May 09, 2022
  • Great Salt Lake Collaborative

Utahns ‘bear witness’ to the shrinking of Great Salt Lake

Utahns ‘bear witness’ to the shrinking of Great Salt Lake
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By Charlotte Fife-Jepperson

This article is published through the Great Salt Lake Collaborative, a solutions journalism initiative that partners news, education and media organizations to help inform people about the plight of the Great Salt Lake.

Amid growing concern for the future of a diminishing Great Salt Lake, poets held a vigil on Antelope Island for 44 days and nights during the state legislative session in January and February.

Why? Poet and vigil organizer Nan Seymour said, “When the life of someone you love is at stake, you stay with them.”

At less than 50% of its historical capacity, Utah’s largest body of water is at a critical juncture.

Director of Westminster College’s Great Salt Lake Institute Dr. Bonnie Baxter warns that if the lake continues to shrink, its fragile ecosystem could collapse with destructive consequences – the loss of brine shrimp will not only be devastating for the millions of birds that rely on this food source during migration, but it would destroy the $2 billion brine-shrimp industry.

Mineral extraction and tourism industries would also take huge hits.

And, perhaps most alarming, the exposed lakebed would produce dust laced with arsenic, mercury and other cancer-causing toxins that would pollute the air all along the Wasatch Front.

After hearing about the peril of the Great Salt Lake in a KRCL RadioActive show last year, Seymour felt inspired to co-create a poem that would bear witness to what is happening at the lake. By the end of the writing vigil, the praise poem called “irreplaceable” grew to over 2,000 lines with nearly 300 individual voices.

“It became a collective prayer – less of a ‘me thing’ and more of a ‘we thing,’” she said.

The idea to stay with the lake and write poetry came suddenly to Seymour in mid-December. She remembers thinking that it could take place from Wolf Moon to Snow Moon – a period of time between the January and February full moons that just happened to coincide with the Utah Legislature’s general session, when several critical bills concerning the lake would be presented.

On the fourth day of the session, at the invitation of Senator Derek Kitchen, Seymour recited the invocation from “irreplaceable” on the legislature’s house floor, explaining that the poem was a growing body of prayer on behalf of the lake.

During the course of the vigil, over 300 people came out to Antelope Island for activities ranging from poetry writing workshops, hikes guided by Master Naturalist Laura Chho, walks to the water, silent sunset viewing, a wildlife photography workshop, and brine shrimp ecosystem activities.

On February 19, over 200 people gathered outside the Antelope Island State Park Visitors’ Center to take part in a poetry reading of “irreplaceable.” Several poets read their verses one after another “with their hearts and faces turned toward the lake.” Then, the audience participated by simultaneously reading various verses.

Learning to Love the Lake

Seymour didn’t always have a deep appreciation for our city’s namesake. When asked how she came to care so much about the lake, she said, “In one word – birds.” Even though she grew up loving birds in Idaho, Seymour took the Great Salt Lake for granted (as most Utahns do) until she became aware of the estimated 10 million migratory birds that take refuge there.

Seymour thinks a lot about how to repair the breach between humans and the rest of the world. She hopes that the magnitude and long life of the poem will help create a cultural shift from apathy and disdain for the lake to reverence and love.

Seymour saw this cultural shift in action when a group of about 50 professional women from the Utah Women's Forum came out to the lake one day during the vigil to learn and participate in a poetry writing workshop. One of the women wrote, “I now know that the lake is sentient.” 

“People want to love the lake,” she said.

That love is evident as it pours out of the lines of “irreplaceable,” which will soon be published in a book.

Seymour is grateful for all who added their voices along with the core group of six or seven poets from the River Writing Collective, a writing group which she founded in 2015.

The poem irreplaceable was created with support from Think Water Utah, a statewide collaboration and conversation on the critical topic of water presented by Utah Humanities and its partners.

Published in Spring 2022