The Rotting Forest Floor in Our Own Personal Sacred Groves

Earlier in the fall, I was visiting a ward in Austin, Texas with friends. The high council speaker genuinely surprised me by sharing something in his talk that I had not yet heard of nor considered: the process of saving the sacred grove. As soon as I got home, I searched for the article he referenced, “Return to the Sacred Grove” by Richard Neitzel Holzapfel, which was published in BYU’s Religious Educator magazine in 2010.

Donald L. Enders, former senior curator at the Museum of Church History and Art, shared that the sacred grove “is now healthier than it has been in the last hundred years,” primarily because the method of caring for the forest was changed. Enders shared that the church hired a horticultural firm to perform an extensive study of the grove back in 1998. “Years ago we became aware that the grove needed some help,” he said. After the report, Robert Parrot, a non-member specialist in forest management, was hired to “care for this sacred woodland.” And in the twelve years between the hiring of Parrot and the publication of the article, the sacred grove has grown from a seven acre plot to something much larger, in an attempt “to catch the vision of what the woodland was like in the 1820s. And through regeneration the grove is expanding and will soon reach 150 acres,” said Enders, which includes Hyrum Smith’s 100-acre property.

Parrot noted that he had been “walking in the grove since about 1961.” And during those walks, he “began to look at it with a professional eye,” asking himself, “What in the world are they doing here? Do they realize what they are doing to this forest?” The forest was essentially being manipulated in such an artificial way that it was open and parklike and almost sterile. There was almost a complete absence of indigenous species or wildflowers and plant life; there was no decaying woody material on the ground that would support and shelter chipmunks and wild turkeys and woodpeckers and songbirds and all the creatures that we would like in a forest.”

Larry C. Porter, professor emeritus of Church history and doctrine at BYU, was also interviewed for the magazine article. He added, “I first came to the grove in 1968. When I walked out to the grove, it had more the appearance of a park. The forester at that time made sure that if a tree needed to come down, it came down. If a tree had problems, such as rotting on the interior, they would clean it out, put cement into the base, and use that to preserve the trees. It was a different philosophy of management of the grove at that particular time.”

Enders, too, had been to the grove many decades earlier. He said, “I first came here in 1961. I have a recollection of those days. I was a missionary for the Church. We met at pageant time in the grove and had the opportunity to walk about the grove, actually into the grove, off the path. I remember that there was much bare ground, and to a large extent you could see across the woodlands. Of course, I was in no position to know how the grove was being taken care of….Through the years, as I have worked with the Historical Department, I have become aware that there needed to be a maintenance focus.”

780616-a66f6e963b4249b18795cb4cdb70f301Porter remembered that “[i]n those days, those working in the grove were busy with their tree operation and snipping,” though Parrot happily pointed that there were no more cement trees in the grove.

For Parrot, “The most rewarding aspect for me is to see the change in appearance. When we first started the program, of course, there was no downed organic material on the floor of the forest; everything was cleaned up and groomed and sanitized. Decaying organic matter from downed logs and that sort of thing is where the trees get their nutrients. That is why the forest was so lacking in natural vegetation and regeneration. When we first started leaving the downed logs, we would have visitors come in and complain that it looked messy—“It looks messy in there! You are not caring for the Sacred Grove!”—when in fact we were just beginning to care for the Sacred Grove. But now we have visitors who have returned after ten or fifteen or twenty years, unaware that we have implemented any change in policy, noticing the change. They often come in and ask and say, “I was here years ago, and now the forest looks so lush and green and healthy. Why is that? What is happened to bring about that change?’”

No downed organic material.

Everything was cleaned up and groomed and sanitized.

Such is a very Mormon way of approaching a task, I think. I make the point gently, kindly. I’ve spent 42 years as a Mormon, after all. I see this tendency and I’ve lived this tendency. It manifests itself innocently at times, but in harmful ways too.

The tendency might be the driver behind the exhausting efforts put forth by some on a Sunday morning to make sure each child is groomed and stylish and ready for a catalog cover. And if that’s the worst of this tendency to sanitize, well, then we wouldn’t have much to worry about, would we? But I think the urge to purge all the downed organic material of our lives from the figurative floors of our own forests stifles spiritual growth, confuses and perhaps wounds others, and removes from the central teaching of Mormonism a meaningful faith in Jesus. Such an urge to purge might prevent us from asking for help, from admitting weakness, and from tolerating mistakes in others. Such an approach might lead us to confuse purity with sterility.

And in fact, I would say that as a people we are not particularly tolerant of mistakes in others. There is a trope in some General Conference or stake conference talks wherein the leader speaking admits some youthful errors, perhaps unkindness to a parent or reckless driving, but the flaw revealed is almost always safely ensconced in the distant past and it is rarely something serious. Missionaries seem to be an exception to this cultural trend, opening their hearts wide as they do to investigators in whatever circumstances those investigators are found. But genuine open-heartedness is sometimes hard to find or maintain, speaking from experience as someone who has been more judgmental than was warranted.

We teach repentance but all too often have a harder time practicing forgiveness, both of ourselves and others, I’m afraid. A recent children’s book published by Deseret Book, The Not Even Once Club, serves as exhibit A of this tangled understanding. The scriptures may preach faith and repentance, but many Mormons would prefer never to have to repent in the first place. The avoidance of doing anything from which we might need to really big-time repent gives the process a stigma, at least from where I’m sitting. We like getting it right the first time, and if we don’t get it right the first time, we probably don’t want other people to know.

I was that way, certainly. Well, before I experienced the most profound and devastating spiritual experience of my life, which was being divorced. The deep psychic wounds I incurred shook me out of some seriously misguided mindsets, and I guess I had to be shaken pretty hard to get free of my nonsense. Thank goodness, then, that in many ways, my life derailed.

I tried keeping the façade up for another year or so, if I’m honest in my calculations. I was eerily cheery. I volunteered for church and school responsibilities with an almost irresponsible fervor. When the walls finally came tumbling down, I had to seek medical help. Even then, waiting in the doctor’s office to talk about antidepressants, I didn’t want to seem like the kind of person who couldn’t get it together. The doctor walked into the room where I was sitting on the examining table.

“How are you, Erin?”

“I’m doing great!” I responded with verve.

 “Oh,” he said, a bit puzzled. “It says here that you need to talk to me about severe clinical depression.”

“Um, yes, that’s right,” I told him, dialing down the cheer-o-meter into a normal range. “Actually, I’m really struggling. I can’t figure out how to be happy anymore.”

At that point, he was able to help me.

There is some kind of cultural push to clean up our narratives and remove evidence of decay from our lives. Is it the purity ideal and that blasted parable about the coach drivers who are asked how close to the edge they can drive and one of the drivers wants to ride the ridge of death canyon while the driver who gets hired promises to stick close to the wall? Maybe? Can I just say that I really despise this parable? The reason a person ends up looking straight down 100 feet of sheer canyon wall is probably because of tripping. Or being pushed, metaphorically speaking. Or having a wagon wheel pop off right at the sharpest bend in the windy mountain road. Are there crazy thrill-seekers who actively go looking for trouble? Sure. Of course. But the parable isn’t really directed at those folks, I don’t think. And when the parable is used to teach chastity, as it often is, the fear vibes are intensified. Probably no surprise to find out that I don’t love the use of fear as a tool for teaching morality. And I really don’t love lessons on the subject that predict doom and gloom to any who might mess up.

Such predictions are hurtful because all of us are going to mess up in some ways. We might not drive our coaches into a crevasse, but we are going to make mistakes.

“Mormons know that, Erin,” you might be thinking. And I wouldn’t disagree. Mormons do know. But I’m guessing that many Mormons believe that our lives would be more lush and fruitful and beautiful and rewarding if we could avoid making mistakes.

I don’t.

Sure, there are some mistakes that are exquisitely difficult to mend. But setting aside the doozies, if we take murder off the table, if we agree that working as a mastermind for a cartel should be avoided at all costs, if we put aside the truly depraved and deplorable kinds of things that most religious and non-religious people can agree are trouble in River City, we’re still left with a boatload of human error possibilities. So many possible ways to screw up, aren’t there? Thank goodness, because screwing up is part of what it means to live our second estate, at least according to the Book of Erin.

I regularly fail as a parent, as a landscaper, as a sibling, daughter, employee, grocery shopper, citizen of my community, and on and on. That’s nothing new. But my previous approach was more akin to cementing the trees in the sacred grove than its current policy of regeneration led by decay.

“Mormons are just trying to improve themselves, to strive for the ultimate goal of perfection, Erin! They aren’t trying to hide their mistakes.”

Maybe. Maybe. I believe there is a power in affirmation and aspirational communication, sure. If I tell myself I am happy and I tell myself to smile, perhaps those actions will come more easily with each repetition. Such habit-building is a lovely practice. And I’m not talking about that kind of positive talking at all when I call out the tendency to sanitize as the spirituality-crushing practice that it most definitely can be.

I think that Mormons worry that decay is contagious. In a desire to remain pure, though, we often bleach out the edifying experiences of life.

We worry that errors will multiple erratically, so that if we make a faulty judgment, even in a small matter, we might very well launch ourselves down a rabbit hole of disaster and never be able to climb out. But the task of trying to guard ourselves zealously from rabbit holes and cliff faces belies the reality that sometimes bad things happen inexplicably. I’m afraid that Mormons often lack genuine empathy and compassion for the downtrodden because of little self-righteous coach drivers in our minds who gleefully point out that sticking close to the wall is a better approach. If we are terrified of messing up, it follows that we are all too often terrified of those who have messed up, and being afraid of people who are suffering gets in the way of true charity and compassion.

In an informal online questionnaire, I queried some Mormons of various stripes and flavors about this cultural predisposition to sanitize the messiness of life. I asked for examples of the Mormon tendency to say, as Robert Parrot reported that some visitors to the would say, “It looks messy in there! You are not caring for [yourself or your responsibilities]! 

Perhaps these responses are spot on, perhaps not. Perhaps you can think of five other examples handily, perhaps such behavior does not reflect your experiences in the church at all. Just as it should be…

* ”Allowing censored R-rated movies at BYU but not actual R-rated movies, not even “Schindler’s List,” despite its artistic and historical merit”

*Avoiding R-rated movies scrupulously, even though the prohibition against such films is largely cultural and not necessarily intended for adults. So, sure, often there are gratuitous things in R rated movies. But often, R = grit. And life = grit. And speaking of movies, we are sometimes more accepting of bone-chilling violence than glimpses of skin: “Dude gets his head blown off? Meh. Kate Winslet shows her tatas in Titanic? THAT’S AGAINST MY RELIGION!!!!!!!””

* “The banning of Rodin nude sculptures when the display made its way to Provo back in the late 1990s” (See www.sunstonemagazine.com/pdf/108-76-80.pdf)

*”Fig leaves over genitals in art history textbooks at BYU” and  ”Digital angels wings (despite the theological inconsistency!) added to bare angel shoulders in Carl Bloch paintings”

*”The old teaching in past manuals that Brigham Young had only one wife and the quite widely held belief that Joseph was only married to Emma, when in reality, as the Church has recently come clean about, he was married to multiple women and teenage girls and caused enormous pain to Emma, though certain paintings of the two of them give no hint to the pain that polygamy and polyandry caused. Some of us were taught that polygamy was a practice to help the widows. If so, why were many of the wives either extremely young or already married to other men? Perhaps the cotton candy version of their marriage tastes sweeter, but how can one feast spiritually on a diet of saccharine and sugar?”

* “I think Mormons have an exceptionally difficult time confiding in each other, even the closest of friends – about personal failings, especially when they involve anything sexual, when we fail to follow the prescribed path through life, and to a lesser extent, when we fail financially. It’s oppressive, soul destroying sanitation.”

*”The edited version of the wedding of Canaan that has Jesus drinking grape juice because wine was against the Word of Wisdom. Yep, people teach that and other people believe that”

For all of my finger pointing at the Mormon collective tendency to sanitize life, I also think that members of the church can be genuinely moved when the logs fall and the leaves decompose. How could it be otherwise? Life is full of pain and suffering, after all.  A few years ago, I shared a Gospel Doctrine lesson on 1st Corinthians 13 that focused almost solely on what I’d learned about love from the ways I had messed up my relationship. I was candid, I was honest, and I probably came across as a loser in many ways, and yet I received a great deal of supportive feedback after that lesson.There is a refreshing clarity in honest admissions of failure.

ensignlp.nfo-o-eb7Donald Enders said, “I remember that until a dozen years ago, when a tree needed to come out someone would come in with equipment, drive right into the woodlands with big heavy trucks, compact the soil, yank those critters out, cut those limbs off, load them up, grind them down, and be out of here. I have come to appreciate in the past dozen years the insights of a person like Charles Canfield, then director of the historic site, who had the sense to say, “We need to consider how we treat the grove.”

I think we could expand that to a consideration of how we treat the sacred grove of our life experiences too.

For as Robert Parrot noted in the article, the sacred grove is now thriving because of the approach he has implemented. From death, decay, and decomposition comes green gorgeous growth.  There has been a tremendous change in the appearance of the grove. It has become lush and green. There has been a return of indigenous species of wildflowers and plant life. The floor of the forest is mostly covered with green in the summer, whereas in the past it was just bare, brown leaves,” he shared.

And in his view, “The whole forest is sacred.” Indeed.

And so it is with our life experiences. All of it is what we need. In our own sacred groves amidst the leaves and broken branches we have the opportunity to meet God and to meet ourselves.