From the Edge of an Epoch: Extinct Lakes Redux
10.10.2011, 1:20 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

After attending the Art + Environment conference in Reno, Nevada last week, FOP took the occasion to extend our stay and take to the road. Our first destination was the Black Rock Desert. Two years ago we visited the Black Rock playa only to find it too wet to drive or walk across. This time around we were in luck and the conditions were ideal.  As dust storms brewed on the horizon and along the playa’s edges, we lived out a dream of traversing this small portion of the vast bed of Lake Lahontan.

Playa driving felt akin to being in a boat at sea, suspended and unmoored.  The potential to move in any direction, anytime, is a rare and fantastic feeling to have while piloting a car. We were met with endless air, light and space—and no vehicles or center lines in sight.

Traveling to and from the outpost of Gerlach, Nevada, the gateway to the Black Rock, we passed through a corridor once occupied by Lake Lahontan.  It was magnificent to move into the empty spaces that once held the lake via Nevada highway 447.  Here, the walls that rise from the basin are lined with visible ancient shorelines shaped by lake and erosion over thousands of years. The brief foray to Black Rock reinvigorated our long-term interest in projects related to “extinct” lakes, especially those of the Pleistocene.

We decided to reshape our plans for the following days, so that we could visit several other lake-related sites.

Wave cut benches of Lake Lahontan at the edge of the now dry remnant Winnemucca Lake

We set out on a 500-mile drive from Reno to Las Vegas, via Lee Vining and Stovepipe Wells, California.  We documented landscapes of nine lakes—approximately. The number of lakes we actually experienced proves tricky to determine.  The naming protocol for pluvial lakes seems to shift as water levels rise and fall. Different lake names often apply to the same geographic area, contingent upon the degree of expansion and contraction.  Pleistocene Lake Bonneville in present day Utah, for example, has had more than five names:  Bonneville, Gilbert, Stansbury, Provo and now the Great Salt Lake.  And Lake Lahontan in present day Nevada has contemporary remnants and offshoots named Pyramid Lake, Walker Lake, and the now dry Winnemucca Lake.

In extreme cases, an extinct lake regains its name during a time of unprecedented flooding.  Otherwise, it’s known as a desert:  Pleistocene Lake Manly is now called Death Valley.  But, after abnormally heavy rain in 2005, Lake Manly seemed to attempt a brief comeback.  Its basin in Death Valley filled with water and left high water marks 8-10 feet above the playa floor.

We hadn’t expected that our three extra days of travel would become an extinct lake redux, but it did. And the experience of passing through, across and alongside so many present and absent bodies of water at various stages of rebirth, retreat or extinction, brought new clarity to the way we’ve been thinking about a geologic turn in contemporary culture, and our ongoing projects related to geologic change.

Pyramid Lake in late afternoon

The edge of Mono Lake resembling an above ground fish tank. During Pleistocene Lake Russell’s reign, the tufa formed underwater.

Coming on the heels of three days of attempting to sniff out a “geologic turn” at the A + E Conference, this road trip inspired a few revelations and new ideas.  We took our “geologic turn” lens out into the landscape and found ourselves surrounded by visual, material clues of ongoing geologic change, past and future. Picturesque landscapes rooted in the geologic past tense became signals of recent and still unfolding climate change—planetary in scale. There were fleeting moments when we forgot, visually beguiled by the water sculpted landscapes outside our window, that the lakes have been gone for thousands of years. In these brief lapses of cognition, we felt we were witnessing the end of the Pleistocene in the present tense. Though climate change has certainly been helped along by humans, the sensation grew that the Earth’s own rhythm and scale of change far exceeds human comprehension.

Owens Lake, sucked dry by the diversion of water to Los Angeles in 1924, with Sierra Nevada in background

Extinct Panamint Lake inside the gates of Death Valley National Park. The airspace above the lake is restricted. While standing at the overlook we heard a sonic boom overhead.

Though it is too early to determine whether we now are living in an interglacial period or truly at the end of the Pleistocene’s ice ages, the rippling effects of that epoch are far from over and overlap with our contemporary lives.

What did become startlingly apparent to us over the last week, is that, at the end of the Pleistocene, a massive shift took place. Proof existed everywhere we looked. The forces that has just left, geologically speaking, were monumental enough to fill the entirety of these empty, parched spaces with water to depths of hundreds of feet—for thousands of years. Rather than relaying our sensibilities into the past, our direct encounters with these present and former lakes projected our imaginations into the unfolding present and future: the massive forces that humans use to determine divisions between geologic epochs and eras can and actually do shift, change, and end.  When climates and geology transition into their “next,” they become dramatically different than what has been.

This past week, it became easier for us to comprehend that whatever epoch we are living in now, whether we call it the Anthropocene, Holocene, or Pleistocene— it will inevitably give way to a unknowable next.  And, it may or may not be conducive to human life.

The climate that existed during the Pleistocene was wet and cold, the opposite of the landscapes we found ourselves moving through.  Rather than experiencing them as signals from the past, we began to experience lake beds, tufa, and playa floors as signals of the imminent and monumental scale of the changes in climate, environment, geography, and geology that will come.

Nothing prepared us for Death Valley. While dry, hot and extreme, it is also the most magnificent of the “lakes” we encountered. Here, 200 feet below sea level, in the lowest, driest and hottest part of North America, water used to reign.  It seemed newly absurd to imagine that humans would desire, let alone be able, to design or engineer our way out the geologic equivalent of an ice age’s beginning, or ending.

bed of Lake Manly

Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes

Zabriskie Point

The unexpected grande finale of our make-shift extinct lake tour became Zabriskie Point. This site of cinematic pilgrimage is also a humbling lesson in the layered, lake inflected history that gives form to this otherworldly site. The badlands at the Point started forming 9 million years ago and are composed by the sediments left by a now extinct lake, 5 million years ago. This lake, named Furnace Creek Lake by modern geologists, far preceded the existence of Death Valley and Pleistocene Lake Manly.

We’ve been reading a new book by philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, Becoming Undone: Darwinian Reflections on Life, Politics, and Art. We came across the following words, written in response to Aboriginal artists who are creating works in response to the dry lake beds of the Western Desert of Australia:

“Western Desert art teaches us of the forces that will overrun us, that made us and will unmake us. It teaches us how to live with the imponderable and unmasterable forces and to make them the sources of affirmation, of new possibilities.” – Elizabeth Grosz, p.190

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We just traveresed much of the same country with very similar results. Fun. Michael and Eva McFaul

Comment by Michael McFaul

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