The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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JUNE 2022 Issue
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The Lake That Disappeared

Great Salt Lake Comparison, Benjamin J. Burger. CC License:

I write from what was just offshore, a few feet below the waters of Lake Bonneville—the remnant of the Western Interior Seaway, on a clastic wedge that eroded eastward as the crust thickened and thrust-faults, following subduction, threw up summits in the continental West which led to what would be the Rocky Mountain spur that rose above the Bonneville waters and still shadows the site, mornings, where I now reside. Lake Bonneville was an anomaly in the hydrology of the Great Basin’s endorheic drain—a Pleistocene lake that long ago evaporated, leaving vast lacustrine plains stretching past all that is left of its twenty thousand square-mile expanse: the shallow, hypersaline plash of Great Salt Lake. The fugitive subsidence continues: tributaries have been diverted for development and farming; the Intermountain West faces the most severe drought in over 1,200 years; the climate is changing. The level of Great Salt Lake is at a record low. It has lost almost half of its former surface area. Arsenic-laced dust storms spiral above the mercury-leaching surface of its newly sun-baked shore. “It was an arid region, bleached and dry. An infinity of surfaces spread in every direction. A chaos of cracks surrounded us,” as Robert Smithson described the crystal land. Only two years after he built Spiral Jetty, sited just below the lake’s meander line, it submerged beneath the rising water. Today, the shore is over half-a-mile away. The waters will not return.

Some of the steam that powered the Industrial Revolution dissipated above the freight-siding built near Gravel Pit in a barren stretch of Box Elder County, Utah Territory. Mid-nineteenth-century steam engines vaporized a thousand gallons of water for every seven miles traveled. By 1860, their fireboxes burned the fossilized remains of plants that had decayed in the stagnant swamps of the Carboniferous, replacing wood. Wyoming fields fed the Union Pacific locomotive No. 119 as it went West and met the Central Pacific engine No. 60, depleting the coal deposits of Utah as it sped. The politics of the drys, as temperance adherents were known, led to the erasure of the champagne bottles in certain prints of Andrew Russell’s carefully staged 1869 photograph, East & West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail, celebrating the golden-spiked meeting at Promontory Summit, Utah. The ceremony had been delayed for days after workers in Piedmont, Wyoming—who had not been paid for months—decoupled the car carrying the Union Pacific Vice President and shunted it until the funds were liquidated and dispersed among the waiting graders and tie-cutters. The East, of course, had already come to the West; Chinese workers laid the last rails. The engine, in turn, had come from another East, sailing from the Schenectady iron works to San Francisco and then shipped upriver to Sacramento. It was known as Jupiter. The Promontory route was soon abandoned when the Southern Pacific built a trestle, straight across Great Salt Lake, avoiding the Promontory grade; the last hundred-plus miles of transcontinental track were torn up and scrapped, the rails smelted in the alchemical retort of history.1

Andrew J. Russell, <em>East & West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail</em> (1869).
Andrew J. Russell, East & West Shaking Hands at Laying of Last Rail (1869).

Jupiter, a gas giant, has no solid surface.

Above the south-eastern shore of Great Salt Lake, in what is no longer recognizable as Bingham Canyon, the Kennecott Copper Mine hastens the disappearance of an entire mountain in the Oquirrh range, continuously stripping the low-yield stone for remnants of metals. The excavators, for over a century, have slowly made their way toward the valley floor below, as if chasing the abating water of the lake. The tailings accumulate to form a dam that will never be needed, now that the waters have receded for good.

In the summer, on account of the aridity, rain here can vanish before it hits the ground. Exposed in passing storms, you still stay dry. Oceans pool and disappear. The desert relieves the sea. The standing remnants of the old regime evaporate. “All that is solid melts into air.”2 Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx write of Capital in the terms of the steam-power that propelled its contemporary force. Its exploitation gave a “cosmopolitan character to production and consumption.”3 For Friedrich Nietzsche, the Apollonian shapes and sublimates Dionysian drives, “thereby endowing them with cultural value and esteem.”4

Pleistocene lakes in the Great Basin. J. Havens, U.S.G.S, after R. Morrison, Quaternary Nonglacial Geology (Geo. Soc. America, 1991). CC License:
Pleistocene lakes in the Great Basin. J. Havens, U.S.G.S, after R. Morrison, Quaternary Nonglacial Geology (Geo. Soc. America, 1991). CC License:

What once seemed a capacious embrace of the halophytic-pink dyed waters of the lake can now appear shriveled. The Jetty curls with the contraction of some desiccated cellular structure—it lies like a fossilized chilognath weaving its own lithic funeral wreath.

Benjamin Louis Eulalie de Bonneville never saw the remnants of his eponymous waters. His father had proposed the storming of the Bastille.

Dawn scatters crystalline dust on the shattered craquelure crust of the salt pan’s bed. The horizon’s halation sucks the last bit of moisture from the morning air—and for a moment, all of this appears.


  1. See Jennifer L. Roberts, “Spiral Jetty/ Golden Spike,” Mirror-Travels: Robert Smithson and History (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004): 114-139.
  2. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, Manifesto of the Communist Party, trans. Samuel Moore (Chicago: Charles H. Kerr & Company, 1906): 17.
  3. Ibidem, 18.
  4. Jacob Golomb, “Will to Power: Does it Lead to the ‘Coldest of All Cold Monsters?’,” The Oxford Handbook of Nietzsche, ed. Ken Gemes and John Richardson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013): 527.


Craig Dworkin

Craig Dworkin is an American poet, critic, editor, and professor of English at the University of Utah. He is the author of several volumes of poetry and scholarly monographs, most recently Helicography (Punctum, 2021), in which he examines questions of scale in relation to Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.


The Brooklyn Rail

JUNE 2022

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