Sunday, March 02, 2008

The gift outright or a punching your mother in the eye

The SL Tribune editorializes this morning on more silly Utah legislation:

"This land is our land: We're just thankful that Utah House Resolution 10, which tells Congress to quit creating federal wilderness areas in Utah without the unanimous support of the state's congressional delegation, is nonbinding. Built on the erroneous argument that Utahns should have more say over federal land here than other Americans who also own it, the resolution ignores the economic reality that ranching and energy extraction are yielding to tourism as Utah's primary economic engine. Wilderness-quality lands must be held in trust for future generations. We don't believe that we should entrust Utahns alone with that responsibility." (The Thumb - Salt Lake Tribune)

or, as Frost noted:

The land was ours before we were the land's.
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England's, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she would become. (Robert Frost, "The Gift Outright." The Poetry of Robert Frost, 424-25)

What with the increased in Utah's population over the last 3 decades, my assumption is that most of us Utahns are out of very recent immigrant stock (immigrants to Utah, that is.) Now, I'm not going to beat this to death, but I think it is important to establish where we come from in order to move on to the question that bugs me about the presumption of the legislature that Utah should control the fate of wilderness within its borders. I'm not sure I will delve into the major contributing factor to the issue--what the belief system is that motivates people to "reform" nature rather than accepting it as it is. I will save that question for another day.

Now, back to the population issue: while Utah families tend to be large, I don't think that this would account for the massive growth in population. I suppose if I took an informal poll, I could easily determine Utah natives from Utah imports. Easily 50% of my colleagues in my department at work, for example are imports. I would not take this sample as a valid indicator of populace, simply because academia is an itinerant occupation and academics go to where the students, rather than staying where they are at and having no students to teach, even if they have to move to a place they detest.

This sudden expansion in Utah's population, has lead to, some might believe, certain attitude towards the land that Frost talks about: people think they own the land rather than being owned by it. In a Terry Tempest-Williams sense, we are of a place: that place shapes our psyche, our sense of self, even our values. What I'm getting at is that sometimes folks with out a sense of history of a place--without a sense of that place being "home" have little regard for either its preservation or sustainability. This certainly, I believe, has been a small factor in the destruction of Sugar House: recently arrived Utahns may not have any nostalgia for the place, and don't see the sense in preserving a bunch of dilapidated old buildings. (Bear with me, non-Utah native readers, as I'm not really insulting you.)

Now, of course, this being Utah, such a supposition is contradicted: the folks often times advocating for preservation of wilderness are not native Utahns. In fact it is often native Utahns who want to rip up the wilderness all for the sake of a few measly dollars that will go into their home towns (the rest of the wealth being exported to other climes--in that sense they are being colonized without even realizing it.) Often times these folks are seen as carpetbaggers and derisively called "Californians" no matter where they originate. They also seem to have a certain embarrassment about Utah: it lacks civilization; it is ugly desert; it is boring (all the things in italics are observations about Utah I've heard in conversation.)

Ultimately this is where a nativist gets it wrong: just because you are born in a place is not going to make you love it or be "owned" by it. In fact, you might think that because it is yours by birth right you can do whatever you want with it. Much as a 2 year old will willing sock his mother in the face, a native will figuratively sock mother nature in the face simple for the offense of being inexplicably there (and beautiful to boot.)

So what is the upshot of all this: never get used to anything because one day its not going to be there to be used to any more. Often times we adopt a place and are spiritually nourished by it, to go back to the Tempest-Williams goo gah.


  1. Anonymous12:29 AM

    When it comes to the preservation of historic neighborhoods, much eye-socking really does seem to come from those closest to the source. In my neighborhood, there are plenty of old-timers who roll their eyes when the conversation turns to the "charm" of old houses. Outsiders and young'uns see history, and they see their parents' out-dated and inconvenient houses with bad plumbing, and still wished they'd knocked down mom's old house and built an apartment building back when zoning would have permitted it.

    For years I've watched my octogenarian great-uncles - Utah ranchers, develop and sell off most of the thousands of acres of an old family ranch in Summit County, and remuddle the historically important 150 year old ranch house. It all makes sense from their perspective. They've worked hard their entire lives to tame the wilderness and now somebody's yakking about preserving it? Historic preservation? Sense of Place? What the hell kind of California hippie talk is that?

    bbh (can't seem to log in non-anonymously)

  2. It's very interesting to me, this analysis of yours. As a non-Utah native, but a long-time resident (more than 30 years now), it seems to me that there are a bunch of factors involved, including social class (it always comes back), economic status, sometimes religious inclination, level of education, lived here all your life, moved in later, etc. It's like John Fiske's idea of the grid with all these interpenetrating alignments and traits. You could probably predict which white, well-educated, upwardly mobile, politically left-leaning transplant would value preservation of historic buildings and wilderness areas, and which lived-here-all-his life, conservative, well-educated member of the locally dominant faith wouldn't--but you wouldn't always be right.

    I remember when I (left-leaning pretty well educated transplant with a vacillating relationship to the locally dominant faith) stopped considering myself a transplanted Californian--when Utah felt like home to me. The historian is a rabid preservationist, but you can see why he would be (well-educated, life-long Utahn, left-leaning bike-riding former Mormon).

  3. lisa b.: Well my analysis is muddled, mostly because my thinking on the matter is muddled. It hasn't worked itself out for me yet. Ultimately I suppose it has nothing to do with native or not; there are a lot of transplants who could give a flying flip the wilderness.

    bbh: Yes i have a family full of those folks too; the younger generations, however, seem to be much less prone to ripping up the wilderness and taming it as much as we realize the unique gift we have been given to care for.

    As I said, I don't think one can really put a case native or transplant for this. I don't really event think it has anything to do with religion (not very much does, in my opinion.) It is purely a political belief system based on market forces. Those who see the land as a resource to be exploited, and those who see the land as a treasure to be guarded.

    I, a native Utahn, am happy to be in the latter camp, even if it is all snooty and goo gah.