Richard V. Francaviglia. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003. xxii + 290 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-87417-542-4.
Reviewed by Peter Blodgett (H. Russell Smith Foundation Curator of Western American History, Huntington Library)
Published on H-Environment (June, 2005)
Looking for God in All Kinds of Places
In his latest work, Richard Francaviglia proposes "to tell the story of how the Great Basin's environment resonates in the spiritual lives of all [its] people" (p. xiv). Professor of history and geography at the University of Texas at Arlington and director of its Center for Greater Southwestern Studies and the History of Cartography, Francaviglia already has written several notable volumes incorporating these various disciplines such as Hard Places, Main Street America, and The Shape of Texas. Believing in Place, however, ventures onto new ground, endeavoring to "read the history of the Great Basin region as one chapter of a spiritual or religious drama that began to unfold several thousand years ago" (p. 126). To do so, Francaviglia immerses himself repeatedly in its many landscapes while pondering the divergent worlds of faith and spirituality in which its inhabitants reside.
A frequent visitor to the Great Basin over the past four decades, Francaviglia writes knowledgeably and passionately of its climate, its terrain, its flora and fauna, but above all, of its stories, its mysteries, and its transcendent spiritual power. Following an introduction that situates Believing in Place within the field of historical geography, the author opens his volume with a chapter that speculates on the relationship of stories told from different cultural perspectives to the landscapes that particular stories attempt to explain. Through the next ten chapters, Francaviglia records his encounters with territories shaped by powerful natural forces, remade by human agency and interpreted as manifestations of otherworldly influences. Spanning the basin from Pyramid Lake to the Wasatch Mountains, from the Mono Basin to the Great Salt Lake, he visits the dwelling places of the Paiute and the Mormons, explicates the spiritual associations to be drawn from desert caverns, dust devils, Joshua trees and the "Burning Man" festival, and contemplates the sacrality to be found in Las Vegas ("Babylon") and the nuclear weapons test ranges of southern Nevada ("Armageddon"). In his concluding chapter, he engages in an extended meditation upon the intertwining of science, spirituality, and place, driven in part by the personal as well as by the cosmic.
By the end of his journeys criss-crossing the Great Basin, Francaviglia has described spaces characterized by stories of war, desire, faith, isolation, and communion. Choosing to take the broadest possible view of the spiritual, he draws upon the richly varied structures of belief held by the basin's indigenous peoples, reminding the reader that "while to the Anglo-Americans [the region] was vacant--a wilderness," its original human residents considered it "full of human memories and spirits" (p. 8). From the shamanistic visions embodied in ancient petroglyphs to Wovoka, the Paiute prophet of the Ghost Dance religion, Francaviglia discusses Native American cosmologies at length as part of his efforts to understand the spiritual dimensions of the region. Indeed, throughout the account of his travels, the author treats every faith and tradition he encounters with an enduring sense of curiosity mixed with profound respect for the wisdom accumulated by the Great Basin's denizens. Patiently, he teases apart the essential components of Native American and Euro-American conceptions of the holy and the supernatural, connecting them to the many features of the basin's geology, topography and weather. Inevitably, Francaviglia's explorations into the basin's sacred character also become personal explorations of humanity's approaches to the divine, for the author admits that "the Great Basin's interdigitated geography and history fill me with a sense of awe" (p. xviii). Drawing freely upon his frequent treks into the basin, he crosses time as well as space, ruminating upon the meanings that he and others have drawn from repeated exposure to the basin's defining traits. In his final chapter, he writes movingly of a very particular confrontation of science and spirituality in his description of his wife's struggle with breast cancer. Out of her ultimately successful ordeal, Francaviglia concludes that "believing in place ... also means integrating places into our deepest beliefs. I now see places as reflections of the human bodies we love and lose, the human souls we cherish in memory, the plants and animals with whom we inhabit the earth, and the god(s) we worship" (p. 248).
As Francaviglia notes, he is not the first observer to reflect upon the deeper meanings to be found in the realm of the Great Basin, nor does he assert that his understanding of them is definitive. Wallace Stegner's 1942 volume for the American Folkways Series, Mormon Country, for example, highlights the role that the region played as "sanctuary" and "refuge" for the LDS Church once it was harried out of Nauvoo, Illinois, in 1844. Writing about Utah's stony reaches as "The Land Nobody Wanted," Stegner comments upon the ephemerality of historical time versus the incredible span of geologic time that "knows no such word as Forever." Richard Jackson, describing Mormonism's attempt in the nineteenth century to master the enormous challenges of building its Zion in the desolate intermountain West, stressed the church's reliance upon a communitarian ethic that "transformed [its experience] with the environment ... into a series of myths ... still used to demonstrate that [the Mormons] were indeed a chosen, heroic people." Like Dayton Duncan or Ian Frazier, Francaviglia chronicles a peripatetic quest for meaning, especially in the emptier spots on the map; like Kathleen Norris, Francaviglia succumbs to places "bountiful in their emptiness, offering solitude and room to grow." Indeed, Francaviglia's paean to the inspirational and restorative effects of the Great Basin affirm the astuteness of Bernard DeVoto's 1952 observation about the "genius" of place, when "we speak of the spell a place casts on us ... for most of us periodically seek out a particular place in order to be renewed, and renewal is a kind of transformation." Believing in Place, however, brings an unusual dimension to the effort to comprehend both the Great Basin as a place and the linkage of spirituality to landscape. Francaviglia spends little time trying to unravel the quirky routines of daily life or pondering the fate of the yeoman farmer, as Duncan and Frazier do, while his "spiritual geography" maps a much broader and more diverse province than Norris ever attempts to explain.
In its intensely personal tone and its persistent scrutiny of the intersections of the spiritual and the worldly, Believing in Place departs significantly from the norms of most academic writing. Even as it does so, however, it illuminates various topics, including several of interest to environmental historians. Francaviglia's sustained investigation of Native American perceptions of the supernatural in the Great Basin, for example, expands our awareness of the depth of human interactions with these landscapes over a long span of time. Exploring the disparate ways that Native Americans and Euro-Americans have chosen to make sense of the places they inhabit within the basin, Francaviglia depicts patterns of belief that have helped to set the patterns governing development, exploitation, and preservation of different landscapes. Through his journeys and through the quests pursued by individual dwellers in the basin, the author reminds us of the dynamic character and the intricate nature of human relationships with and interpretations of any landscape. In an era when spiritual concerns ranging from evangelical environmentalism to New Age revelations increasingly make their presence felt throughout society, Francaviglia's inquiry contributes to our understanding of how such concerns have shaped human perceptions and actions in the Great Basin and how they may influence other such encounters in other places. Its array of intriguing questions and answers deserves the thoughtful attention of many scholars.
. Richard Francaviglia, Hard Places: Reading the Landscape of America's Historic Mining Districts (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1991); Main Street Revisited: Time, Space, and Image Building in Small-Town America (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1996); and The Shape of Texas: Maps as Metaphors (College Station: Texas A & M Press, 1995).
. Wallace Stegner, Mormon Country (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, Bison Books edition, 1981), p. 48.
. Richard H. Jackson, "Mormon Wests: The Creation and Evolution of an American Region" in Western Places, American Myths: How We Think About the West, ed. Gary J. Hausladen (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 2003), pp. 146-147.
. Dayton Duncan, Miles from Nowhere: In Search of the American Frontier (New York: Penguin Books, 1994); Ian Frazier, Great Plains (New York: Penguin Books, 1990); and Kathleen Norris, Dakota: A Spiritual Geography (New York: Ticknor and Fields, 1993); the quotation is from Norris, p. 3.
. Bernard DeVoto, "The High Country," in DeVoto's West: History, Conservation and the Public Good, ed. Edward K. Muller (Athens: Ohio University Press, 2005), p. 64.
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Peter Blodgett. Review of Francaviglia, Richard V., Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin.
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