Oxen and Bison: Part 1

Visit old Nauvoo and you’ll find a yoke of oxen vacantly plodding interminable circles through dusty roads. A mere shadow of the oxen that blazed westward trails in Brigham Young’s vanguard company, they pull tourists past museum-houses and historic sites. Outmoded relics, parochial curiosities, beasts of didactic burden: for some, these docile creature embody the Mormon voice.

Admittedly, there are stultifying Mormon voices. We’ve produced at least our fair share of sentimental, moralizing, kitsch. But I believe being docile or didactic isn’t inherently bad. All things in wisdom and order, as they say.

At any rate, those sleepy oxen in the City of Joseph don’t deserve such a hasty dismissal. And since they showed me the town more than once during my semester at BYU’s Joseph Smith Academy, I should call them by name: Jessie and Owen. Late one night in Nauvoo—while playing night games with—I hopped a rail fence, ran behind a shed and nearly plowed into the ribs of Jessie. Startled awake, he turned to face me, snorted and crouched with menace. I think. It all happened at once as I skittered to a stop, stumbled backward a pace or two and lurched back over the rail fence and back into the game that lead to the encounter. For all I know, Jessie (or was it Owen?) was cowering, not crouching, and spent a restless night with a racing heart. But for a brief moment, I saw a wild, unpredictable beast splashed in moonlight.

Reflecting on that moment reminds me of bison, a fitting connection: whether we call the beast bison or buffalo, both names refer etymologically to the ox. As a missionary in Alberta, Canada, I did some service on a buffalo ranch. I was shocked to discover how nimble those wild, woolly mountains of muscle were. A loping, one-ton buffalo can stop short and pivot instantly, and more than once I saw them leap atop one another in a mad scramble to escape ten-foot tall chutes leading to massive steel stocks and a vaccinating needle.

In my ears, even a strictly orthodox Mormon voice can sound this way: wild, agile, defiant, unpredictable and mammoth. Brother Brigham also heard the Mormon voice, which is currently the voice of Ephraim, like this:

The sons of Ephraim are wild and uncultivated, unruly, ungovernable. The spirit in them is turbulent and resolute; they are the Anglo-Saxon race, and they are upon the face of the whole earth, bearing the spirit of rule and dictation, to go forth from conquering to conquer. They search wide creation and scan every nook and corner of this earth to find out what is upon and within it. I see a congregation of them before me today. No hardship will discourage these men; they will penetrate the deepest wilds and overcome almost insurmountable difficulties to develop the treasures of the earth, to further their indomitable spirit for adventure.

You may think I am constructing an analogue to Richard Poll’s famous liahona-iron rod dichotomy. After several revisions, I wondered if I had unwittingly done so myself. Honestly, I’ve bit off more than I have time to chew just now. Feel free to complete my thoughts for me in the comments below while you wait for the next installment. Or just watch an episode of Guy on a Buffalo…