Repentance is a central tenet of our LDS theology. It involves a careful retracing of our footsteps, so that we can acknowledge the specific impact we have had. I believe we are at our human best when we repent because it involves honest acknowledgement and ownership of our human errors. In this essay, I want to suggest ecological restoration as a kind of repentance for our environmental mistakes, the spirit that should guide our attitudes toward wilderness, and a method for building community.

At present we distract ourselves with the battles over wilderness designation and are therefore as yet unwilling to think seriously about the hard and needed work of providing restitution for the damage we have done to ecosystems. It is not uncommon to hear pleas against wilderness designation that argue that because such areas are already trammeled, already tainted by remnant roads, old rusted oil derricks, tractors, old homes and the like, there is no point in preserving something that is already degraded. This logic of ruined grace strikes me as that of an addict: since I have tripped up once, I might as well fall again and again. It is counter to the doctrine of real repentance. Admittedly, some wilderness advocates have helped to set up this logic by invoking the need to preserve a natural world that is believed to be untainted by human touch. Wilderness designation won’t preserve what is untouched, but it will slow and perhaps even reverse the degradation we have caused.

The Edenic mandate to Adam and Eve concerning the Garden involves at least three verbs: to dress, to tend, and to keep the garden. The implication of these verbs seems to be that that it is no categorical virtue nor categorical vice to work to improve or to develop nature; at times and in certain circumstances it might need or benefit from our best efforts at improvement, but it might also need protection from our interference. We certainly won’t meet our moral responsibilities by assuming that in every case we only need to continue to develop and extract, no matter the cost. Every question related to our use of natural resources requires an ongoing and case-by-case careful consideration of outcomes. LDS theology does not stipulate an unfortunate fall and a fallen world; it posits instead a forbearing universe in which we are neither inherently evil nor good, but inherently free to judge, choose, and act. In other words, moral risk and moral responsibility pertain to every choice we make about the earth. The Lord provides the principles that should guide us: we should use resources “with judgment, not to excess, and neither by extortion” (D&C 59:21). [1] We will have to measure the worth of our actions one choice and one circumstance at a time with the best information at hand. Instead of accepting this responsibility, however, we prefer an ethics of the status quo. Americans once resisted the automobile and preferred the manure-filled streets. Now, there are some who resist clean energy because they believe it is practically a moral duty to stay our current course and extract as much fossil fuel from the earth as we can. If God gave us fossil fuels, surely He gave us wind, sun, and geothermal energy as well. Why should they not command our attention? That it will be difficult to make the transition is obvious; what is less obvious is whether or not we have sufficient commitment to principles of good stewardship, awareness of the threat to our health and the health of the land posed by fossil fuels, and faith in our own creativity and in God’s help to make needed changes.

A theology of the unfortunate fall believes in a world that cannot be beautiful or inherently spiritually valuable without the redeeming power of our own hands. Such a belief implies an ethic of eat, drink, drive, and be merry, for tomorrow we will resurrect. A different theology—one more faithful, I believe, to LDS tradition—believes the world can return to its original potency through our repentance, not merely through our engineering. This is a desert that blossoms not because we dam rivers and build sprinkler systems but because we finally have the heart and the eyes to appreciate and live in harmony with its native qualities. The fundamental difference here is that nature needs us, not because it is categorically fallen, but because we understand that we have already degraded it. This is a hopeful theology, a fortunate fall, since it acknowledges the reality of our mistakes and yet offers a path, through our own penitent acts of restoration, toward healing the earth and redeeming ourselves.

As I have watched the pro and anti-wilderness positions jockeying for influence in the state of Utah, I have rarely heard positions that simultaneously recognize the ecological and the economic realities on the ground. I hear protectiveness about a way of life or protectiveness about the earth, but rarely both. I hear criticisms of loud and excessive ATV use or criticisms of the rich recreationists who fly and/or drive to the wilderness but rarely both. I hear about the rich traditions of rural communities and I hear about the rich history of Native peoples who came before the Mormons, as if these were mutually exclusive traditions for us to care about. The truth is, it is easier to criticize enemies than to articulate and work for a vision of a good society we hope to pass on to the future. A good society is not one that has finally gotten rid of the opposition; it is one that has learned how to make difference fruitful, which involves the work of listening, imagining, and even articulating others’ perception of the world. I wonder how well we are listening. [2]

In my listening, I wish my fellow environmentalists had more respect and concern for the plight of small rural towns in Utah. These are some of the most overlooked and neglected places in American history, victims, often, of the lies of boomers who promise wealth only to extract it and go elsewhere. These are the great “stickers” as Wallace Stegner once described them, people who took root in unlikely soils and made a home in heroic fashion where the elements conspired against them. No wonder the locals have such resentment for the federal government, for Easterners, and for urbanites who drive and fly great distances to come and sample the local beauty but who have no appreciation or at best condescending pity for the blood, sweat, and tears that have been required to live in such places. At the same time, when rural populations wish to rally in support of their desire to drive ATVs where they please or wish to assume responsibility for public lands but cannot give proper account of, or do not appear to care one whit about, our human impact on the earth, why should they be trusted with the proverbial keys to the car? And when some wish to claim rights to Mormon belonging in the land but simultaneously make a ruin of the indigenous history before them, their claims are an offense to reason and fairness.

The vast majority of folks on both sides of the wilderness debate are motivated by a love of land. Indeed, there are few true nature haters. So why the rancorous division? I believe that our problem might just be too much attachment to land. I certainly don’t prefer apathy, but too often our love of land resembles that of a controlling lover who can’t acknowledge or respect the agency and the subjectivity of the one they love. We think of land as territory, as a thing we possess, as an extension of ourselves, as something that doesn’t have a life all on its own. In all our taking from the earth, how often do we allow nature to remind us of the myriad creations of God, of their own independent and intrinsic value as “living souls,” and of our own dependence on the mercy of God and on the miracles of biology to be able to enjoy this existence? We think of the physical world as that which circumscribes and protects individual self-interest but it is really that which makes us vulnerable, subject to death, and dependent on and connected to all our living neighbors. It teaches us to repent.

My contention is this: excessive attachment to land leads not only to its destruction but to excessive fear of others and to the destruction of community. Seeking the earth’s welfare, by contrast, teaches us collaboration, mutual concern, and community. This is perhaps the most evident in the recent Cliven Bundy debacle. Bundy was briefly the darling of the right for his stance against government excess, even though his supporters went so far as to point rifles at federal agents. Curiously, no one seemed willing to acknowledge his own dependence on unpaid use of government land for twenty years. When he turned out to have offensively racist views of African Americans whom he collectively judged for being merely dependent on government handouts, the political right dropped him cold.

Some might still want to argue that his views of land are virtuous even if his views of racial minorities are not, but I don’t believe these attitudes are unrelated. Ecologically, we are all connected and no actions occur in a vacuum. Socially, there is no such thing as a singular history; all human communities are interdependent and interwoven and no individual’s or people’s success is ever totally independent of others or of the land itself. History teaches the lesson of our interdependence. If we were to live in a place with a sense of deference for its ecology, its presence, and its own independent history, we would see ourselves as interdependent parts of a broader human and more-than-human community to which we are answerable. When we see land merely as an extension of ourselves and even as an expression of our own power and autonomy, we lose sight of our own and the world’s fragile ecology. King Benjamin reminds us that we are beggars, every one, and as beggars, creatures, which is to say beings whose repentance should be inspired by the fact of creation. Our self-concept, by contrast, is based on a radically atomized sense of self that leads paradoxically to degradation of one’s own land and exclusion of other people. Indeed, Bundy condones the aiming of rifles at a nation he claims to defend; he invokes his patriotism toward a government he refuses to acknowledge exists. It should not surprise us then that his supporters would have decided to celebrate their freedom and their own history by illegally driving ATVs up Recapture Canyon, one of the more valuable and vulnerable treasure troves of Native American ruins in Utah. They desire a freedom to be violent against a history and a place they claim to love, and while such behavior might be a particularly ardent expression of freedom, it is certainly not moral. This love of land that leads to militarized borders is characterized by exceptional claims to place as property, certainly not place as a shared ecological heritage for which we are mutually and perpetually responsible across cultures and generations. This is a conservatism, ironically, that wants nothing to do with conservation.

In other words, these radically atomized selves refuse to experience the deepest of humiliations that nature offers—that discovery of our human concerns as superficial, temporary, and selfish. Instead of allowing ourselves to feel astonishment and vulnerability—which is presumably what we could learn from the Native American representations of the cosmos on our many cliffs—we are often more willing to use land as a political football to play and win our games of identity. We are consequently unwilling to do right by the land and by our history. My fervent faith is that if we were truly devoted to finding and doing what is best for the land, I believe the divisions that characterize Utah would diminish—divisions between the Wasatch Front and rural Utah, between Mormons and non-Mormons or Mormons and former Mormons, Democrats and Republicans, between classes and ethnicities, and even between state and federal government, between easterners and westerners. We would share and celebrate a sense of collective—not balkanized—history.

But repentance is the path the faithful must tread. The danger of thinking of the land as an extension of ourselves becomes a seduction to live and act in such spaces with impunity. I remember talking with a neighbor of mine shortly after moving to Provo. He had grown up in the foothills of Provo and was sad that he no longer could enjoy the freedom to ride his motorcycle wherever he wanted along the hillside, outside of the bounds of society. If you ever saw the mouth of Slate Canyon before its current construction into a new city park, you know what a mess such freedoms made of the land. For novelist Marilynne Robinson this is the same logic that imagined wild spaces in the West as useful for nuclear testing, unrestricted or unregulated exploitation, or dangerous play. In an essay entitled “Wilderness,” she notes that the love of wildlands often goes hand-in-glove with wanton abuse. Love for land and for wilderness, Robinson nevertheless insists, is indispensable as long as it accomplishes precisely the opposite of what it sets out to do; instead of possessing, love must dispossess. Love won’t achieve its full effect until it has decentered the self, which selflessness may cause sacrifice, even suffering: “all love is in great part affliction. My bond with my native landscape was an unnamable yearning, to be at home in it, to be chastened and acceptable, to be present in it as if I were not present at all.” [3] This soulful love is clearly, then, a necessary and moral risk because it opens the self to the self-chastening and self-doubting experience of awe that nature provides. As Hugh Nibley was fond of pointing out, the counter logic of the Adversary wants us instead to see nature only as a means to building up our own wealth and authority and autonomy. [4] Earth should make us more answerable to one another and to God, not less. We should not run from the facts of history nor from the facts of our social and ecological interdependence. We will remain dangerous to nature, in other words, to the degree that we remain contentious, divided, and dangerous to each other.

Maybe one doesn’t have to be an anthropologist from as far away as Mars to imagine that the divisions in Utah are perhaps more like family feuds, a split in a personality of a whole people, two siblings of the same civilization that symbiotically insist on and perhaps even create differences in order to perpetually seek to vanquish them. Like siblings who choose different paths and whose choices, then, feel like betrayal, we are afflicted by class, religious, ethnic, and yet sometimes literally familial conflicts. Our demonstrations at the steps of the Capitol building and other expressions of political activism are, in part, rituals, like football games and parades, that shore up our sense of identity. The hot button issues that seem to polarize us into groups, in other words, as real as they are, are often made so hot precisely because they allow us to avoid the hard work of finding common ground, or even more risky, to see ourselves in the mirror when looking at the other side. I don’t mean to suggest that it in the end doesn’t matter if we explore wilderness area for shale oil, or if we allow roads and ATVs or not. These are real issues of importance. What I want to throw into question is how and why these issues get tied to the wagon of identity, why for all the world we often end up preferring to be right about the issues than to be good, decent, civil and committed to working out our differences. The conveniences of modern life seduce us with the illusion that we can be autonomous and free of restraints, free of being answerable to unknown others or to the planet itself. Liberals and conservatives alike, believers and nonbelievers, we all tend to seek likeness, we embrace it, and we cultivate it, even though we all pretend to believe in tolerance. We simply would prefer not to have to engage, let alone love, our enemies.

And yet love of our enemies is the ultimate test of what is supposed to define Christianity of any kind. At least one reason is that it enables us to see that we have largely wanted the divisions that beset us. Let’s face it. They make us feel good. We like and even need them. Why else would we expend so much energy selectively constructing an image of our enemies that conforms to a stereotype of their worst characteristics and confirms what we wanted to believe about them? Every environmentalist has language for the anti-environmental folks just as those entrenched in resistance to environmental legislation like to make fun of “tree-huggers” and “squirrel-squeezers.” It also means we must be willing to sacrifice our firm hold on identity as a form of repentance. As James warns us, religion must be more than a mechanism of self-affirmation (see James 1:23). To be religious is to learn to think or imagine impartially, to learn to live in a reality that consists of much more than our own ideas, passions, convictions, and tastes. If religion didn’t challenge our partiality, it would give divine justification for all our impulses, a very dangerous prospect indeed. To accept the power of God is to willingly and consistently ask yourself, could I be wrong? Is there something I haven’t thought of yet that I need to know or do to become better? What are the limits of what my experiences can teach me? And it is to recognize that all people, no matter how different, present us with the challenge and opportunity to see the face of the Savior. That will depend, of course, on how deeply we see, how willing we are to be caught up short by true presence. Community does not require us to drop our differences; Nature is ailing and in its unprecedented fragility, it is asking us to learn to think and act collectively, despite our differences. If our shared love of nature means anything, it should exhibit itself in our willingness to be forbearing, to listen, and to respect the dignity of our enemies. This doesn’t mean we can’t have our strong disagreements, but it does mean we need to work at cultivating relationships.

Several years ago I participated in an unusual event in southern Utah. A local environmental organization hosted a panel discussion about stewardship. They went out of their way to invite people of all political and religious persuasions. All of us on the panel were Mormons, but I was the lone environmentalist and I suppose, by comparison, the lone liberal. I was excited because in all my speaking about the environment in the public, for once I wasn’t preaching to the choir. At one point during the discussion, all the panelists were asked by the moderator to describe one quality about the region that we hoped would be preserved for the future. One of the panelists was a sixth-generation rancher. When his turn came, he said bluntly and with a wry grin before a mixed audience of Mormons and non-Mormons, long-time citizens and recent move ins, “What I love about this place are all the Mormons. And what I want for the future is to have more Mormons.” Everyone laughed, albeit somewhat awkwardly, since it was apparent that this was potentially insulting to at least half the audience. In an effort to smooth things over, I made a point of saying that I had been raised as a Mormon outside of New York City and that my parents often taught me to see other cultures with respect and admiration, that this was, in fact, my Mormon duty. Curiously, I discovered afterwards that I was perhaps more bothered by his remark than several non-Mormons and former Mormons in the audience who had more reasons to be offended than I. I learned that the woman who had spearheaded the event was raised Mormon but had left the church, and even though she had experienced her share of ostracism for raising a child of mixed race by herself and for being an ardent environmentalist, she appeared to have no resentment. It turned out that the environmental organization had, apparently by design, never had a practicing Mormon on their Executive Board, a practice she recently managed to change, albeit with some resistance. When I expressed my dismay at the rancher’s blunt comment, she explained her efforts to get to know him and to understand the long and deep history of connection to the land his family had enjoyed for generations, all without any outside influence or intervention. She described his intensely sentimental love of land, his ability to openly weep about it, his love of family, and the marvelous sense of community he and his family had created. She understood the worry he felt that the beauty, simplicity, and innocence of life his family had enjoyed for so long was slipping away. She told me that she asked him once what his greatest fear was. While I hoped that he might have said something about passing on degraded land to his posterity, he said that it was that one of his daughters would marry an outsider. Given what I had learned about her own story, I said, “So he must not look too kindly on you.” She brushed off the concern. “I think he is starting to like me.”

Her charity and determination to be and to do good in light of such challenges have ever since been an important inspiration to me. She comes from a religiously mixed family, one that appears to have learned to tolerate different faith choices. And she felt enough respect toward her own LDS past as well as for the land to want to be a bridge-builder. It dawned on me that despite my initial distaste for what the rancher had said, I needed to learn to muster similar courage, forbearance, and honesty. Attachments to land are important to our identities, but in the process we have essentially two choices: we can attach ourselves to land in the interest of rooting an exclusive and proprietary identity or we can attach ourselves, as my friend did, in such a way as to see the various claims and interests on that land as part of the complex web of community we live in today and the complex web of identity that makes us who we are. That social and ecological complexity is a reality we cannot afford to deny. If we can’t learn to love humanity adequately, we certainly can’t love nature adequately.

And the truth is we are failing in such love, failing tragically. Nature is sorrowing, ailing, compromised by human behavior, and it does in fact need us. It doesn’t need mere extractive activity for the sake of maintaining a way of life that is increasingly harmful to ecological health and putting at risk our grandchildren’s future. It does need our deepest acts of perception and the requisite sacrifices of identity, self-interest, and material gain to restore the world to what it once was. Nature needs our repentance. We can labor on behalf of the earth’s restoration, its return to whatever degree of health is still possible. This should include not just efforts of restraint such as reduction in our levels of consumption and waste and in our dependence on fossil fuels but also all of the proactive efforts to restore the ecological health of watersheds and deserts. We Utahans can certainly start by fighting our own air quality problem along the Wasatch Front, but a comprehensive effort to do so must reach beyond our own immediate interests and include a mature and steadfast determination to trace and improve the impact we have on the biosphere. If we want a civilization as beautiful as that of the scenery in the West, as Wallace Stegner once called for, ours should be a society well practiced in the arts of both community building and of ecological restoration.

If our love of wilderness makes us no more committed to restoring the world ecologically, both at home and abroad, near and far, that is, if our relationship to wilderness is not a relationship of commitment to sustainable living, then our love of wild beauty becomes a kind of pornography. Not all sexual acts restore love and neither do all recreation enthusiasts know how to nurture a sustainable relationship to the world’s beauty. Ultimately, the designation of wilderness should be understood not only as a form of ecological restoration but as a method for chastening ourselves into remembrance of our belonging in a cosmos that includes other human citizens and all the citizens of the biosphere.

Coffee table books of wilderness photography and landscape paintings of Utah are ubiquitous in this state, but what is not yet ubiquitous is an ethic of ecological restoration in Utah—an ethic of repentance. I am not even sure if there is any inherent virtue in affections for wild landscapes not least because they are so easy to come by. It is certainly a tragic thing to never have such affections, like a parent who can’t love a child, but to imagine that loving wilderness is a high virtue is to imagine that loving one’s own newborn is difficult. Mature, tough love reaches the whole human family and the whole earth, it values the one as well as the 99, it notes the sparrow’s fall; it is born of gratitude for grace, sacrifice for a higher cause, forbearance for others, and longsuffering in the fight to restore the world to its health. Nothing less will do.



[1] For more on LDS beliefs about stewardship, see my essay “The Environmental Ethics of Mormon Belief” in BYU Studies 40:2 (Summer): 187-211. Also see the church’s new Gospel Topics page on environmental stewardship at https://www.lds.org/topics/environmental-stewardship-and-conservation?lang=eng&query=environment. [Back to manuscript]

[2] One important development to counter this trend was the Faith and the Land Initiative sponsored by Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance to bring communities of faith together, including LDS, to listen to each other talk about the spiritual value of wilderness. You can read about it here: http://action.suwa.org/site/PageNavigator/FaithandtheLand.html. [Back to manuscript]

[3] Robinson, Marilynne. The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 246. [Back to manuscript]

[4] “Subduing the Earth” in On the Timely and the Timeless (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, 1978). Also at http://rsc.byu.edu/pubNibleySubduingEarth.php . [Back to manuscript]

Full Citation for this Article: Handley, George B. (2014) "Wilderness, Community, and Ecological Restoration: And LDS Perspective," SquareTwo, Vol. 7 No. 3 (Fall 2014), http://squaretwo.org/Sq2ArticleHandleyEcologicalRepentance.html, accessed <give access date>.

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