As Utah’s history division prepares for its 61st annual State History Conference, some might wonder about the relevance of studying the past in the present.
Award-winning Utah author and conference keynoter Jared Farmer argues there are tactical and idealistic reasons for looking back — and they have much to do with looking forward.
History conference set
The 61st annual State History Conference begins Thursday, Sept. 5, and runs through Sunday, Sept. 8, at several Salt Lake City sites. A schedule can be found at www.heritage.utah.gov.
"The future of our republic relies on informed voters," said Farmer, who won the Parkman Prize for his book about Mount Timpanogos called "On Zion’s Mount" and co-wrote "Glen Canyon Dammed." "How can we be good citizens, and how can we expect anything good from our elected officials, if we don’t know our own history, our own record of successes, failures and follies?"
The Stony Brook University professor said that learning history and studying liberal arts have practical applications.
"In the high-tech knowledge economy, you won’t advance far without foundational skills such as thinking critically and writing effectively," said Farmer, who will deliver the conference keynote Thursday at 7 p.m. at Salt Lake City’s Main Library. "These are precisely the skills a liberal-arts education like history provides. A history graduate knows how to find reliable information, knows how to summarize it and knows how to convey that summary in clear, precise language. Employers in the knowledge economy reward such skills."
The theme of this year’s conference is "The Making of Place" with a number of workshops scheduled through Saturday with sessions at the Rio Grande Depot and the Fort Douglas Officers Club. The event is free, save for a Sunday field trip to study the Bear River Massacre, which costs $65.
Workshops include such topics as places of amusement, government and the Western environment, archaeology and landscape, water development, exploration of place, Utah and the world, place names and the evolution of South Temple.
"Few topics could be both more personal and more universal than our relationship to important places in our lives," said Brad Westwood, director of the Division of History and state historic preservation officer. "Everyone is connected to a place or places. Those places shape who we are, at the same time that we as humans are shaping them."
Farmer said that people, not nature, turn spaces into places. His book "On Zion’s Mount" explored that idea.
"When the Mormon pioneers arrived in what’s now Utah in 1847, the name Utah referred exclusively to the valley of Utah Lake and the native people who lived and fished there," he said.
"For the Lake Utes, this was the place. The pioneers and their descendants progressively unmade this native homeland after a brief but tantalizing period of coexistence by displacing the Lake Utes, by exploiting the cutthroat trout fishery to extinction, by seasonally dewatering the Provo River through irrigation, by polluting the lake and ultimately by prioritizing the recreational beauty of the rocky highlands over the ecological health of the watery lowlands," he said.
With the exception of Mount Timpanogos, Farmer said, the pioneers erased the indigenous names from the landscape and substituted their own. In the case of Timpanogos, they began telling fake legends about an Indian princess on its crest.
The historian said moving from northern Utah to western Montana and then to the East Coast has been a major change in his life.
"I began to feel at home only when I reconceived the Manhattan skyline as my mountain front and urban pedestrianism as exploratory hiking," Farmer said. "Over time, I learned to love New York City as a built environment and social landscape."
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