“After I had retired to the place where I had previously designed to go, having looked around me, and finding myself alone, I kneeled down and began to offer up the desires of my heart to God….I saw a pillar of light exactly over my head, above the brightness of the sun, which descended gradually until it fell upon me.”
Joseph Smith Jr., Joseph Smith—History 1:15-16
Stay on the paths.
Leave all natural materials in the grove.
Do not deface the trees.
Do not litter.
Plaque at entrance to the Sacred Grove
Walking along the narrow foot path that leads into the Sacred Grove I am greeted by friendly volunteer missionaries armed with maps of the grove and 5 styles of pass-along cards. Children scamper by me as parents issue commands. As I pass from humid sun to blessed shade, the temperature drops and the slight breeze cools the beads of sweat on my brow. I am joined by my partner Kayte and Robert Parrot, the sacred grove’s only forester. As we reach the top of a small incline, a man in a white shirt just ahead of us turns and says, “Beautiful huh? But I tell ya, I used to be a logger, and there sure is some nice timber in here!” We chuckle as Robert makes a bit of small talk and then we part on our separate ways. After having spent the last week marking trees for harvest based on their girth and straight trunks, I admit I had noticed the thick, tall and pencil straight trunks of many of the grove’s older trees. I had come to feel the spirit of this place and all I could think about was whether or not a tree was “in” or “out.” But as Robert pointed out the subtle features of the beautiful forest Mormons hold sacred, the timber tallier in me receded, and my soul swooshed like an oak in the afternoon breeze.
Robert Parrot is an unassuming, soft spoken (and yes, bearded) man in his 50s. When I asked him about his education he said that he was not a professionally trained forester, but a naturalist practicing forestry. He had spent much of his career working for a local sawmill operator, managing their forests along with other small scale consulting work. The church stumbled upon Robert in 1997 when they cut some 86 trees on a newly acquired property adjacent to the grove from which they planned to build replicas of the Smith cabins. The only problem was getting them out without ruining the grove. Robert extracted the logs without ripping up the soil and the church was impressed enough to offer him a temporary job managing the sacred grove, he has been there ever since. Under Gordon Hinckley’s leadership, Robert was asked to restore the grove to “health, vitality and biological balance” so that visitors could have what Robert calls an “authentic Joseph Smith experience.” Hinckley wanted visitors to see the grove as Joseph might have seen it. The only problem was that in 1997 the grove looked much different than it might have in 1820, when the 14 year old Joseph sought solitude under its canopy.
When the Smith family bought a 100 acre parcel near Palmyra, New York in 1817 the forest had been largely untouched by the Euro-American ax and plow. By 1820 about 30 of the 100 acres had been cleared for farming. Hyrum Smith, Joseph’s older brother bought an adjoining 80 acres, which remained mostly forested. This was because Hyrum was a cooper (the craft of building and repairing barrels) and so, Hyrum held a slightly different perception of the forest on his land than the Smiths, who by 1821 were selling their first crop of wheat. The Smiths also produced maple syrup on the farm, producing 1,000 pounds of syrup in 1820.
Joseph was not the first visionary in the family. Nor was he the first to seek the solitude of the forest for prayer. Solomon Mack, Lucy Mack and Joseph Senior all reported having visions. Lucy Mack reports going to the woods to pray for her family. Joseph Senior had frequently recurring dreams about being alone in a desert or waste place and seeing a large tree or patch of garden, where there was a door through which he would find salvation. This theme would later reappear in The Book of Mormon as Lehi’s vision of the Tree of Life.
Although the canonized version of the first vision is most familiar to the Mormon faithful, there are several versions of the story; none of which were published before 1842, the year Joseph published his History of the Church. In earlier accounts Joseph emphasizes seeking forgiveness for sin, in later accounts he sought answers to his prayers regarding the right church to join. In addition to these minor differences, the personages that appear to him also evolve over time. In early accounts it was an angel, then “the Lord,” and finally two personages, one of which spoke to him saying “this is my beloved son, hear him.” Some would point to the differing accounts of the first vision as proof that the story is not true, while others see a young boy attempting to make sense of an intense spiritual experience and growing into its full meaning. Even so, the first vision was not a part of early Mormon theology, history or proselytizing and did not become a core aspect of Mormon theological history and identity until the 20th century.
The Smith’s farm went through many hands after the Smiths moved on. A man named Seth Chapman would later sell the farm back to the Mormon Church under the leadership of Joseph F. Smith in 1907. This was during a time when the practice of polygyny was fading as the defining feature of Mormon religion and the first vision became a strong proof of Joseph’s prophetic authority and example of unique Mormon doctrines such as the separateness of the personages in the Godhead. During this time, most of the acreage comprising the Smith’s and Hyrum’s properties was cleared of forest. But in the northwest corner of the 100 acres, a seven acre parcel managed to survive. In fact, according to Robert Parrot, Seth Chapman stated that he could never bring himself to lay an ax to those seven acres. Joseph F. Smith would later call Willard and Rebecca Bean on a mission to Palmyra in order to recover other important church history sites such as the Hill Cumorah. The Beans worked the Smith farm with little financial support from the Mormon Church raising wheat, barley, oats, beans, chickens, geese, horses, dairy cows, and sheep. They encountered strong resistance from the locals, who went so far as to form an Anti-Mormon league. But Willard, a former prize boxer, was determined to stay and the Beans stayed in Palmyra 23 years. The grove drew pilgrims from all over the world, including church leaders. According to the Bean’s journal, when Mormon Apostle James Talmage visited the farm in 1923 he returned to the house well after dark visibly exhausted, asked only for bread and butter for supper and whispered “Oh the things I have seen and heard this day” (Packer, 57).
When Joseph left his farm work for the solitude of the grove, he would have seen massive beech, oak and hickory trees worshiped by an abundance of understory herbs and shrubs. He would have seen deer, birds, squirrels, dragon flies, dead and dying trees housing mosses, fungi, ants, beetles, salamanders and frogs. When Robert Parrot inherited the job of sacred grove manager, he told us that the small seven acre forest was almost sterile. The forest was traversed by a single wide u-shaped path and one could hear the tour buses running in the nearby parking lot. There was a large gathering space with a loudspeaker for meetings near the place that tradition had it the first vision occurred. When branches or trees fell in ice storms (the region’s natural disturbance regime) they would haul the wood out with trucks, depriving the soil of nutrients, compacting the soil and crushing any seedlings that had survived the aimless soles of visitors’ feet. Robert began his careful work of restoration by dismantling the podium, and moving the parking lot to the south side of the Smith farm. He stopped removing the dead and dying trees and narrowed the paths. He opened gaps in the canopy—sometimes with the help of ice storms—in order to give seedlings the precious light they needed to inch their ways up to the sub-canopy. Robert calls his management strategy a modified old growth forest, wherein he works hard to maintain a natural canopy stratification of old, intermediate and young trees, while making sure there are no dead or dying branches hanging over the paths.
The church has also acquired some of the surrounding properties bringing the total acreage of the grove to 150. Newly acquired property surrounding the grove was allowed to regenerate naturally, and the young stands are vigorous, but unlike the widely spaced and open atmosphere of the older sections, the young forests are a thicket of competing saplings, stretching and straining for light. In 50 years, at least half will be dead, beaten in the race for the canopy, decaying into the forest floor.
As I said earlier, Robert Parrot’s sole objective has been to restore the forest to health, vitality and biological balance giving visitors a sense for how Joseph experienced the lush forest in 1820. Under Robert’s care, the forest has regained much of its former diversity and vitality and now boasts a tangle of canopy layers, snags, downed logs, moss, lichens, fungi, birds, deer, insects and amphibians. The forest is also big enough to accommodate all the visitors that seek quiet solitude there. This mostly unknown story of the restoration has played out quietly under the care of a humble (non-Mormon) forester.
As we approached a massive beech tree, whose smooth bark extended hundreds of feet into the air, Robert whispered, “this is one.” There are eight “witness trees,” in the grove that are over 250 years old, old enough to have been alive when Joseph sought their shade. Robert then turned to me and, looking me in the eyes, said softly “Joseph felt the spirit of this forest long before he asked his deepest questions.” Despite never being baptized, Robert believes deeply in the visionary Joseph and asserts that it was sacredness that drew Joseph here.
After saying our goodbyes to Robert, Kayte and I ventured back into the grove to talk with some of the folks who had come to experience the forest for themselves. Some were surprised that we wanted to talk, others a bit skeptical about our motives, but everyone we talked with expressed a deep love for the forest. From our handful of interviews there appears to be at least four interpretations of the sacred grove:
- The Event: several people repeated the obvious reasons why the grove was sacred: because of what happened here. One person compared it to a battlefield, a place we visit to remember. Here, the forest functions as a transparent sign, a lens through which we focus on the first vision as a single event.
- The Pilgrimage: other folks said that they felt the forest was a place one could come to seek personal spiritual experience. As one woman stated “I feel renewed here.” In this interpretation while the sacred grove is important as a particularly powerful space, it was easy to connect other forests to this same function of spiritual renewal.
- The Parable: Both Robert Parrot and some of the folks we spoke with saw the grove as a sort of living parable. For Robert this was illustrated by what he calls “Character Trees;” trees that were crooked or had fallen over in a storm and re-sprouted. Robert likened these gnarly old trees to himself saying “some folks grow straight for the light, while others have to make corrections along the way.” Parrot also noted that it was the straightest trees that tended to fall in wind and ice storms. One missionary couple we spoke with likened the paths in the grove to life; it didn’t really matter where you were in the grove because we all have access to the same calming experience and spirit.
- Sacred Space: In this final but much rarer category the forest is a sacred space because it is alive and connected to God. Robert believes strongly that forests are sacred, but some of the folks we spoke to also alluded to this idea. Some were hesitant to put it in those terms, perhaps because there is little familiar language in Mormonism for declaring nature’s sacredness.
It is my hope that the sacred grove and forests in general can be more to us than just transparent signifiers or signs, i.e. pointing to God without having beauty or worth in themselves. In Robert I found a down-to-earth and wise human being who does not boast academic merit but deep experience, experience that grows slowly outward like the rings of a tree. And perhaps if the boy Joseph could feel the spirit of the forest strong enough to have returned to kneel before God among its boughs, we should follow suit and seek the sacred forests in our midst.
Richard Lyman Bushman 2007 Joseph Smith: Rough Stone Rolling (New York) Vintage Books
Rand H. Packer 2007 A Lion and a Lamb: The true story of a young couple’s 24-year mission to return the LDS Church to its birthplace (Provo, Utah) Spring Creek Book, Co.