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Etymology: Latin fluctuatus, past participle of fluctuare, from fluctus flow, wave, from fluere —
1 : to shift back and forth uncertainly
2 : to ebb and flow in waves
For five days now we’ve been submerged in the Bonneville Basin. We’ve been eating, dreaming, and working 1000 ft below the line. Over these days we’ve come to be able to not only see and imagine the Lake, but also to feel it. The Bonneville Basin is literally a basin, a depression in the earth with no outlets. Things only sink deeper here. From every spot within the basin and around its peripheral mountains and ridges, the pull of gravity compounds with the topological shape of space itself–and creates a gravitational pull downward and inward. The forces that make this place–physical, geological, meteorological, historical–are some of the most extreme in the world. In the few days that we’ve travelled the lake’s eastern edges, we passed through snow, fierce wind, and calm sunny stretches. Often, these have unfolded over the course of an hour or two.
The ground cracks and pulls apart within the Basin on both small and vastly large scales. Each year Reno and Salt Lake City move an inch further apart, that’s a foot every 12 years. The Bonneville Basin is still experiencing isostatic rebound now that the weight of ancient Lake Bonneville has evaporated. The massive Lake compressed the earth’s crust up to 230ft. This means that today, if you follow a single strand line cut by the Lake’s wave action, it will appear at different heights on the mountains that bordered the lake and on the islands that were within it. It seems that only a landscape as extreme as this could raise forces capable of dematerializing a body of water as massive as Lake Bonneville’s by sending it literally up into the air. It was an incredibly fast vanishing act in terms of geologic time. Day after day for thousands of years water evaporated off its surface and lifted a lake the size of Lake Michigan upwards into nothingness. As the lake body slowly retreated and dropped hundreds of feet in depth, it carved a series of still clearly visible benches, beaches, and perfectly horizontal erosion lines into the mountains and islands that held it. Only the Great Salt Lake and Utah Lake remain today. Both of these lakes fluctuate wildly and rapidly, with flood plains that can reach hundreds of feet beyond their “average” shorelines.
When considered within the vast frame of geologic time, the disappearance of a lake as large as Bonneville can only be seen as temporary. This basin is shaped to catch and hold water. Surface forms and elevations, water, location of inlets and outlets, all fluctuate on a geologic scale. Fluctuation is a major force that rules this landscape. At the edges where land meets or met water, signs of their interaction are vividly marked. And today, the edges are marked with much more.
Traveling through this landscape, we’ve seen the material effects of raw geologic time intersecting starkly with human forces. Air force jets cut through the sky. We’re residing within a few short miles of the Utah Test and Training range (UTTR), “UTTR is currently the largest overland contiguous block of supersonic authorized restricted airspace in the continental United States” and has over 19,000 square miles of airspace. This is roughly the same size as Lake Bonneville’s maximum. We have seen jumbled assemblages of rock tipped 90 degrees into the air, rising vertically from former beaches of Lake Bonneville–now dotted with casinos that nest into them. We’ve seen suburban developments teeter on wave cut benches that command sweeping views of contemporary infrastructures and urban sprawl across the dry lake bed. We have seen mountains inverted into pits by the process of extracting copper along miles of the former lake’s shore. We have seen lake waters turn from clear to turbid milky grey. The human-built infrastructures that exist at this lake’s edges are deep and powerful–from evaporation ponds that extract salt to incinerators of nuclear waste. But after a short drive up the sloping lake bed behind the town of West Wendover, NV- from a view a few hundred feet above roads, railways, airbases, power lines, cell towers, and casinos–the human-built suddenly looks small and temporary.
It is clear to us that everything here, human and geologic alike, is subject to the force of fluctuation: rising, falling, stretching compressing, evaporating, flooding, compressing and crumbling.
Rather than trying to make too much sense of what we have learned from this Basin too soon, we’ve chosen to stay submerged and share a selection of images that visualize intersections of two forces that make this place both mesmerizing and unknowable: the human and the geologic.
soccer game at the Daybreak housing development, reclaimed site of Bingham Copper Mine operations, with the massive tailing mounds (inverted Oquirrh mountains) of the Bingham pit in the middle background
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