HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

May 14, 2007
Implication for the Long Run

Developments Last Week

John Turner


From Utah

I'm writing this in the Best Western Butch Cassidy Inn in Beaver, a town that won't overwhelm anybody with its charm. But I have to admit, Beaver is comfortable and very easy with respect to the basic needs of life, which is pretty clearly what it wants to be.

Reading a tourist brochure yesterday, I came on a statement that Utah is a strange combination of the mundane and the extraordinary. If I had been adding to the account I would have noted that nature supplies the latter whereas humanity here seems definitely of the down-to-earth variety. The people are friendly and helpful, but they leave no illusion they're sunk in imagination.  Ebenezer Bryce, for whom the famous canyon was named, may offer the prototype, with his judgment about his geologic namesake: "It's a hell of a place to lose a cow."

One hundred and sixty years after the trek from Illinois, seventy percent of the population remains Mormon, which is a fact to be contemplated with wonder. To one not versed in the mysteries of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, that a modern-day population could believe the stories of Joseph Smith seems as fantastic as the bizarre outcroppings of Bryce and Zion. But, perhaps the everyday character of the people accounts for it -- religious mythology is just not a thing to be thought about very much. After all, it serves its purpose in giving people something to believe, and belief in the necessity of belief is a prime feature of the American mindset.

Harold Bloom may have been right, when he predicted in The American Religion, that most of America would eventually become Mormon. Given the Mormons' confidence in their own version of truth, that would doubtless be all right with the people of Beaver.

Utah's 2.2 million people are spread over 85,000 square miles. The state is nine times as big as Vermont, but with only about three and a half times the people.  In New England, Vermont is considered to be definitely uncrowded, but Utah puts us the shame. Being here tends to convince you that Utah's people to space ratio is far more healthy than the population per square mile is in most of the rest of the country.

Whenever I go away from home, I look for a spot in my new surroundings where I would be happy to stay forever. I haven't found one yet in Utah. But I have another week here, and so have plenty of time to discover bliss. If I find it I'll let you know.


High Country

There’s something about the high desert that causes you to think other places don’t exist or, if they do, they don’t matter much. Being on the Colorado Plateau of southern Utah for the past few days has begun to show me why this region votes so consistently for right-wing candidates. There’s a feeling here that all that stuff out there, in New England, or New York, or Washington, much less in Europe or Asia, isn’t real. It’s certainly not anything you want to be bothered about.

The sky here, and the landscape, overwhelm the imagination, pushing all else away.

On the way into Bryce Canyon the road runs through a section where the hills rising from the side of the road are so astoundingly red they define the color. And they are set against a sky so blue it compels belief that nothing can be that pure. It’s enough to make you crazy.

Three miles before entering the park you encounter the Ruby Inn complex, an enterprise that has outdone Topsy. There are restaurants, and gift shops, and grocery stores, and campgrounds, and cabins, and goodness knows what else, all pervaded by a western motif so omnipresent you begin to suspect you’ve been plopped in the middle of a John Wayne movie. In the cavernous gift shop I saw a group of middle-aged French women buying chaps and gigantic ten gallon hats.  To be a cowboy here seems the only thing one could want to be, no matter where you come from. Myths are powerful and this is mythic land.

I’m gradually evolving the theory that myth-dominated people have little need of imagination. Myth, in effect, is imagination prefabricated. So, in everyday life people for whom myth dominates can be almost perfectly mundane. Utah, being myth-ridden to an unusual degree, may be quintessential America. We Americans don’t have to make up anything because it has all been made up for us. Everything outside money-making is settled and consequently the true believer simply settles into it as the surrounding reality and puts his efforts to managing life’s practicalities.

That’s the lesson being taught me in this excursion into the Southwest.


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