- Life in the Tar Seeps
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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 [End Page 159] 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...