Summer Book Club: On Zion’s Mount, Ch. 6

By August 9, 2018

Welcome to the sixth installment in the JI’s fourth annual summer book club. This year we are reading Jared Farmer’s On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape (Harvard UP, 2008). Check back every Thursday (sorry for the tardiness on this one) for the week’s installment. Or, you can find them here, here, here, here, here, and here. Please follow the JI on your social media of choice.

As I write this post, I am sitting in the “office” (really a bedroom with books) of a house built in 1896, the year of Utah’s statehood. Out of the window, I can see the mountains on the Wasatch Front. In the middle of Fall or the middle of Spring, these mountains out of this window would be a welcome respite from deciphering the pencil-etched chicken-scratch that fills undergraduate blue book tests. But today, my nose is buried within different pages. Can you smell words? My nose is close enough. These pages in this chapter of this book remind me that, in seeing these mountains, my gaze is fixed away from things I do not see. It takes the subtle groan of an “old” house and the feel of artificial breeze to remind me that, actually, pioneers did not have central air, and that this house is newer than it claims to be. It takes words on a page to help me understand that mountains help hide the stories that might lurk in the walls of this office. These words comprise chapter 6 of our summer book club, in which Jared Farmer makes sense of Mount Timpanogos in two twentieth-century settings—Sundance and Utah County. Or, at least, that’s what my nose tells me.

The end of Eugene Roberts’ hiking tradition came formally in 1970, when the U.S. Forest Service asked BYU to terminate the hike. Annual hikers had become more numerous, created swaths of litter and waste, and mixed hiking with being drunk. The mountain, it seemed, was being “loved to death.”[1] In 1984, the Forest Service designated Mount Timpanogos as a Wilderness Area. Wilderness, though, is never quite wild. Wilderness is manufactured, bounded, and full of human activity.[2] In the case of Mount Timpanogos, wilderness meant the visibility of goats, among other wilderness-y things, as animals who could be seen during the day. Goats, though, were introduced to Timpanogos in 1981. Wilderness status did not end the culture of hiking Mount Timpanogos, but it did represent the cultural importance that Utahans imbued the mountain with.

Residents in Sundance sacralized the mountain differently. Outdoor sports, like skiing, had been popular in Utah since the 1910s. As a venture to facilitate these outdoor sports, John and Scott Stewart purchased land in the area in the early century. It wasn’t until the 1960s that famed actor Robert Redford found what would become Sundance on a wandering drive as he visited his then-college-girlfriend (whose family lived in Provo). Redford, with cinematic celebrity and the funds that come with it, purchased the land from the Stewarts and began developing Sundance. The area’s slow success came with a sense of ecology, mostly through Redford’s resistance to overdeveloping the area and through his environmental nonprofit organization in the 1980s. Yet, Sundance cabins connected Timpanogos with the popular cult of celebrity. It required the success of Hollywood for Sundance to thrive, relied on an empire of air travel, and Timpanogos became a symbolic backdrop for things like the Sundance Film Festival.

Those in Utah County embedded Mount Timpanogos into a variety of cultural contexts. The county developed from an agricultural economy in the early half of the century to an industrial one after World War II, and later a post-industrial one. Farmer paints an ironic image as the Geneva Steel Works factory at Utah Lake created an inversion that, sometimes, obscured Mount Timpanogos from Utah County view. Nevertheless, inhabitants repeatedly referred back to Timpanogos as a symbol for cultural identity. BYU featured the mountain on a significant number of its promotional material. Tech companies used the mountain as logos for their products. High schools adopted Timpanogos and Mountain View as names. If only their mascots were goats. Utah County erupted as a largely-Mormon community in the second half of the century, and Mormons used Timpanogos as the name for a temple. The symbolism of Timpanogos in Utah County culture mirrored the fact that the “modern identity of Mormonism demands constant increase.”[3] So, too, did the imagery of Timpanogos.

The connection between Sundance and Utah County, Farmer argues, is that both depend on the setting of an urbanized post-war West. Where Sundance, and Timpanogos along with it, became a hinterland of Southern California, so too did the symbolism of Timpanogos become a hinterland for a modernizing, growing, and Mormonizing county. Both imagined Timpanogos as a place untouched, or at least preserved, as they both relied on the mountain. Both hid as much as they created. One of the great tragedies or ironies of this story, Farmer notes, is that the growing sense of place for residents in Sundance and Utah County did not lead to preservation. The remembrance of a place called Timpanogos left, for example, a past landscape of Native American and Mormon labor and religiosity in the dust.

The first time that I read this book was during a graduate class in my first semester of graduate school. I read fast. I probably didn’t even look up to see that there were mountains. This go around, it was a pleasure to take my time. I love Farmer’s writing and his incisive observations. My favorite description of LDS temples comes from this chapter, “To outsiders, most temples look like amalgams of a fairy-tale castle and a capitol building.”[4] Short sentences have taught me as much about Utah culture as years of living in it. I’d love to see how Thomas Tweed’s Crossing and Dwelling might make its way into this chapter. Tweed argues that religions are “confluences of organic-cultural flows that intensify joy and confront suffering by drawing on human and suprahuman forces to make homes and cross boundaries.”[5] Home-making is clear, but what counts as boundary crossing in this chapter? How does the function of religion relate to other questions about place-making and identity, as through ritual (for example)? I’d also love to see a variety of twentieth-century studies about Utah and Mormonism that deal with some of details that Farmer mentions but could elaborate further. One example might be further exploring the tension between globalization and Utah regionalism through landmarks of ethnic identity.

[1] Page 212.

[2] William Cronon, “The Trouble with Wilderness; or Getting Back to the Wrong Nature,” in Uncommon Ground: Rethinking the Human Place in Nature, ed. William Cronon (New York: WWNorton & Co, 1996), 69-90.

[3] Page 233.

[4] Page 232.

[5] Thomas A. Tweed, Crossing and Dwelling: A Theory of Religion (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006), 54.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Cultural History Environmental History Memory Summer Book Club


  1. Very nice, Jeff.

    Comment by J Stuart — August 12, 2018 @ 8:23 pm

  2. Enjoyed these reflections, Jeff. Thanks for your thoughts.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 12, 2018 @ 10:40 pm

  3. Thanks, J’s

    Comment by Jeff T — August 13, 2018 @ 9:24 am


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