Apr 28, 2011

The Nephite Perspective

The famous image at the right is a perfect example of perception.  Depending upon how you view the image, it is either an ugly hag or a beautiful lady.  It is often difficult to see both images as we tend to be biased one way or the other.  In a similar way it is difficult for us to understand the Nephite view of their environment.  
When we imagine the Nephite conception of their environment we are often misguided by our perception of geography. With our modern view, we see geography vertically. We look down on maps and see all the interconneting roads, rivers and mountain chains. We are accustom to seeing vertical images from overhead satellites which show all the features one would see if he were a bird souring above. Those who have flown are used to the expansive views of lakes and valleys, rivers and forests, cities and suburbs which spread out below them. But the ancients had no such all inclusive views.
We need to recognize this when studying the Book of Mormon.  Those people looked at geography differently than we do. Although they may have used rough charts, they did not have an aerial view of topography. They probably saw the land from a horizontal perspective, rather than the vertical one which is familiar to those who use modern maps.
Michael Hobby and Troy Smith, in their now defunct periodical The Zarahemla Quarterly, point out that we confuse the issue when we "attempt to relate the geographical data in the Book of Mormon to the world as [we] view it, rather than as the ancients viewed it....students have viewed Nephite perception as though they possessed a modern map. In reality they [the Nephites] saw only inlets, forest, forks, banks, jungle, plains, and mountains. ... The principle 'lands' of the Book of Mormon can be defined as the drainage basins of single or interconnected river systems. ... each 'land' ... [was] a drainage basin surrounded by mountains. ... The perception of the Nephites was biased by their mode of travel and their experience, which was always based upon the time they had travelled, which they could correctly perceive, not distance, which they could not correctly perceive. ... a mountain range, regardless of its width, is perceived as a line when viewed horizontally."
If this view is correct, what can we learn from it?
  1. The geographical descriptions of the Book of Mormon are literal physical descriptions as the Nephites viewed them from ground level.
  2. A “land” was a geographical unit centered on a river basin. Thus the local land of Zarahemla would have encompassed a small river basin.
  3. Greater lands would have encompassed the entire river drainage.
  4. Nephite travel would have been based on time not on distance. Whereas our unit of measue is something such as the mile, theirs would have been a days travel. All journeys, where it is specified, are given as so many days. Thus Mormon's mention of the narrow neck of land being a days journey across (or one and a half in a second reference) was a reference to a normal days travel, and not a measure of time.
  5. Mountain ranges, such as the narrow strip of wilderness, were seen as linear features separating lands.

    We need to keep these ideas in mind in our study of the Book of Mormon, and especially in our study of the book's geography.