We Are the Great Salt Lake

by Nan Seymour

I’ve spent the last two mid-winters camping alongside the receding shoreline of the largest saline lake in the Western hemisphere, leading a forty-seven day and night vigil on behalf of Great Salt Lake while the Utah State legislature was in session.
In September of 2021, I learned about the peril of the lake and responded with the tools I have, primarily my attention and my pen. I wrote about the lake every day for months, and soon began dreaming about the water as well. While writing and even dreaming, I also listened just in case the lake had anything to tell me. At first, fragments of lake-facing lyrics flowed from the dreams, and eventually I received an entire poem almost intact. The lines detailed a vision of the Lake’s restoration:

when praise began to flow
we watched the water rise
along both sides of the causeway
eleven islands recovered
their autonomy. microbialites sighed
with relief. when praise began to flow
the dust subsided. metals resettled
on the seafloor, arsenic and mercury
were lulled back to sleep
blanketed once more
by the great weight of water

As the poem continues, three rivers surge as greed relinquishes its grasp. We return to fourth grade field trips as boats float back to their docks. In the world of the poem, the water returns. I regard these images as the lake dreaming herself well and full again. The verses became the invocation to a collective prayer called irreplaceable.* Over the course of our first vigil, the poem was co-created by more than 400 people who offered verses, lines, and specific details. Now weighing in at well over 2200 lines, reflecting the square mile area of the waterbody fully restored, it might be the longest love letter ever written to a lake.

During the same period, I also received an invitation. It arrived in my mind one night in mid-November of 2021 as clearly as if written on a piece of mail.

“Stay with me from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon.” I was as surprised by the word choice as I was by the precise nature of the instruction. It was clear to me that this message had come directly from the lake because it certainly wasn’t my idea. As much as I love being outside, I’ve never been one to camp in the winter. Among other obstacles, I am arthritic and ill-equipped. Wolf Moon sounded ominous to me and Snow Moon just sounded cold. I got up and searched to find that the dates corresponded with the first four weeks of the 2022 legislative session. Suddenly, it became clear.

As a parent of a transgender daughter who had narrowly survived her adolescence, the request made sense to me. When the life of someone you love is at stake, you stay with them. The stakes for our great saline neighbor would be especially high during the upcoming session. I understood why the lake would want company, or at least a witness.
I borrowed a camper from a generous friend and moved to Bridger Bay site 56 on Antelope Island. The campsite sits on a gentle slope facing the bay which frames Fremont Island, no longer actually an island due to the receding shores, and beyond that Promontory Point. My nearest neighbors were ravens, field mice, and bison.

White Rock Bay, Antelope Island, March 2023. Lake level 4189.

Photo by Stephen Trimble.

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On still days, the lake presents a nearly flawless mirror. In 2022, the bay received and returned an unbroken sky. Birds flew through upside-down past inverted purple mountains as the water doubled heaven. This year the same circle was shrunken and disrupted; the body of water striated by reefs of newly exposed microbialites, shards of sky still shining between them. During our first vigil, one of the praise poets described the bay as “a perfect pancake,” a phrase capturing childlike admiration, her gaze imbued with an innocence no longer possible this year.
As I prepared for the first vigil, some wondered what I hoped to accomplish. I understood that a poet keeping watch in a nearly empty campground for seven weeks was unlikely to capture lawmaker’s attention. Even though I looked up and waved when they flew over in Black Hawk helicopters, I couldn’t see if they waved back. The handful of legislators who came by land to join us were those who already knew something about how to listen to a lake. No matter, the vigil wasn’t so much a protest as an offering of presence. I went to be with the lake and to hear what she might have to say.

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A young vigil keeper explores the fauna on Antelope Island. Photo by Grey Jensen

I imagined that the small community of writers, curious citizens, and scientists who showed up at first could beckon other lake-facing people. I imagined the benefit of the circles we would make might ripple out. I dared to hope we could shift the prevailing culture. Perhaps by gathering at the shore, we could help foster a love and reverence for the lake to replace past apathy and even disdain. This came to pass. During the last two winters, hundreds of people walked to the water, wrote together, sang, drummed, made art and fires, and listened to Indigenous teachers. We did most of these things outside in the weather and in view of the lake. When we read our praises and laments aloud, we turned towards the water and read them to her directly to make an offering. Our devotion grew more visible, more palpable. When we sang, the lake sang back.

when praise began to flow
we gathered and told stories
and a culture of disdain released its chokehold
our eyes shone with love and even
reverence, which began to grow

when praise began to flow
we sorrowed over the way
we had shunned her
irreplaceable body and vowed
never again to part from her company
and the love we felt for each drop
making a way to her whale-heart
became unfathomable

During the second vigil, we worked harder to communicate with lawmakers. In a brilliant collaboration published by BYU, scientists had outlined a clear directive on emergency measures necessary to rescue Great Salt Lake.** We wrote hundreds of letters in support of their recommendations. We especially focused on Senate Resolution 6, which would have established a statewide goal for a viable lake-level at 4198 feet above sea-level. This number is nine feet higher than this year’s low level and the bare minimum needed to sustain viability. Articulating this common goal was both an essential first step and the least we could do. The resolution required no funding, making it an easy non-partisan move towards repair and restoration. As I watched Republicans kill it in committee, I felt again a sensation I once had in my body just before a serious car accident, helpless as we slid rapidly towards an embankment.

In retrospect, perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised. For decades, the settler-descended occupants of this wave-made landscape have deemed any water reaching the lake as “wasted.” We have proclaimed the life of this lake bereft of inherent value, and we have developed a collective life in the shape of that lie. We have lined her shores with refineries, polluting ports, toxic industry, and more recently the state prison. We have turned the center of a hemispherically essential ecosystem into a throwaway zone, sacrificing any semblance of justice for all the animals, plants, and people living closest to the shore. Magna, West Valley, and West Jordan, the major cities most vulnerable to toxic dust storms already arising from the exposed lakebed, are significantly populated by People of Color: 22 to 40% of their citizens identify as Hispanic in contrast to 15% of Utah’s population overall. There’s no turning away from the fact that climate injustice here and elsewhere is perpetuated by white supremacy.

The lake, who has generously protected us from our own poisons with her great body, is now withdrawing, endangering the lives of people and all other lives in the bioregion. Meanwhile, where is our gratitude for her decades of protection? What of reciprocity?

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View towards Antelope Island from the Antelope Island Causeway. What used to be open water is now marsh. March 2023. Lake level: 4189.  Photo: Stephen Trimble.

For many years, my mentor Deena Metzger has asked me to carry two questions: 1. How do I divest from harm? 2. What is my part in repairing the breach between humans and the rest of the living world?
Keeping vigil means that even after the sessions end and we move home from the shoreline, we stay with these questions. We ask them and recalibrate our behavior in response, and then we ask again. Doing so day by day, we move closer to repairing our relationship with life. Many lake-facing people who have kept vigil alongside me carry these questions daily as well.
During the first vigil, I made it a point to show visitors microbialites. I had learned about them by listening to Dr. Bonnie Baxter on RadioWest. Before that I had been oblivious to these ancient forms making light into life throughout the shallows of the lake. Microbialites are the platform of life for all of the brine shrimp and brine flies who in turn provide essential sustenance for over ten million migratory birds. They are as essential to this ecosystem as coral reefs are to the oceans. These miraculous living rocks lit up my poet heart. I couldn’t stop myself from writing an ode.
To see them in 2022, we would walk along the shoreline a mile around the point until their exposed and desiccating forms came into view. Each time we did, grief rippled through my body echoing the masses of dying reefs rippling out from the shore. With this year’s lower water level, there was no pilgrimage left to make. I simply stood at campsite 56 overlooking the bay, stretched out my hand and said look. Ancestral life was dying everywhere in plain sight, our grief exponential.

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Exposed lakebed susceptible to becoming toxic dust. Photo: Grey Jensen.

At this writing in early spring of 2023, after record-breaking snowfall, water is slowly rising. Some exposed microbialites will be submerged again, at least temporarily, but we don’t know yet if they have the capacity to recover. We have never gambled our entire ecosystem here before.

and fat flakes of snow tumbled
into the great body becoming
clouds, drifting into peaks
making snow and more snow
and then creeks, then rivers
then lake, and then lake effect
also known as sustenance
also known as snow

While I am beyond grateful for the reprieve, I am concerned about a complacency that seems to be growing with the snowpack. This good snow year may be a miracle but it is also merely a stay of execution. Overall, even a record run of similar seasons will not save us if we do not cease to do harm. We humans must humble ourselves before water. We cannot extract, divert, or develop our way out of this. We must learn to live within our means and our prayers must be backed with action.
Utah has established a Great Salt Lake Watershed Enhancement Trust and the LDS church has donated 20,000 acre feet per year in perpetuity, roughly 2% of the 1 million acre feet needed to stabilize the lake’s level and salinity. This donation may be relatively small in relation to the need, but it could be a significant start. At the same time, we haven’t stopped diverting or damming essential inflows to the lake. The state is actually still collecting sales tax dollars to further develop the Bear River, the Great Salt Lake’s primary tributary, already choked by 61 dams. There is no possibility of ethical development of the Bear River in this era.
Throughout these vigils, I have witnessed people change their ways. Some folks are primarily motivated by a fear of toxic dust, but those who keep vigil go deeper, engaging in a reverent and reciprocal relationship with the lake. Walking to the water’s edge is an act of intimacy. When you find the entire sky offered up to you even in puddles, you can’t help but fall in love. The lake is an immensely generous friend and teacher. From within the context of a loving relationship, the lake’s inherent rights to live and flourish become indisputable. Vigil keepers are compelled to advocate for the assaulted lake in the same way I am motivated to advocate for my daughter who is transgender. With my last breath, I will proclaim her inherent rights to live and thrive and be herself. We habitually call these rights human rights, but what if we say sovereign rights instead in the interest of including ecosystems and other beyond-human life?

In all cases, may love be our great motivator.

when praise began to flow
we felt the genesis of our feathers
we felt water return to the sea
of ourselves, we felt
a swell in the lake
of ourselves. we felt
the surge of our rivers
we felt tidal. we felt primal. we fell
with the snow. we grew ocean-
hearted.we began to know
we had never been separate
and thus could not be parted
when praise began to flow

The life of this saline sea is inseparable from our own. We must inscribe this essential truth within our hearts, we must map it with our bodies. Although I am deeply allegiant to the movement called Save Our Great Salt Lake, allow me to acknowledge that the word save lacks humility. Our oceanic ancestor would robustly revive in our absence. We humans are the existential threat of the Anthropocene, and at least as vulnerable to our own poisons as other lifeforms. We are actually working against a clock we set in motion, mostly just trying to save ourselves. Perhaps we should give up on saving and simply focus on ceasing to harm.

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Vigil keepers prepare to sing to Great Salt Lake. Credit: Grey Jensen.

Great Salt Lake is a center, not a periphery. A creator, not a commodity. She is the sentient heart of a beyond-human world she shaped over the epochs with her waves. Her intelligence predates and greatly exceeds our own. May we humble ourselves before her. May we raise our voices on her behalf. May we have the courage to stand by her side at this threshold. We owe her not only our lives, but our steady witness.

Nan Seymour is a published poet living in Salt Lake City. She sponsors a writing group called River Writers which she describes: “River Writing is a generative writing practice supported by community agreements. Participants are invited to write from the heart and offered an opportunity to read aloud free from critique or praise.”