Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty from the Air
Yesterday I posted directions to Robert Smithson's Spiral Jetty. Today Tyler Green begins a series of posts on the Great Salt Lake, and has written about the potential impact of oil exploration in the area. In addition to my text, I thought I'd post my pictures taken from a 1952 Piper Cub I chartered and flew over the Jetty. Wayne at Airmotive took me up in his trainer from Brigham City Airport. Wayne was the test pilot for a Wright Brothers replica that was flown on the 100th anniversary of their first flight. The trip took a little over an hour, and he could fly slow enough that I could lean out the open door and take these pictures.
The Utah Geological Survey has some some good information about Rozel Point on their web site:
Rozel Point is one of the oldest (if not the oldest) fields to produce oil in Utah. The seeps have been known since the late 1800s and production attempts began in 1904. The field produced an estimated 10,000 barrels of oil from 30 to 50 wells, but has been inactive since the mid-1980s due to extremely difficult production, very high refining costs, and rising lake levels.
Rozel Point may not be the place to take a first date. In the August 1995 issue of Survey Notes, Thomas Chidsey writes of “crude oil dripping from abandoned wellheads, tar on rocks and beach sands, and dead pelicans along the beach…”
The wellheads have since been capped, but rusting industrial debris remains. The sweet perfume or retched stench of crude fills your nose. And, you can occasionally see, hear, and feel the U.S. Air Force test weapons in the Lakeside Mountains across Gunnison Bay to the west.
On the other hand, graceful flocks of pelicans flying by and distal views of the lake and mountains can inspire awe and wonder. The red brine, white salt, and black basalt impart an otherworldly feel. And the economic potential seeping from the ground creates an air of excitement. Perhaps it is because of, not in spite of, these dichotomies that artist Robert Smithson chose to locate his Spiral Jetty earthwork in this area, just a few hundred yards to the northwest of Rozel Point.
The pink waters of the site picked by Smithson can be attributed to the rock causeway built by the railroad. In the 1950's the lake was divided in two, and the increase in salinity north of the causeway caused the red algae bloom and brine shrimp to replace the preexisting ecosystem.
The State of Utah is faced with the task of providing a balance between using Great Salt Lake’s natural resources and maintaining a healthy lake ecosystem. Often at odds are the production of mineral salts and brines worth over $200 million annually, hydrocarbon exploration, and brine shrimp cyst harvesting worth over $100 million annually; implementing flood-control measures; maintaining proper brine salinities; and protecting thousands of acres of wetlands and the islands which are home to millions of birds including the American white pelican and California gull.
I expect that if the water levels hadn't dropped and re-exposed the Spiral Jetty, these conversations about oil exploration would not be taking place. As I mentioned before:
For those who are opposed to all oil drilling on principle, that's another story. Living among the oil rigs of Long Beach, I'm willing to accept the anti-aesthetic, for the benefit of oil that hasn't been shipped from the other side of the planet.
My previous post show pictures of the on-site debris that Dia carted away to pristine-ify the site:
By the time Smithson arrived in the 70's the north part of the lake had turned red from the brine shrimp and red algae that were the only things that could survive in the super saline waters north of the causeway. It was this industrial wasteland of mineral salt, brine shrimp cyst, and hydrocarbon extraction that Smithson chose to build his Jetty.
Fluctuating water levels can completely submerge the Jetty or leave it high and dry, encrusted in salt.
When word that the drilling was proposed near the Jetty, I received a forwarded email from Nancy Holt, Robert Smithson's widow. There was a matter of hours to respond before the period for public comments were closed. Not having much time, I shot off a letter. In the meantime, several insightful conversations have taken place on line. If an application for drilling were resubmitted, I expect my comments would be quite different today.
At his point it may be helpful to read Smithson's own words on his selection of the Jetty's location:
Two dilapidated shacks looked over a tired group of oil rigs. A series of seeps of heavy black oil more like asphalt occur just south of Rozel Point. For forty or more years people have tried to get oil out of this natural tar pool. Pumps coated with black stickiness rusted in the corrosive salt air. I hut mounted on pilings could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link’. This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.
About one mile north of the oil seeps I selected my site. Irregular beds of limestone dip gently eastward, massive deposits of black basalt are broken over the peninsula, giving the region a shattered appearance. It is one of few places on the lake where the water comes right up to the mainland. Under shallow pinkish water is a network of mud cracks supporting the jigsaw puzzle that composes the salt flats. As I looked at the site, it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake. A dormant earthquake spread into the fluttering stillness, into a spinning sensation without movement. This site was a rotary that enclosed itself in an immense roundness. From that gyrating space emerged the possibility of the Spiral Jetty.