Excerpt from Home Waters by George Handley

Home Waters by George Handley

The twentieth century has gone down in history for a number of ignominious as well as heroic events, but certainly one of its more troubling legacies is its treatment of rivers. As agriculture gave way to industry and massive development of cities, water was victim to an increasingly private and individualistic conceptualization of property. Consequently, rivers suffered greater transformation than in the previous ten thousand years. They were straightened, diked, and dammed, and where I live water was transported from less populous areas and fed into the Provo, all to provide more space for homes, more safety from floods to homeowners, and reservoirs to ensure the perpetuity of modernization. And as Donald Worster reminds us, the Mormons played no small role in this harnessing of water’s wild and unpredictable ways, seeing dams and dikes as the way of the Lord. Several small hydroelectric dams were built on the Provo early in the century, and then two major dams were built, one in the 1940s and the other in the 1990s.

Within a century of the arrival of the white man, 95 percent of the native species in the river and of Utah Lake went extinct, this despite the fact that it had been the meat of the native fish of the river and lake that provided for humans for thousands of years and saved the lives of the pioneers in those early, hunger-ridden years of settlement. But this is only the most overt and measurable of consequences. Aquatic species worldwide are going extinct at much faster rates than terrestrials. When the fish go, that means the invertebrates, zooplankton, plants, and whole swaths of life go, too.

Rivers are unruly by nature, of course, especially when they are subject to the ebb and flow of snowpack in mountain wilderness and when they drop quickly and sometimes with crushing violence. In the case of the Provo, what was once a meandering, braided series of cuts and turns that increased in variety, biodiversity, and breadth as the river fell from high elevations and grew and spread across each flatland with increasing strength and claim, is now in the lower regions what one local restoration ecologist, Mark Belk, calls a €œmoving bathtub, € a straight shot of water with decreasing biodiversity.

In the middle of the century, the Army Corps of Engineers did their level best to teach the river to behave with a series of dikes that riprapped it like some intransigent adolescent who, accustomed to slouching at the dinner table, is forced to wear a back brace. This was done perhaps not out of any overt malice but in profound ignorance of what a river is and what it does. We now know its health must be measured in terms of the entire watershed over the course of its dynamically changing shape through time, upstream and downstream, from the surface to the subsurface, and by its relation to the riparian communities it spawns alongside.

A river is water, yes, but it is also soil, plant, and animal life €”a watershed. Seeing it requires something more than merely historical or aesthetic lenses. It requires the poet’s eye. Zooplankton, invertebrates, fish, mammals, vegetation, fowl, all respond to and even depend on a river’s unpredictable and uneven flow, its fluctuations in temperature, and its moods of violent overflow, as well as its vulnerability to drought. So, too, the invisible and larger supply of groundwater beneath our feet. Variety in contour is the rule of water left to run its own course as it spills over rocks, carries dead wood and plant life, turns back and braids itself around slight elevations. Its life, in other words, depends on chance, even chaos. This enhances the differences in temperatures, velocity, and volume of flow that provide habitats for a broad diversity of life.

But tolerating a river’s unpredictability is like tolerating the bald facts of mortality itself. Consider the two meanings of Isaiah’s recompenses: God’s gift of grace of a blossoming desert €”the earth as home, as paradise €”and God’s vengeance on a wicked world €”the earth as exile, as wilderness. It would seem necessary to learn tolerance for the fact that we are never far from either one. We need an imagination of deep time, but try selling the merits of deep time to the homeowner on a floodplain or to the politician running for election on a platform of economic progress. It was only thirty years ago that some Utahns entertained the proposition that the Provo River could deliver its water more effectively if it were piped underground, which is sort of like deciding to forsake food in order to get your daily nutrition intravenously or with pills. It took the work of Robert Redford and Sam Rushforth, an ecologist at BYU at the time, and others to convince people of the shortsightedness of the proposal, not to mention its aesthetic impoverishment. But this new practice of environmental repentance, the deep art of ecological restoration, is more than preservation; it reshapes rivers to their complex serpentine forms and allows life to go about its business of promoting habitat diversity and mitigates against the effects of climate change. A way of saying, no, not yet, not here. Mark Belk, for one, believes it is not merely his scientific duty but his Mormon stewardship to be, as he wryly puts it, €œout to save the world, one trash fish at a time. €

Human developments have also placed limits on the progress of such efforts, but ecological restoration at least signals a penitent response to Malachi’s threats. Repentance begins with recognition of sin but ends when self-loathing is overcome by love. If every species is a creative response to a particular environment, protecting species is protecting the integrity of a system as it moves through evolutionary time. Ecological restoration, unlike the work on the Sistine Chapel, is not a scraping away of time’s effects on the surface of a static work of beauty; it is instead a stepping into the flow of time and watching the diversity of life our restitutions spawn. It is a fundamental recognition of ongoing creation, something unimaginable within a theology of an ex nihilo creation.

Creationists, in their shallow temporal reckoning, cry foul since a seeming snap of the fingers is enough to explain the young and static world around us. Not for Joseph Smith whose understanding of the creation as organized matter accrues in potency with increasing understanding of the emergence of a world of complexity, extravagance, and beauty in deep time: €œThe pure principles of element are principles which can never be destroyed; they may be organized and re-organized, but not destroyed. They had no beginning and can have no end. €

The audacity of the prophet Joseph is his claim to have restored an original form of Christianity, and that would have to include Christianity’s original ecological understanding. Was there an ecological apostasy? Are we perhaps just beginning to understand the ecological principles he restored? If the creation bears witness to a creator, it would seem that even the eternity of God and his works are inherently temporal. Spiritual work this is, this patient assent to what is. A working back along the path that first led us away from this ticking earth. Healing the earth, yes. But a restoration of ourselves, too.


George B. Handley is a professor of humanities at Brigham Young University.   He has been writing, teaching, and lecturing throughout Utah and internationally on the intersections between religion, literature, and the environment for the past decade.   As an activist, he has argued for the protection of wilderness, legislation to mitigate climate change, and smart growth in Utah.   He is the author of two books of literary criticism, Postslavery Literatures of the Americas and New World Poetics: Nature and the Adamic Imagination of Whitman, Neruda, and Walcott.   His book, Home Waters, published in 2010 by the University of Utah Press, is a creative non-fiction narrative that argues for a sustainable sense of place in the West by exploring the environmental history of the Provo River watershed, Mormon theology, and his own pioneer and family history in Utah Valley.   He lives in Provo with his wife, Amy, and their four children.

He is also a member of the LDS Earth Stewardship group, a community of LDS writers, teachers, artists, scientists and others advocating deeper, more responsible human relationships with God’s creation, the Earth.

Citation. The above excerpt is taken from Home Waters: A Year of Recompenses on the Provo River by George B. Handley.   Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 2010, pp. 127-130.


9 thoughts on “Excerpt from Home Waters by George Handley”

  1. I have this book and am looking forward to reading it. Since I haven’t read it yet, I hesitate to comment in the dark. But I feel responses to the language we have here, so I’m going to take the chance.

    Mormons played no small role in this harnessing of water’s wild and unpredictable ways, seeing dams and dikes as the way of the Lord.

    I frequent a canyon dammed just a few miles up from where I gain entrance to it. Above, around, and below the dam this harnessed creek is in turn re-engineered by beavers. With untrained eye, I’ve watched the effects of beaver dams upon the creek, which had a more ephemeral bent before their arrival, prone to being drawn into the sky in July’s thirsty temperatures, leaving beds of mud and pockets of minnows that dried up and turned to soil. In just a few years’ time since their arrival, the results–yet in progress, since the beavers are still working out the details of what’s possible–have been striking. Everything–from the sound of the canyon (the creek contributes significant if variable power to the canyon’s voice)–to the water’s increased endurance of desert summer heat to the watering habits of other species–has shifted. Bluegill and pumpkin seed whose forebears washed down from the stocked lake now grow to larger sizes in the beaver ponds. So on and so forth.

    Your words above about how Mormons branded their work with the Lord’s name prompt me to wonder what has motivated beavers–desert beavers, no less–to dam the creek that people have dammed. What inspired them to develop their engineering prowess in the course of their evolution and to continue their hydrological culture? Also, how much of the human penchant for shifting water flow might have been inspired by the example of beavers? So many characteristics of Ancestral Puebloan architecture–in this canyon, very numerous–including location of structures, seem to mirror the behavior of other species. And so many Native American myths demonstrate gratitude to gifts from other creatures considered necessary to sustaining human existence. Also comes to mind the many folk and fairy tales that demonstrate how wrong people go when they take a gift nature has provided and overindulge.

    But tolerating a river’s unpredictability is like tolerating the bald facts of mortality itself.

    Subtle language. I look forward to seeing how you develop this idea in your book.

    But this new practice of environmental repentance, the deep art of ecological restoration, is more than preservation; it reshapes rivers to their complex serpentine forms and allows life to go about its business of promoting habitat diversity and mitigates against the effects of climate change. A way of saying, no, not yet, not here.

    So much that changes in nature (if we must make the nature/human development division) seems to fall under the umbrella of evolutionary event and impetus. This idea of restoration/repentance–which seems to rely on the concept of returning something to an earlier natural or original condition–is common in nature writing. It’s in Amy Irvine’s book Trespass where she characterizes agriculture as an apostasy from what she believes must have been the more vibrant and spiritually charged hunter-gatherer way of life. Do you speak in your book to a possibility of this process of repentance and restoration, and then particularly of damming and restoration, perhaps being themselves evolutionary in nature, with the misstep of over-controlling and contorting wild water perhaps intimating itself to be part of evolutionary process?

    Does a river “learn” something from having been dammed, once it’s restored to what we believe to be its nature, as, hopefully, we learn from developing the ability to perceive effects of our actions upon our surrounds?

    These are questions that rise in my mind just from reading this excerpt. Can’t wait to see how the whole book affects my thinking.

    Thanks, George, for posting this excerpt at WIZ. It really is wonderful to see this language and to learn of Home Waters.

    Dear Readers, this looks like a good Christmas present for the nature lovers you know or to add to your own wish list!


  2. Wow. Just incredible. Weaving the concepts of repentence, the ecological reconstruction of a river, and the restoration of a religion that had long since been “straightened” by well-intentioned man.

    I did not see that coming. Totally mindblowing. I have had my treat for the day. Thank you, brother Handley.



  3. Patricia,

    You ask some terrific questions. I think Restoration Ecology is based not on the idea of returning to some original wholeness, since as you point out, it is impossible, but on the idea of showing our own willingness to respect deep evolutionary time and the complex systems of life on which we depend. Time is the element that we are in and can never step outside of, so I tend to favor solutions that aren’t full of categorical regret for everything humans have done but are wise enough to try to step back TOWARD what once was–I think repentance is like that. In the end, full restitution is impossible, which is why we rely on the idea of mercy and grace, but we have to try to turn back, as the word implies. Ecological Restoration, as I elsewhere suggest in the book, is a bit like a poem–it is artificial but it is a performance that seeks to compensate for what is lost. I look forward to your reading.


  4. Oh, and I would recommend William Jordan’s book, The Sunflower Forest, for a fascinating philosophical treatise on ecological restoration.


  5. Sorry to be gone so long. Hope the conversation hasn’t gone cold.

    In my nearly 40 years in the church, I’ve encountered many models of repentance. Interesting to consider how one’s model of repentance may tie deeply into and indeed give shape to one’s concepts of mortality and of what’s possible for our relationships with the natural world.

    As I understand your model from this bit of writing and discussion, you see repentance–and the particular form of repentance that is ecological restoration–as mankind’s developing the awareness to begin working back to points of departure, stepping back (I think) into the creative dance of this world (and with God), then moving forward with the energetic flourish of species and natural forces that are in play in this creation.

    This moving, flowing-forward model of repentance offers another choice to an older model of repentance that some in the church still hold to: that once you repent with sincerity, God forgets the sin that you committed, and it is as if it had never happened. At the bottom of this model lies a static view of human, heavenly, and all other natural existence. This static view of life crops up in creationism, but I’ve found it in plenty of other places. Static versions of creationism seem to me to be subsets of a narrative take on existence concentrated on holding position at all costs, on keeping things as they are for purposes of (some would say the illusion of) control. Which brings us back to damming and straightening and otherwise altering the native energy of rivers, the life they give rise to, and our relations with this world generally.

    Also, by extension, this version of repentance offers an alternative to the “fallen world” model of morality and existence. In the case of ecological restoration, if your proposition that ecological restoration “… is a fundamental recognition of ongoing creation” approaches what’s really going on in this world, then it would seem to work upon a concept of this world as moving toward something other than it is, of its having ever been moving toward something other than what it was. Perhaps, instead of being a fallen world, it is instead a rising world. At any rate, it’s a world that’s constantly re-shaping itself.

    In this model, I can also see the narrative stance that folks call creationism might just have given rise (or might be giving rise), in one mutation or another, to newer narrative takes such as yours. If I look back at the development of my own thinking about the nature of life on Earth, I can see markers of “creationism” in my thinking. It was a moment in the ever-in-motion life of my belief that gave rise to other imaginings.

    Interesting ideas, provocative, engaging. I’m almost done with Craig Child’s Finders Keepers (sadly, glad of that). Review forthcoming here on WIZ. Then on to Home Waters.

    And many thanks for the recommendation of The Sunflower Forest. It’s on its way, though when it arrives it will have to stand in line in my reading queue.


  6. Patricia,

    Again, great thoughts. I love the idea that one’s notion of repentance is connected to one’s notion of the creation. Your comments made me think of how, in my view at least, what happens in repentance isn’t so much a wiping away of the past but a sanctification of it by means of which our weaknesses are made strengths. In other words, the past doesn’t go away but it takes on a holier meaning. Jordan’s book, Sunflower Forest, stresses the need to come to terms with who we are and what we have done, not pretending that we can vanish somehow but can instead find a way to make of our actions something that participates in creation.


  7. Jordan’s book, Sunflower Forest, stresses the need to come to terms with who we are and what we have done, not pretending that we can vanish somehow but can instead find a way to make of our actions something that participates in creation.

    Ooo, I’m liking this book already, and I haven’t even started reading it.

    I suspect human language is something this world is up to–with and through us–out of desire for quickening creation.

    I really appreciate your taking time to participate with WIZ, George. Very much. Best wishes for your endeavors in earth’s behalf and thanks for your deep interest in contributing to Mormon studies on ecology and stewardship.

    We’ll make Home Waters a topic again here soon.


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