As a landscape designer who works on LDS temple landscapes, I am often left wondering where the symbol of the Mother—if not in the garden and not in the Holy of Holies—has place to reside. Latter-day Saint women around the world grapple with these urgent questions: Where is a divine feminine figure located in Mormon theology? Where does she lodge here on Earth? And because there isn’t a prescribed answer, every woman must find Her for herself. This is my answer to my questions, a journey into the wilderness that has lead me to an ever-evolving image of what it is to return to The Tree, our Mother.
Having women in the built spaces and theological discourses of Mormonism is more than just a matter of equal representation. The experience of Mormon women is distinct and only grows more so with the advent of motherhood. With our female Archetype absent from the discourse and relatively little language to describe Her, Mormon women are left with fewer resources than they need to traverse the wilderness of their experience.
As a young poet and architect-in-training, I studied the Tree of Life with great relish from authors such as Roger Cook, Margaret Barker, and Mircea Eliade. As a new mother continuing her poetic quest, I was led to an even deeper personal engagement with the sacred symbols I studied in my graduate work. In the wilderness of my separateness from any other experiences I’d known, I thirsted for other women, for a space to speak the unspeakable about our bodies; to speak about the symbols in our limbs and hearts.
I was left to answer the question: What does it mean as a woman to represent the Creatress, the natural world, in a time of ecological unraveling and with the silence of women just breaking?
The Tree of Life has for millennia been a representation of the Divine Mother. Specifically in the Old Testament, the tree is the representation of Asherah, the Great Mother to the ancient Israelites. She represents eternal life in the most primal sense, as the preserver of the interrelationships of all beings and the Earth around them.
Abraham’s earliest form of temple worship was altered by King Josiah in the sixth century bce to adhere with The Book of the Law, discovered during the temple’s renovation. The worship reforms of supporters of this law code caused the loss of many plain and precious things, including the older ideas, symbols, possibly entire rituals, and forms of words from the temple, including Asherah, Lady Wisdom. The removal of Asherah from the Holy of Holies of the temple was the removal of the urtext of women; the sacred script that unfolded their role in salvation. It was the rejection of ecological wisdom, the mysteries of creation.
Like the Mother, women are the connective power between heaven and earth, administering their own life-giving ordinances. She is revealed as every women through the creative processes of the body and mind.
The root of our ecological crisis lies in our separation from the Tree. Humankind’s large-scale environmental degradations prove that the forces of industrialization perceive that natural systems’ inherent value is inferior to extractable resources for immediate human consumption. The pride behind the wanton destruction of eternal networks in the physical and spiritual spheres of the wild is the same pride that removed the Divine Mother from Her Temple throne, and attempts to accelerate the silencing of women.
The Tree at the Center, is an eco-theological work that delves into the meaning of female exile and reveals that a new language is part of the way forward. Three instantiations of the tree—the Tree of Ascent, the Tree of Fertility, and Asherah the Tree—all find expression in my contribution to the ancient but new vernacular for Mormon women. The Tree at the Center seeks to revive and revivify the Mormon people’s relationship with nature and the wilderness Mother who is not separate from us. This is the story of women that has only been whispered peripherally in Mormonism. Women feel the presence of their exiled Mother, find Her encoded in the symbology of the temple and the wild, and are ready and waiting to participate in Her deciphering.