This is the fourth 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). You can view previous installments here, here, here and here. Check back every Thursday for the week’s installment. Please follow the JI on your social media of choice.
We have in the previous few chapter reviews followed the major theme of the first section of Farmer’s book: the dominance of lakes in the minds, hearts, and stomachs of the early Mormon colonists in the eastern edge of the Great Basin. The lake was a source of fish and conflict, just as the Great Salt Lake was a center of both recreation and source of holiness, as its tributaries were used for baptism and bathing. But in the late nineteenth century, Farmer argues, the lakes of the Mormons’ valleys began to be culturally displaced by mountains.
Part of this displacement was drive by necessity: overfishing and irrigation and conflict and pollution sapped the value of the lakes. It was also abetted by culture; the fictive memory of a desert valley allowed the Saints to imagine themselves as fulfillers of Isaianic prophecy. But, for the purposes of chapter 4, the shift matters because it cleared the way for the rise of mountains in Mormon culture.
Farmer locates Mormon fascination with mountains at the confluence of a number of cultural streams. Of course, mountains held much sacred significance in the Biblical (and Book of Mormonish) imagination, and the frequent conflation of Biblical peaks with those in Utah in Mormon hymnody and naming testifies to that: Mount Nebo in particular (named for the Biblical summit by Mormon writer W.W. Phelps) held significance for early Mormons. At the same time, this Biblical appreciation for individual summits grew conflated with a romantic and nationalistic appreciation for mountain ranges in general. The Rocky Mountains became a site of the sublime, a symbol of the hardiness and independence of the Mormon settlers, and a signifier of American national greatness and expansion.
After the Civil War, then, the Wasatch range offered a prime natural landmark to replace the flagging lakes of the Great Salt Lake valley in the Mormon cultural imaginary, at a moment in which the Mormons were abandoning their sense of sacred distinctiveness. Farmer makes that point with a number of examples: the “dream mine” expedition of the minor Mormon leader John Koyle collapsed in the early twentieth century after the mystic’s visions of a lost Book of Mormon treasure failed to bear fruit. Instead, the Bingham Canyon copper mine expanded its operations at roughly the same time, bringing with it the trappings of modern mountain capitalism: money to fund resorts, cabins, excavation; the financial exports that tame the mountains.
It was in this context that Mount Nebo—named from the Bible, surveying the valley, often acclaimed as the tallest peak in the state—began to lose its status as the dominant mountain landmark in the state of Utah. In a gratifyingly precise feat of dating, Farmer argues that between “1900 and 1914 . . . the people of Utah Valley began to visualize a mountain.” Mount Timpanogos was quite literally invented in those years. To be sure, the geographical formations named Timpanogos had been there for millennia, but Farmer notes that people rarely called this ridge a “mountain” (167) before the twentieth century. It took on its identity for a number of reasons. The burgeoning hiking hobby encouraged its climb. John Muir, famous naturalist, revised Mount Nebo’s height downward, which left Timpanogos (in the minds of Utahns, at least) standing higher. Although Farmer documents the shakiness of these numbers, by the 1920s locals were (wrongly) claiming Timpanogos broke 12,000 feet, which made it part of an exclusive mountain club. Finally, and perhaps most decisively, the ascent of Timapanogos was a product of the ascent of Provo, Utah. Its distinctive axis means it appears most impressive from eastern Utah Valley—far from the beaches of the forgotten Utah lake, and squarely in the sightline of the streets and parks constructed in early twentieth century Provo.
As Farmer documents it, the rise of Timpanogos is yet another illustration of the cultural transformation Mormons wrought in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This process has been the subject of some of the most classic works in Mormon studies; Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity and Alexander’s Mormonism in Transition among them, as well as more recent books that take unexpected angles on the problem: Mary Campbell’s recent Charles Ellis Johnson and the Erotic Mormon Image is a good example. As other reviewers in this series have pointed out, Farmer here is doing far more than merely studying a mountain; he is giving us new ways of conceiving old problems.