The latest in the Redd Center lecture series at BYU was given by Jared Farmer, Professor of History at SUNY-Stony Brook, who we had as a guest blogger here at our very own JI a week ago. Farmer spoke about his latest book, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American Landscape, recently published by Harvard University Press. As David G. pointed out in his introduction a week ago, the book is a cultural and environmental history of Mt. Timpanogos and Utah Lake–the jewel and the bog, respectively, of Utah County. At least, that’s how they are popularly perceived in the valley today. But things were, at one time, quite different.
As a Utah County native myself–born and raised in Orem–I can vouch for the accuracy of Farmer’s depiction of Timp and Utah Lake in the popular local psyche (Farmer is a son of Provo himself). Utah Lake, as I understood it in my childhood anyway–much the same way Farmer described it–is a shallow stinky carp-infested cesspool where water skiers (those who can’t afford to go to Powell) skim over floating cow pies if not dead and bloating cows (apparently a lot of dead cows float across the lake). Timp, on the other hand, situated at the northern head of the valley, is the crown jewel of Utah County. With a cave at its bosom (with a stalactite heart), a year-round (some years) pseudo-glacier under summit’s shadow on the north face, Redford’s Sundance on its shoulder, and a prostrate Indian Princess’s skyline profile discernible to those in the know–Timp is the mythic monument and ultimate playground of Utah County and just may be the most celebrated peak in the state (though at 11,750 ft., it’s not the highest: Kings Peak and Nebo are both 13,000+ peaks).
This scenario, however, is nearly an about-face from the Indian days of yore. When the Timpanogos Indians–the Fish-eaters–inhabited the valley, Utah Lake was the center place–both literally and metaphysically. At that time it was a pristine lake brimming with large Bonneville Cutthroat Trout and the (now nearly extinct) June Sucker. The Timpanogos Indians dwelt at the mouth of the Provo River where they could catch all the fish they needed and more. It was a perfect setting and was, at the time, the place, with the Salt Lake Valley of eventual Mormon favor being, in Farmer’s words, “the second-best place”–a place the Indians, apparently, didn’t want (it was apparently a neutral zone, or something like that). The mountain, so far as Farmer has found, may not have even been given a name by the native inhabitants of the valley. Water was the sacred and vital aspect of their geographic cosmology.
Things changed however: first with the Mormon establishment of Fort Utah, followed by development of Provo, the native Timpanogos Indians were displaced and Utah Lake as a fishery was eventually all but destroyed. Though the lake served for a time as a recreation area, over time improper disposal of waste, overgrazing in nearby fields, general mismanagement of the ecosystem, the introduction of carp, and the placement of a steel plant on the banks transformed Utah Lake into grey-hued bog impugned with the dismal image described above. As Utah Lake diminished in local consciousness, Timp was simultaneously exalted. After the original inhabitants were displaced, the Mormon inhabitants of the valley–the new “natives”–shifted their focus to the north and through a little legend spinning and annually performed ritualistic summiteering (put on by BYU), a new valley focal point was formed. Farmer traces this historical development along with the rowdy and raucous and largely forgotten history of Provo’s early days in a fascinating narrative that blends cultural and environmental history with folklore and memory. For the rest of it, I’ll let you read the book, which is exactly what I plan to do…as soon as finals are over.