Home Waters: Soul as Watershed

Provo RiverSpurred by Handley’s Home Waters, I’ve been reading Wallace Stegner. Like Handley, Stegner is interested in the tight twine of body, place, and genealogy that makes a life. On my account, Handley and Stegner share the same thesis: if the body is a river, then the soul is a watershed.

Like a shirt pulled off over your head, this thesis leaves the soul inside-out and exposed. You thought your soul was a kernel of atomic interiority, your most secret secret – but shirt in hand, everyone can see your navel.

Stegner’s novel, Angle of Repose, opens with the narrator’s own version of this thesis. An aging father, writing about his pioneer grandparents, names the distance between himself and his son:

Right there, I might say to Rodman, who doesn’t believe in time, notice something: I started to establish the present and the present moved on. What I established is already buried under layers of tape. Before I can say I am, I was. Heraclitus and I, prophets of flux, know that the flux is composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other. Am or was, I am cumulative, too. I am everything I ever was, whatever you and Leah may think. I am much of what my parents and especially my grandparents were – inherited stature, coloring, brains, bones (that part unfortunate), plus transmitted prejudices, culture, scruples, likings, moralities, and moral errors that I defend as if they were personal and not familial (3-4)

Right off, Stegner fingers what is different about this notion of a soul: time. Thinking that souls are tucked away inside us generally goes hand in hand with thinking that they are untouched by time. Dammed up inside, the soul, unmoved, is safe from the perpetual rush and tumble of Heraclitus’ panta rhei.

But wrong-side-out, the soul has no such repose. Here, nothing is still and the soul’s “I am!” is both compromised and constituted by its temporality: it moves but its movement is “composed of parts that imitate and repeat each other.” It moves but it moves as a gathering litany of brains, bones, beliefs, scruples, and prejudices copied from the bodies and lives of parents and grandparents and channeled through the narrow straits of my canyon walls.

As Handley points out, “this is the way with watersheds. They gather tributaries from upstream and connect all that is above, beneath, and beside and give life through unseen processes of exchange” (xv). Downstream, the river appears self-sufficient, its banks clearly defined, its water an unremarkable grace. But the accessible obscures the obvious. “A river is water, yes, but it is also soil, plant, and animal life – a watershed” (128). A soul is a body, yes, but it is also a place and a time.

A soul, like water, “seeps through the edges of stone, leaps out of rocky walls, or surges from beneath the soil, and it grows in size and momentum as it flows downward from the tops of the mountains. Little capillaries of water meet up with others to form small rivulets and streams, which meet others still in naturally formed transepts, until a river takes shape and creates inverted mountains to aid its way down. Down to the sea or directly to the clouds from where it drops on the mountains again”  (213).

The simile is striking but I don’t want to leave it as such. Handley’s attention to the force of place insists that we are dealing with more than metaphor. The soul names both the body’s place and that body’s being placed. There are no souls without bodies, but a body, in itself, is a wire unplugged. Souls socket bodies into the place of their time. It is in this sense, Handley suggests, that “geography teaches us the first lessons of being”: that every kind of being involves a being there (38).

This fits with Mormonism’s own original take on the soul. Sometimes we use the word like everyone else, but sometimes we don’t. D&C 88:15 gives the term a twist: “The spirit and the body are the soul of man.”

Where Plato’s soul is, above all else, indivisible, Joseph gives it as composite. “Soul” names the body’s being-there-with a spirit. Given that the separation of body and spirit is death, the soul – this being-there-with of body and spirit – is synonymous with life.

We might take this one step farther. In Mormon parlance, the separation of body and spirit is physical death, but the separation of my spirit from the presence of God is spiritual death. Eternal life, spiritual life, depends on my spirit’s being-there-with God’s Spirit.

Eternal life sparks when body sockets into spirit that sockets into Spirit. This compounding togetherness is the essence of a soul. Souls are the “taking place” of this shared life. They are the “there” of our being-there. There is no salvation without this shared place or promised land.

Sin, on the other hand, dis-places us. All sinners are expatriots – not because they’ve left some particular place behind but because they’ve come ungrounded from place altogether. Sinners, we no longer know where we are. We no longer feel earth beneath our feet, smell rain in the air, or stain our hands with walnut hulls. Sky turns unnoticed.

Religion, then, is revealed geography. Angels, when they come from the presence of God, do as Moroni did for Joseph Smith: they point to the ground and say “Here!”

Attention to place involves not just attention to landscape but to the body as well. The body is the place where life happens. While the soul is the place of the body, the body localizes the extended geography of the soul. “The body is the cup in which to drink the world” (42). This cup always runs over, but without the body life won’t hold water.

We stuff, abuse, and ignore our bodies at our own peril. The soul as watershed feeds the body’s current through the capillaries, rivulets, and transepts of sensation. In order be here, “sensation is what one needs” (57). A respiring body, a sweating body, a wind-chapped body, a sun-kissed body, is what one needs. A body in open air. We forfeit our souls, our place, if our bodies become just “excess baggage, things to be maintained so that we can continue to live as if they were irrelevant, as if we were not embodied biological matter” (34).

Handley climbs mountains in order to pace out the dimensions of his watershed and it is the work imposed by the slope that wakes him to it. “The mountain,” he says, “stirs me from strange and varied slumbers of the body” (187). Awakening to our bodies is the key to awakening to our place.

None of this is to deny that we are “insufficient vessels,” that our bodies are “not built to withstand [even] the daily tremors beauty offers” (162). But this insufficiency, this dependence of the river on a watershed that spreads from view, is the whole point. The body that I am, the repetition of blood, faith, and sin that I am, is necessitated only by this insufficiency. This insufficiency is the tie that binds body to place and parent to child.

A soul is the sharing of this insufficiency in a common place. It is the wakeful shouldering of its burden from one body to the next.

17 comments for “Home Waters: Soul as Watershed

  1. I like it (“A soul is the sharing of this insufficiency”). A theology that encompasses our corporeal essence per se — and not just as an enemy or something to be disregarded — is a theology for me.

  2. “Sinners, we no longer know where we are. We no longer feel earth beneath our feet, smell rain in the air, or stain our hands with walnut hulls. Sky turns unnoticed.”


    And the rest.
    You’re a Mormon! Me, too.

  3. I honestly can’t recall ever reading anything that suggests more perfectly what I love about my religion. Thanks, thanks, thanks.

  4. “Angels, when they come from the presence of God, do as Moroni did for Joseph Smith: they point to the ground and say “Here!””

    Like I said, envy-laced despair. It feels fantastic.

  5. Adam, just read this, then your Groundhog Day essay, then this again. The two fit together beautifully. Eternal life sparks when body sockets into spirit that sockets into Spirit — indeed.

  6. I enjoyed your post and I will be looking at “Home Waters”. I am unsure that Wallace Stegner would follow this line of thinking on the soul (?) My reading of Stegner seems he believed that the seeking/drifting soul, if lucky, would find it’s ‘Angle of Repose’. That is_ it’s point of rest. It would find itself ( as it has always been) and find it’s peace.

  7. Aquatic imagery of being h been on my mind lately, so I especially appreciate this piece. The image I’ve been rolling around is the transience of rivers and lakes. They are geographic anomalies, evidence of geologic inefficiencies. When the river has finished it’s work, the lake will no longer exist. I feel that my work will be sufficient, though, if I can merely be the creek by which others can repose for a time. I would love to do some great thing, to create some permanent monument to myself (as my nature is wont). But I find now that i don’t understand what that would even mean anymore. So let me water the grasses for a time, to create something beautiful for a season, and perhaps that will be enough.

  8. Bob, you’re certainly right that this use of Stegner may be a touch “creative.” Do you recommend any titles in particular besides Angle of Repose?

  9. I would recommend “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (mostly youth auto/Bio) and “Wolf Willow”, also A/Bio.
    I have have more than ten books by him or about him (and his relationship with the Church.
    The last book I bought was by his son, Page. It is a colection of Stegner’s letters. Ten are to Fawn Brodie.

  10. I’m fascinated with this Mormon notion of the soul as an emergent phenomenon, arising out of the “parts” of body, soul, sociality, geography. I think it’s a very compelling theology on its own, but likewise one that fits very well my own experience (is this a chicken-egg scenario?).

    Also related, we ought to mention Handley’s discussion of non-linear genealogy, criticizing the way we so often take a linear perspective on our ancestry. He uses the metaphor of Aspens, with each of us emerging out of an interlaced web of roots, just as we do out of a web of interrelated ancestry – particularly for those like Handley who come from pioneer stock. This spoke very much to my own experience as well. I was always told that I was a 7th generation Mormon with no polygamists in my direct past. This is only true if one takes a linear, patriarchal look at my ancestry. I discovered that if one branches off from the patriarchal line I’m an 8th generationer whose family tree is peppered with polygamy. I’m also entirely devoid of pioneer stock or even Christianity on certain other lines. I appreciate the diverse amalgamation of the aspen-like web of ancestry much more than patriarchal line I was raised to understand.

  11. Thanks, James. This is an important point. I hope to take up the topic of non-linear genealogy next week.

  12. Thanks for bringing up Stegner. He is one of my favorites, as is “Angle of Repose,” which I regard as a great work on forgiveness. He also wrote “The Sound of Mountain Water,” which I love. Your thoughts on soul are really insightful.

  13. George’s book is great. Thanks to Adam for bringing this to broader attention. I’ve been giving the book as a gift to friends who know the Provo River watershed or love ecology. Keep these posts coming.

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