During Utah’s 2022 legislative session, poet and community leader Nan Seymour crafted a site vigil and collective poem, an act of community activism that highlighted the in-flux Great Salt Lake.
SALT LAKE CITY, UT—“Irreplaceable” is the word poet and writer Nan Seymour uses to describe Utah’s Great Salt Lake. Prolonged drought, exacerbated by climate change, threatens the lake’s very survival and with it the health of the thousands of individuals along the Wasatch Front, the traditional homelands of the Indigenous Goshute and Eastern Shoshone peoples.
For two weeks during Utah’s 2022 legislative session, Seymour held a vigil at the Great Salt Lake, a meditative process envisioned in two parts—the site vigil and a collaborative poem, entitled “Irreplaceable.” The vigil, visited by a Utah state senator who’s concerned with the effects of climate change on the shrinking lake, consisted of camping, silent walks, and observance as well as poetry writing. The latter, still growing as of this writing ahead of Seymour’s publishing deadline, is a poem constructed from contributions of hundreds of collaborators.
In the weeks that followed, participants and admirers alike are still processing what they see as a transformative act of collective activism. Seymour considers the act not only an invocation to a state beguiled by the fantasy of endless water, but an artistic manifestation of the lake’s desire to live.
Seymour became fascinated with the fate of the Great Salt Lake after listening to a local radio program’s assessment of the peril it faces, detailing the receding water levels caused by massive drought, which is already threatening the lake’s native habitat and elevating exposure risks of residents to toxic chemicals caking the lakebed—deposits from over a century of debris and corresponding pollution.
“We are entering a horrific experiment with this ecosystem,” says Seymour.
In addition to her poetry, Seymour is founder of River Writing, a community-based collective that fosters creativity for writers at all stages of their lives and practice. A lifelong Utahn, she admits to once feeling apathetic and even disdainful of the salty lake.
Just as the lake’s composition has undergone massive shifts, so, too, have attitudes in recent years. Salt Lake City residents often commiserate about the unpleasant sulfuric smell that blankets the valley in episodes of high wind and the lake’s foamy and other-worldly appearance, with a seeming resentment toward its apparent lack of pristine beauty. It’s worth noting that such oddities would be the very things that made the lake an attractive destination for Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.
But Seymour’s perspective changed, and the startling realization of the catastrophe lying in wait in her own backyard began to manifest in the unconscious of the Salt Lake City poet and writer.
“I began dreaming about the lake almost every night. The idea of the vigil came to me as an idea in a dream in early December. I envisioned holding a vigil at the site between the wolf moon and the snow moon, which happened to coincide with the first four weeks of the legislature,” she says. The 2022 general session of the Utah Legislature took place from January 18 through March 4.
At this juncture, she was summoned to visit the lake, borrowing a friend’s camper to stay for extended periods during one of the coldest months of the year. Soon, others joined her. Groups would form silent walks to the lakeshore on Saturdays and Sundays. During her two-week vigil, more than 400 people would visit Seymour at the site.
At the same time, Seymour realized the other part of the project, a praise poem to the lake. As the second part of the project, the poem began with a small section published on her website with an invitation to others to add lines in the comment section. The eventual number of contributions astonished her, which prompted the idea of a poem comprising 1,700 lines that mirror the 1,700 square miles that constitute the lake at its peak vitality. The project’s growing ambitions attracted attention and would later draw funding from Utah Humanities’ Think Water Utah initiative.
The project inspired a collective curiosity and enthusiasm for those who may have forgotten about the lake. People traveled to the site to find Seymour and deliver handwritten lines of poetry. The two sections of the project merged on February 19, 2022 when over 100 participants gathered at the site to read the poem together. The final poem is slated for publication in fall 2022.
“Art reaches people in a way that logic cannot,” says Laurie Bray, a photographer who attended the reading and took images of the vigil. “Being there for the reciting was very moving. I’m so amazed at how the community came together for something like this.”
Seymour’s act is mirroring efforts happening in Utah politics. As a local policymaker, state Senator Derek Kitchen hopes to raise public awareness of the state’s climate crisis. While he acknowledges some legislative progress, he emphasizes that collective action is needed to keep the issue at the forefront of the policy agenda. To him, projects like Seymour’s conjure the sort of community reverence necessary to effect change.
“I do think we’ve seen such a broad coalition coming together to raise the red flag on the prospect of a drying and dying lake,” he says in an interview with Southwest Contemporary. “I see this growing understanding that we have to do something.”
Kitchen considers Seymour a spiritual leader, an artist whose vigil approaches the crisis from a place of mourning. In addition to visiting Seymour at the vigil site, Kitchen brought her onto the Utah Senate floor where she provided an invocation, a prayer of sorts, in the form of a poem about the lake.
“The vigil and poem ground us in the seriousness in what we’re dealing with. The Salt Lake Valley [population] is set to double in the next two decades, an increase that has taken us over 150 years to achieve,” says Kitchen. “In a high desert state that already struggles with water resources, we are facing an environmental catastrophe.” According to the Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute at The University of Utah, the region’s growth is set to increase from approximately 3.3 million in 2020 to five million by 2051.
Sam Wallen, a poet and writing guide who contributed to the project, says she was also moved by witnessing one woman’s idea blossom into community activism. For Wallen, the poem has been a source text and inspiration for her upcoming projects.
“The poem provided a different kind of a physical and metaphorical location for people to gather together and to express something that isn’t just about science,” Wallen says. “We are working as writers and artists toward a different kind of consciousness that doesn’t place human beings at the center of it all.”
The Great Salt Lake is far more than the capitol city’s namesake—it’s home to a rich ecosystem of microorganisms and animals, not to mention a symbolic marker for Indigenous people who called this region home centuries before white settlers marveled at its uniqueness. Seymour’s project has ushered in even more conversation, highlighting the role of art and activism in what she calls “repairing the breach between humans and their environment.”