Land Art scholar Hikmet Loe has visited and studied Spiral Jetty, Sun Tunnels, and other earthworks for decades. She returned to a handful this summer—and found cause for concern.
In July 2022, I taught a course on Great Basin landscapes for the Ecology and Legacy program at the University of Utah Honors College. I had lived near and traversed the Great Salt Lake, experiencing land and Land Art for decades, but it had been a few years since I’d been on these roads.
This break (and seeing these sites through the eyes of students) afforded new experiences as we considered art’s role—and effectiveness—in communicating climate crises.
I’ve observed, researched, and written about Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty (1970) since 1995. The work holds strong in the dynamic landscape the artist required. Today, however, “dynamic” feels more like depleted, or even devastated, given the dire nature of the lake these days.
Likewise, Nancy Holt’s earthwork Sun Tunnels (1973-76), which I’m currently researching for an upcoming publication, asks us to consider our place while contemplating human, planetary, and geologic time scales. Holt’s desire for an uninterrupted viewshed, with only hills and mountains providing distant vantage points, is an idea past its prime; encampments now dot the landscape where only brush and alkaline soil once dominated.
I captured some of these changes at each site, along with a trip to see Indigenous petroglyphs, in diary format.
Friday, July 8
We arrive at the petroglyphs on Stansbury Island much later than I had hoped; it was already hot, with no relief from the sun. A recent conversation with a Shoshone tribal council member confirmed what we know of the markings: we don’t know their meanings. From ritualistic ceremony, to path marker, to congregation site—it’s all possible but unknown.
What we can estimate, though, is why the markings are so high up on the hill, and the lake so far below—the Great Salt Lake’s levels were much higher when Indigenous people used hard rock to carve into softer rock. The lake’s surface could have been as close as 100 feet below this section of the island.
Today, the lake is distant, the ever-present reminder of the crisis that dominates Utah’s news. From the macro-view to the micro of markings, I’m grateful to be reminded of the past, and of ancient inhabitants in this region; their presence gives the landscape a feeling of immediacy.
The anthropomorph with orb petroglyph is particularly potent as we look up, scan the horizon, and look to the ground for markings. One student imagines the orb to be the sun.
We arrive at Sun Tunnels later that afternoon via a graded road steeped in Indigenous and emigrant histories. North of Wendover, this road intersects the Hastings Cutoff—the route the Donner Party took to their unwitting end in the Sierra Nevadas. The Cutoff signals the occurrence of natural springs on the east side of the Pilot Range, traversed by many in this section of the Great Basin Desert.
Thinking of the anthropomorph with orb, I’m reminded of the heat of the day (it’s now over 100 degrees) and a phrase one of the diarists on the first emigrant wagon trail scrawled down to describe the sun: “melting mood.” Melting, indeed.
While at Sun Tunnels, the temperature begins to drop. The sun slides down the sky, leaving us silent during the ensuing sunset. While we missed the June solstice by a month—when the sun rises and sets in the center of select tunnels—no one was disappointed to witness the sky light on fire. Spinning 180 degrees to look towards the east, we marvel at the sky soaked with pastel colors.
While springs remain in the area, the aridity of the land and air at Sun Tunnels provides no evidence of water. Yet we stood where, in the deep past, was an ocean. More recently—during the existence of Lake Bonneville—the former town of Lucin (well before it was a settlement) was under 700 feet of water.
Monday, July 11
While writing about Rozel Point a few years ago, I veered into an imagined experience, not knowing if reviewers and editors would accept it in my book on Spiral Jetty. It remained, a remembrance to never discount new ways of thinking.
If we stand along today’s lake shoreline, it is almost unfathomable to imagine the waters of Lake Bonneville towering 1,000 above us, blanketing most of the visible landscape underwater. Under 1,000 feet of water, we can imagine today’s shore as sediments fall around us to make the lake bed: spiral-shaped mollusks and brine shrimp swim by, silty sandstone and mixed claystone cloud our view, basalt and limestone fall into place on hard land. Life swirls by, and little by little as Lake Bonneville shrinks, we are left standing in a pile of oolitic sand at the start of the Spiral Jetty at Rozel Point.
We stand on those same piles of oolitic sand at Spiral Jetty, walking across it and past the earthwork to the edges of the earth where water meets ground and sky. Students traverse the distance from shoreline to waterline, some continuing their walk into the shallow water to experience the redness and saltiness.
American white pelicans circle above Rozel Point, yet their presence feels off. They’re too high in the sky; there are so, so many of them.
In the past, I often saw them stop at Gunnison Island—an ecologically important roosting spot—then fly to Rozel Point while skimming the water, breaking out of formation at the Point, letting the air move them in random, sweeping dances. Now they’re way up there, searching for food they can’t find. They’re indistinguishable from seagulls, their size indiscernible, their beautiful, massive wings creating sonic vibrations that are silent to us on the ground.
Wednesday, July 13
I brought a trunk full of books for the trip, and then ended up buying more books. A microcosm of my current research: astrology, geology, history, Great Basin. Yet I keep returning to the one novel in my possession, The Drought (1964) by J.G. Ballard. Reading it feels like a prescient, meta-experience of life in today’s West.
Why just experience the terrible drought that surrounds us, I keep thinking, when I can also read about it through Ballard’s piercing, delirious vision of global drought and despair?
Rather than creating a downer experience, though, The Drought reminds me, through Ballard’s vivid language of human emotion and barren landscape, that we are continually surrounded by creativity and hope, as found in the novel’s last sentence. If we think our world is too hot now, we can also look back at the Stansbury Island anthropomorph and imagine the way people lived each day, thousands of years ago, for some perspective.