Life in the Tar Seeps

In the rearview mirror, the Wasatch Mountains of Utah rise from the Great Basin. Low hills shoulder limestone caves, tucked into parched slopes of tall grass that roll toward Great Salt Lake like ancient waves. Long-gone shorelines band the hills like rings in a bathtub. A two-lane paved road cuts between dips in the knolls, edged by marshlands that spread through the Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge. On this February day, the chill has fogged into crystalline snow, blurring the marshlands, hills, and mountains until we lose sight of all distances, just the road around us. Almost imperceptibly, the air smells like rotten eggs.

“You always hear that the lake is dead, but it’s so alive that it smells,” says Jaimi Butler. Jaimi is the coordinator of the ten-year-old Great Salt Lake Institute (GSLI), an interdisciplinary environmental research center dedicated to this understudied ecosystem. She is driving a blue minivan with a fiery flame decal on its door. Her five-year-old daughter, Cora, sits in a car seat behind me watching The Angry Birds Movie on an iPad, beside Greg McDonald, the regional paleontologist for the Bureau of Land Management. We are heading to Rozel Point, on the remote north arm of Great Salt Lake.

We left Salt Lake City after dawn and drove north, skirting the east edge of the lake. Greg and Jaimi are meeting for the first time, hoping to partner on a project to set up camera traps on the lake’s tar seeps—also known as oil or petroleum seeps, and nicknamed death traps—which lie near the monumental 1970 land artwork by Robert Smithson, Spiral Jetty. Jaimi has lived in Utah her entire life; Greg has lived here for two years. As a visiting professor in environmental humanities at the University of Utah, I am a newcomer to this place. A colleague knew of my interest in Spiral Jetty and connected me with Jaimi, which is how I’ve found myself on Jaimi and Greg’s quest: tracking what animals get stuck in the tar seeps, glimpsing fossils in the making.

I know little about Great Salt Lake, and nothing of tar seeps. As a kid in San Francisco, I wasn’t interested in dinosaurs or fossilized bones. My family’s summer road trips drove right past Great Salt Lake, without stopping, en route to national parks. I have taken this drive only once, back in October with my husband, coming cross-country from Washington, DC. Our destination was Spiral Jetty. I had dreamed of following its spiral, fifteen hundred feet of earth and salt-crusted black basalt unfurling three times counterclockwise. I am interested in how natural spaces—national parks, wildlife refuges, land art—require collaborative stewardship by land managers, scientists, artists, curators, Indigenous groups, and other partners who care for living environments as they evolve over time. As different groups share their stories of a single place, they can merge approaches and resources to support each other’s coexisting narratives.

“We would be underwater here,” Jaimi says, steering the minivan along the highway. She nods toward parallel ridges in the hills, called benches, that mark the ancient lake levels. She has spent her adult life working at Great Salt Lake and now, for the GSLI, coordinates partnerships around its shores. The GSLI, based at Westminster College in Salt Lake City, is the local steward of Spiral Jetty, and is joined in its efforts by the Utah Museum of Fine Arts, the Utah Department of Natural Resources, and the New York–based Dia Art Foundation. Jaimi travels monthly to the artwork—almost three hours each way, over remote dirt roads—to take water and salt samples, look for tagged pelicans, host local science teachers, and monitor the number of visitors to the artwork by checking a road counter. “Spiral Jetty was underwater for many years,” she says. “Soon after Smithson built it, the lake covered it up. It didn’t reemerge until 2002.”

As we wind past low hills, Jaimi and Greg name the ancient lake levels. Each shoreline is a ghost of a freshwater sea, etched as a horizontal line across the slopes, where the water levels remained long enough to leave marks. Stansbury, Bonneville, Provo, and Gilbert: the state traces its name to the indigenous Ute Indians, but all the basin’s shorelines are now named for explorers who were not native to the region.

The hills are muted on this gray day. Many afternoons when I leave my office on the sloping campus of the University of Utah, the lake’s golden sheen is hypnotic, an ethereal sight that stops me in my tracks. Yet when I talk with locals, Great Salt Lake is often described in pejorative terms, as stinky or ugly.

The first written account of the “inland sea” came in 1776 from a Spanish missionary expedition that never reached the lake but heard of it from the Timpangotzis Indians. Over the centuries, freshwater wetlands sustained ample plant and animal life, and archaeological evidence in shoreline caves suggests how Paleo-Indians foraged, hunted, and farmed in communities that fluctuated with lake levels. Floods and droughts influenced Fremont and, later, Numic hunter-­gatherers who became the ancestors of the Ute, Shoshone, Goshute, and Paiute Indians. As settler-colonists arrived—­explorers, trappers, and miners, along with Mormons who considered the valley their promised land—most tended to overlook the lake’s life. In 1849, Captain Howard Stansbury circled the lake via triangulation and said it carried the “stillness of the grave.” For a long time, it was considered a dead sea—almost as salty as the Dead Sea—and that reputation has overshadowed the lake’s vitality. For many people over the past century and a half, Great Salt Lake has been virtually hiding in plain sight.


By now it’s midmorning, but we’re still some distance from Rozel Point. “I was out there in October and found four barn owls in the same tar seep,” Greg says. He explains how the raw oil of the seeps emerges from tectonic fractures and creeps across the lake’s mudflats. “The owls probably got stuck in summer, maybe chasing mice. There were also pelicans in the tar volcanoes.”

We stop briefly at the visitor center for the Golden Spike National Historic Site in Promontory, the last available public restroom. We are the only car in the lot. A plaque on a commemorative obelisk describes how, in 1869, a golden spike was driven to complete the first Transcontinental Railroad: it achieved the great political objective of binding together by iron bonds the extremities of continental united states, a rail link from ocean to ocean.

The link came shortly after the United States Army slaughtered hundreds of Shoshone in the nearby Bear River Massacre. Other local Indigenous communities were displaced by force and decimated by disease. The railroad was built largely by immigrant laborers, many of them from China, and many of whom died in the course of construction. Now isolated in winter, Promontory seems inhabited mainly by ghosts.

When my husband and I visited Spiral Jetty, we brought a pamphlet from the Utah Museum of Fine Arts that had information not only on the artwork but also on basalt, microbial halophiles, and oolitic sands, with driving directions in ten bullet points. Number five read: “Cross a cattle guard. Call this cattle guard #1. Including this one, you cross four cattle guards before you reach Rozel Point and Spiral Jetty.” The instructions recommended packing plenty of food and water, wearing weather-appropriate clothing and waterproof boots. There’s no cell service, so if your car breaks down, you may be literally up a dry creek.

Back on the road, as Jaimi’s minivan bumps along, crossing cattle grates, the snowflakes stop. Slowly the fog starts to lift. Great Salt Lake comes into view, a silvery sweep in the distance. Sun burns through clouds. Rock islands appear and disappear as elusive mirages. The glow shifts. The landscape appears otherworldly, almost extraterrestrial.

Usually when I see the valley, walking downslope from campus to my apartment, the lake spreads from the base of the snowcapped Oquirrh Mountains, silhouetting at sunset and purpling into starry dark. Here, away from the city’s skyline, the mountains sink like the teeth of an open jaw, on the verge of swallowing the sky.

With each turn of our drive, I feel that we are going backward in time. Years fold in on themselves like geologic strata. As the fog lifts from the circling mountains, dark ridges appear as supine sleeping giants around a frozen cauldron or an extinguished campfire. It is easy to imagine the hills as animate, mythically arising from primordial shores.

The road splits to two dead ends. The near end of the fork leads to the tar seeps; the farther to Spiral Jetty. We park, stretch our legs, and scramble down the rocks onto cracked mudflats that seem to spread for miles toward the lake. Rusting drums and forgotten piers mark abandoned attempts at oil drilling. Apart from the gravel road and rotting wooden pylons, the landscape appears posthuman.

Despite the chill, I am thrilled to walk this barren ground, to be alive and breathing deeply.

As we cross the mudflats, heading for the seeps, my face chafes from the cold and my nose begins to run. Greg doesn’t seem to mind the cold, toting a camera bag with bare hands and walking alertly. Jaimi and Cora follow. Winds whip us with salty air. Step by step, I am hyperaware of my body, my mobility, my clothing: goose-down jacket, turtleneck sweater, snow pants, long underwear, tennis shoes, wool scarf and mittens, in which I wiggle my fingers so they don’t go numb. Under my hat, my hair covers nine spots where my head was stapled together, almost two years ago, after I was hit by a car in a crosswalk. Despite the chill, I am thrilled to walk this barren ground, to be alive and breathing deeply. As I gaze over the sweep of sand and mud, black mounds start to constellate out of the seeming voids: dense starry clusters, not light but black, not in the sky but on shore.

“Once you learn to identify a seep, you start to see them everywhere,” Greg says.

The tar seeps spread across the sand like frozen black puddles. Some are flat and thin; others are bubbly and raised: tar volcanoes. Most have liquid edges, as if they’re melting. One tar volcano glistens wetly, but when Greg pokes at it, he hits a solid surface, firm as hardened plastic. The edges of the seeps spread in delicate laceworks where their heated ooze met the mud and radiated in fractal-like patterns. Up close, they are riddled with disarticulating feathers and bones.

Greg compares Rozel Point’s tar seeps to the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, where sediment covers the pits until an earthquake or fracture makes the tar seep to the surface: “These seeps are thin, not deep pits like La Brea, and may change when the lake rises and falls.” Great Salt Lake sits on the bottom of the drainage basin, its levels fluctuating with drought and rain.

“In Los Angeles, you can’t do this,” Greg says. “It’s too developed and fenced in. Here we’ve got a fairly raw site that has had minimal disturbance. Its natural events are happening with minimal human activity, so it becomes an important baseline for understanding the whole process. We can’t go back and photograph a mammoth getting stuck or a saber-toothed cat getting stuck, but we can certainly look at the conditions and see what’s getting preserved.”


We keep walking. Our shoes accrue damp sand but, thankfully, not tar.

“Look at that pelican death assemblage,” Greg says, stopping and pointing to a group of tar volcanoes.

We walk toward the archipelago of melted black mounds, skirting the edges to examine heaps of tar and stuck bones. Tar is considered a perfect preservative—freezing, drying, encasing organisms as when they were alive—fossilizing a lifespan in fragments.

“There’s a skull,” Greg says.

“And a bill,” Jaimi adds, pointing to the signature hook in the beak.

“There’s a humerus,” Greg says, pointing to another bone and noting the disintegrating collagen.

Jaimi points with excitement into the bone pile, drawing my eye to two bright green, numbered metal tags. These come from the GSLI’s pelican count. The Pelican Roundup tags birds, alongside tracking efforts like PELIcams and PeliTracks, both to better understand the birds and to educate the public. The PeliTracks—GPS transmitters worn by the pelicans—are funded by the Salt Lake City International Airport. Pelicans pose a danger to—and are in danger from—air traffic; a flock of birds could down a plane. An adult pelican’s wingspan extends around nine feet.

“White pelicans are understudied,” she says, pointing offshore to Gunnison Island, a prime nesting site that provides refuge to about twenty thousand white pelicans annually. “Ironically, the Lake is pretty perfect for pelicans, since the railroad causeway cuts off the north and south arms, protecting them from disturbances. Pelicans nest here because there are no predators. They trade food and fresh water for safety. Because they feed at the Bear River Refuge, on their first flight they have to fly thirty miles right over this shore, so a number of them get trapped here.”

The marshlands of the refuge expand where freshwater delta meets the salty lake. The refuge comprises the largest freshwater part of the Great Salt Lake ecosystem, and it sits at the convergence of the Pacific and Central Flyways. It hosts millions of migratory birds—over two hundred fifty species fly through annually, many using the area to nest.

“People don’t think the lake is worth anything aesthetically, biologically, or economically,” Jaimi told us in the car. “It’s hard to study fine-grain questions because it’s hard for scientists to get out there. But we want people to steward the lake. It’s a place of paradoxes. It doesn’t have an icon. Who connects to brine shrimp and microbes? People come expecting to find romantic red rock but don’t find it. It’s stinky. You go out and find dead birds. You float and itch when you swim. There are all these funny, weird things about Great Salt Lake that aren’t always described.”

“People know pelicans,” she continued. “They have those enormous bills.” Her voice grew animated. “They’re beautiful and charismatic. If we could connect people to pelicans, we could connect them to uphill water diversions, climate change, and impacted marshlands.”

Now Jaimi picks out the green metal tags, laughing about how she loves to find dead birds.

“Dead is an indication of how much life is here,” Greg says. He mentions taphonomy, the study of fossilization—“a subdiscipline in paleontology, like paleoforensics. It basically asks, ‘Why are these dead bodies here?’”

“That’s what we’re hoping to see from the camera traps,” Jaimi says, explaining that the cameras are triggered by movement and heat as animals enter their vicinity.

“And if they aren’t caught in the tar seeps,” Greg adds, “they’re washed up on shore, slowly rotting with weathering.”

“Many birds are pickled by Great Salt Lake,” Jaimi adds.

Greg points at the assemblage stuck in the tar volcanoes. “These bones are still disarticulating. In tar, sediments will slowly bury the bones, and then they become part of the fossil record.” He gestures beyond the tar seeps. “If you have an animal that is used to wandering through the area in cold temperatures when it’s not sticky, it sets up a trail.” Conditions change with the seasons, warming up the seeps. “Suddenly it’s following its trail, and part of it crosses a sticky tar seep—it becomes an entrapment event. We need to be thinking about what the fossil sites are telling us. That becomes part of the story.”

The story is unfolding before our eyes, in slow motion, swirling together past and future in the present chill. Greg refers to the tar as natural asphalt. Riveted by the seeps, I barely think of manmade asphalt, of the car hitting me, of my head bouncing off the metal hood and meshing with the crosswalk. I try to imagine how pelicans land in tar seeps; I don’t think of my scalp stapled back together, of a walker supporting my steps, of months relearning to move, read, and write. The tar seeps wouldn’t be mistaken for streets, but animals who cross this hot asphalt get stuck and die. Slower than a car crash, the seeps enact a different kind of collision—yet with both you don’t realize you’re stuck until it’s too late.


Let’s find those owls,” Greg says. We follow him across the mudflats, continuing away from Spiral Jetty. Giant sloths and mammoths once roamed the ancient shoreline, but Greg hopes to see birds, snakes, and small mammals. His dream is to rent a Giddings core drill and take a core sediment sample, to reassemble species across sediment layers and geologic eras, but the cost is prohibitive. Partnerships like the one unfolding with the GSLI may help researchers’ efforts to study the lake.

“You need some gypsum,” Jaimi says to me, stopping and dropping to her knees, digging with a stick. Like a pig sniffing truffles, she knows where to poke and prod the mud. She pulls out a crystalline wedge and encourages me to take it, then digs up more wedges for Cora. “When we travel or go to conferences,” she says, “we bring gypsum, and people love it.”

I turn the crystalline crescent over in my hand. Light seeps through its glassy surface. Jaimi and Cora dig for more gypsum. I can only imagine a childhood of repeated visits to Spiral Jetty, how that spiraling shape would whorl and shape you.

“Gypsum, salt, and evidence of water are found on Mars, just like here at Spiral Jetty,” Jaimi explained in the car. “As a mineral lake evaporates, both gypsum and salt are left behind. NASA will use gypsum to find salt deposits on Mars that are remnants of mineral lakes. Not many places on Earth are like that. Great Salt Lake is one of them.” As she turns over the gypsum in her hand, her earlier question resurfaces: “What if you could also find halophiles: life on Mars?”

Halophiles are salt-loving micro­organisms that grow in little water. They tint the lake pink or orange, muted or vibrant shades. The GSLI’s Director, Bonnie Baxter, partners with NASA to study the extreme environment of Great Salt Lake as an analog for Mars. “In 2020, they’re sending a rover to Mars to collect samples,” Jaimi continues. “What do you do with those samples? On Mars, they’ll put them in a parking spot. Will these things stay alive in jars for twenty to thirty years? We can experiment here and learn how to preserve Martian samples.

“It’s more likely that halophiles will be our aliens,” she adds, “not green little men.”

We pocket the gypsum, and I feel awkward, as if stealing a gem. I’m used to leaving things in national parks and protected areas, but admittedly, if allowed, I like to bring home a rock. A geologist would be confused by the random stones scattered around my house. Some people who visit Ulur_u, or Ayers Rock, in Australia reputedly take stones but later mail them back, as if the stones miss home. I imagine a plane flying overhead and casting infrared light until the whole Salt Lake sparkles with gypsum. Maybe it would reveal a lost Atlantis. Or it might reveal all the toxins that are regularly dumped in the lake. Jaimi calls what is unseen the lake’s underbelly. She also refers to it as the lake’s memory.

I wonder how the lake remembers: as a body of water. A few months ago, when a masseuse kneaded an ache deep in my thigh where the car made contact, she said: The body remembers. In Arches National Park, several hours southeast of here, signs tell visitors not to cross certain rocks: healing in progress: please stay on designated trails only. Perhaps memories accumulate to impact the lake’s existence over time, the way personal events compress. Even as events fade in our minds, our bodies remember: with an ache or stiffness, sensitivity to noise, a residual imprint. The lake may remember through seepage, erosion, or dispersal. Tectonics suggest that stones remember in their way, storing up tensions until they quake.


Greg’s path zigzags, as if he has lost the scent, then found it again. He pulls out his yellow field notebook, turns to an entry from October, and reads the coordinates for the owls. He calibrates his GPS unit. “This way,” he says, walking with purpose. Jaimi, Cora, and I follow him over the cracked mudflats.

Following Greg’s dark parka, his white hair blowing in the wind, I am reminded of my great-uncle Fritz. He taught me to look for patterns on large and small scales. In the Cascade Mountains of Washington State, over three decades ago, he prepared cellular crystals of household liquids—orange juice, even his urine—on microscope slides to distill patterns. He photographed and videoed them, often accompanied by monumental music like Handel’s Messiah, waiting for my response (ooh! and ah!) before revealing the cellular source (ew!). Then he’d take me outside to his telescope that magnified similar patterns among stars. Before retiring to the Cascades, he had lived across the United States, the South Pacific, Central America, and Africa, working in hospitals on what was called human ecology. I remember him following birds: going out of his way to visit estuaries, carving duck decoys, watching ospreys swoop down the river. His nickname for me was La Paloma. After his death a quarter century ago, I half-seriously wondered whether he could transform into a bird. While my growing fascination with the tar seeps now surprises me, it is a reminder that in the company of someone who cares, you start to care too.

In my short time in Utah, I have lain awake at night during inversions, coughing and feeling choked, hyperaware of the basic necessity of breath.

We walk and walk through the chilly air. You could get lost here if you don’t pay attention. Most days in the high desert of Salt Lake City, my body dries out, bringing a bloody nose; or my breathing is stifled by smog. A seasonal inversion—a layer of trapped pollution—hovers like a toxic lid over the valley, aggravating health conditions like asthma, increasing the rate of strokes and heart attacks, and affecting pregnancies. People wear masks on bad days, in an attempt to keep toxins out of their bloodstreams. (There’s even an app for that: UtahAir.) Decades after the nuclear fallout from the Nevada Test Site, people come from near and far to ski, climb, and hike. Tech companies are transforming Small Lake City into a satellite of Silicon Valley. Carbon emissions grow as the population swells. In my short time in Utah, I have lain awake at night during inversions, coughing and feeling choked, hyperaware of the basic necessity of breath. Jaimi joked earlier: “What happens in the basin stays in the basin.” The same might be said of Earth: What happens on this planet stays on this planet.

Underfoot, the sand is firm and solid, but it’s not too hard to imagine the shifting lake, rising and receding, attracting different animals to its edge. The ancient Lake Bonneville spread a quarter of the size of Utah and lost much of its fresh water in the biggest flash flood in history, 14,500 years ago. Fast-forward five hundred years: the lake almost disappeared from drought. Fast-forward again: megadrought is expected to hit the Southwest by 2050. I try to imagine the flats in summer with the stench of sticky tar, beating sun, and mirages on sizzling horizon, dust on our skin and in our lungs. If megadrought hits, the environmental shift may unleash dust storms, buried toxins, dormant viruses, who knows what else. Smithson once described how this landscape “whirled into an indeterminate state, where solid and liquid lost themselves in each other. It was as if the mainland oscillated with waves and pulsations . . . . The shore of the lake became the edge of the sun, a boiling curve.”

The edge of any promised land emits an apocalyptic aura, as if setting the stage for future salvation or the end of the world. Trying to find alternative narratives for climate change—beyond apocalypse, prophecy, elegy, or tug-of-warring tropes between progress and loss—can cause us to go around in circles. Shapes of stories recur to mark the edges of our fears, so our tellings fall into predictable patterns and fossilize, separating us from the animals that we are. All of us are gloriously yet vulnerably entangled—but so many stories arise from fear of death rather than awe of life, disengaging the individual from the communal, and the human from the nonhuman. Climate change is not a linear narrative; it’s more like tar seeps, where a step can get us stuck.


Here they are,” Greg says, finally, and stops. He points to a sprawl of seeps where the dead owls lie. Bones and feathers splay in disintegrating states. The seeps pool together as a shallow black pond, pocked with small tar volcanoes. One volcano is larger than the rest and radiates like a big black star. Its tentacles swirl into what seems an aerial view of a burnt alluvial plain. The wind feels like a giant’s breath, not heated but chilling our bones.

The black star seems alive, despite its hibernating state. I follow its whorled tendrils and see an octopus. Then, an anemone. In geologic slow motion, the owl bones and feathers pull apart within the previously melted, now frozen, tar. Melt, freeze. Melt, freeze. Melt, freeze. The process repeats over seasons.

As I step forward to photograph the crevices of black tar edged with bone, the disarticulated feathers blur into white sprays like constellations. Growing up in San Francisco, I never thought about why the skies above my neighborhood appeared mute. In the mountains, stars came alive and saturated the sky, seeding my dreams to be an astronaut (until my fifth-grade classmates and I watched as, televised in real time, Christa McAuliffe’s space shuttle exploded to a wisp). My awe grew in the Cascades and Sierras, where night skies fluttered with constellations and showered meteors. Since our Milky Way is made up of approximately one hundred billion stars, we cannot see the whole of our galaxy. We are perpetually inside its spiral.

By the owl remains, Greg lays down a measuring stick to photograph the bones. “Probably what you’re getting is mice running out and getting stuck,” he conjectures, “so it’s like flypaper. The owls see them moving and come in to swoop them. If their feathers touch down, they get trapped.”

Under the overcast sky, I imagine this place on a clear night. The Milky Way would swirl with stars. While it is estimated that many children born today won’t get the chance to see the Milky Way, in Utah dark skies are making a comeback—the state now has the most designated parks for the night sky. In 2017 the University of Utah started the world’s first academic consortium to study celestial protections. One of my graduate students spent last summer in Moab, inventorying over two thousand light fixtures in order to present recommendations to decrease light pollution to the city council. Studies show that light pollution not only obstructs the stars but throws off bird migrations and contributes to cancer rates.

Without knowing the source or scale, I might think that these pools lay under a microscope, floating in a Petri dish.

Whenever I fly into the Salt Lake basin, my nose is pressed to the glass of the plane’s porthole. The salt evaporation ponds rivet me with their colors—turquoise, sea green, olive, sienna—in geometric fields like minimalist abstractions painted on the flat landscape, under the gray granite fins of the Wasatch Mountains. Without knowing the source or scale, I might think that these pools lay under a microscope, floating in a Petri dish. The aesthetic is economic, belying industries generated from the lake: salt evaporation from mineral ponds for water softeners and road and plane deicing; brine shrimp cyst harvesting for fish food; potassium sulfate for crop fertilizer; magnesium for auto parts, soda cans, cell phones, pharmaceuticals. Greg later jokes that these are the lake’s “liquid assets,” the reason it is increasingly endangered.

“Industries in the lake are important because money speaks,” Jaimi says. “The flipside—without industry, could you support more birds?”

“In science, you never know the outcome,” Greg adds, walking around the bird bones, “so you need to adapt to circumstances. Ask a question, pick up anecdotal data, and that gives you a starting point.”

Like a massive ink blot on the planet, the seep seems to defy language, even as we grope to articulate its qualities. Greg uses the fossilized vocabulary of paleontology; Jaimi homes in on ornithology; others would describe the economic value of the oil. Even as I acquire terms, the terrain seems to evade classification. Ultimately, the seep will swallow all language that attempts to describe it. Bacteria break it down. As some bacteria even eat tar, they suggest hope for cleaning up future oil spills, and something more philosophical: about the power of microbial species, integral to our life cycles. Bacteria line our guts, maintain our body chemistry, and one day decompose us back to dirt—unless we get stuck in a tar seep.

On this frigid day, the tar is fully frozen. We could walk right across the seep, yet we keep circling its edges, as if the star might somehow stick us in place or collapse under our weight.

Later, I will return to the seeps in warmer weather, smelling their melt, stepping in tar accidentally and leaving the trace of my footprints to be fossilized. I will see dozens of pelicans fly overhead. Later, I will question land art that inscribes the landscape. I will learn that charting microseismic waves of Great Salt Lake can reveal subsurface geology, akin to a CT scan of the Earth. Later, a geologist will lead me to Rainbow Bridge National Monument in southern Utah to listen to seismic vibrations of stones, where I will hear delegates from the National Park Service’s Native American Consultation Committee for Rainbow Bridge, which includes Hopi, Kaibab Paiute, Diné, San Juan Southern Paiute, Ute, and Zuni members. They will describe the reverberating sound as ancestral voices, leading me to stop taking stones as mementos, to leave them living in the places of our encounter, to try harder to listen.

Here and now, at Rozel Point, I hear only the wind. The tar seeps force our respect: to watch where we step. They invite retreat in the sense of action: to reconsider, to withdraw, to retract, to revoke, to consider nonintervention as a kind of interaction. Our presence is full of contradictions—driving a gas-­guzzling van to do environmental studies as we try to “leave no trace.”

On a gravelly recording from 1986 that I only recently found, my great-­uncle Fritz’s booming voice describes first hearing the word ecology in 1932, and learning more in the 1950s and 60s with the Earth movement amid fears of PCP, acid rain, and pollution. He unpacks the etymology of the word, from the Greek oikos, literally “house”—meaning much more than architecture, a dynamic interrelation between where you were born and reared family, raised food, and died—a word that essentially asks: Where is your life? He describes moving away from fear into reverence for the totality of life, not separating ourselves from the environment “out there.”

I wonder, again, how Great Salt Lake remembers: as a body of water. It cycles through evaporation to snow and rain and runoff down the mountains back to the lake. Even though Fritz died almost a quarter century ago, for me he is one of those people who seems to live among the elements. I carry him with me like the gypsum in my pocket, an elder as a stone. “The [Ojibwe] word for stone, asin, is animate,” writes Louise Erdrich. “Once I began to think of stones as animate, I started to wonder whether I was picking up a stone or it was putting itself in my hand.”

I step back from the seep, and the gigantic black star shrinks to its actual width: about my height. As I look at the owl bones, one fragment connects to a feather that reconnects to a wing into a body with a heart-shaped face. It is hard to know where one thing ends and another begins. I wonder about the lives of these four owls before their disarticulation, and what they will become. Beyond this lake, more birds migrate, near and farther than I can fathom. I wonder what compelled these owls to land on this tar seep and what led our motley crew to encounter them.

“Can we go?” Cora says, getting antsy.

Greg, Jaimi, and I look up from the tar seep. We realize that we have become like children ourselves, losing track of time. My fingers are numb.

After a final look at the seeps, we reorient ourselves to a distant row of pylons that leads back toward the minivan. As we walk, Jaimi carries Cora on her back, talking with Greg about setting the camera traps with students in early summer. I feel as if we have looked through a telescope at a star, except instead of appearing in the sky, it has emerged underfoot.


Back at the minivan, Jaimi asks, “Have you climbed the bluff above Spiral Jetty?”

It’s midday, and we are trying to return to Salt Lake City for my 4:30 p.m. class. I doubt there’s time to linger, but she says to explore while she checks the road counter, recommending the view that helped inform Smithson’s ideas of perspective. “Be back by 1:00,” she says, and stops the car.

I walk ahead on the rutted road. No one else is here. I start to follow the spiral, retracing my steps from October, but realize time is too short. I double back toward the bluff and wind upward through sage-strewn rocks. The bluff’s height is deceptive, so I rise quickly. Behind me, the lake’s muted silver tints to rose and gold as I climb. I look ahead but glance back, watching Spiral Jetty grow and round out. The lake spreads to the seeming ends of the Earth. The sun breaks through patches of clouds. Later I will read Smithson’s catalogue of the lake’s reds: “wine-red,” “tomato soup,” “violet,” “pink,” “scarlet,” “ruby,” as “blood” from “the heart” with “veins and arteries.” “Chemically speaking,” he wrote, “our blood is analogous in composition to the primordial seas.”

At the top of the bluff in ten minutes, I find a boulder and sit and stare out at the basin. This perch feels both in and outside time, as if all the world has slowed to a stop. Smithson once described Rozel Point as a “time machine”:

The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be . . . . A crack in the wall if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system. Scale depends on one’s capacity to be conscious of the actualities of perception. When one refuses to release scale from size, one is left with an object or language that appears to be certain.

Perhaps that lack of certainty makes me feel certain today, strangely solid despite the slow-motion suction of the seeps. Each moment seems to resonate, like rocks that vibrate beyond human hearing. From this perch, it feels possible to live across time: unfurling from the shore, seeping into the landscape, spreading across the mountains. The spiral is a shape of expansion. Once you see one, like a seep, you start to notice it everywhere: minispirals of stones that visitors have placed in the flats around Spiral Jetty, chiseled spirals in rock art, a cyclone, swirling water down a drain. The shape is also unseen: infinitesimal as a microbial crystal or DNA helix, or cosmic as the galaxy of the Milky Way. Spiraling reflects space in time: a cartography of chronology.

For now, from the bluff on this wintry February day, the landscape is so expansive that it is possible to see far beyond Spiral Jetty to the horizon. I try to take a photo but can’t find a flat line. The Earth curves, almost imperceptibly. Until you try to align the horizon, you miss the phenomenon. From this perch above the salty basin, the slight curvature provides perspective on what we’re all standing on—less individual than collective, less dead than alive, always evolving.

Looking at the distant lake, I don’t see a soul. A black truck drives along the road. It reaches the makeshift parking lot by Spiral Jetty and parks beside Jaimi’s tiny blue minivan. These two dots are the only signs of people in sight. I wonder why the truck has come. I look at my watch and realize that it is time to go.