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Know the West

Mormons on the land

  -We cannot return to Eden. We know too much and we care too little about the complexities of our collective past. But perhaps we can find our way toward a new genesis, a wiser relationship toward Creation that is founded on the sacred principles of love and respect and empathy."

* Terry Tempest Williams,

New Genesis

Mormons have played a powerful role in defining the Western landscape ever since they first carved a niche for themselves in the Great Salt Lake Valley in 1847. But now that Salt Lake City is a sprawling metropolis and Utah's landscape has changed, some Mormons have begun to express concern for the wilderness that has been lost in the process. They'd like to seek a reconciliation between the Mormon faith and the land.

These are the voices of New Genesis: A Mormon Reader on Land and Community, edited by Terry Tempest Williams, William B. Smart and Gibbs M. Smith. Many of the essays they've selected are unified by their attention to the same landscapes: the Wasatch Mountains that cradle Salt Lake City, the red rock deserts of southern Utah, the Colorado River. They also venture into unexpected terrain: the Alaskan wilderness, the Australian outback, even New York City. The individual perspectives are as varied as the landscapes. A woman who grew up in a fundamentalist Mormon polygamist family says the natural world helped her find personal freedom when she felt trapped by religious institutions. A Mormon leader describes how his outdoor experiences in the Boy Scouts shaped his spiritual as well as his physical character. A Taos Pueblo woman says "the significance of place" helps unite her Native American traditions with her Mormon beliefs.

Few of the essays are didactic. Each is poignant - not so much because of literary style (although many are beautifully written) - but because of the writer's humble honesty and courage. The collection broadens the possibilities for what it means to be a Mormon, as well as what it means to be an environmentalist, and it proposes a common ground between these two camps. As Clayton M. White, a professor of zoology at Brigham Young University writes, "the real quest is in trying to understand the stewardship of all landscapes, internal and external."

* Jenny Emery Davidson