February 20, 2024

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Read Your Way Through Utah

3 min read

It begins by reading the land. Start with “The Broken Land: Adventures in Great Basin Geology,” by Frank DeCourten, paired with Stephen Trimble’s beautifully penned and photographed “The Sagebrush Ocean: A Natural History of the Great Basin.” For the high desert emblematic of Utah’s national parks, consult “The Geology of the Parks, Monuments and Wildlands of Southern Utah,” by Robert Fillmore. And for a more personal sense of Arches and Canyonlands, “Blow Sand In His Soul: Bates Wilson, The Heart of Canyonlands,” by Jen Jackson Quintano, is a spirited biography of Wilson, who advocated their protection. “A Naturalist’s Guide to Canyon Country,” by David B. Williams, is an essential companion, with more than 270 plants and animals identified and described within their ecological communities.

Indigenous voices are strong and varied in Utah. Ute historian Forrest S. Cuch’s excellent “A History of Utah’s American Indians” introduces the eight federally recognized tribal nations located in the state. “Navajo Mountain and Rainbow Bridge Religion,” by Karl W. Luckert, provides transcripts of oral histories made by Diné elders who shared traditional knowledge associated with Rainbow Bridge, one of the world’s largest sandstone arches, accessible by boat on Lake Powell. “Edge of Morning: Native Voices Speak for the Bears Ears,” edited by Jacqueline Keeler, is an evocation of why these sacred lands matter to Native communities; it includes voices such as Regina Lopez Whiteskunk, Willie Grayeyes and Jonah Yellowman. Stacie Shannon Denetsosie’s stunning debut collection, “The Missing Morningstar: And Other Stories,” was recently published, to rave reviews.

Begin with the classics, such as “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,” by Edward Abbey, an anti-memoir on wildness set in Arches National Park in the years when Abbey was a park ranger there. Published in 1968, it can be considered a Thoreauvian counterpoint to the turbulence surrounding the Vietnam War. Then, for a romp of a novel with a bent toward sabotage, Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang” may inspire you — as it did the environmental group Earth First! — to reimagine the Colorado River without Glen Canyon Dam. If you find Abbey’s politics problematic, I suggest the saucy “Desert Cabal: A New Season in the Wilderness,” by Amy Irvine.

“The Last Cheater’s Waltz: Beauty and Violence in the Desert Southwest” and “The Anthropology of Turquoise: Reflections on Desert, Sea, Stone and Sky,” by Ellen Meloy, are sharp-edged works with quick-witted storytelling that use cultural tensions between the land and a politics of extraction — of uranium, oil and gas or coal — to complicate the scenery. Craig Childs’s elegant exploration of archaeology in “House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest” takes the reader back in time to pre-Puebloan cultures whose pictographs and petroglyphs tell stories on stone near the cliff dwellings they left behind. And his book “The Secret Knowledge of Water” could not be more germane to our current megadrought.

Two biographies create a bedrock for understanding the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints: “Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling,” by Richard Lyman Bushman, and “Brigham Young: Pioneer Prophet,” by John G. Turner. Both authors present these iconic figures in human terms. The charisma of Smith as a mystic and Young as a visionary pragmatist led the “saints” into a theology of western expansion only to find that they had a salt desert to tame. Two of my other favorite Mormon books are Maurine Whipple’s novel “The Giant Joshua” and Annie Clark Tanner’s autobiography “A Mormon Mother.” Both are tough and tender commentaries about how patriarchy and polygamy shape women’s lives as they endure heartbreak and deepen their spiritual strength. “Mormon Country” and “Recapitulation,” by Wallace Stegner, are wise works of historical intelligence, with rich renderings of Salt Lake City following settlement. And Jonathan T. Bailey’s “When I Was Red Clay: A Journey of Identity, Healing and Wonder is a courageous memoir of growing up gay in a rural Mormon community and avoiding erasure by finding refuge in wilderness.

Terry Tempest Williams

2024-01-03 10:00:20

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