Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua. (Geographical Field Note)

Academic journal article The Geographical Review

Mormon Colonias of Chihuahua. (Geographical Field Note)

Article excerpt

From my teacher, the geographer Barney Nietschmann, I learned a great deal about islands. Isolation, the preciousness of fresh water, the power of "national" identity, how innovations amend an initial cultural impress--each of these was a theme Barney stressed. Just as biogeographers recognize actual and habitat islands, cultural geographers study island peoples--or, just as readily, turn their attention toward ethnic enclaves that lie far from the sea. The Hassidic Jews of New York City's Lower East Side and the Czech farmers of East Texas both arrived with their own geographical thought, which stamped its imprint on the land and created recognizable and distinct places. Such insular landscapes often arise from diffusion-- the formation of "colonies" with a striking resemblance to an original homeland--followed by vicariance and change arising from the challenges and opportunities of contact with encircling cultures. Stasis and shift. Continuity and disequilibrium. As geographers we go into the field and ask , "Where?" "How?" and "Why?"


A few years ago I wrote a book that won the J. B. Jackson Prize but dunked me into a vat of local hot water. In Rocky Mountain Divide: Selling and Saving the West, I explored the essentially Mormon landscapes of Utah (Wright 1993b). The problem was this: I stated the obvious fact that the agrarian "Mormon Landscape," as surveyed by Donald W. Meinig (1965), defined by Richard Francaviglia (1970), and elaborated by Wallace Stegner (1970), no longer reflected modern Mormon geography and values (Table I). Urbanization, industrial expansion, and rural land subdivision have all but erased this classic Mormon Landscape from the world.

All that remains are a few cultural islands in the back valleys of the Wasatch Mountains, such as Sanpete County. Interestingly, Gary Peterson and Lowell Bennion also won the J. B. Jackson Prize for their fine book, Sanpete Scenes: A Guide to Utah's Heart (1987). That heart of traditional Mormon Utah beats ever weaker, especially given the nearly 30 percent population growth in Utah during the 1990s and the onslaught of development triggered by second-home development and the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Olympics.

In Rocky Mountain Divide I wrote that this was a shame, given the philosophical roots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (LDS). Joseph Smith's Plat for the City of Zion arose during the Great Awakening in the 1830s as a utopian vision of small cities in which farmers were stewards obliged to a divine landlord (Kay and Brown 1985). His plat was brilliant environmental planning: a form of cluster development based in part on the elegantly sensible goal of not covering productive farmland and wildlife habitat with structures (Jackson 1978.) The original impress that evolved in Utah was true to this wisdom, and the Mormon people could have avoided the rapacious, senseless development patterns of Gentiles (Arrington 1958). Sadly, they did not (Flores 1983). Utah is now an extremely difficult place for conservationists seeking to protect rural places. Neighboring Colorado has more than thirty land-trust groups and many city and county open-space systems, but Utah has only one active land trust, base d in Park City. That was the case in the mid-1990s (Wright 1993a, 1993b; Starrs and Wright 1995). It is still true today, and the only rational explanation is the preference of the dominant Mormon culture for erecting Brigham Young's ever-expanding "City for God."

"Building up Zion" has all but erased Prophet Smith's initial conservation-based model for the church, and the once-core Mormon Landscape now veers toward the megalopolis. A drive across Utah reveals this all too clearly. As a geographer and conservationist, I cannot take the least pleasure in that fact. But, is this the case wherever Mormons settled? The church-sponsored farming colonies of Mexico provide an opportunity to explore that basic question in two remote cultural islands. …

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