Salt and Spirals

The Spiral Jetty 1
The Spiral Jetty 1

“I expected it to be bigger,” I say.

“Yeah, me too…” my wife responds.

We stand at Rozel Point, in Utah’s Box Elder County, where Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork strikes out into the shallow, super-saline waters of the Great Salt Lake. The work comprises over 6,000 tons of black basalt and earth taken from the surrounding landscape, arranged into a 1,500-foot long spiral that looks precisely like a fiddlehead fern. Smithson and a team of workers with heavy machinery built the great shape in 1970, before either of us was born.

To get here, we drove north from Salt Lake along the still snow-capped Wasatch mountains, past gravel mines and oil refineries, grain silos and endless miles of fenced-in farmlands, past small towns full of people who’ve never heard the name Robert Smithson. Past ATK, “a world-leading producer of ammunition, precision weapons and rocket motors,” and the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the rails of the Union and Central Pacific Railroads were joined in 1869.

For most of the trip out to the Jetty, signs of human industry and habitation are unavoidable, persistent. But on the last stretch of fenceless gravel road, surrounded on all sides by open grassland spotted with scrubby brush, you could be almost anywhere or in any time if it weren’t for the dark clusters of cattle with their fluorescent ear tags.

Loitering in the hillside parking lot overlooking the Jetty, we speak briefly with some reporters from a local newspaper who came out for the same reason we did: to watch the “Return to the Sea,” the culmination of Japanese artist Motoi Yamamoto’s salt-based installation piece at Westminster College.

“I’ve lived in Utah my entire life and have never been out here,” one of the reporters says.

During his brief stay in Salt Lake City, Yamamoto meticulously created a huge, labyrinthine pattern on the floor of Westminster’s science center using only a squeeze bottle and monastic patience. After a few weeks, the piece was swept up for a symbolic return to the source—in this case the Great Salt Lake, which was once an inland sea. (I wrote an essay about the installation for the blog dxMag. You can read it here.)

Now, a large group of students and other folk carrying the remains of Yamamoto’s work in baggies and boxes and tubs unceremoniously flings the crystals into the water, shouting and laughing. It’s more of an undirected celebration than a contemplative gesture. Still, I imagine Yamamoto must be happy to enter into such an artistic dialogue with the legendary Smithson, even if neither man is directly present for it.

After an hour or so, the group departs and the Jetty almost immediately feels like a place out of time, a bridge between nature the familiar creations of human ingenuity. This simple shape, set in an expanse of salt and mud and mirror-like water tinged red by bacteria, somehow blurs the lines that normally separate and define. Is the Jetty natural or man-made? And what’s the difference, really? “The flowing mass of rock and earth of the Spiral Jetty could be trapped by a grid of segments,” wrote Smithson wrote, “but the segments would exist only in the mind or on paper.”

The space surrounding the jetty is littered with the remnants of old industry. In describing the site in his 1972 essay “The Spiral Jetty,” Smithson mentions a wooden hut that “could have been the habitation of ‘the missing link.’” On our visit, the hut is no longer, though its decrepit wooden pilings remain, as does a rust-corroded steel ball sunk partway into the muck. “This site gave evidence of a succession of man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes,” Smithson writes.

At the same time, Smithson saw an eons-old palimpsest when he looked out into the horizon at Rozel Point: “The products of a Devonian industry, the remains of a Silurian technology, all the machines of the Upper Carboniferous Period were lost in those expansive deposits of sand and mud.”

Like a musician with synesthesia (or perhaps like one under the influence of LSD), who sees shapes and colors with every note, Smithson experienced the site for the Jetty in his viscera, “it reverberated out to the horizons only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.”

As we walk down into the jetty and trace its course on foot, its spiral form breaks down. We are too close to see it whole. Instead, we see the arcs of the spiral as rough forms mirroring the mountain ranges on the distant horizon. We see black rocks, belchings of a long exhausted volcano, with white and yellow and green rings of salt crystals grown up in delicate papery fringes around their peripheries.

We stand out on the salt flats around the Jetty and look back. The sculpture appears bigger now. On the blank canvas of the flats, perspective changes every couple of steps. “The scale of the Spiral Jetty tends to fluctuate depending on where the viewer happens to be,” Smithson explained, and we experienced his observation repeatedly throughout the day.

Another excellent place from which to experience the uniqueness of the Great Salt Lake is Antelope Island, some 30 miles southeast of the Spiral Jetty. But here, looking out into the expanse, there is little to connect our humanity to the place. Everything is background, with no subject. Smithson’s spiral gives us a subject, uses the materials of the place and the tools and mind of human intention to offer a subject, at once natural and unnatural, through which we can enter and participate in this particular bit of geography. Like Wallace Stevens’ jar on a hilltop in Tennessee, “the wilderness rose up to it, and sprawled around, no longer wild.”

The Spiral Jetty, nothing more than a bit of rock arranged, is also a portal—a reminder that we are no more out of history than the dinosaurs who once dwelt here. We, dear reader, just happen to be at the current tip of history, soon to be subsumed in its ever-spiraling line.

My personal experience of The Spiral Jetty was moving, but not dark or fatalistic, which is why I was surprised to read Smithson’s own words on the piece. “On the slopes of Rozel Point I closed my eyes, and the sun burned crimson through my lids. I opened them and the Great Salt Lake was bleeding scarlet streaks,” he wrote. And, “Perception was heaving, the stomach turning, I was on a geologic fault that groaned within me.” It was if the place wracked him with an existential dread. I couldn’t help but recall Meursault’s walk on the beach in The Stranger:

Beneath a veil of brine and tears my eyes were blinded; I was conscious only of the cymbals of the sun clashing on my skull, and, less distinctly, of the keen blade of light flashing up from the knife, scarring my eyelashes, and gouging into my eyeballs.

Then everything began to reel before my eyes, a fiery gust came from the sea, while the sky cracked in two, from end to end, and a great sheet of flame poured down through the rift.

It left me glad that the intent of the artist and the experience of the art are, if not entirely, then mostly separable. I tend to prefer the more Eastern perspective on time and mortality in Motoi Yamamoto’s artwork. He, like Smithson, uses the symbol of the spiral, but in a purified form and isolated indoors, to be destroyed in a controlled manner. The Spiral Jetty was meant to be slowly eroded by the work of weather and tides, by nature in all its entropic messiness.

It’s as if the two artists and the natural world are all saying the same thing, only in different languages.

Writing, Climbing, and the Exploration of the Unknown

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When we attempt a climb for the first time, it can feel very difficult, bordering on the impossible. We might spy distant anchors, but have little clue how to reach them. Or maybe the anchors are hidden from view entirely, but some faint line of possibility emerges from the chaos of the rock. Much of climbing’s excitement comes from this uncertainty, and we set out to explore new territory and our own abilities. Along the way, we’ll often find that the path we plotted from the ground won’t get us where we want to go, and we must try new directions and less familiar methods to achieve our goal. 

It’s often like this when we sit down to write, too.

When I gaze into the blank screen, I have only an inkling of where I’m going and how to get there. I employ all manner of tricks and tools to turn the nebulous occupants of my brain into concrete sentences on the page. In the process, things I once believed might perish in the alien atmosphere of the world outside my head, like deep-sea creatures brought to the surface too quickly. Or connections that were but wispy filaments, so fine as to elude my conscious mind, appear obvious when finally converted into language and set down on paper.

The act of writing is as much about exploration as it is exposition, which is what makes it so satisfying. If writing was a simple transcription of thoughts fully formed, how dull would that be? Likewise, if we could read and perfectly understand all climbs just by looking, if we could know for sure, without trying, whether we would be able to do them or not, would we even bother?

Most climbs that challenge us require multiple attempts to complete. Redpointing is the process of breaking a climb into constituent moves and manageable segments, perfecting them, and then reassembling them for the send. It’s very much the same with a piece of writing. We must craft it sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, and then smooth the transitions, rejigger the order, edit out the unnecessary bits… until everything flows and we achieve our goal as cleanly as possible.

It is also true that the climber will always come up against routes and the writer will come up against ideas that just aren’t going to happen. Not that day or that week or that year. In such cases we need to step away and come back again when we’ve earned a few more merit badges, so to speak. Often when we do, we find the once-impossible becomes possible, and we wonder what we were doing wrong before. Sometimes we just have to wait until the planets align, the pendulum has swung past, the tide has gone out, and no amount of striving will quicken the process.

And sometimes the door never opens, and the route never happens; that idea that seemed so clear never gels on the page quite the way we wanted. Many folks would see this as frustrating, but I think never quite knowing when and if and how things will come together is an integral part of the adventure. The unknown and the uncertain are fuel for an inexhaustible engine in the human heart, driving our need to explore: the rocks and the mountains, our own beliefs and ideas, the universe as we know it.