EPISODES IN SALT

WORDS: CHLOE JONES

IMAGE: RACHEL EVA LIM

 

She desires weightlessness.  Not to feel 25 pounds lighter but entirely weightless.  She wants nothing more than to be, for one moment after nine long months, the air.   

    It occurs to him to take her to Great Salt Lake, to the beach at Crystal Cove on Stansbury Island.  It occurs to him to bring his camera.  
    She tapes a Band-Aid over her protruding bellybutton, tired of it chaffing against the fabric of her maternity clothes — a dress like a potato sack on a woman accustomed to wearing tailored shifts and petite pencil skirts.  She feels undone.        
    He drives the car.  Knows the way. 
    She is past her due date, retaining water and swollen everywhere.  She removes her dress.  My mother standing naked on the beach at Crystal Cove. 
    He watches her ease her heavy self into the water.  He sharpens the image through the ground glass, focusing the lens. 
    In Great Salt Lake one need only surrender to salinity to float. 
    She surrenders, recognizing she will labor soon enough.  He snaps a photograph.  In the black-and-white image my mother’s face and pregnant belly and bandaged bellybutton rise out of the water like small islands.
    The sun shines on her face.  Brine shrimp fill the recesses of her body — the alcove of her armpit, the bay at the back of her neck.  She ignores their tickling.  She basks in the light.  I quit kicking.       
    Like concentric circles, I swim inside my mother and she inside the lake.

 

14,500 years ago, Lake Bonneville broke through to the Pacific Ocean.  An ancient freshwater lake spanning nearly all of Western Utah and bleeding into the neighboring states of Nevada and Idaho, Lake Bonneville once measured a staggering 325 miles long by 135 miles wide by 1,000 feet deep.  Despite its immensity, Lake Bonneville drained into the Pacific Ocean in less than two months.  It has been estimated that the flow of water leaving Lake Bonneville at the time exceeded all the great rivers of the world combined.
    What Lake Bonneville left behind, today we call Great Salt Lake.  Approximately 75 miles long by 35 miles wide and shallow, Great Salt Lake is the largest saltwater lake in the Western Hemisphere but pocket-sized in comparison to Lake Bonneville.
    Great Salt Lake is like a sink with its drain plugged.  A “terminal lake,” Great Salt Lake has no outlet to the ocean.  Without egress, water only escapes through evaporation.  Minerals in the lake water, too heavy to evaporate, are left behind and accumulate.  The salt stays.  

 She drives through rain to the hospital. 
    Her own water has yet to break.  Her body a burden.  Her body the site of a love greater than any she’s ever known before — a baby she didn’t expect. 
    She arrives at LDS Hospital, formerly Deseret Hospital.  LDS for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, more commonly known as the Mormon Church.  Deseret for the State of Deseret, a provisional independent state that never became part of the United States — the intent of Mormon settlers making home near Great Salt Lake in 1849.  Deseret to reference the Book of Mormon.  Deseret for “honeybee.” 
    My mother is not Mormon.  She has not come to Salt Lake City a convert.  She did not follow a missionary to the Beehive State but a boatman.  She met said boatman at a college in the Pacific Northwest, discovered he too had fled home, fell in love.  My mother running from her alcoholic mother.  My father running from myopic and stifling Salt Lake City where he had lived all his life. 
    The oldest son of two agnostic left-leaning anti-war activists, my father never fit in with the neighborhood kids.  He tells a story of bringing several new friends back to his house after the first day at a new school.  He’s young in the story.  Third grade.  My father opens the door of his house and proudly walks his friends inside.  Gasp, giggle, pivot, and bolt — next thing my father knows, they’re gone. 
    “Wait!” my father calls out.  “Where are you going?”
    “Naked ladies!  Naked ladies!” they call back from their refuge in the front yard.  “There’re naked ladies in there!”  Shock, horror, delight. 
    My father is baffled.  What naked ladies?
    “Naked ladies!  Naked ladies on the walls!”
    My father’s father is an artist.  He will become one of Utah’s most admired painters of the landscape and the figure, but his nudes are too much for the Mormon neighborhood kids my father believed to be his friends.  They refuse to go back inside the house. 

 

The brine shrimp, scientifically known as Artemia, is one of the only aquatic species capable of surviving in the densely saline environment of Great Salt Lake.  Although brine shrimp can be found in 300 salt lakes and man-made salterns across the globe, Great Salt Lake constitutes the world’s largest and most productive habitat.
    The brine shrimp begins its life as a dormant cyst.  This cyst contains an embryo in a suspended state of metabolism called “diapause.”  These cysts are microscopic — 50 would fit on a single pinhead, six or seven million in a tablespoon.  
    Under optimum conditions, a female brine shrimp will produce as many as 300 cysts every four days.  In Great Salt Lake the cysts are numerous enough to form large, rust-red streaks on the water’s surface.  You can see these streaks from an airplane, glistening like pooling oil.    
     Brine shrimp can survive hundreds of thousands of years in the cyst stage.  Scientists have successfully hatched eggs dated at 10,000 years old.  For this reason, NASA has taken to including brine shrimp eggs in the time capsules they launch into space.  A vial of brine shrimp eggs next to a recording of Beethoven.  Hodgepodge clues to the nature of life on Earth.

 

She encounters no traffic.  In Salt Lake City in 1993 there is never any traffic. 
    There is only rain on the road.
    She arrives at LDS hospital minutes after leaving the redbrick bungalow where she lives with my father and great-grandmother Grace.
    If I am a girl, Grace has requested they name me Chloe. 
    They want me to be a surprise.  I am a surprise.  But for months my mother’s been convinced I am a girl.  When—after 42 hours of induced labor and a C-section—the nurse hands my mother a baby in a pink blanket, she feels she already knows me.

 

    On the cusp of spring, the water temperature and salinity of Great Salt Lake shifts, causing brine shrimp eggs to rehydrate, open, and release the first growth stage.  The brine shrimp remain in this initial nauplius stage for around twelve hours, subsisting on yolk reserves, before molting into the second nauplius stage.  The brine shrimp will molt about fifteen times before reaching adult size: a mere 10 millimeters in length. 
    In Great Salt Lake, the adult brine shrimp die during the winter due to lack of food and freezing temperatures; however, their durable eggs survive.  Rust-red streaks of near weightless eggs.  Lighter than lake water.  Unlike salt.  
    In the 1930’s the San Francisco Aquarium began feeding its fish on a diet of brine shrimp, and in 1958 it was discovered that shrimp can be raised entirely on such a diet.  Yes, the shrimp in your shrimp cocktail were likely raised on brine shrimp. 
    After this discovery boomed an industry of harvesting brine shrimp eggs.  It is estimated that 90% of the world’s supply of brine shrimp eggs come from Great Salt Lake.
    Brine shrimp eggs are harvested using the same technology employed in the cleanup of oil spills.  Before the harvesting companies discovered they could utilize this technology, the eggs were harvested from the shores.  Companies would wait until wind carried the eggs onto shore and then scrape them off the beach.  Now the harvesting takes place away from shore.  On open water.  
    A boom is a long length of flotation with a curtain attached that hangs down some 18 inches into the water.  Out on the lake, boatmen encircle the egg with a boom.  The egg inside the boom is but a paper-thin layer on the lake’s surface.  Dip your finger into this delicate sheet of egg, and it will dissipate into the water column.  Vanished.  
    Carefully the boatmen begin to cinch the boom, so it becomes smaller and smaller.  As the booms shrinks the egg thickens.  The paper-thin sheet becomes like a floating sandbar.  Dry cake.  Foot thick. 
    Condensed, the egg inside the boom becomes stable.  So stable that daredevil boatmen attempt to run across its cakey surface.  From a boat on one side of the boom, they sprint to a boat on the other side.  Cake crumbling underfoot.   
    Once the boom has been cinched and the egg floats a foot thick, the boatmen use tools to break it up into a “flurry” and with pumps transfer the sludge from the lake into giant sacks on the deck of the boat.  These woven nylon sacks are porous sieves, allowing the lake water to drain and leave behind the egg.   
    Back on shore, the sacks are loaded into a truck and driven to the warehouse.  There they are washed with saltwater and stored in a giant freezer — the egg must be frozen to bring it out of diapause before processing.  The egg is then canned, sold, and shipped to hatcheries across the globe.   
    All of this harvesting takes place in the winter.  The salinity of Great Salt Lake allows the lake water to drop below freezing without forming ice.  Cold, precarious labor.  In the lake’s shallow waters, swells come crashing.  Drench the boatmen.  Dangerous, long nights on a dark lake.

 

    In elementary school I learn to locate home on a map.  Find the biggest lake in the state of Utah.  Place index finger on blue splotch.  Trace a diagonal line southeast.  Quick line.  Length of a dash.  Stop.  Home.  There.    
    Great Salt Lake is Salt Lake City’s namesake.  Its point of reference.  It is also what makes the dry desert valley—Salt Lake City’s cradle—a viable place to live.  Seven strong, freshwater streams flow into the valley from the Wasatch Mountains because of the lake.  It is these streams that sustain the city.  It is “lake effect” that sustains the streams.  Lake effect refers to the process that occurs when fronts of warm air travel across Great Salt Lake, picking up and storing water before crashing into the cold Wasatch Mountains, causing the clouds to break and shed water.  Endless snowfall.  A great precipitation.  
    But the residents of Salt Lake City do not go to the lake.  For most, the lake is hardly accessible.  You cannot swim, only float.  Too many swarming insects and strange brine shrimp.  Carcasses and castoff wings.  The air stinks.    
    Instead we go to the mountains.  To ski.  To hike.  To swim in freshwater.     
    When I left home at age 18, having never lived anywhere but Salt Lake City, my father told me I’d miss the mountains.  I knew before I even left that he was right.  Over 2,000 miles away at a university in the pancake flat state of Connecticut, I would miss the mountains.  What he also knew but didn’t tell me—because he realized I wouldn’t understand, because he couldn’t quite explain—was that I’d also miss the lake.  Our unknown anchor.      

 

    “Dad,” I say.  “I’m writing this piece.  I need a boatman’s perspective.”
    My father, a former river guide in the Grand Canyon and elsewhere, founded Bonneville Artemia International, Inc. in 1990 with a group of professional boatmen and commercial fishermen.  BAI harvested, processed, packaged, marketed, and distributed brine shrimp egg for nine years before my father sold the company. 
    An artist at heart, he had set down his camera for BAI.  Desired to pick it back up, refocus the lens, frame the world in beautiful black-and-white again.  My mother and I afloat on a bed of brine shrimp.  Face, belly, and bandaged bellybutton rising out of the lake like islands.           
    “We launched our first boats in several feet of snow on a full, blue moon” he tells me.  “Out there all the stars and all the galaxies run through our hands like beads.”  

 

    If home were a food it would be Morton Kosher Salt. 
    I see my mother pouring the coarse salt crystals from their dark blue box into a ceramic bowl on the kitchen counter.  This bowl never leaves the counter, always there to satisfy her salting desires.  She dips her fingers, wet from washing celery and scrubbing potatoes, into the bowl.  They emerge coated in white crystals.
    A dash.  A generous pinch.  Her recipe today calls for a tablespoon of salt.  Six or seven million brine shrimp eggs in a single tablespoon.  She ladles me a small bowl of her soup to taste.  “Needs more salt,” she says.
    How many tablespoons of brine shrimp eggs for every time capsule NASA sends into space?  How many millions (billions?) of brine shrimp eggs float out there? 
    My mother loves to risk the over-salt.  She lives with caution but cooks with abandon.  She does not over think herself in the kitchen.  Does not worry from behind the stove.  She salts, and she salts liberally.   
    We need salt like we need home.  Sodium and chloride, the two electrolytes comprising salt, help with fluid balance and the transmission of nerve impulses in our bodies.  We need salt to stay balanced.  We need salt to move.
    “If I could only have one seasoning,” my mother says.  “It would be salt.”
    Because salt enhances flavor.  Brightens all other ingredients.  Vivifies food.     
    But too much salt and you lose every other flavor in a dish.  Too little and a recipe falls short of its potential.  And although my mother loves to risk the over-salt, she always seems to strike the balance.  Stop.  Home.  Here.  In this dish.          
    The taste of Morton Kosher Salt anchors me like the mountains and the lake.  Brings me home.  Sends memory reeling back to her soup, her shortbread, her perfectly poached eggs.

 


    We are sitting in traffic on our way to Salt Lake City International Airport.  Learning once again that it takes longer to get around this city nowadays.  My mother and I at a standstill in a sea of idling vehicles.  How many cars between me and my gate?  How many hundreds (thousands?) of people driving the streets of Salt Lake City this moment? 
    Connecticut feels far away.  Back to school for my senior year.   
    A report published recently by City Observatory informs that Denver, San Diego, Nashville, Portland, and Salt Lake City are currently the top five cities in the United States where young college graduates are moving.  Salt Lake City?  Lethargic town my father fled at my age.  Drowsy valley full of snow. 
    Lately the city has seen tremendous growth.  At our favorite sushi restaurant, we wait 45 minutes for a table.  A recent article in the New York Times praises our “hot coffee culture,” still emerging but competitive.  A stylish beer garden opens downtown.  Then a whiskey bar.  Young people are coming.  Entrepreneurs are coming.  Artists are coming.  Proudly displaying their paintings.  Including their paintings of nudes.   
    Housing developments crop up in clusters on the mountainside.  New trails are forged through the desert brush.  Shoreline Trail—our beloved recreation trail for biking and hiking that follows the shoreline of ancient Lake Bonneville—suddenly feels twice as trafficked.   
    Irreversible change.  Exciting but unstoppable. 

 

    Each year tens of thousands of migrating birds come to Great Salt Lake to rest.  Their journey from Canada to the Southern Hemisphere is long and requires fuel, so at Great Salt Lake they gorge themselves on brine shrimp.  There are times when 90% of an entire bird species population can be found on Great Salt Lake. 
    They gorge, and they leave. 
    They will be back.  Moving in cycles.  
    Brine shrimp egg embedded in lake sediment, 10,000 years old and capable of hatching.
    Brine shrimp egg floating in outer space.  
    Galaxies brushing the hands of boatmen.
    Her hand in a dish of salt.  Generous dash for the soup.  Ladles me a bowl.    
    Fluctuating water level and shoreline.  Shifting salinity.
    Water warms then cools then warms again. 
    Salt Lake City International Airport, and I have made it to my gate.  Onto the airplane. 
    Take flight.  Come back.  To a changing city. 
    Great Salt Lake.  Blue splotch.  Draw dash.
    Stop.  Home.  There.