11 September 2009

The Church of Latter-Day Switzerland Pt. 2

(Continued from Part 1.)

More than once Switzerland has reminded me of my dozen or so years spent in the Mormon country of the Beehive State, if not in topography than in the context of culture. While it wouldn't serve a purpose to compare a religious institution to the whole of a country, through the lens of worldview the two societies share similar attributes in terms of values, assumptions, and attitudes. How these values, assumptions, and attitudes are executed and demonstrated to the outsider also reflects cultural cohesion.

There stands a long relationship between the two societies though presently I think the Mormons would be more willing to acknowledge the connection than the Swiss. In a short New York Times article published 27 May 1883, the connection between the Swiss and the Mormons reads more like that between the British and the North American penal colonies.


President Hurlbut, of the Board of Emigration Commissioners, received a communication yesterday from the Treasury Department in regard to the pauper Mormon immigrants who are expected to arrive here to-day in the Guion steam-ship Nevada. These immigrants are said to have been sent by the Swiss Government, which was anxious to get-rid of them and paid 165f. apiece for their passages to this country. Mr. Hurlbut was informed that Collector Robertson would aid him in preventing those who were likely to become public charges from landing. Superintendent Jackson said that the Mormons had heretofore given the commission no trouble. They always had been received by the Mormon agent here and started for Utah by rail a few hours after they had passed through Castle Garden. Mr. Jackson did not anticipate any trouble with the 427 Swiss Mormons who are to arrive on the Nevada.

It seems that the Honorable Hurlbut was equally as nervous to receive the new immigrants as the Swiss were excited to dump them in the New World. Raised hackles notwithstanding, the Swiss Mormons took to the decidedly browner mountainous frontier as well as the ancient Swiss took to the Alps. Many even participated in the famous handcart races across the Great Plains states.

In 1942, Wallace Stegner wrote Mormon Country, a diplomatic and charitable look at the culture of the Mormons.
In 1921 the twelve-year-old Stegner first set foot in Salt Lake City. Though never baptized as a Latter-day Saint, as a boy Stegner spent time in a Mormon Boy Scout troop. In 1930 he earned his B.A. from the University of Utah and he returned again in 1934 to teach English at the university until 1937. In total, Stegner spent about thirteen years in the Land of Zion.

I first crossed the Utah-Colorado border in the autumn of 1987 and left it for the last time (for now) in the summer of 1999. And about a year before I left, I read Stegner's Mormon Country in the aforementioned graduate seminar at Utah State University. No, I never joined a Boy Scout troop and, no, I never joined the Church, either. But after re-reading Mormon Country here in Switzerland I realize my closeness and fondness for the culture of the "lovely Deseret."

With worldview in mind, the two seemingly opposed cultures of my then and now appear somewhat more affiliated. Take almost any passage from Mormon Country and substitute the words 'Swiss' or 'Switzerland' for 'Mormons' and 'Utah' and the book not only retains its fluidity but the interchangeability of the passages also offers insight into the successful (and sometimes failed) value systems of these two isolated and exclusive cultures.

Both cultures are predominantly agricultural. Thus, community traditions and customs, including physical space, often conform to the need for efficient farming. Stegner writes about the Mormon frontier villages as planned communities that serve the greater purpose of managing the outlying land.

Wherever you go in the Mormon country, whether through the irrigated Snake River Plains of eastern and southern Idaho, the infrequent oases among the Great Basin ranges of Nevada, the desert springs and flash-flood river bottoms of northern and central Arizona, or the mountain valleys of Utah, western Wyoming and western Colorado, you see the characteristic marks of Mormon settlement: the typical, intensively-cultivated fields of alfalfa and sugar beets and Bermuda onions and celery, the orchards of cherry and apple and peach and apricot (and it is not local pride which says that there is no better fruit grown anywhere), the irrigation ditches, the solid houses, the wide-streeted, sleepy green towns. Especially you see the characteristic trees, long lines of them along ditches, along streets, as boundaries between fields and farms.


These are the "Mormon trees," Lombardy poplars. Wherever they went the Mormons planted them. They grew boldly and fast, without much tending, and they make the landscape of the long valley of the Mormon country something special and distinctive. The view across one of those valley from the alluvial aprons of the mountains, when the wind is bending the tall poplars and the whole land leans a little tipsily and even the shadows yaw on tight alfalfa fields and brown pasture land, is a view one does not immediately forget.

And so it is, too, with Switzerland and its own views that "one does not immediately forget." The village of Chéserex at dusk with its own set of surrounding fields, pastures, and Lombardy trees:

Coincidentally, the Lombardy tree comes from the Lombardy region in Italy that shares its northern border and part of Lake Maggiore with Switzerland (Canton Ticino). Stegner continues:

The Mormon village is like a medieval village, a collection of farm houses in the midst of the cultivable land. Like the Lombardy poplars, it is a symbol of the group consciousness and the group planning that enabled the Saints to settle and break a country so barren to look at that Jim Bridger said he would give a thousand dollars if he knew a bushel of corn could be grown there...The village is a social, economic, educational, and religious unit, the sort of unit that best met conditions on the frontier and after the frontier had almost passed.

City planning, tree species, even crops produced--the parallels between the two cultures are easily apparent, explainable, and photographable. More important are the similarities between how these connections are conveyed through what Stegner calls the "group consciousness." In this sense, the village and all that encircles it becomes the group's outer metaphor, a public expression of a very specific way of thinking about itself and its relation to the surrounding environment. Generally, the Swiss aren't Mormon and for the most part Mormons aren't Swiss. I would argue, however, that the two cultures share an implicit worldview that has more to do with group awareness, value systems, and philosophies.

The Mormons and Swiss see themselves as different and separated (and special). Each are surrounded by cultures they don't participate in or wish to align themselves with: the European Union and the Gentiles of the Wild West, for example. As a result, the metaphor of the village could be extended and interpreted both as a way to combine the strengths and resources of the community and to protect themselves from the influence of the outside. Again, Stegner writes:

The peculiar conditions of the mountain frontier happened to strengthen rather than weaken the faith that every village was a prototype of the divinely-ordered city. The medieval town surrounded by fields was a practical and sound pattern of settlement, almost the only possible pattern of settlement. A man could not by himself build and keep in repair a dam, miles of ditch, and all the laborious extras of irrigation farming. This was a country that could be broken only by the united efforts of all. They worked together or they starved out separately, because the supplies of both land and water were extremely limited.

Nowhere is this synthesis of group philosophy and external expressions more realized than the appropriately named Orderville, Utah.

Catchy name, yes, and an even catchier concept: Christian communism! Stegner describes the experiment:

They called it Orderville, not because of the meticulous orderliness of its community life, but because Joseph Smith, in an early revelation, had dreamed of an ideal social and economic system which he called the United Order of Enoch. All property was to be consecrated to common use, each man holding a stewardship for as much as he needed to support his family, and each putting his surplus back in for the benefit of all.

The Mormons never accepted the tag of communism (or Communism). They maintained their beliefs in free agency and insisted that the United Order was voluntary, meaning that if a family no longer wished to participate in the communal lifestyle they could simply leave. But within the walls of Orderville the families lived together, slept in barracks, ate together, worked together, schooled together, entertained together, and prayed together. Any income produced by their labor was put into a community account and divided among the members evenly. The United Order produced and consumed everything from within their property boundaries. Orderville was a classless, stateless, egalitarian society based on common ownership and production for the benefit of the whole. Basically communism but for the sake of argument let's call it "voluntary socialism."

The Swiss village system could never be mistaken for a communist village either. Swiss bank secrecy quickly dissolves that notion. However, the Swiss Socialist Party is the second largest of the four political parties. It leans the farthest left of all the parties, holds fast to classic social democratic platforms, and would like to see Switzerland enter the European Union. Overall, the Swiss are capitalists through and through and as such they've made a pretty good life for themselves. A shortened version of a country by country definition of capitalism goes something like this:

Traditional Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one and buy a bull. Your herd multiplies, and the economy grows. You sell them and retire on the income.

American Capitalism: You have two cows. You sell one, and force the other to produce the milk of four cows. You are surprised when the cow drops dead.

Swiss Capitalism: You have 5000 cows, none of which belong to you. You charge others for storing them.

Wallace Stegner offers his account of Mormon capitalism that, if tweaked a bit, could easily fit into the above joke cycle:

Abhorring the Gentiles, hating them for past persecutions, a world away from them in ideas and ideals, they still could not afford to shut their gates upon them. Some of the Gentiles stayed in the valley, opened stores to get in on the emigrant trade; because they had cash with which to buy in the States, the stocks in their stores were frequently fuller and more varied than those among the Saints, so that even while the Church fought against the infiltration, thundered from the pulpit against the importation of the Devil in Zion, it had to concur in the economic truce that mutual dependency had brought about. Just as it had decided earlier that it was cheaper to feed the Indians than fight them, so it finally decided that it was more profitable to milk the Gentiles than to shut them out.

In 2007, according to the World Tourism Organization, among the fifty most touristed countries in the world Switzerland ranked a middling 27th with 8.4 million visitors. That's well behind such household destinations as Macau (12.9 million), Poland (15 million), and Ukraine (23.1 million). That wouldn't seem so bad if it wasn't for its neighbor, France, who won the prize as the most touristed country in the world with 81.9 million visitors, about ten times the amount of Switzerland. At 19th, the Swiss fare a little better when it comes to making money off tourists (i.e. milking the Gentiles). This is to say that due to several factors (primarily expense) Switzerland keeps people out of their island nation but those who visit tend to spend more money. As a comparison, in the category of Tourism Receipts, France drops its ranking from first to third and shrinks its margin in relation to Switzerland from ten times to about four and a half.

Beyond politics and economics, the worldview of Swiss and Utah cultures perpetuates an observable allegiance to community in the form of trust, discipline, and obedience. Capitalism might be the rule of law but in both cultures you are accountable first to your community, whether that community is Orderville--or the greater hierarchy of the Church--or a Swiss village. Pledge allegiance and play obediently by its rules and you will prosper and, likewise, be awarded with trust. You will be welcomed as a unique member of a specific society, a small part that works for the benefit of something symbolically larger. Dissent and you will find yourself shamed, bereaved, and possibly expelled. The benefits are many: relative stability, order, security, and the comfort surrounding yourself with like-minded others. The consequences are often permanent. Again, Stegner describes this idea in terms easily transferable between cultures:

Authoritarian methods could be tracked down to tinier and tinier details: self-sufficiency, barter system, regimentation, group responses, discrimination against hated or feared races, youth movement, the dispatch of agents (missionaries) to spread the doctrines in far lands, the belief that ultimately the faith will inherit the whole earth. During the course of the years the authority of the priesthood has been somewhat weakened; the secret ballot, superseding the Mormon signed ballot which allowed the priesthood to make sure at any time how any given member voted, has made for considerably less unanimity in political elections, and the infiltration of Gentiles into the larger cities and towns and into the mining and industrial areas has brought in influences which often nullify the pressure of the Church. Generally speaking, it is the country Mormon who can be depended upon to do as he is told, and the so-called "Mormon counties" which can be predicted without recourse to the Gallup poll.

Those Mormons obey because their whole habit and training of life predisposes them to obedience. They are no people regimented against their wills into an iron-clad system. They will defend their system militantly, because by and large it has been good to them. By and large it has been responsible, despite its assumption of power over the individual. Call it a benevolent despotism. It is not a democracy, even yet, except in terms of state and national politics, and its essentially fundamentalist hostility to free thought has driven a good many of its sons and daughters into something like exile, but it cannot be called either deplorable or unwholesome any more than any other fundamentalist faith can. After all, it satisfies its people, or most of them.

Self service produce stands in Eysins and Signy.

Both Mormon country and Switzerland are good places to live because the small communities work hard to make it that way. They're safe, clean, and efficient and as long as you obey the rules you and your family are welcome; though in Mormon country it still improves your social standing to join the fold. They are fine places to be and on most days I think I'd rather be in Signy picking up some locally produced apple juice at a self service stand or in Logan preparing for a day of fishing or skiing in the Bear River mountains than anywhere else. They are places you want to return to and they are places where you want to stay. And this is not random or coincidental, it is the result of the diligent maintenance of long-standing traditions and customs; it is a combined, communal system of values and how these communities express them that make them so inviting to an outsider.

A March 2009 article in Forbes used Gallup-Healthways poll to determine Utah as the best place to live in the United States. The poll listed six factors that contributed to the state rankings: life satisfaction, work quality, healthy behavior, physical health, emotional health, and basic access to necessities like food and shelter. Likewise, the 2005 Quality of Life Index in the Economist listed Switzerland as the second best country in the world to live. This subjective survey was based on questions related to health, family and community life, material well-being, political stability and security, climate and geography, job security, civil liberties, and gender equality.

However appealing, Switzerland and Utah aren't packed with action. The politics and policies might exclude rather than include. And though they appreciate the arts, Swiss and Mormon contributions to the overall humanities are less than expected. In short, when looked at from outside their borders, the people are more somber, the places more quiet. Stegner summarizes:

The Mormons are not, as Mormons, a colorful people. For all its persecutions and its struggles, their history has not been the kind of history which titillated the adventurous blood. The colorful episodes of Mormon history are likely to have been furnished by the apostates, by the Gentiles, by the cowpunchers and all the floating and reckless elements on the fringes of the region. A Mormon's whole training incapacitates him for recklessness; adventurous as the pioneers were, bold as they were, indomitable as they were, they were adventurous and bold and indomitable in pack, on orders, and their story has not been, until recently, very well remembered.

Nothing describes the aversion to recklessness and the inclination for a stable, safe, and unadventurous community life like the classic cowboy song "The Mormon Cowboy." The folklorist Jim Griffith has written about the antecedents of the song--a true folksong in the sense that the author is uncertain and the narrative exists in several versions--in the book A Shared Space: Folklife in the Arizona-Sonora Borderlands. An online version of the essay is available through the University of Arizona's Through Our Parents' Eyes website.

The song describes a Utah Mormon cowboy who decides to stray from home and soon finds himself over his head in sagebrush, women, moonshine, late night parties, and the explosive result from such a sanctimonious combination of circumstances. The definitive commercial version was recorded by "The Original Singing Cowboy" Carl T. Sprague in the mid-1920s.

The Mormon Cowboy

I am a Mormon cowboy, and Utah is my home,
Tucson, Arizona, was the first place I did roam.
From there into El Capitan, a place you all know well,
To describe that brushy country, no mortal tongue can tell.
While at the old post office, a maid came riding down
Upon a bronco pony, and was soon upon the ground.
She gave to each and every one an invitation grand,
Inviting us to a grand ball at the old El Capitan.
We all went to the dance that night in the schoolhouse by the road;
Many folks came from Dripping Springs and many came from Globe.
The music they brought with them, I never shall forget,
'Twas a colored man with his guitar, I can hear him singing yet.
There were lots of married women there, and single girls, too;
I soon became acquainted with all except a few.
The cowboys in their high-heeled boots were leading the grand march,
While the city dudes soon followed, in collars stiff with starch.
After dancing two or three sets I stepped outside to cool,
Every bush that I passed by was loaded with white mule.
Then after serving supper, it was a quarter past one,
I heard a fight had started, each cowboy grabbed his gun.
Up stepped a little cowpuncher, his eyes were flashing fire,
He said he was the ramrod of the ranch called Bar F Bar.
I started for my pony, the guns were flashing fast,
I could hear the cowboys shouting "We broke it up at last."
So I bid farewell to my new-made friends and the place called El Capitan;
The fairest face I ever saw was in that wild and happy band.
I jumped into my saddle and started back toward home,
Made up my mind right then and there that I never more would roam.

This brings us back to the cuckoo clock: Amid the debauchery of Western state neighbors and the "warfare, terror, murder, and bloodshed" of chaotic Italy, the Utah Mormons and Swiss villagers are content at home with their noses to the grindstones, seemingly oblivious to the clichéd multicultural world around them. And why not? They live in beautiful, idyllic places within well-defined social ideologies. They both perpetuate a cultural lifestyle on their own terms. Good or bad, adventurous or staid, flexible or rigid, both cultures are committed to themselves and the idea of a unique and separate society. And though accessible, both cultures demand a healthy dose of acquiescence from outsiders before entering. But again, why not? They are unique because they say and act unique, and because of that there is much to lose. Again, Wallace Stegner writes what could as easily be applied to the Swiss villagers as it is to the Utah Mormons:

It is almost impossible to write fiction about the Mormons, for the reason that Mormon institutions and Mormon society are so peculiar that they call for constant explanation. The result is local color, an almost unavoidable leaning toward the picturesque qualities of a unique social order, and the Mormons as people get lost behind the institutional barriers that set them apart. Still, it is the sticks which furnish the best material for historical best sellers, and the Mormon country will be the sticks for a good while to come...That desert has in very truth been sanctuary to outlaw and zealot and artist and scientist and White Indian and Nephite. For all its homey domesticity and its tradition of laborious piety, it is a country that breeds the Impossibles.

The Utah Mormons and the Swiss villagers thrive because they thrive from within. Both are masters at the construction of sturdy and resistant foundations and both reflect similar worldviews that constitute two distinctly separate societies. Both accomplish this through the cultivation and conservation of expressive cultural traditions unique to themselves, both explicit and implicit, that define patterns of thought and customary behaviors. Glance quickly at these societies and you will see a wall intentionally set though not too tall. Peek over the wall and you might see something that resembles a park: a public place, pretty and peaceful, maintained by a governing body with a strict set of rules. Resist or comply but it's their world you are about to enter.

Photo credits:
Mormon handcarts

1 comment:

Brother Bub said...

Very well thought out, and wrote. A ton of food for thought. Being one who has shared experiences with you in lovely Utah, I can take a personal sense of understanding to that which you have so masterfully conveyed in this essay. Thank you for the reading. Write On!!!