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The Art at the End of the World

Adding to the excitement I presumed we now shared: The road conditions near the jetty were highly variable, which was to say not always roads. The lake’s water levels, too, needed to be below 4,195 feet for us to see it, and those levels were partly dependent on snowfall (this winter there was lots) and how much of that snow, by the time we arrived, had melted and sluiced down the mountains — water that also, en route to the lake, could turn the 16 miles of unpaved roads into impassable mush.

Where we were headed, in other words, we might not be able to reach. And even if we were, what we traveled so far to see might not be visible.

‘‘Will there be internet?’’ they asked.

I appealed, finally, to their desire to see me happy, a strategy that, thus far in our lives, had failed 100 percent of the time. I told them that, for more than a decade, I’d wanted to visit ‘‘Spiral Jetty,’’ as though these years of compressed desire had become a diamond that I could flash in their faces, my little crows.

This ploy worked as well as it ever had. They grudgingly accepted their fate. I accepted mine. You cannot sell others on a pilgrimage. You cannot drum desire out of nothing. Unlike me, the crows had not once held a piece of the jetty in their hands. It was 2004. I was in Los Angeles. My friend, Christopher James, an artist and Smithson admirer, had been tracking the water levels around the jetty for years. Because, for almost three decades — roughly since the death of its creator, at age 35, in a plane crash — the jetty, except for a few brief reappearances, was submerged. Around 1999, the lake’s water started to recede (because of drought) so that by 2002 the jetty could, again, be seen; people, again, could walk it. People like James could get in their trucks and drive thousands of highway miles and then through the cow fields and out to the Great Salt Lake, where the coastline ‘‘reverberated out to the horizons,’’ according to Smithson, ‘‘only to suggest an immobile cyclone while flickering light made the entire landscape appear to quake.’’

James arrived to find that the jetty’s black rocks, following their lengthy submersion, had become coated in pinkish-white salt formations like barnacles affixed to the hull of a sunken ship. He took one of the salt formations — cracked free from the rock to which it had been affixed — home as a souvenir. This was how I came to hold not a piece of the jetty, exactly, so much as a commemoration — the material accrual — of its disappearance. ‘‘Time turns metaphors into things,’’ Smithson wrote. The salt formation was the size of my fist and weighty, warm and damp. ‘‘It’s half the size that it used to be,’’ I remember James saying. Exposed to the air, and possibly to the dryness of California, he guessed, the salt formation was evaporating. Within a few months, the time in my hand would finish changing states, conclude its vanishing act and disappear.

We landed in Salt Lake City. We rented a four-wheel-drive vehicle because my husband, calling ahead to a ranger at the Golden Spike National Historic Site, where the asphalt ends and the dirt begins, had been warned that the road to the jetty was ‘‘pretty bad.’’ We received a similarly grim prognosis from the rental agent, who, on learning our destination, asked us whether we had checked the water levels. ‘‘I don’t think you’ll be able to see it,’’ he said.

We did not panic. Instead we rejoiced. The natural obstacles on and around which the jetty was built, along with Smithson’s prolific writings, suggest he designed the jetty to be both difficult to reach and difficult to see. He constructed it during a drought in 1970; he knew the water would someday rise. While in Rome, in 1961, surrounded by art tourists, he wrote in a letter to Nancy Holt (who would later become his wife): ‘‘People want to stare with aggressive eagerness or they feel they must stare in order to grant approval. There is something indecent about such staring.’’

An underwater artwork is the perfect remedy for indecency.

On the highway, mountains surrounded us. The crows had never witnessed a landscape like this; save once when tiny, they had never been west of the East. I urged them to look out the car windows rather than at their phones, and confirm that they were totally undone by the awesomeness. I demanded their indecent staring. But the crows are predominantly city creatures. Nature didn’t interest them as much as civilization and its inhabitants did. We passed an abandoned amusement park, the roller coaster coiling like a train track yanked skyward by a tornado. We passed defunct factories that, with their silos and peaks, resembled the Mormon churches we could see in the distance, isolated and chalk white against the brown mountainsides in which they were embedded. The billboards advertised Bibles and services you could pay for to deal with local plagues (‘‘FIRE WATER MOLD STORM’’). At regular intervals we drove beneath a digital sign that read ‘‘ZERO HIGHWAY FATALITIES.’’ The smaller print told a slightly less cheerful story: ‘‘26 out of 47 Days.’’ The landscape thrummed with vastness; other than the highway’s thin river of commerce, the world outside our car was unmarked and uncontained (and un-time-stamped) by buildings and sidewalks and people.

I could tell: The bigness of Utah was freaking out the crows. They didn’t know what to make of such an uninhabited expanse. ‘‘I’m interested,’’ Smithson once said, ‘‘in that area of terror between man and land.’’

Smithson did not begin his career as an earth artist; nor, given his intellectually garrulous persona, would he probably wish to be called one. Born in Passaic, N.J., in 1938, Smithson became keenly cognizant of how the local postindustrial landscape — what he described as ‘‘ruins in reverse’’ — shaped his sensibilities, as did natural features like quarries, which he said were ‘‘embedded in my psyche.’’

Contrary to popular belief, or maybe just contrary to my assumption, Smithson didn’t extend beyond his New York City studio to work in the outdoors because he desired more space. ‘‘I don’t think you’re freer artistically in the desert than you are inside a room,’’ he said. In his 1968 essay ‘‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects,’’ Smithson noted the importance, to his thinking, of the nighttime drive by a fellow New Jersey artist Tony Smith on an unfinished stretch of the Jersey Turnpike, in the dark, with students from Cooper Union. ‘‘[Smith] is talking about a sensation,’’ Smithson wrote. ‘‘[He] is describing the state of his mind in the ‘primary process’ of making contact with matter.’’ In the same essay, he noted that Freud referred to this commingling experience as ‘‘oceanic.’’ When Smithson first started working outdoors, he made boxes and containers to hold, for example, slate from a Pennsylvania quarry, which he then displayed in a gallery. Still, the tension between freedom and restriction remained an exhilarating struggle.


The family on the way to the jetty.

Ruddy Roye for The New York Times

‘‘If art is art, it must have limits,’’ Smithson wrote. ‘‘How can one contain this ‘oceanic’ site’?’’

Clearly the crows, while lacking Smithson’s theoretical framework, were asking themselves the same question. One crow remarked fearfully, ‘‘Everything is dead here.’’

The littler crow stared out the window and sang a soothing song to itself, the lyrics of which consisted of one repeated sentence:

No people.

No people.

No people.

No people.

Before visiting the jetty, I was thinking a lot about interior landscapes, those uninhabited places inside of us that cannot be contained (or explained) by any map. Interior landscapes are shaped by all kinds of forces: geographic or familial or cultural or genetic. When I was the age of the crows, for example, I lived in Maine. It was cold and dark the majority of the time. We were surrounded by ocean that produced food and bracing relief from the annual week of heat but was otherwise a gray, impetuous slab. People with some frequency were snatched off rocks by waves and drowned. Also, it being the ’70s and ’80s, we could not escape stories of nuclear annihilation, which was a perennial story line for television series and books, many of them aimed at young-adult audiences. Like a great number of my contemporaries, I became hooked on the narrative of nuclear annihilation, and via that obsession I started to plan. Because my home life was stable, I had the luxury of dreaming up very bad situations and strategizing how to survive them. It was as if my entire upbringing had bred in me a delight in destruction’s aftermath, as well as in destruction’s problem-solving thrills.

Interior landscapes interest me because I am not only a parent but also a college professor. I regularly encounter young adults from similarly comfortable backgrounds who seem mentally undone by the often mild daily challenges they encounter (mild compared to a nuclear apocalypse, at any rate). I do not want to make uninformed guesses about why this is the case; I simply want to state that it is the case. Stress, anxiety, unhappiness, they thrive in these young adults. Which has, in turn, made me wonder about the crows. How prepared will they be to handle daily challenges, both banal and catastrophic? How might I help them cultivate their interior landscapes so as to improve their chances of survival — even happiness? I am admittedly limited by nostalgia for my own upbringing, which I like to think has served me decently. Perhaps for no better reason, I’ve wondered: Are they enough into their future annihilation? Should they be, as a means to gain present-day control over the frightening and the uncertain, more into it?

Basically, I wanted the crows to be more regularly scared.

But the crows (and their contemporaries), perhaps because of the future catastrophes they face — those of the global-warming variety, which are not ‘‘maybes’’ but ‘‘definitelies’’ — seem less receptive to destruction narratives that might shape their interior landscapes. Nuclear war was avoidable (or so I optimistically chose to believe), but what they will encounter as adults is not. Their interior landscapes, thus, are the only landscapes that may not end in ruin. Those are the only landscapes over which they may have any control.

On the east-west road — the one that cut through Corinne, the last chance for gas — the even emptier terrain became entrancingly beautiful. The waterlogged fields suggested that a tsunami had recently receded, leaving the earth striated by long glassy puddles that acted as mirrors between the planting rows. What beat past our windows as 80 m.p.h. was land-sky-land-sky, and soon we didn’t know down from up.

The crows remarked, with slightly more enthusiasm, ‘‘It looks like Minecraft out here.’’

The disorientation caused by so much natural beauty clearly explained the abundance of ‘‘DROWSY DRIVERS NEXT EXIT’’ signs we saw back on the highway. Or maybe Drowsy Drivers was a roadside service the state of Utah provided, a type of GPS device you strapped into your back seat so it could babble map coordinates to you from the dream world. Technically, we were driving over a former ocean floor, or at least this is what we were told at a hot springs by a man with a dread god tattoo on his arm. This, he said, accounted for the water’s high mineral content. The land around us was still saturated by the residue of that vanished ocean and the life it once contained.

Smithson grew interested in salt lakes, in part, because the water was filled with salt-loving bacteria that turned the surface pink and sometimes ‘‘the color of tomato soup.’’ He started to explore the Great Salt Lake, looking for a place to make an artwork, and eventually settled on Rozel Point, location of a defunct oil jetty and a handful of derelict structures, what he described as ‘‘man-made systems mired in abandoned hopes.’’

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