken spiritually before they were naturally upon the face of the earth.’ Joseph Smith’s revelation about the creation is a recreation in two senses. The story needed to be told again and the world needed to be created twice, and so chiasmus. Imagined before it was spoken, spoken before it became flesh, sensation of the flesh inspires words and words the life of the spirit. Deeper still in the heart of the temple the creation of the world is commemorated as a reminder of the care with which the Lord created diversity and of how our own hands and minds played a role in honoring the world’s beauty, and before it is gone how our hands might still have more work to do.”
I might have added how our hands and minds still have more work to do, because of some of this I think is work of the mind and imagination.
Stewardship and Church Leaders
HODGES: You mention vision as well, learning to see landscapes in different ways. I think that leads to different actions as well. I hadn’t read much about the environmental history of Utah before I read this book and I find my eyes opened a bit more. That’s what I would hope readers would take away from it, is a greater awareness of the environment. I think as Mormons we could definitely stand to hear about that more frequently.
One of my last questions, we have a few more questions, one of them pertains to leadership. So the theology that you lay out when you talk about the creation and embodiment and our responsibility and stewardship towards the earth. This is all found in Mormon scripture but it’s not something that members of the church are getting in church manuals often. It’s not something that they’re hearing in General Conference very often. So can you speak to that issue as far as the role of church leadership and not counseling what the leaders should do but maybe talking about why you think things are that way. Or maybe I’m wrong. Maybe you are more attuned to statements from leadership or to things in our manuals that call attention to these things that I’m overlooking.
HANDLEY: That’s a really important question. I think sometimes I’m a little disheartened when people will say if caring for the environment is such a big deal then why haven’t we heard about it from church leaders? Maybe they’ll specifically mention climate change or biodiversity loss or whatever, and I’ll sort of say the church doesn’t speak about every issue that comes up. I haven’t heard them say a whole lot about specific problems of genocide in Africa in specific locations or human trafficking. There are lots of issues in the world today that are very serious problems but that doesn’t mean they’re not serious problems. We’re commanded to be anxiously engaged in a good cause and I see caring for the environment as a very good cause. It stems directly from our doctrine. So I don’t see any inconsistency there. I don’t feel uncomfortable because I might be doing something I’m not supposed to do as a Mormon. I do think I would very much hope someday that we would have more in our curriculum than we currently have.
Last spring there was a symposium at the University of Utah, the Law School Stegner Symposium on religion, faith, and the environment and the LDS church was approached and asked to have a representative come and speak about Mormon views of stewardship. They had a representative from Islam, from Buddhism, and other church leaders, and they wanted a Mormon. They sent Elder Marcus Nash and he was sent by the First Presidency to represent the church in an official way and he gave a masterful talk about stewardship. It was the first time that I’m aware of in the history of the church where a talk has been exclusively devoted to that subject in that comprehensive a way as he gave it.
Having said that, he quoted prophets. Not only did he quote prophets, he quoted the scriptures. So you can find statements by almost every leader of the church about stewardship, specifically environmental stewardship if you look, but it does require a little more digging than I sometimes wish were the case. It was true in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century that church leaders spoke more frequently about it than they do now, in part because the people were engaged in settling this valley and environmental issues were on everybody’s mind, and so overgrazing and water issues and so on, the ethics of all that had to be sorted out. Now it’s kind of a global issue and it’s a cross-cultural issue and it’s also become highly politicized, so I can understand why there’s some reticence there to not wade into political waters and create political implications when they’re not intended.
What We Can Do
HODGES: So what are some practical things that Mormons could do then?
HANDLEY: I think Mormons can focus on our principles. I think we should be very proud of them and I think we should live up to them. There are lots of things we can do. We can be much more conscientious in teaching about stewardship in helping people understand their environment. Some of that’s embodied in what we do with Boy Scouts and with Young Women. We can have ward activities that are service related that are serving the creation in some way, cleaning and repairing and promoting better stewardship. So as members of society in the civic sphere I think Mormons ought to be a strong voice of advocacy for good and sound environmental principles of stewardship, and I don’t think we’ve come close to living up to that yet.
HODGES: You participate in some venues. Isn’t there a group that you’re involved with that does some of that?
HANDLEY: I’m involved in two groups. One is called LDS Earth Stewardship. I’m on the board of that organization. We have a website, we have a blog, we have activities and a conversation going, and we are trying to promote better citizenship among LDS members with regard to the environment. Not just in terms of practical matters, but it starts with practical matters, how do I manage the economy of a home? Where’s my energy coming from? Am I using my energy efficiently? Can I drive less? Can I use more public transportation? How can I lessen my impact on the earth? How can we do that when we have ward activities? Those kinds of things I think are relevant.
Then there’s the civic and political question. What are the major issues confronting us? What’s affecting our water use? What’s affecting air quality? What’s affecting climate change? What’s affecting biodiversity loss? What can I do to preserve places for future generations in a way that still allows us to have a healthy economy? Those are tough and difficult issues, but I think they’re on Mormon’s minds and I think Mormons need to see models.
One of the things we’ve tried to do with LDS Earth Stewardship is promote examples. We’ve got one blogger who’s just writing a brief biography of these marvelous Mormon stewards who are out doing great things for the environment and asking them what motivates them and what are they doing. So there are lots of Mormons engaged in environmentalism and that’s one of the big secrets. They just aren’t always identified as Mormon, they don’t always get pointed out as Mormon even by the press. The press will generally point out when an anti-environmentalist position is supported by a Mormon, but they won’t always do the same for a Mormon position.
I’m also part of an interfaith group called Utah Interfaith Power and Light, which is an interfaith organization that’s national, this is the Utah chapter of it, devoted to helping communities of faith fight climate change. We work with different faith communities to help them do energy audits and get solar panels for their buildings and so on and so forth and when it comes around to LDS issues and LDS people we’ve looked at different ways to try to promote good stewardship. We’ve actually sponsored a couple of tours of the Farmington chapel in Utah that was lead certified and had solar panels and the whole nine yards in terms of energy efficiency and tried to give that a lot of attention because we thought that was a wonderful and promising development in the church.
The church is actually doing a remarkable amount of things on the ground in terms of how they build and even their ranches are very eco friendly in terms of their practices. They don’t always advertise these things, but I think that’s going to change, I think it has to, I think we need to take more leadership.
HODGES: It seems a lot of Mormons, at least along the Wasatch Front, would hear something about climate change and be sort of dismissive about it. Have you run into any barriers in terms of talking to Mormons about climate change that are skeptical about it or push back on it?
HANDLEY: Oh yeah, yeah. There’s a lot of that skepticism and I’m always open to the conversation. I don’t think it’s a conversation we should shy away from. I will say this, I mean there’s a lot to say on that subject, there are interesting roots of that skepticism that are not always looking directly at the evidence. For example, studies have shown that people who believe in a reduced role of government, which is of course descriptive of most republicans, find climate change harder to believe in, and that’s understandable if you really are wary of the size of government and the beauracracy of government, climate change is a massive global problem that requires massive government solutions. So it’s not a problem that you’re going to want to jump at. Of course if you already believe in large government solutions like a lot of liberals do then that’s an easy one, we can fix it with big large government solutions.
So there are some predispositional reasons why some people are more prone to believe in climate change than others. One thing I would say, I mean there’s a lot more to say about that, but I would say first of all we have to read, in order to understand where we are, reconnaissance, inhabitation, I need to understand ecology, and I need to understand science on some rudimentary level, and it’s not that hard. You can look to reliable sources from our National Academy of Sciences and other institutes of science in this country and get the straight science without the policy implications; just the science.
We can deliberate about policy but we should be clear on principle. What are our principles? We ought to be clear about what our responsibilities are to the creation and what it means to be accountable to God as stewards and whether we have more conservative or more liberal positions on the environment we ought to be able to agree that the environment matters and that we are mutually committed to taking care of it, even if we can’t agree right off the bat on what the right policies are. I think if we stopped fighting the perpetual battles we always seem to fight politically we’d actually get farther if we focused on our shared principles across political divides.
Moving in the Right Direction
HODGES: Do you see encouraging signs in the projects that you’ve been participating in that suggests that that’s a direction we seem to be headed?
HANDLEY: Well I think more Mormons are thinking about environmental stewardship than ever before. I’ve lived in Utah now for fifteen years and it’s gotten better every year in terms of awareness and a sense of shared responsibility and the motivation of people to do something about it. Young people in particular are very inspiring to me in that regard. I think we’re going to find that the need for solutions is so great that we will come to compromises a little more easily. We’re going to need to.
One of the things that’s kind of interesting is belief in climate change as a problem was very high in 2008, before the downturn. It was in the top five issues that concerned Americans in the vast majority, then it dropped way down when the economy crashed, but it’s gone back up. Actually a recent survey said that most Republicans care about climate change as a problem that is caused by human beings. The majority of Republicans care about it. What’s I think problematic is that the elected officials both at state and national levels are not as responsive to the attitudes of the general majority because the general majority is disconnected. We’re not reading the newspaper, we’re not paying attention to how people are voting, we’re not engaged in the conversation civically, and I think everyone ought to read their paper everyday, I think they ought to read their local paper as well as a national paper every single day. I think that ought to be as soon as we’re done reading our scriptures. We’ve got to be informed about what’s going on. That’s what it means to be in a democracy.
HODGES: Are there any other sources you would recommend in terms of people that want to read up on things like climate change or environmental stewardship? Are there any other sources you would recommend that people check out?
HANDLEY: I think a great book on climate change is a book called The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery. It’s a very good description of the science. It’s very measured and clear and very accessible. I would say the National Academy of the Sciences in the United States, which is widely recognized as the gold standard for scientific objectivity, has tremendous resources on their website. They actually have a thirty-minute YouTube video about climate change that is about the most effective way to disseminate that information quickly and in an accessible way.
There are lots of great writers. Wendell Berry is a fantastic novelist, essayist, a poet, who writes about the environment. Wallace Stegner wrote about the west and the environment in some of the most important and foundational ways. Nature writing in America is one of the greatest literary treasures of this country. We ought to know our nature writers. Not just Henry David Thoreau, but John Muir, John Burroughs, Terry Tempest Williams, Edward Abbey. I mean there’s a long list of great nature writers in this country and in the west in particular for those that live in the west that we ought to be drawing some inspiration from.
HODGES: Just kind of as a parting thought as well, I think your experiences in going out into the natural environment and reflecting on it and writing about it, those are things that anybody can do, that anybody can spend time doing and it seems to me based on your book that it was really fruitful for you.
So there’s one last excerpt that I want you to read that talks about what recreation did for you. You acknowledged there’s sometimes some kind of indulgence in it because there are daily responsibilities that people have to fulfill. You have responsibilities to your wife, and you talk about that. The responsibilities to your children. You talk about that and trying to balance connecting with nature and connecting with family and fulfilling your responsibilities. So there’s a little section here that sort of reflects on that.
HANDLEY: Maybe before I read it I’ll just comment quickly that I remember a conversation I had with a Mormon once about this. He said, “I’d love to care about the environment, but I’ve got too many other things to worry about and church service demands too much of my time.” I’m very sympathetic to that issue. I think it’s a mistake to assume this is an added thing. It gets integrated into how we live in a way that makes our ward activities, our time with our children, and our time with our community more valuable rather than adding on burdens. That’s how I would respond to that. Having just concluded a week backpacking trip at the Wind Rivers with my son and other youth in my ward, there’s nothing I think more pleasurable than those kinds of experiences with family. So this is the passage.
“But maybe I can find in my recreation some way of reconnecting to my history and community. I must confess that even though Mormonism was founded because of a boy’s encounter with God in the woods Mormon life makes steep demands of my time and does not provide many chances for solitary meditation away from the trappings and idylls of modern convenience. So my idylls are” —idylls spelled I-D-Y-L-L-S—”stolen moments of restoration. Attempts to begin to understand this particular watershed that made settlement possible along the Wasatch Front and sustains life there to this day. If I can but translate the significance of these moments into a language of common understanding I will not have wasted my time.”
I would just say in conclusion I think my recreational experiences were intended for deeper understanding than I could share. I wrote that book first and foremost for my children and to my dying day I feel like that will be one of the better testaments to what life was like for me and what kind of a heritage I hope to pass on to them than almost anything else. It was always motivated by my heart being turned to them and to my community. I sort of extend that to the Mormon family as it were, and the non-Mormon family, and the non-human family. But I do think if used in the right way, recreation enhances our lies spiritually, but it needs to be connected to some sort of spiritual and ethical commitment. If recreation is just entertainment and it’s just mechanized and it’s just escapism it’s actually counterproductive. But if recreation reintegrates, renews, and recommits us to a life of sacrifice and service and giving then I think its function is very obvious.
HODGES: Thanks. That’s George Handley. He’s the author of Home Waters and a professor at Brigham Young University. Just one more question, George. Will you take me fishing with you?
HANDLEY: That’s a promise.
HODGES: Okay, cool. Thanks for the interview.
HANDLEY: You bet. Thank you.