In honor of Joseph Smith Junior’s impending 200th birthday, my former stake held a celebration for its youth at summer 2005’s end on the green of a neighborhood community center. The stake provided its young people with tee shirts to wear to the event, each sporting leafy green cartoon trees captioned with the slogan, “Find Your Own Grove.”
The slogan’s meanings turn upon word play between “grove” and “groove,” with the instructional emphasis probably falling more on finding one’s own groove rather than on finding one’s own grove. The former is familiar and expected counsel echoing messages LDS youth have heard for generations: don’t follow the “world’s” fashion or behavior trends but find “a style of your own,” a manner of dress and deportment in harmony with gospel standards.
The slogan’s latter meaning invokes narrative that lies at the church’s roots, narrative in which a fourteen-year-old farm boy feels the call to discover the spiritual truth of his existence. This call compels him to seek the solitude of a forest grove to put his questions to God. Thus the slogan “Find Your Own Grove” exhorts the LDS young person to find his/her own Sacred Grove—not just a place, but personal impetus come to fruition in a place where God grants the seeker a new vision of truth for his/her life and perhaps for the world.
The desire to seek meaning for one’s life is a powerful and perhaps obvious drive. Finding a Sacred Grove where the youthful mind might feel it natural to query life’s meaning and put to God its Big Questions is perhaps more difficult. Where might a typical LDS adolescent or pre-adolescent, such as those who attended the “Find Your Own Grove” event in my former stake, find his or her Sacred Grove? Is it even reasonable to exhort our youth to follow the example of the likewise young but perhaps atypical Joseph Smith Jr.?
In his book Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv argues among other points that all children carry within potential for the sort of spiritual desire that brought Joseph Smith to his Sacred Grove. He reminds us that among older religious texts not only did notable prophets and leaders begin spiritual quests at what might be considered precocious ages (ex. Abraham and Christ) but the scriptures themselves are fertile with images connecting children with the highest qualities of spirituality.
Louv observes that poets like William Wordsworth and William Blake endowed the child with native spirituality and in their poetry linked that spirituality to beauty and to nature. Louv notes that Blake himself reported experiencing childhood visions, many of which took place in natural settings: “As a child, Blake announced that he had seen the prophet Ezekiel sitting in a tree … He also reported seeing a tree filled with angels who sang from the branches.”
Louv reports that influential psychologists Abraham Maslow and Edward Hoffman shared views that the childhood quest for spiritual truth is a more widespread phenomenon than many grownups commonly imagine. Hoffman, Louv says, interviewed ” … children and hundreds of adults who described their spontaneous childhood experiences ‘of great meaning, beauty, or inspiration … apart from institutional religion.’”
This speaks strongly to Joseph Smith’s experience in the Sacred Grove, especially since, as Louv says, Hoffman found that among the ” … triggers [of experiences of great meaning] are heartfelt prayer or more formalized religious moments” which may result in revelatory dreams or even “… a visionary episode.” Louv grants that aesthetics also provides “gateways” into visionary or transmundane experiences. But in his chapter titled “The Spiritual Necessity of Nature for the Young,” his point that “Most interesting … is Hoffman’s finding that most transcendent childhood experiences happen in nature” appears directly relevant to the Joseph Smith’s experience of God.
Joseph Smith states the triggers for his vision: a great excitement of mind precipitated by the contemporary religious atmosphere, the impression a scripture had made upon him, his immersion in sincere prayer. But might his choosing nature as the stage for his transcendent spiritual experience be incidental? Perhaps if his reading of James 1:5 had brought him to utter his first prayer in the vacant town square in the middle of the night God the Father and his son Jesus Christ would have appeared to him there. But Joseph chose the woods for his sanctum. His doing so suggests his haboring a strong regard for and perhaps even a trust in the solitude and stimulating qualities of natural settings.
Nature’s role in facilitating spiritual experiences, including Joseph Smith’s, might be hard for some of us to grasp, especially for those under forty years of age. As Louv argues in his book, over the last thirty or forty years two gradually occurring conditions have disconnected children from nature and from early and profound experiences with natural beauty and its energies.
First, natural environments, be they groves, forests, swamps, thicketed drainage ditches, wooded hills or mountains, or even rocky desert landscapes, have recessed beyond many children’s easy reach, resulting in a generation of young people who are complete strangers to natural wilderness, to the surprises of biodiversity, and to nature’s inspirational beauty and grandeur.
Second, nature play has become increasingly criminalized, with the result that children who might otherwise experience nature’s lessons and quickening influences are driven inside their homes or into smaller interior spaces like the corner of a room. There they become increasingly dependent on what Louv calls the “new frontier”—television, the Internet, and other electronic “worlds” that still invite exploration.
Louv acknowledges the importance and adventure of this new electronic frontier. But he argues that the cost of society’s (especially children’s) growing dependence upon it and the accompanying loss of the child-nature relationship results in what he calls “nature deficit disorder,” defined as “the human cost of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and a higher rate of physical and emotional illnesses.” He uses “nature deficit disorder” not as a clinical term but as a useful phrase to describe a condition that he says may afflict not just individuals, but families and even whole communities. Important to the LDS community is his suggestion that the loss of this vital childhood connection may result in widespread spiritual deficiencies along with the physical and emotional ones.
Concerns that “too much” emphasis upon the natural world’s awe-inspiring qualities might result in animism, or worship of nature instead of worship of God, are legitimate. But it does not follow that all instances of heightened awareness of or concern and appreciation for nature inevitably result in nature stealing God’s thunder. One need look no further than holy scripture to see how frequently nature acts as a magnifying glass for God’s meanings.
Living in an agricultural society, a society immersed in and dependent upon nature and natural rhythms, Joseph Smith did not suffer from nature deficit disorder. When confronted with the need to speak to God and to hear clearly God’s reply he sought refuge in nature on that “beautiful, clear day, early in the spring of eighteen hundred and twenty.”
But when we exhort our youth to “Find Your Own Grove,” what are we telling them to do and where are we telling them to go? To church, certainly; on their missions and to the temple, naturally. Obviously, we’re urging them to stick to gospel-sanctioned paths, which wind away from addictions, unbelief, and moral intrigue (the “Find Your Own Groove” side of the slogan). But do we really expect each young person to seek her/his own moment of transcendent beauty and truth where the heavens open and God’s look falls clear upon the day, leaving the youth lying breathless on his or her back, staring into heaven after being stricken by life-altering revelation? If so, we’re lacking emphasis on what might be an important ingredient for such experiences: nature.
Furthermore, reducing nature and the vital Joseph Smith story to the cute word play, the syntactic cadences, and the easy catchphrasing of a TV advertising imperative (“Find Your Own Grove”—LDS church stake; “Get Your Own Box”—Cheezits) might just go to a point Louv makes when he quotes Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment: “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator—from God.”