It is hot. Alisha Anderson and I have just passed the Golden Spike National Historic Site on our way to the Spiral Jetty. Alisha is a former student of mine from the Environmental Humanities Graduate Program at the University of Utah. She is a woman in love with Great Salt Lake, 28 years old, the same age I was when I sought solace from this inland sea. We are on a pilgrimage on this Labor Day weekend to chart the changes of a capricious body of water.
From the corner of my eye, a flash of wings: A burrowing owl has just landed on a barbed wire fence post. We stop. Its yellow eyes could burn grasses with its stare; we blink before it does. These small diurnal predators with their long spindly legs are ground-dwelling tricksters. Once inside their mounds, their calls register as rattlesnakes, mimicking the dry shaking of their tails: A warning, “Do not enter.” A second owl, hidden in the sage, flies out and meets the first on top of their mound. To me, these are the signature species of the Great Basin.
I am home.
It has been 25 years since Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place was published, a quiet book about the rise of Great Salt Lake in the 1980s and the deaths of my mother and grandmother from cancers caused by what I believe was radiation fallout, from nuclear bombs tested in the Nevada desert.
Much has changed since then. The record high lake level of 4,211.85 feet — reached in January 1987, the month of my mother’s passing — has fallen to drought so severe that the North Arm near Promontory Point hit a historic low of 4,189.00 feet, breaking the previous record of 4,191.35 feet, set in 1963.
The flooding lake that I knew has become the shrinking lake that Alisha knows. We are both Mormon women drawn to water, seeking solace from the cities that raised us to conform. I have left my religion; Alisha embraces it. Both of us pray to the beauty of creation. What binds us together is change. Climate change: two words that were not in my vocabulary when I wrote Refuge, in 1983.
The lake has shrunk from roughly 3,300 square miles in 1988 to less than 950 square miles today. One could say this is its cyclic nature; Great Salt Lake has risen and fallen for millennia. But that is only partially true. Researchers show that the lake has dropped an additional 11 feet from pre-settlement times due to our anthropogenic thirst for the fresh waters that feed it. And we are still not sated. Consider the hare-brained Bear River Diversion Plan, which is tied to the construction of other regional water projects — like the Lake Powell pipeline, which promises Utah’s water to China — and you begin to see the craziness of politics in Utah. Add climate change, which is exacerbating drought in the American West, and you wonder whether we will come to our senses and embrace water conservation, or hasten the demise of this dying lake in a withered basin.
In the 1980s, Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty was underwater. When I visited this iconic work of land art for the first time close to a decade ago, it was newly exposed, glistening with salt crystals. Today, it is a black spiral made of basalt stones, contrasting with a white lakebed, baked, cracked and folded from the heat.
Alisha has spent the past year walking the boundaries of this disappearing lake. Like Smithson and Nancy Holt, she is a land artist, only instead of creating spirals and Sun Tunnels on the salt flats, she creates ephemeral art that belongs to the act of creation itself. She is not concerned about who will see it. Her work is more than an artist’s engagement with the world; it is ceremony, and it honors the land itself.
Last year, Alisha lived near Willard Bay on the edge of Great Salt Lake. Every morning and evening, she walked the dike that held the water, an invocation and benediction of each day. When she learned that the dike she was walking on had been made from the stones and shards that had survived through time from the ancient village of the Fremont People who lived there, perhaps even their very bones, she turned her shock and outrage into art. One winter day after a snowstorm, she carried a bucket of red powder — sandstone she had crushed with a mortar and pestle — onto the dike and created a pictograph of her own, in homage to the ancient artists whose work still remains in rock alcoves above the lake.
“We are walking our choices,” Alisha says.
She turns and points to what appear as islands on the horizon — Antelope, Fremont, Gunnison and Dolphin — and tells me they are no longer islands at all, but bodies of land now connected to the mainland. Gunnison Island is home to a nesting colony of white pelicans. What do we call an island that is no more? A notland? A peninsuland? We traverse a reshaped territory, but it is nothing the Great Basin hasn’t witnessed before.
As we walk to the Spiral Jetty, other pilgrims walk with us. There is no small talk. I hear fragments of conversations with words like “entropy” and “apocalypse” and “drought” wafting on the hot dry wind. When we reach the center of the spiral, I hold the same question I held 25 years ago in the pages of my book: “How do we find refuge in change?”
Alisha tells me that water from Great Salt Lake is heavier than regular water, especially the water from the North Arm near Gunnison Island, where it is 27 percent to 28 percent salt. “I know, because I had to carry it,” she says. Several gallons of lake water slosh in glass bottles in the backseat of her car, an essential element of her next artistic ritual. Gilbert Bay on the South Arm of the lake closest to Salt Lake City is 13 to 15 percent salt. It’s on the other side of the railroad causeway that splits Great Salt Lake in half.
We, too, are vessels of salt water. Our tears viewed under a microscope are crystallized salt. Wet tears are composed of proteins, enzymes, oils and antibodies suspended in salt water. They lubricate and protect our eyes, even as they flood our system with chemicals that release our emotional pain and stress. Rose-Lynn Fisher photographed more than 100 tears through an optical microscope for her work, The Topography of Tears. She says that tears of sorrow and tears of joy have different molecular structures and chemical compositions: “Like a drop of ocean water, each tiny tear drop carries a microcosm of human experience.”
Throughout the years of my mother’s dying, I felt as though I was drowning in salt water, from my own tears and a rising inland sea. I now see Great Salt Lake not as a landscape of grief, but as a place of exposure, an amplification of our own state of mind. Henry David Thoreau called Walden Pond “Earth’s eye,” a mirror of our own nature. “How deep is Walden Pond?” he asked, and he answered, “As deep as we are. … Some people say it is bottomless.” I feel the same way about this lake of salt and brine and floating islands.
What is water and what is mirage in times of drought?
Three white birds walk the lakebed ahead of us. At first glance, I think they are storks, but storks don’t live here. I look again. Pelicans, though they don’t look right. Their bills and gular sacs are white and salt-encrusted, lacking the vibrant orange of mating season. Their pot bellies, usually padded with honeycomb spaces of air that allow them to remain buoyant in the water, are gone. They appear to be suffering from starvation and exposure. They appear to be walking toward death.
Alisha and I wonder if the they have stopped here because they don’t have enough energy to fly to their colony on Gunnison Island. Later, friends at the Division of Wildlife Resources tell us that 25 percent of the pelicans born on the island this year have died. Coyotes are a new threat, walking on drought-exposed lakebed to the island. They eat the eggs and kill some of the young, scaring others off the nest prematurely, into the water or into the air for a short downward flight to Promontory, where there is no fresh water. The pelicans we watch today are refugees of the drought, unable to fly back to Gunnison Island or fly east to reach the fresh water where their parents feed.
The young pelicans seem conscious of their predicament. Beyond them, dotting the salt flats from the Spiral Jetty to the water’s edge, at least a half a mile away, we encounter their future: the scattered piles of feathers of dozens and dozens of dead pelicans, their juvenile wings splayed across the sand like crucifixes, their chests hollowed out by ravens.
There is a sentence from Refuge that haunts me still: “If I can learn to love death then I can begin to find refuge in change.” I have not learned to love my mother’s death or my grandmother’s death or my brother’s death or the deaths of places that have been fouled by oil and gas development and greed. I will not learn to love death until, perhaps, it is my own, and, like a pelican, I find final relief in a desert of pain. But I have learned to honor death and not fear it. I have learned to trust the process of death and the growth rings that follow each passing. And the certainty of death has opened me to the inevitability of change, which is now, ironically, the only fixed point on my emotional map. I can learn to love change.
The surging life that still flocks to Great Salt Lake is a stay against death. For millennia, millions of birds and hundreds of species have returned to this remnant of Lake Bonneville. This year is no exception: Drought, in fact, has been a boon for some species. Last fall, Alisha went out with biologist John Luft of the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources to survey the brine shrimp harvest and to count eared grebes on the lake. The result of their aerial survey: 5 million birds in migration. The elegant grebes, with a swatch of gold on their cheeks, give up their feathers in a grand molt. While they wait for their feathers to grow back, they feast on Great Salt Lake brine shrimp and flies. The shrinking lake increases the concentration of birds and brine. It’s a feeding frenzy. And then, in a moment of collective recognition and urgency, millions of eared grebes rise in the middle of a November night and continue on their journey south.
Tears of joy. Tears of sorrow. Tears of timeless reunion. All of these tears have been examined, photographed and named by scientists. But, even as flocks of turgid grebes pulse through the night sky, a band of desiccated white pelicans walk like pale monks in the desert, unable to shed tears.
The American West is on fire. Smoke obscures the edges of Great Salt Lake. A surreal landscape is now a dreamscape. Alisha and I separate, each seeking our own solitude. We walk away from the Spiral Jetty with space between us in the direction of the white pelicans toward the sea of salt. We walk the lakebed for what seems like hours in the bald heat of the afternoon; I feel my age. Diaphanous clouds sweeping across the sky create a veil of shadows on the pastel landscape of mountain ranges and floating islands and pink water in a bloom of algae. How still this place.
In 1987, I could never have imagined walking this lakebed for a mile until I could reach Great Salt Lake’s edge, or following pelicans on land. I had only seen them bobbing on the surface of the waters of the Bear River Bird Refuge, scooping up minnows in their great pouches and throwing back their heads to swallow.
Now, I take off my shoes and walk behind them, as they stoically place one webbed foot in front of the other, leaving tracks like braids on the cracked salt beds. The surface is hard with glinting quartz crystals that jut like razors. I squint to see. I step around another pelican carcass, this one with its head pulled apart from its body. Someone has scratched “S O S” in the salt bed.
I am desperate to get to the lake. Salt puddles spaced every three feet or so now warm my feet. I sink to my ankles, and then, pulling out, find my feet once more on hardpan. Up ahead, the lakebed has peeled back like old paint, brittle to the touch. Farther out, the surface reveals squiggly lines that look like sutures on skulls, until the sutures morph into cobwebs, and the white network of salt becomes lace. Now, close to the lake’s edge, I enter a conflict zone of something equivalent to tectonic plates, some rearing up like miniature mountain ranges. And then, finally, Great Salt Lake appears on the horizon, no longer a mirage but an immense mirror. Shards of salt crystals break down to the consistency of sugar snow under my feet until a shin-deep line of sea foam forms a gateway to silky pink waters. I shed my clothes and enter.
The warm water deepens gradually, until, maybe a half mile out, it touches my chin. I lean forward and surrender, allowing myself to be held. I float on my back, looking up at the sky. My body and the body of this lake are still one. I am of this place. So little has changed in this octave of time between flood and drought. Except for this: The years that once held my grief have dissolved. I have surpassed my mother’s age when she died. And I am approaching my grandmother’s age when she mentored me with birds.
Without thinking, I decide to baptize myself, by the authority invested in me — not by a god, not by the patriarchy, but by my own seasoned spirit, with the lake as my witness. I disappear underwater, total immersion. And when I rise, I laugh out loud at my stupidity. I have just violated the first rule of swimming in Great Salt Lake: Keep your head above water. The salt burns my eyes. I cannot see, nor can I rinse out the salt with freshwater. I turn toward what I think is the direction of the shore and walk blind. It is my own ceremony in the name of trust. Slowly, the burning subsides and my vision returns.
Alisha is walking toward me, and she is beautiful. For her, the lake is not a vanishing presence, but a guidepost for what is to come. She has been photographing the circle of posts she left as an offering in the salt bed last fall. One now leans forward in the gesture of a bow. Alisha’s work is ephemeral by design. And as a woman comfortable in her Mormon faith, yet uncomfortable with the cultural expectations placed on her as a woman, she seeks both isolation and connection in this enigmatic landscape. “What if the question is not how we own a place,” she says, “but how does a place own us?”
Alisha bends down to touch the salt crystals and the light on her face is dazzling. Her hands cradle the crystals, and then she returns them to their place. She is not my mother or my grandmother, but she offers me the refuge and courage of women who dare to live by their own authority, trusting their instincts and following their calling to create beauty in the midst of despair for another generation.
What I didn’t know when I was writing Refuge and what I continue to try to understand now is that we will survive our own personal losses; they are ultimately what give us our voice. I know they gave me mine. But the losses of the larger world, call it the pain of a grieving Earth, threaten our sanity and survival. These losses of species and landscapes, we must face together with an open heart. Grief dares us to love once more. Attention is our prayer. Engagement is our vow. The only way I know how to proceed at this moment in time is to walk with the pelicans and not fear where they are leading us. And to follow the spirit of a young woman who scatters sandstone powder on snow in remembrance and restitution of our place in the world, ephemeral as it is. Alisha is my guide now, the artist, the alchemist, the believer in ceremony who is calling a different future into being.
Terry Tempest Williams is the author of several books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, and most recently, The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. She lives in Castle Valley, Utah.
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