This is an account of books and friends, red rock and lichen-clad graves, science and serendipity. I am writing while listening to Neil Young’s The Old Homestead on the record player. I suggest you read it to the same.
Out on the floor
where the cowboys dance,
approaching slowly at a glance.
Here comes the shadow of his stance:
The reins are fallin’
from his hands.
I was born in the Shire, where there are no cowboys, only hobbits. Before Peter Jackson canonised New Zealand as Middle Earth, Tolkien imagined his boyhood Worcestershire, my home. The industrial ruin of Sarehole Mill by Saruman, the Misty Mountains of the Welsh Marches, the thatch and brick of domestic life — all part of my tory roots . . . and Tolkien’s. After years away, I am back here with my family, our home now made in Gladstone Cottage, built c. 1880. Incidentally, this is also the land of Narnian gas lamps, Brideshead Revisited, and Elgar’s music, but let us not be greedy.
Bilbo would likely have remained in the Shire had the Mormon wizards not pestered his parents in 1963. Pestered and baptised, my parents’ religious loyalties shifted to the Latter-day Saints, taking an as yet unborn me with them. Thus new horizons: a mission call to Austria; an interest in ancient writ leading to journeyings in the Middle East and study in America; and Utah, strange, beautiful, un-Shire-ly Utah.
But before we head west, let us pause at Great Malvern Priory, the ancient centre of Christian worship around these parts. Mormonism does not entirely explain me, you see. There were the Anglican schools, the Lord’s prayer, and the annual St. George’s parades to the Priory. As a boy I sat in the misericords under stained glass and realised that there was more than one religious aesthetic and I liked this one as much as the other one. It was different but good. Now my wife sings Evensong in the Priory choir and I am responsible for religious education at the nearby cathedral school.
Utah. My research occasionally brings me to BYU, that shining campus on the hill. There are many friends in these mountains — ones for commensal rituals at SLAB, others to score great tickets to the Jazz, a few more with whom to discuss ancient law and Mormon Studies in Europe. Since my last trip to Utah, one friend — Professor Steven L. Peck, hereafter “the Professor” — published his wonderful The Scholar of Moab. And so I pestered him, like those missionaries in the 60s pestered my mum and dad, to do something for me. Not quite to join a new religion, although freshly arrived from a lecture on the cult of Mithras, it did cross my mind. Rather, to take me to Moab to walk in the footsteps of Hyrum Thane, the scholar of Moab himself.
Last year I described Canyonlands as “an alien world, a strange wilderness of rock” and looked forward to my return to this place of Gadianton Robbery and alien abduction. Now I had a guide to show me where Hyrum walked, worshiped, plotted, lied, and [spoiler] in this Martian place. I often show friends around my homeland, especially Mormons visiting the Wilford Woodruff missionary sites. I had read about and imagined Hyrum Thane’s world, but just like for those Yankees who come to make pilgrimage where their ancestors first dreamed of an American Zion, all journeys are better when accompanied by a guru. The Professor was to be my Moabite guru, a latter-day King Eglon. The pictures that follow will only make sense to those who have read the book. Perhaps it will inspire some of you to go out and buy it.
This last picture takes us home, to Malvern in the Shire and the church mentioned above. As we hiked through Negro Bill Canyon, the Professor and I talked about his career as an evolutionary biologist and the challenges of advocating in favour of Darwinism in a religiously conservative community. I suppose that human evolution through natural selection can easily be dismissed from the comfort of the church pew but walking through Moab’s canyons it is easier to accept the age of the earth and the unfathomable stretches of time that have eroded vast tonnages of rock and allowed the tree of life to grow and evolve and grow and grow. And so we spoke of Charles Darwin and I remembered that I live but a mile from his daughter’s grave, dear Anne Elizabeth Darwin who was buried in the Priory graveyard by her parents in 1851. There is the real challenge to faith, not in the primordial soup but in the loss of loved ones like Annie. Thank God, then, for the Prophet’s attempted conquest of death and the hope made alive in Christ at Easter.
And so a rock from Moab now lies on Annie’s grave, a rock from a stream we named Annie Darwin Creek because we are romantics and life is full of beautiful things like rocks, and streams, and Annies. Wonderful books, good friends, and pestering missionaries too. Malvern and Moab are not an obvious pair but the branches of the tree entwine and entangle in marvelous ways. Thanks Steve, thanks BYU, and thanks Rebecca for giving me the space to grow.