Skunktrap

The air in Leamington was clear. Sometimes I forget how polluted the skies in Salt Lake City can be until I drive outside of it. It’s like my lungs just adapt to the smoky congestion, and when I get away I remember how to breathe.

Leamington is a little stretch of nothing in the center of Utah. There are no businesses. I saw a one-room post office as we drove into town, turned onto a dirt road, drove round some bends through farmland, and parked in a dusty outcropping of the house’s driveway.

Like the rest of Utah, Leamington was settled by the Mormons a few generations ago. I pulled up the Wikipedia page and read about the original settlers, establishing farmland, growing sugarcane to make molasses, rerouting water through a canal, and growing crops, which they would take to a local mining town (appropriately named Eureka) to sell. (I drove through Eureka later. It has a few gas stations, and more homes. The closest business to Leamington was a few dozen miles away). Eventually, the settlers built a little branch of the railroad. The Mormon church and the local cemetery are the only things listed as noteworthy to visit. Still, a few hundred people live here, which seems like so little until you realize that a few hundred is still a lot of people when you line them all up.

My friend Tyler and I got the kids out of the car and surveyed the rolling farmland around us. We could see cows in the distance, crops, shades of green and brown. I could hear songbirds and the sound of many buzzing insects.

“What kinds of animals live out here?” A, my 6-year old, asked.

“Well, lots,” Tyler answered, having grown up in the area. “Owls, birds, lots of voles, tons of bugs. Mule deer.”

“And what kinds of predators?”

“Raccoons, coyotes, red-tailed hawks.”

We knocked on the door of the farmhouse where we would be sleeping for the night. I’d confirmed this reservation weeks ago when we first planned to come to this remote area of the state. As I reminded the boys to be on their best behavior, our host opened the door.

She was a plump woman in her late forties, her hair pinned back, her granddaughter on her arm. She wore an apron over her white shirt and black pants. Beyond her on the wall, I could see a large picture of a Mormon temple, and a family portrait with she, her husband, and their six children. This was a salt-of-the-earth, hard-working family. I knew from the online profile that the husband worked nearby as an engineer, and that she was a housewife, though the older four children were all out of the house now.

“Hi, I’m Chad!” I said, enthusiastically, waving at the grand-daughter. I saw the woman’s smile slowly drop as she realized there were two men there with children. Her eyes flashed between us, one to the other, and her mouth dropped open. Her face paled. There was a long, pregnant pause as she tried to figure out our relationship. (I would later explain that while Tyler and I are both gay, we were not a couple and would be sleeping in different rooms. It’s quite possible we were the first gay people she’d ever met.)

After the initial awkwardness passed, she greeted us with a forced smile and invited us inside. She showed us the rooms where we would be sleeping in the basement. The shelves down there were packed with thirty years worth of clutter, almost hoarding levels of clutter. It was organized, but it felt like it would cave in on us. Board games, books, notebooks, old art projects, and Tupperware containers full of knickknacks. The beds were lacy and plush, with names of children stenciled onto pillows. Family photos, pictures of Mormon prophets, and pictures of Jesus lined the walls. Somehow, it was all incredibly comfortable, being in the home of this family, one who had carved out their entire existence in this stone farmhouse in the middle of nowhere.

After the kids settled down, I walked back outside to grab the suitcases and came face to face with a skunk. It was less than ten yards away, and I immediately felt my heart rate go up. It was quickly gobbling food up from a cat food dish, and it lifted its head to meet my gaze. I could see its jaw working, up and down, then it ducked to get another bite. It was strangely beautiful. It’s face was majestic in a way, and the pattern of black and white shaggy fur ran down its sides, with a thick tail flowing behind it. It was right in front of the car, and I stood watching it for a minute, calculating the risk of getting sprayed if I stepped toward it, but it scampered away after another bite, rushing down the driveway and up a hillside. It flowed as it moved somehow, and I had images of Pepe Lepew from Looney Toons rush through my mind, jumping gracefully as he chased the female cat.

After a good night’s sleep, the four of us woke to a hearty farm breakfast. As we sat to a meal of banana chocolate chip pancakes, sausage, fried eggs, fresh fruit, milk, and juice, the farmer’s wife told us about getting her degree in biochemistry before she chose to stay at home and raise her children. She talked about how much work it was to maintain a home this size in this location, and how much she loved living out here, yet how isolating it could be. I talked about my documentary project, Tyler quipped about science with her, and my sons bragged about how they wanted to grow up to a geologist and a farmer, respectively. It was a lovely meal,  and I could see her relaxing around us, perhaps realizing that gay people are just, well, people.

As the kids finished their breakfast, I packed the suitcases and went outside to load the car. I looked back over toward the car, and skunk was back but this time it was in a cage. The cage was small, triangular, and barely big enough to contain the small creature. It was panicked, scratching at the ground, unable to get free. It raised its head and I swear it made eye contact as it made a helpless little squeak of a sound. My heart pounded as I went the long way around, loading my suitcases in the trunk before heading back inside.

“There’s a skunk out there! In a trap!”

“Oh!” The farmer’s wife looked delighted. “Good! It finally worked! My husband placed cat food in the skunktrap several nights in a row to catch it. The darn thing keeps eating all of the cat’s food and scaring the grandkids. We used to get a lot of skunks around here, but this is the first one in a while.”

“What will you do with it? Do you take it out in the woods somewhere and let it go? Do you kill it?”

She grimaced. “Well, neither. If you get too close, it gets scared and sprays. In fact, as it starts to get hot outside, it will start to spray in panic. It’s going to smell around here today. But we will just wait for it to die. Skunks are nocturnal, they burrow during the day to stay cool and hunt at night. It won’t take long for it to overheat.”

A look of disgust crossed my face. “You let it cook to death?”

She frowned, sympathetic. “I don’t like it either. But if you see a spider in your house, do you step on it? Living in a place like this, we have to protect our space, and that sometimes means letting creatures die.”

When we left, I walked the kids the long way around, and told them that the skunk would be let go later. The looked at it with fascination and fear. It was getting warmer out, and it was sitting calmly now. I could see it breathing. We loaded ourselves into the car, and as we backed up, I took a long last look at it’s flowing tail, it’s frightening beauty, its helplessness. It was facing its inevitable end after seeking an easy food source in a dangerous place. And it had been caught. I humanized the creature, determining that it was facing its own fate.

We drove down the hillside, through the dusty farmland and back to the highway. I left Leamington, thinking of history, of humanity, of skunks, and of traps.

Skunk

Advertisements

Polygamy, second generation

Joseph Smith first introduced polygamy in 1831, shortly after he established the Mormon Church, or the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Depending on your view point, he either was commanded by God to marry dozens of women, and he did so reluctantly, or he really wanted a lot of wives and he used religion as an excuse to obtain them.

Joseph had his closest allies, such as Brigham Young and John Taylor, who became the next two prophets and presidents of the Church after Smith was killed, take extra wives as well. In 1835, Smith published a revelation from God that condemned polygamy, even while he was practicing it. The leaders of the Church began expanding the practice, even as they publicly denied it, and more and more men and women were encouraged, at times coerced, to enter polygamy. There is evidence that shows Smith, and others, used coercion, or their influence as church leaders, to marry women, some who were already married to other men.

polygamy mormons

It wasn’t until 1852, when the Mormons were settled in Utah (then not part of the United States) that Brigham Young publicly acknowledged polygamy, and then made it a standard practice. Young, who had more than 40 wives, talked about it as a divine principle; one man spreading his time, money, attention, and energy among the number of wives he took in. Members were taught that in order to be holy and in good standing, they had to participate, and if they didn’t want to, they were called selfish or sinners; all faithful members should want to enter these complicated family systems because it is what God wanted.

The United States was outraged, and began to work tirelessly to shut down polygamy in all United States territories (as Utah wouldn’t become a state until 1896). In 1862, polygamy was deemed officially illegal, but the Mormons thought their religious status protected their rights to practice it. The case went to the Supreme Court, and in 1878 it was deemed that even for religious institutions, polygamy was illegal. But by this time, there were thousands upon thousands of families in Utah practicing polygamy. And men as they aged continued taking young virginal wives, some 14 and 15 years old marrying men in their 60s and 70s. But it wasn’t until 1890 that the fourth Mormon prophet, Wilford Woodruff, publicly stated to Mormons that polygamy shouldn’t be practiced. But families were now into their third generation of polygamy; children who were born into polygamous households now had grandchildren becoming fourth wives. And polygamy was still being practiced. In 1904, the Church again had to remind members not to practice polygamy anymore, but it still continued happening, and then again in 1920, the Church finally made it grounds for excommunication. By this point, polygamy had been practiced for approximately 90 years, and it continues to exist in many communities in 2016.

Ida Hunt was born in a central Utah town in 1858. In 1882, she became the second wife of David Udall, a local church leader who already had a wife, Ella. David and Ella were reluctant to be polygamous, but a personal letter from the prophet of the church, John Taylor, told David that he wasn’t setting a good example for the Mormons who followed him, and told him that all Church leaders were expected to be polygamous. So David married Ida in 1882 . Ida became pregnant. And then David, by all accounts a good man, went to jail for polygamy. Ella was left with her children without support, and Ida had to go into hiding with her daughter so they couldn’t use her as a witness against David.

Doing the math here, it was four years AFTER the United States declared polygamy illegal even in religious institutions that the Mormon prophet was encouraging/coercing leaders to take more wives. And 8 years after the marriage of Ida and David that the Church first said it was no longer a sanctioned practice. I recently read Ida’s published journals, her accounts of living on her own, without support or husband, for years as she had to stay hidden while trying to provide for a child. President Grover Cleveland eventually pardoned David, and Ida named her first son after the president. She ultimately had six children. She spent the next few decades, strained financially and having problems with Ella, and David struggled financially with both. Ida died in 1910 of a stroke, far too young. David and Ella ended up married for 50 years before their deaths.

Reading her words, I was struck by her thoughts about the United States government. She expressed again and again how she felt Satan was influencing the government, forcing adversity against God’s Saints, forcing prejudices against the holy order of polygamy. These beliefs were backed up by her local leaders. She never once saw the institution as illegal or morally wrong, because she had been raised believing it was right.

I was raised Mormon. Polygamy was always something in the shadows. Mormons still believe it to be an eternal principle, something that will be practiced in Heaven, men with multiple wives. They tone it down to soften the blow, saying things like it is only in place so that women who never got a chance to have husbands will get the chance in Heaven. All that said, nearly every Mormon I know is a little disturbed by the practice; it elicits discomfort and sadness when it comes up in conversation.

At the same time, I see the same defense mechanisms that Ida had in place with Mormons today as well. I hear excuses about how Satan is influencing the government to do things like make gay marriage legal, and how Mormons have it right with traditional and Celestial families. These same arguments were likely used during the Civil Rights era, and during the “women’s liberation” movement.

Ultimately, though, the Church comes around. Polygamy was declared illegal, blacks were given the Priesthood, and in time, gay marriages will be allowed, in some measure that will allow the Church to save face.

What makes me most upset, however, are the lives lost in the balance. The young mother hiding with her child while her husband is in jail, the black child growing up believing he is less than his white peers, the gay couple keeping their relationship a secret so they won’t be excommunicated. The consequences of these teachings in family last entire lifetimes, and in the generations that follow. Even now, there are thousands upon thousands of families engaging in polygamy secretly, feeling it is their religious obligation to do so, and blaming the government for persecuting them.

Idah1

 

Ensign Peak

ensign-peak-550790

One Saturday several months ago, it rained endlessly, great buckets over the valley, grey skies draining out their excess on the dry land beneath. On Sunday, the skies cleared and the sun washed warmly over the wet expanses. I made my way to the hills and parked my car at Ensign Peak Nature Park, not far from my home in Salt Lake City, Utah. I’ve lived here four years now, give or take a few months, but I’ve never been to this particular park.

Flags fly at the bottom, which is fitting as the word ensign means a flag or standard. Apparently back in 1847, when the Mormons first settled in the Salt Lake valley, Brigham Young marched a group of men up to the top of this hill overlooking the city. He concocted a story about being shown this valley by the ghost of Joseph Smith in a holy vision and declared this is where the Saints would settle and build their new land. They named the hilltop Ensign Peak, referencing an old scripture from Isaiah in the Old Testament.

As I hike the relatively easy half mile incline to the top of the hill, my heart rate increased with minor exertion and my thoughts strayed to the thousands of people who had hiked this trail before me, going back generations. I get like this sometimes, existential, somehow connected to humanity going back to the beginning and pushing forward into the generations to come, my spirit extending outward beyond myself, soul open, eyes wide.

Life stirs in the bushes and trees around me. This Earth that supports life in all its forms, from the smallest of aphids to the largest of whales, from a single blade of grass to a sycamore tree, from one quiet infant to an entire race of humans each warring for their own interests and screaming for validation. A squirrel scrambles to the side, a bird flits up to a tree top, a cricket jumps across the path.

It only takes me 20 minutes to reach the top, and I find a rock to sit against, rolling my jacket up behind the small of my back. There is a little tower of rocks, man-made, up at the Peak, commemorating the space. I don’t let myself look at the horizon, not yet. I just want to experience life here for a moment. It’s warm, there’s a breeze, the ground is hard.

Over the next 20 minutes, I shut my eyes and just listen to the errant conversations around me, snippets of dialogue, voices among loved ones, words that only exist for the amount of time it takes for them to be spoken.

“How long are you in town before you head back to Berlin? We have to take you to a Bees game while you are here!”

“Mom! I already have four likes and two friend requests, look!”

“Sorry about my dog, she just makes that noise when she’s excited, but she would never hurt anyone.”

“Honey, did you forget the snack packs? He’s gonna want his snack pack.”

“I love you, too.”

I notice the quiet within myself, my own internal voices are silent. Those persistent drives and discomforts about the empty bank account, the need for better nutrition, the lack of abs, the lack of a boyfriend… they are silent for now, and it feels amazing. My face, my hands, my neck, all exposed skin soaks up the sunlight and the breeze.

After a time I stand and I take in a slow view of the horizon. The sun hangs low over the Great Salt Lake in the west with the Oquirrh Mountains on the horizon, the city stretches on endlessly to the South with buildings and roads as far as I can see, the snow-capped Wasatch Mountains give color and life to the east. The beautiful State Capitol building lies just below the peak, the smaller Salt Lake City Temple (the Mormon holy building) just beyond that, the University of Utah to the west, enormous apartment buildings jutting all over the valley.

I think back to the how the horizon has changed over the years. Back in 1847, this was a wide open expanse, all brown rock and blue skies. By 1900, the Mormon temple must have been the biggest building, with only small roads and homes around it, now it is dwarfed by concrete and metal businesses and dwellings, beautiful but barely noticeable unless you are right next to it. Before that, this peak must have been used by the fur traders and trappers who moved into the region, seeking to pillage its resources for wealth. Still before that, Native Americans likely used the same view to scout out resources, water sources or animals for hunting, or perhaps as a vantage point to watch for enemies. And it will keep changing as humans die and new humans take their places, as buildings and roads crumble and new structures are built over the old. What will be the view from this peak in ten years, fifty, one hundred?

I keep my back to the others who come and go behind me, still catching bits of their conversations.

“Dude, if you can’t run up this hill, you definitely aren’t ready for a marathon.”

“Should I text her again? No, you’re right, I just gotta wait for a response.”

“This is my first climb since my knee surgery. I can’t wait for a real challenge.”

“Humans,” I think, and I realize I’m smiling. Humans indeed.

I’m there for another ninety minutes, thinking, peaceful, centered, not worried about yesterday or tomorrow. These are the moments to live for, these spiritual moments in nature. I find them in nature, in the human story, in myself.

As the sun sets, I descend. There is a poetry to this place. An ensign raised for a new land, a peak from which you can see with clarity all around you, every potential, every pitfall. An ensign for myself, and one I plan to return to often.