Oquirrhs in a rainstorm. The trail turned into a stream. Thunder was behind and then suddenly in front. I was surrounded. I soaked in the light and the rain until a streak touched down a few ridges over. I remember reading that lightning never strikes a juniper tree. I wasn’t sure if that meant I should feel safe being surrounded by them or if that meant I was the only one exposed on the ridgeline.
I ran down. It was a steep climb and the beat of both the drum in my chest and the thunder overhead quickened.
The cells lining our stomachs replace themselves every five days.
The surface layer of our skin exchanges itself every two weeks.[i]
Our environments live in us.
The Oquirrhs were the fluid eastern boundary of the Goshute people.
The Goshutes named the range the Oquirrhs.
That name is said to mean many things.
It means “Cave Mountain.”
There are caves at the southern end of the Oquirrhs that were believed to be “haunted by the shades of those who met death” there in a conflict between Goshutes and another Indian tribe. It was known as the “place of the weeping or wailing of ancestors.”[ii]
It means “Shining Mountain.” In the low-light of dusk, they are the last to feel sun and they shine.
Goshutes caught, roasted, stored, and ate crickets.
While they ate antelope and small game such as jackrabbits and squirrels, they primarily relied on plants.[iii] They were more gatherers than hunters. A Goshute elder said, “When the plants did not bear fruit, [Goshutes] went hungry. When the pine nuts didn’t come out, they went hungry…. They would eat everything. They ate the things that they knew about….When it tasted good, they would live on it, and tell stories. It was like that with Indians long ago.”[iv]
Their life was marked by mobility because living as they did, this arid land could support only one person for every 30 or 40 square miles. Today, the Goshute’s Skull Valley Indian Reservation is a little over 28 square miles.
This was a land of mountains and aridity. It blessed the Goshutes with welcome isolation and protection. The U.S. Government implemented their policy of “Indian Removal” to displace native people from their homelands. The Goshute avoided relocation. They were “not willing to go to the land of the stranger.” Now, at Skull Valley they live on land of their ancestors.[v]
To the Goshutes, the Mormon settlers were ignorant of how to live on this land.
The key, then, was to teach them to adapt.
The name Goshute was given by others. They called themselves “Kusiutta.”
Goshutes called themselves “tougher,” “covered with dust,” and “bullet proof.”
The Goshute called it “sego.” It’s thought to mean “edible.” One Goshute said, “I have observed the ways of the old people, with my own eyes…walking among the sagebrush…. We would…collect the (siigoo’) and eat them…. We would take our maternal grandmother’s and our mother’s digging stick and go to that place and dig for the sego lily roots and eat them. We would gather what we had dug up, bring them home and spread them out to dry.”[vi]
Sego lilies prefer dry, sandy foothills. They will not grow in fertile gardens. They will die if given too much water.[vii]
John Muir hiked the Oquirrhs. He came in July 1877. He floated in the Great Salt Lake. He swam where the Oquirrhs sink into salty foam. He wrote of the Oquirrhs “swelling calmly into the cool sky…the simplicity of their slopes preventing their real loftiness from being appreciated.” He painted in words the “gray, sagey plains” at their base, the muted purple from small oaks and the “dark pine woods filling glacial hollows” being topped with a “smooth crown of snow.” He decided, after the swim, he would “have another baptism” and “bathe in the high sky.” On the slopes he found the “whole mountain-side aglow” with, what he called, “gardens of lilies.” The beauty of it all delighted him. Muir harvested a bouquet of Oquirrh wildflowers on his descent. He concluded the writing of his Utah visit by declaring that “among my memories of this strangle land, that Oquirrh mountain, with its golden lilies, will ever rise in clear relief.” He wrote that if “neighboring mountains are as rich in lilies, then this may well be called the Lily Range.”[viii]
The Lily Range.
Sego lilies prefer dry, sandy foothills. They will not grow in fertile gardens. They will die if given too much water.
The Mormon’s called it Sego Lily. An early Mormon settler wrote that: “In the spring of 1848, our food was gone…. Along in the month of April we noticed all the foothills were one glorious flower garden. The snow had gone, the ground was warm. We dug thousands of sego roots for we heard that the Indians had lived on them for weeks and months. We relished them and carried them home in bucketfuls. How the children feasted on them, particularly when they were dried for they tasted like butternuts.”[ix]
The name Mormon was given by others. They called themselves “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Mormons called themselves “chosen,” “bulb-eaters,” and “deseret.”
To the Mormons, the Goshute did not yet know the true God or how to farm. The key, then, was to teach them to adapt.
This was a land of mountains and aridity. It blessed the Mormons with welcome isolation and protection. Pushed by violence, Mormons fled Illinois and sought a place “far away in the West.” They sang in a hymn, “Now my own mountain home, unto thee I have come; All my fond hopes are centered in thee.”[x]
For the Mormons, this was a gathering place.
In 2014, the population of Salt Lake County was 1.09 million people.
The first Mormons described “a beautiful valley of some twenty by thirty miles in extent, with a lofty range of mountains on the east…and a beautiful line of mountains on the west, watered with daily showers…. The soil of the valley appeared good,” they said, “but will require irrigation to promote vegetation.”
They were farmers, more than gatherers. The Mormons planted potatoes on the first day they entered the valley. Irrigation gates opened. Arid dirt felt water as it never had.
The next spring crickets ate the settlers’ already-scarce crops. Mormons fought the crickets with brooms. But, the crickets stayed and the Mormons prayed for relief. Gulls from the sky ate crickets.
The Mormons, using the Goshute name, called the range the Oquirrhs.
It is said to mean many things.
It means “Shining Mountain.”
In the low-light of dawn, the Oquirrhs are the first to sense sun and they shine.
It means “Wooded Mountain.”
For Mormons, the Oquirrh’s initial value lay in timber and grazing. The first building in the Oquirrh’s canyons was a cabin. Then timber mills followed. The church’s Tabernacle on Temple Square is built from trees of these mountains.[xi]
The Oquirrhs are the western boundary of the valley where the Mormons first arrived. The Oquirrhs would have been the first mountains they’d see, coming over the Wasatch.
The surface layer of our skin exchanges itself every two weeks.
The cells lining our stomachs replace themselves every five days.[xii]
Our environments live in us.
[i] Terryl and Fiona Givens, The Crucible of Doubt: Reflections on the Quest for Faith (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 2014), 15.
[ii] Robert Hass, “July Notebook: The Birds,” The Apple Trees at Olema (New York: Ecco, 2010), 3.
[iii] Jared Farmer, On Zion’s Mount: Mormons, Indians, and the American landscape (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2009), 94.
[iv] C.S. Lewis, The Complete C.S. Lewis Signature Classics (New York: Harper One, 2002), 563.