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.