PALMYRA, N.Y. — Scattered throughout what Mormons call the Sacred Grove are a few living witnesses of the First Vision of Joseph Smith. These are the trees that were there in 1820 when young Joseph saw God the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
Today about 150,000 people come each year, walk through the grove and pass by these silent witnesses: beeches and ironwoods that were among those trees that Joseph thought would burst into flames when touched by the glory of God.
There are no monuments. No signs. No indication which trees are which.
__IMAGE1__One man knows these trees like a shepherd knows his flock. For 45 years, he has walked the paths of the Sacred Grove. For almost a dozen years, Bob Parrott has been its caretaker.
Parrott, owner of Custom Forestry Services in Palmyra, remembers how the grove used to be.
"It was just open and park-like. It was so open that from one side you could see right out the other side. Every tree and branch and twig that came down was cleaned up and hauled away," Parrott said in a telephone interview. "It was pretty — and some people like that parklike appearance — it bore little or no resemblance to the forest that the Smiths would have encountered or that Joseph would have gone to."
It was almost an artificial environment with little wildlife and almost no indigenous wildflowers.
When The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints first acquired the 100-acre farm in 1907, the forested grove was only about seven acres, according to Parrott. After the church acquired Hyrum Smith's farm to the north, the church-owned grove expanded to about 13 acres. It remained that size until 1998, when the church acquired adjoining wooded property. bringing the number of mature forested acres to 30 with another 30 acres of younger reclaimed forest that are 30 to 50 years old.
"Ultimately we'll have in the neighborhood of 150 acres of forest with the original grove right at the center of it, where it will be protected from winds and storms and so forth," 61-year-old Parrott said.
When the church decided in 1997 to reconstruct the Smith family's original log cabin, Parrott was hired to haul the logs from a nearby section of forest. The next year, 1998, the church decided Parrott was the person to implement a new forestry management plan, the Sacred Grove Conservation Program.
"The church wants it to look as much as it did in 1820 as possible," Parrott said.
Since the new plan was implemented, a lot has changed. Wildflowers have returned. Ferns are growing. Colorful fungi and moss are on the decaying logs. Wildlife has come back. Songbirds' music rings again through the grove.
"Ten years is very little time, in nature's time frame, for that sort of change to take place. But it's been very dramatic. It's been so dramatic that people often ask now ... 'Why does it look so different?'" Parrott said. "I think it is due, in part, to the management direction we've initiated. And it's due, in part, to Heavenly Father's saying, 'There. If you do the right things, this is what you get.'"
"He's an artist. Honestly, he's an artist with nature," Elder Marlin K. Jensen, LDS Church Historian, said of Parrott. "I was just stunned by what he can do with the management of a forest."
But the forest has also done things with Parrott, who is not a Mormon.
"In my view, I feel there is no question that that's where the vision took place and that the vision did take place, and the events that Joseph described were as it happened," Parrott said. "I always feel the Spirit in the grove, regardless of the season or the weather. The Spirit is always there. There's no question in my mind that what we now call the grove is, in fact, where Joseph went and where the vision took place."
Newly assigned Sacred Grove site missionaries are always excited when they learn that Parrott is not a baptized Mormon.
"They immediately jump to the conclusion that they've got a live one, if you will, and all they've got to do is reel me in," Parrott said, a smile in his voice. "That doesn't bother me. I know where it's coming from. That's what they are supposed to do. ... Even though I understand it, I would prefer that they just accept me as I am. ... It's part of being here. It's not a big deal."
Treating the grove as a sacred place, however, is a big deal for Parrott. Most visitors don't realize how much work goes into maintaining the grove.
"It takes an amazing amount of work to make it look as if I didn't do anything," Parrott said. "It's a little frustrating at times because there is nothing to show for what I am doing ... it's a unique skill to do a considerable amount of maintenance and care and still make it look as natural as possible."
Parrott gets particularly frustrated when a few visitors carelessly carve their initials into trees or let children run off the paths to trample the vegetation. Some visitors even pull down young trees for sport — trees that could have lived centuries.
In 1962, the USDA dated about 30 trees in the grove, including several that were old enough to have been alive in 1820 when Joseph prayed and received his vision.
"We point out to visitors that there are still trees present that were here at the time of the vision, but we don't specify which trees they are," Parrott said, "because if we did, they would, in the words of President Hinckley, 'They would love them to death.'"
But some visitors do remember the location of at least one of the witness trees. They gather the family around for a photo and then pull off pieces of bark for souvenirs.
Parrott said this illustrates why they don't point out which trees are the witness trees. For him, it distorts what the grove is all about.
"The grove isn't about the witness trees," Parrot says. "Eventually they'll all be gone and it will still be the grove and the same Spirit will be there."
Dark winter days give way to beautiful spring mornings. Storms are followed by still nights when fireflies blink among the wildflowers. Visitors, missionaries and years come and go. But Parrott remains, watching over his silent flock — saying a prayer every time he enters the grove that Heavenly Father will teach him what he needs to know to care for the woods.
Copyright 2016, Deseret News Publishing Company