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Life in the Tar Seeps: A Spiraling Ecology from a Dying Sea
At Great Salt Lake, near Robert Smithson’s earthwork of Spiral Jetty (1970), scientists study fossils-in-the-making as life unfurls: through shifting lake levels, bird migrations, microbial studies, environmental arts, and cultural histories, shaped by Indigenous knowledges and overwritten by colonial legacies that persist in environmental threats. This reputedly ‘dead sea’ holds ‘death traps’ (or tar seeps, pools of raw oil) that stick together pressing questions in the climate crisis.
How do we integrate environmental, cultural, and aesthetic sensibilities to cultivate care for challenging places? How do we confront our vulnerable mortality to recognize kindred dynamics in our planet?
I came to tar seeps (natural asphalt) after recovering from being hit by a car in a crosswalk (manmade asphalt). While teaching environmental humanities in the viewshed of this dying sea, associations of life and death, injury and healing, slowly congealed. As I witnessed scientists, artistic curators, land managers, and students working collaboratively to steward a challenging place, I grew to see the lake not as dead but as deeply alive: a watershed for shifting perceptions of any overlooked place.
Gretchen Ernster Henderson, “Toward a Bird’s Eye View: Beyond mine, extracted” (2021): 12-minute ecocinema invited for Mining the West (2022): a digital exhibit @ Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Willard Marriott Library @ University of Utah.
These digital tributaries seep from my book—Life in the Tar Seeps: A Spiraling Ecology from a Dying Sea. Such virtual runoff might be considered a fossilized version of my original plans to share this story, materially and virtually, depleted as the watershed that inspired the book (whose publication date was repeatedly postponed due to COVID-19 pandemic). The water’s undercurrent persists as a spiraling ecology that the book explores, as Great Salt Lake’s ripple effects expand across what is now called the American West, North America, and the Earth.
What happens when we reorient our sense of place through water, watersheds, and liquid interconnections across the planet? While Great Salt Lake dries up, ocean levels rise; droughts here connect with floods elsewhere. Our bodies are largely composed of water, as is the H20 composition of the body of the Earth.
By inviting readers to navigate a few digital tributaries, I hope you will engage in Life in the Tar Seeps but more: leaving behind its material and virtual pages to get lost, un-reading and re-reading places in your midst that may appear dying, yet remain very alive. How do we, as humans, contribute to mis/under-representations of place? Who is included (or not) in these stories? What questions do you perceive by deeper listening—in the sense of perceiving?
Where is “here” for you?
FOSSILS IN THE MAKING:
Footprints from the Field
From A Day in the Life of the Tar Seeps (click images to travel to the field).
from "Pelican" in becoming Feral (click images to travel to the field)
from Critical Mass in Platform Gallery @ University of California at Santa Barbara
These are only a few; more listed below in "Gratitude: A Stratigraphy."
FIELD NOTES TO GET LOST
Resources for further reading
Note: Categorizing 'art,' 'culture,' 'nature,' and other subjects can divide knowledges. Read interconnections between lines—only a few listed (in alphabetical order):
To explore Life in the Tar Seeps as it melts across material & digital terrains:
Essay: “Life in the Tar Seeps”: published in Ecotone (Notable Essay for Best American Essays 2020), Winter 2019/2020.
Ecocinema/film: “Toward a Bird’s Eye View: Beyond mine, extracted” (2021): 12-minute film invited for Mining the West (2022): a digital exhibition at the Utah Museum of Fine Arts and the J. Willard Marriott Library @ University of Utah.
Essay on “Pelican” for becoming-Feral (print volume), sponsored by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, UCSC, and UWM, 2021.
Photo essay on “Toward a Migratory Point of View” for becoming-Feral (digital gallery), sponsored by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, UCSC, and UWM, 2021.
Presentation on ASLE Spotlight on “A Sense of Urgency” (Association for the Study of Literature & the Environment), May 2021.
Presentation on "Environmental Writing as Embodied Research," CHCI Global Humanities Institute (Consortium for Humanities Centers and Institutes), Climate Justice and Problems of Scale, University of Pretoria, 2022.
Scholarly Text on "Here Before & Where Beyond: Dark Star Park" for Holt-Smithson Foundation, 2022.
Presentation on "Spiral Jetty: Resisting Reduction by Visual Reproduction" at ASLE Conference on EmergencE/Y, August 2021.
“Walking the Tar Seeps at Spiral Jetty: A Meditation on Time in Space,” presented at "A New Poetics of Space: Literary Walks in Times of Pandemics and Climate Crisis," virtual conference at Mid Sweden University, December 2020).
Lightning talk on "Narratives of Climate and Change: Life in the Tar Seeps," ASEH's Environmental History Week, April 2021.
Presentation for “Am I on Mars or Great Salt Lake?” Salty Science Series with Great Salt Lake Institute, January 2021.
Poem on "praise to the tar seeps": a chorus in irreplaceable: a collective poem in praise of Great Salt Lake (February 2022).
Photographic Field Notes from Life in the Tar Seeps selected for exhibition on Critical Mass at Platform Gallery @ Interdisciplinary Humanities Center, University of California at Santa Barbara, 2019-2020.
This project also led to participation in the Luc Hoffmann Institute/World Wildlife Fund’s Biodiversity Revisited (2019-2021). Activities and publications included the Boston Biodiversity Talks and Seeds of Change: Provocations for a New Research Agenda, along with convenings in Vienna, Austria, and at the Rockefeller Center’s Bellagio Center in Italy, resulting in co-authored articles in Nature Sustainability and Conservation Biology, and an essay on "Reimagining Biodiversity Narratives and Pandemics" the LHI blog.
Related to material-digital forms includes an essay on "Intermedia Genres: Breathing Lessons in Changing Climates," Notre Dame Review, Summer/Fall 2019: part appears online, another part in print journal (also first presented in 2018 at &NOW Festival of New Writing, University of Notre Dame, IN).
Gretchen is teaching annual workshops on “Writing the Landscape” at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia (October 2021, March 2022, stay tuned for dates in 2023). She is a Senior Lecturer in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, where she teaches "Literature & Environmental Justice: Reimagining Our Places in the World" and is a 2020-2022 fellow in UT's Humanities Institute focusing on Environmental Humanities.
Life in the Tar Seeps was supported by fellowships including the Annie Clark Tanner Fellowship from the University of Utah (2018-2019), writer & artist residencies at the Taft-Nicholson Center for Environmental Humanities in Montana (June 2018) and the Jan Michalski Foundation for Writing & Literature in Switzerland (May 2019), with presentations in related venues, also commended by Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies (2019).
Many others have happened more ephemerally...
For my earlier research on material/digital books, see "This is -N-o-t- a Book: Melting Across Bounds," published in Journal of Artists' Books/JAB, Spring 2013.
* Heading inspired by Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost
Background photograph © Gretchen Ernster Henderson, “Field Note: aerial flyover over Great Salt Lake mineral ponds,” GSL, Utah, 07/26/2015.
To explore Gretchen's other books, visit here.