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Life in the Tar Seeps: A Spiraling Ecology from a Dying Sea
Digital Tributaries

(evolving over time)

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: 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 may be 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, rippling from Great Salt Lake across what is now called the American West, North America, and Earth.

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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?


* To continue this story, add your voice to DEAR BODY OF WATER. *

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Footprints from the Field


From A Day in the Life of the Tar Seeps (click images to travel to the field).

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from "Pelican" in becoming Feral (click images to travel to the field)

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from Critical Mass in Platform Gallery @ University of California at Santa Barbara

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These are only a few; more listed below in "Gratitude: A Stratigraphy."

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Download these QR codes to stick into your book ~ or make your own. Don't get stuck!

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:

  • Poetic Water-Harvesting Project: Dear Body of Water (in collaboration with The University of Arizona Poetry Center and Wick Poetry Center at Kent State University and growing).

  • Essay: "A Melting Glossary of Water," Texas Studies in Literature and Language/TSLL invited for special issue on 50th anniversary of Annie Dillard's Pilgrim at Tinker Creek (2024).

  • Essay/Enumeration: "How Not to Get Stuck in a Tar Seep," Orion (2023).

  • 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) and Photo Essay on “Toward a Migratory Point of View” for becoming-Feral (digital gallery) sponsored by the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, University of California at Santa Cruz, and University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2021.​



  • Presentation: "Spiral Jetty: Resisting Reduction by Visual Reproduction" at ASLE Conference on EmergencE/Y, August 2021.

  • Reading: “Walking the Tar Seeps at Spiral Jetty: A Meditation on Time in Space,” for "A New Poetics of Space: Literary Walks in Times of Pandemics and Climate Crisis," virtual conference at Mid Sweden University, December 2020).

  • Lightning talk: "Narratives of Climate and Change: Life in the Tar Seeps," ASEH's Environmental History Week, April 2021. 

  • Presentation:Am I on Mars or Great Salt Lake?” Salty Science Series with Great Salt Lake Institute, January 2021.

  • Essays & Co-Authored Articles: 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.

  • Essay: 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).

  • Teaching: Gretchen teaches annual workshops on “Writing the Landscape” at the Oak Spring Garden Foundation in Virginia (October 2021, March 2022, April 2023, October 2023, stay tuned for dates in 2024). 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. She has also taught at Georgetown University and MIT, and co-directed an 2019 NEH Institute on Museums: Humanities in the Public Sphere.

  • 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.

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