City Creek Nature Notes – Salt Lake City

November 30, 2016

November 30th

Filed under: Birds, California gull, People, Sego lily — canopus56 @ 3:19 am

A Thanksgiving to the Utes and Goshutes

9:00 a.m. It is a season of reflection and giving thanks. One story of giving thanks involves the archetypal Utah edible plant is the state flower: the Sego Lily (Calochortus nuttalli). It can be found along the ridges on either side of City Creek Canyon and that surround the City to its north and east.

Like most western states, Utah has a state pioneer narrative that has risen to become mythical. In California, that state’s pioneer myth is that culturally diverse group of pioneers came west to commercially exploit gold deposits, built part of a continent spanning railroad, and a powerhouse of innovation. That myth continues to drive California’s narrative and economy today. In Utah, its cultural narrative is tied to the religion of the Latter Day Saints (“LDS” a.k.a the Mormons) instead of commerce, although Utah, like California, was initially built on the riches of extracting precious metals, and not prayer.

The Utah L.D.S. pioneer narrative parallels our shared national mythology that first nation peoples saved the first Europeans settlers from starvation. With a gift of knowledge about native plants, the Utes also saved the first LDS pioneers from starvation. The popular current narrative of the LDS entry into Salt Lake Valley emphasizes that its industrious members plowed and planted fields on the first day of their arrival in the valley, and they then diverted water from City Creek Canyon to those fields. LDS members also celebrate their “miracle of the sea gulls,” in which those first 1848 crops were protected from locusts by divinely sent flocks of California gulls (Larus californicus), and thus, the first LDS settlers were saved from starvation. This event is memorialized by the sea gull being adopted by Utah as the state bird, and a statute was erected in the gulls’ honor on the LDS temple grounds.

The history of this state’s flower reveals that those first crops were insufficient. Notwithstanding the gulls’ intervention, and the first LDS pioneers faced starvation. Early pioneer women may have discovered from watching the Ute or Goshute First Nations peoples already in the valley that the underground bulb of the Sego Lily was edible (Cannon, 71), and the lily’s bulbs and other thistles sustained the first LDS pioneers through their initial hard seasons (id). Later, first generation Mormons served and ate cooked Sego Lily bulbs during the holidays in order to illustrate their privations to subsequent generations, and in 1911 as a remembrance of the tenacity of those first LDS Utahans in the face of hunger, Utah adopted the Sego Lily as the state flower (id, 74).

This season, remember to thank a Ute or Goshute tribe member for saving from starvation your ancestors who were among first Mormon settlers.

A version of this entry was published as a letter to the editor of the Salt Lake City Tribune on Nov. 26th, 2016.

In Thoreau’s “Journal” on November 30th, 1858, he describes a winter setting sun. The low sun is a white-silvery disk. He describes an approaching winter storm seen twenty miles away with snowfall underneath that encroaches on a clear sky.

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