If the pioneers left any legacy, it is that seemingly impossible obstacles may be overcome by faith and hard work. If you don’t think that has any application in today’s world, your television must be broken, your Internet must have crashed and you haven’t spoken to another person in days.
This brief pause between two political conventions may be a good time to realize that we might learn from these rugged settlers what traits truly matter for leadership.
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Pioneer Day, celebrated in Utah and by Mormons worldwide as the day Brigham Young first entered the Salt Lake Valley, falls in July. That is serendipitous, because it is a time of year when the interior West seems determined to persuade people to leave.
A fire late Tuesday in Tooele is just one example. Although authorities said it was deliberately set, the rapid way it spread as it destroyed 10 homes and damaged at least eight others demonstrates the dangers of a tinder dry landscape where each little spark is a conflagration in embryo.
Several large wildfires this summer already made that point quite clearly. But if it’s not fires, you can be certain nature will try to run you out with floods, droughts, extreme cold or blizzards.
Managing and taming all this can be as challenging as gleaning wisdom from a political ad.
But they did it, and with a lot less technology than we have.
Few things illustrate how wild this land is better than the 1996-97 water year in California. As a report from the Western Water Policy Review Advisory Commission describes it, the fall started off promising. But a series of floods hit in December and January, leaving the mountains with 200 percent of normal snowfall.
State officials told water contractors they could expect 100 percent of their allocations come springtime. That was a mistake, because a drought took hold for the next four months, reducing allocations to 90 percent.
Normal weather, floods and drought all in one year — that’s the West the pioneers knew well as they tried to grow crops and battle crickets at the same time. They kept going because they saw beyond their own day-to-day struggles, and because they envisioned the kind of better place we now enjoy.
They may not have been any better equipped than us to deal with modern racial tensions, which divided the world more then than now. They may not have had ready answers for terrorism or how to separate huddled masses of refugees from those seeking to do harm. They might be as perplexed about this presidential race as you are.
What they would have to offer, however, is a different sort of perspective. Their collective vision, despite trials, puts our own consumer obsessed, debt-laden culture in perspective. Their ability to cooperate to solve problems, to band together against common threats, is a template for solutions.
The late author Wallace Stegner said, “One cannot be pessimistic about the West. This is the native home of hope. When it fully learns that cooperation, not rugged individualism, is the quality that most characterizes and preserves it, then it will have achieved itself and outlived its origins. Then it has a chance to create a society to match its scenery.”
The pioneers knew this, but they would add to that the need for faith. Theirs was a simple faith, but that does not mean they were simple-minded. They lived life close enough to the land, the source of their prosperity, to understand its fragility and their dependence on sources beyond their control. We, with our department stores, super highways and air-conditioned buildings, are the simple ones who, for the most part, are insulated from nature.
People who live in the West have no right to not believe in miracles. All they have to do is look around. The reality that settlements took root anywhere in the interior West and grew into large cities is a miracle, a testament to the faith and unconquerable will of the first settlers.
They did the impossible, and that ought to give us the courage to solve today’s seemingly impossible problems, too.