I had visions of walking this deserted town and photographing it. But now that I’m here, I can’t make myself get out of the car. People live here. Have homes, children, pets. That, I didn't expect. I don’t want to gawk. No one deserves to be the poster child for environmental ruin.
Besides, it’s hot. Though my car thermometer says 70 degrees, the fact that there are no shade trees. Things look dried up, stark, shriveled. Old men ride around on old bicycles. Each street seems to be a dead end, like the cul-de-sac in Seattle where I grew up.
I have driven from a conference I’m attending in Riverside to the Salton Sea, the largest lake in California. “Everything’s broken,” I said aloud, almost unconsciously, when I turned into Bombay Beach. It wasn’t a judgement. I find beauty in fragments, ruin.
I inch past the Opera House, a bright blue cinderblock one-story looking all laundermat-and-strip-mall-ish. A white man stands talking to a Latino man, chain link fence dividing them. Are they friends?
The Opera House knows what I'm thinking. As if it doesn't trust people in sun glasses with cameras around their necks. As if it might get revenge if someone made a joke at its expense.
I drove here with the image of the essayist Joni Tevis alighting from her car and her feet crunching on dead tilapia. Like Tevis, I can't help noticing the irony of the signage. LOTS FOR SALE WITH $100 DOWN. The signs stand out. TEN YEARS, YOU OWN IT. They seem to spell a kind of gospel message. Seem to signify like a great big-hearted poem.
The Salton Sea is more than a dead sea, for me. It’s an example of "new nature," the term I learned in Elizabeth Kolbert’s New Yorker article about sites of extreme pollution and environmental destruction which are now being reclaimed. One example is Oostvaardersplassen, a former industrial site in the Netherlands that Dutch biologists and activists are rewilding. As Kolbert writes, “Perhaps it’s true that genuine wildernesses can only be destroyed, but new ‘wilderness,’ what the Dutch call ‘new nature,’ can be created.”
Other examples I like are Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge in Colorado—the 17,000-acre spread on a former United States Army chemical weapons manufacturing facility, and the Manhattan Project National Historical Parks in Los Alamos, New Mexico, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Hanford, Washington. These rewilded spaces feel, in some ways, more wild than those that have never been touched by human hands or feet.
Down at the beach, others are walking the shore with cameras, a thirty-something couple in cut-off shorts, a couple of older women. I get out of my car. In the distance, construction workers are building something massive with steel beams, fork lifts, and piles of dirt. A blaze of curiosity shoots through me. I can't turn away from the odd sights, fragments that seemed to have fallen out of someone’s memory or dropped whole from a Dali painting, the Inventions of Monsters, Visions of Eternity, or A Chemist Lifting with Extreme Precaution the Cuticle of a Grand Piano. Dali's paintings are wrapped around dreams and hallucinations.
The Dali paintings are housed in the Art Institute of Chicago, a place I visit often. The Chemist is my particular favorite. The Chemist painting is set in what appears to be vast salt desert, and random figures appear on different planes, a child holding a rope, an gilded woman, a ghostly figure in the distance, an old white man, possibly a scholar or an artist, whose body seems to morph into a dark-skinned man in the foreground, and the chemist himself, lifting the molten grand piano. It is a cuticle, Dali tells us, a membrane, a fragile liquid thing like the Salton Sea itself. I love the painting because each image and the whole is so beautiful and it cries out for interpretation while it resists meaning at the same time. All of the paintings elements blur, become one cloth, yet separate. These are the detached and symbolically rich (if only one could figure out what they meant!) people of the imagination, of night fears and day dreams, of the subconscious, that nether world we know so little about.
On shore, strange fantasisms emerge in the heat. A rotting chair. An abandoned boat. Various plastic shapes and colors. Old bottles, tangled rusted wire, a pipe, a dead fish. Frozen, still, blanched as old bones, like images from Dali, they are inexplicable.
A few yards away, a nicely dressed woman and man are creating something out of straw and pieces of pottery. This is Rosemary and Hunter, I learn when I mosey over, sun high overhead. My whole being feels alive to the dead as I watch them build a sculpture with bits of glossy pottery, stamped and painted with the names of birds and the names of dying fish. “Pelican.” “Eared Grebe.” “Gull.”
“What’s that smell?” I ask. A mixture the salty, the oily, the cadaverine, and putrescine wafts up.
“The lovely smell of rotting fish,” Rosemary says. She has a deep tan and a puff of white hair on her head.
They’re making memorial, they tell me. The pottery looks gift-shop clean. It gleams. “This material is not environmentally hazardous,” Hunter says. He's a sturdy, burly man who must have cut quite a figure in his earlier years. “It will all disintegrate with the fish bones. Within our lifetime, this area will be uninhabitable because of the of the toxins in the air. Already the people living in this area are suffering high amounts of asthma. All the kids have it. If the lake does dry up, the whole valley will be poisoned because it would be such a respiratory hazard.”
I nod and tell them I don't know much, which prompts Rosemary to go all teacher on me.
“You have to understand,” she says, “this is a rich agriculture area. So what happens, every year, runoff and the insecticide goes into the lake. It used to be rich with fish, particularly tilapia, but the tilapia are dying. There are no fish and the salinity is so high. Because the fish are dying, the birds are losing their homeland. What's happening—this is on the Pacific Flyway—so over 600 species of birds depend on the lake. But the paths are diminishing because the lake is dying.”
Gulls or little shore birds wing through the air in the distance. “I came here to poke around,” I say. I’m nervous, and my words come out haltingly, like they do when I don’t know who I’m talking to and afraid what I say might offend someone. “I knew the Salton Sea was an apocalyptic desert. But I didn’t know about the birds.”
“This used to be, in the 50s in the 60s, the land of swimming and diving and beauty contests and Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Junior played here!” Hunter, says. “The parties! The boats!”
“It was a vital community. It was a destination!” Rosemary cries.
“I came from Mecca,” I say, hoping, I suppose, to let them know in a subtle way that the Salton Sea still is a destination. “I mean just the names here. ‘Mecca’ says it all.”
“Have you heard of the The North Shore Yacht Club?” Now that Hunter knows I’m basically clueless, he unspools his narrative. “It was built by very famous architect, and that's up there where all the rack and ruin is. The county bought it turned it into a community center, and it's beautiful.”
“I’m at an environmental history conference in Riverside. They're taking a conference trip to the Joshua tree, and I was like, yeah Joshua Tree sounds interesting, but the Salton Sea sounds so much more—,” I say.
“It’s been drying up for 10 years,” Rosemary cuts me off. “You can see the pile-ons are stranded. Even five years ago it wasn’t this low. The whole valley will be uninhabitable if it dries up! The school district at the south end has the highest rate of asthma in the country. In the country! It’s an environmental disaster.”
“The first time I came here 35 years there were still hotels and restaurants almost down to the water,” Hunter says, a little sadness in his voice. “I’ve watched it slowly—.” He stops. He can’t find words. He brushes his hair back from his eyes and looks at the sculpture.
We’re silent for a long minute and then someone calls from the parking area. "We gotta run," says Rosemary. We say our tentative goodbyes.
Later, after they leave in their U-Haul that held the sculpture materials and drive back up state, I walk the beach again and make some photographs. I feel connected to the rubbish, the discarded, the garbage in a strange way. Because it is human made, and because it is falling back into the land.
At some point, I make my way back to the bird memorial. The stench is gone, or I’ve become used to it. I sit on the sand mixed with tilapia bones and who knows what else. “At one point the white pelicans would winter here and there were literally thousands and thousands and thousands,” I remember Hunter saying. “The last couple of years you maybe see one or two.” Sun lights on the pottery until it seems dreamlike, a vision, a portal to the unconscious.