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G.K. Gilbert’s routes of travel around Lake Bonneville in the late 1800s, from Lake Bonneville
“Geologically speaking, Great Salt Lake is the latest in a long succession of older, often more extensive lakes that have expanded and contracted off and on for the past 15 million years. Lakes 800 feet or more deeper than the present lake have occupied the Lake Bonneville basin twice in the past 150,000 years…” Major Levels of Great Salt Lake and Lake Bonneville, 1984
Next week we’ll embark on the first of our summer projects. Below the Line is a two week field-based research trip. We will follow the ancient shorelines of Pleistocene Lake Bonneville throughout the Bonneville basin (most of present day Utah). Lake Bonneville once spanned more than 20,000 square miles and had a depth of over 1000 feet.
While working on Below the Line, we’ll be based in Wendover, UT at our favorite home away from home: South Base (aka Clean Livin’). Clean Livin’ is a retrofitted World War II Quonset hut renovated by the architectural team SimpArch for the Center for Land Use Interpretation’s residency program near the historic Wendover Airfield. The entire area exists on the floor of Lake Bonneville’s dry bed.
When we land on Friday, we’ll already be “below the line.” Salt Lake City is situated hundreds of feet below the Bonneville strandline. For two weeks we will document and creatively respond to the ancient shores of Lake Bonneville, using photography, drawing, super 8 film, and GPS mapping/logging. We’ll also look for traces of lines carved by Lake Bonneville’s fluctuations in size and depth–significant enough changes to warrant their own names: Lakes Gilbert, Provo and Stansbury. Many of the lines, sometimes called benches, strand lines, and even “bath tub rings,” are clearly visible from main roads and Interstates. We’ll also go off-road in search of more remote shorelines and playas left behind by the lake.
During the trip, we’ll attempt not only to experience the basin as it appears now, but also to imagine how it might have appeared during Bonneville’s watery reign. We’ll try to maintain an awareness that nearly everything we’ll encounter that is human-made exists below this line – that everywhere we will walk and drive falls within and under the horizontal and vertical boundaries of this former inland sea.
We’ll be most interested in sites where the human and the geologic intersect–where humans today meet Lake Bonneville of the Pleistocene. At such sites, what is no longer becomes what is today.
We plan to pause to take in how humans have built and designed, perhaps unknowingly, a world upon and across the floor of ancient Lake Bonneville. We wonder what this vast body of water, a lake that was designated “extinct” around 14,000 years ago, continues to make possible for human life in 2010.
Our project, as artists, is to reanimate Lake Bonneville. We sense that the Lake is a force that continues to shape the contemporary environments built upon it. We want to enliven the dry spaces where land and water interacted continuously for thousands of years.
There is a contemporaneity to the idea of submerged cities and infrastructures. It’s an idea whose vivid realness can be applied beyond the specificities of Lake Bonneville. Indeed, many urban planners and governments today are invested deeply in researching what might become of coastal cities and the vulnerable infrastructures located at their edges when and if water levels rise.
The Rising Currents exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art (on display until October 11, 2010), takes up these questions and applies them to the edges of New York City. The exhibition makes it clear that a small water level rise would have significant consequences. Though the frame of Rising Currents is quite focused (just five regions of New York City are addressed), the exhibition is a testament to the growing awareness that in the near future, the rhythmic and often unpredictable rising and falling of water will dramatically shape how and where vast numbers of humans live. The exhibition suggests that humans will find ways to live responsively to these fluctuating edges rather than retreat inland. This has been a relevant question for humans to consider ever since the Pleistocene when melting glaciers raised sea levels and inundated coastal living spaces that some believe were cultural centers.
We found the architectural group SCAPE‘s work particularly intriguing. A section of their project’s wall text reads, “Back To The Future: We looked to the past for clues as to how to envision the future of this place...”
We’ll have such words in mind when we take in the land-locked view from the heights of the 15,500 year flood line that marks Lake Bonneville’s maximum: 5,220 feet above sea level. Based on past trips to the area, likely candidates for what we might see from the line include: casinos, housing developments, interstates, mines, bombing ranges, national parks, urban centers, and airports.
It’s seductive to imagine our contemporary world submerged by water, rendered strange and otherworldly. Countless Hollywood films have already done it for us. It’s something else to literally stand in a familiar landscape and comprehend that this place really was once under water – especially while surrounded by innumerable elements of human design.
Our primary source material for designing our circumnavigation of ancient Lake Bonneville was a map from G.K. Gilbert’s 1884 Monograph, Lake Bonneville. We’ll map our contemporary movements in relation to Gilbert’s expeditions 125 years ago.
We’ll wrap up our journey at the site of catastrophe: the second largest flood in geologic history. The site of the Bonneville Flood is marked on the Google Map above as point “P”. This is where the great flood waters broke through the Red Rock Pass of present day Idaho at a rate of 15 million cubic feet per second, joined up with the Snake River, then the Columbia River and eventually blasted their way to the Pacific. The monumental outpouring decreased Lake Bonneville’s depth by 500 ft. in just a few days.
As time and energy allow during our two weeks in the field, we’ll post reports from below the line. Stay tuned for more.
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