Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Irrigation and the Latter-day Saints

I didn’t water my garden consistently this year, and boy did it show. As I pondered my pitiful, burnt plants this September, roasting up in the Alberta sun, and saw the hose that sat next to it all summer long that I just neglected to turn on, I thought dismally that my pioneer ancestors would be unimpressed. I totally failed them. They, who practically created a garden paradise out of dry rock, and I am looking pathetic with my shriveled tomato plants and a hose.

You see, Mormon pioneers knew how to water their plants.

When the Latter-day Saints came into the Salt Lake Valley, which was kind of like their last hope at a “promised land” after being violently driven from the luscious, green, and fruitful lands of Missouri and then Illinois, they were settling, essentially, in a desert. In 1847 and immediately upon arriving, along with beginning a temple, Brigham Young oversaw the damming of the river. Together the Saints began the arduous task of digging canals and ditches to sustain themselves and their expanding population in this foreign Utah wasteland. Irrigation was definitely not a new concept back then, but the Mormon people were the first group in the West to really go crazy and use irrigation on such a large scale. And you might say they perfected it. Mormon pioneers completely transformed the landscape: communities sprouted up all around the state of Utah and Idaho, then extended up into Canada all the way down to Arizona and then down into Mexico. They planted crops and trees and fruit orchards and beautiful gardens, and they all sprang to life miraculously where little vegetation had been growing before. They established a bustling economy built entirely on irrigation. They truly made “the desert blossom as the rose.” (Isaiah 35:1)

And like I mentioned, Mormon pioneers came to Canada. I live there. Here in Southern Alberta, irrigation is a part of our heritage. My own great-great-grandfather, Charles Ora Card, brought the irrigation techniques and principles he practiced in Northern Utah and applied them to his founding town of Cardston. Canals and ditches were soon expanded, conducting water through Southern Alberta fields to allow the arriving Mormons to settle outlying communities like Raymond, Magrath, and Stirling.

Then, more recently in the mid-20th century, a man named Asael Palmer, a leader of the LDS Church in Lethbridge and Superintendent of the Experimental Station (Research Station), expanded irrigation even further in the Lethbridge area and made it into better farmland. My grandparents tell me they remember the days before Palmer’s initiative to irrigate, and how dust storms would descend upon them regularly and fill their cupboards and houses with sand. Irrigation was revolutionary to Southern Alberta. Whatever a person thinks about the belief system of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, you have to give them credit for knowing how to use water.

My forbearers taught me that community improvement is built into my religion. As children in Primary, we grew up singing a song called “Give Said the Little Stream.” One LDS lady with dementia that I know, a humble farmer’s wife who can remember very little, can still sing every word of that song when I walk her down for supper at my work. She sings,
I’m small I know, but wherever I go,
The grass grows greener still.
Singing, singing all the day, ‘Give away, oh give away!’
Singing, singing all the day, ‘Give, oh give away!’
Our work of irrigation as Latter-day Saints is meant to go beyond the physical landscape. Today, instead of irrigating dry fields, we are given the charge of irrigating a world that is drying up in disbelief. Our message brings new life to individuals that are dried out because of sin or doubt. I have seen the transformation happen, and it is a miracle. Our actions should be motivated by principles of selfless service and love, and they can turn the driest desert into a fruitful garden. Our message of hope through the gospel of Jesus Christ can refresh individuals who may feel at times like withered plants.

The water source of the Latter-day Saint communities in the intermountain West has always been the mountains. The run-off from those mountains, when collected, pooled together, and shared selflessly, sustained large populations. Our spiritual water source also finds symbolic emphasis in the mountains. Latter-day Saints often refer to our sacred temples as “mountains of the Lord.” This is a reference to the Old Testament practice of using mountains as places of communion and instruction from God. It is also a reference to Isaiah’s prophesy that “the mountain of the Lord’s house (temple) shall be established in the top of the mountains.” (Isaiah 2)

In the Old Testament, the prophet Ezekiel saw in a vision great waters flowing out from the temple mountain. As he first waded out with an angel “the waters were to the ankles.” A thousand cubits further out and
“the waters were to the knees. Again he measured a thousand, and brought me through; the waters were to the loins. Afterward he measured a thousand; and it was a river that I could not pass over: for the waters were risen, waters to swim in, a river that could not be passed over.”
He then looked out at the once dry, barren landscape surrounding the mountain and saw that the water that had gone out from the temple had healed the land. (Ezekiel 47)

The healing water is the atonement of Christ. The full access of His grace is found in making and keeping covenants in His house. We are promised divine help in the temple, and then we descend down from the mountain to the arid, burnt-up social landscape we live and work in and use the power of the priesthood to heal and bless. In the temple we receive the living waters that are meant to not only sustain ourselves as individuals, but to make us into “little streams” ever “giving away” to our families and to our communities. As weak, simple saints in training, we are prone to weakness and mistakes, and we pull it off with varying degrees of success. But we always try, and like Ezekiel saw, the water continues to rise from the shallow water at our ankles until it is over our heads in preparation for the Second Coming of the Christ.

I am grateful for my legacy of irrigators. Some ancestors were irrigators of land. Even more impressive to me are the irrigators of souls:  parents and grandparents and countless others in my life that spend their lives giving themselves away in service to others, always singing, in their own way, “I’m small I know, but wherever I go, the grass grows greener still.” I am hopeful that my feeble efforts to irrigate this world will look less like my mangy tomato plants this September, and more like the fruit trees of my ancestors. I am hopeful because I know that the living water is Jesus Christ, and like the canals in the area, I will continue trying to carry forward some of His water as it flows down from his house in the mountains.