Last night, the Sons of Utah Pioneers in Salt Lake City hosted the first community conversation for my Fellowship project. Eighty people (whose average age was probably around 80, as well!) graciously listened to me tell stories about Stegner and of my own connection to “Uncle Wally.” (I’ve been bringing so many anecdotes and stories to the dinner table that my wife has joked that it feels like Uncle Wally has moved into the back bedroom).
In addition to short quotes from Stegner’s books, I read three excerpts. The Gathering of Zion (pages 152-154) was an easy pick, since SUP focuses on Mormon history. We rode over South Pass with the refugees from persecution, as they bumped into mountain men Black Harris and Jim Bridger and took full advantage of their chance to quiz the men who knew the most about the Saints’ destination. Stegner notes: “The day was June 27, 1847.” Exactly three years before, Joseph Smith had been killed. “Now the Lord, who had started the pioneers west on the anniversary of Joseph’s founding of the Church, took them over South Pass into the country of sanctuary on the anniversary of the martyrdom.”
Stegner, a non-Mormon, tells the panoramic story of the Mormon Trail with respect. He felt a warm welcome in Salt Lake’s LDS Ward Houses as a boy, and though he never considered conversion, I believe his fundamental values were influenced by his friends in the Church. He was a decent, gentlemanly, steady, generous man who believed in community and cooperation. I’ve been thinking this week that he shared a suite of values with our new president-elect, Barack Obama, a stunning combination of civic engagement and citizenship, of scholarship and thoughtfulness.
John Wesley Powell and the little band of men that made up his 1869 expedition floated into Glen Canyon in the selection I chose from Beyond the Hundredth Meridian (pages 88-90). There was no other canyon like Glen Canyon, and the Major knew it. “Through most of its course the canyoned Green and Colorado, though impressive beyond description, awesome and colorful and bizarre, is scenically disturbing, a trouble to the mind. It works on the nerves, there is no repose in it, nothing that is soft. …But Glen Canyon, into which they now floated…is almost absolutely serene, an interlude for a pastoral flute.”
“Mormon Trees” (pages 21-24) from Mormon Country triggered the most poignant memories. In his paean to Lombardy poplars, Stegner chose to “judge a people by its trees” and found both worthy. “Wherever they went the Mormons planted them. …They give a quality to the land so definite that it is almost possible to mark the limits of the Mormon Country by the trees.” Older women held my hand and told me of climbing the Lombardys in their backyards as children; the trees served as their refuge, their place of solitude. Their eyes sparkled. Together, we lamented their diminishing numbers.
When my family moved into our home in Salt Lake City’s Avenues neighborhood, three Lombardy poplars towered along the fenceline in our tiny backyard. Over the past twenty years, all three have died and we had to take them down.
Like those wives of the Sons of Utah Pioneers, I miss them.