Death Throes pt. 1

14 June 2007


Deceased White Pelican, Pelecanus erythrorhynchos, on the north shore of Great Salt Lake.

About 100 meters from Robert Smithson’s “Spiral Jetty”, I once stumbled across this pickled pelican. Interestingly, others have noted (1, 2) a scattering of dead pelicans around the large earth and rock spiral artpiece which juts out from the north shore of the Great Salt Lake. In fact, there are even Flickr photos of what appears to be a different individual. Large colonies of nesting White Pelicans on nearby islands are the presumed source of the dessicated cadavers, which might float some distance across the lake until being left high and dry by receding waters.

These salt mummies are oddly appropriate accents to an art piece concerned with time and permanence. In fact, Smithson’s 1970 film about Spiral Jetty even includes a sequence with the ‘Trachodon mummy‘, an exceptionally preserved 65 million -year-dead hadrosaur fossil discovered by Charles Sternberg in 1908, which you can see for yourself. In the just barely under-the-top scene1, Smithson uses a spooky blood-red filter to turn the natural history museum into something out of Hostel part II.


Smithson’s intent would seem to be to forge a direct link between the silent testimony of the fossil and his own attempt to reify time (that’s right, I said ‘reify’). I wouldn’t give either the pelican or the jetty good odds at sticking around for 65 million years, although in retrospect, who could have said the Edmontosaurus would?

Smithon’s construction has undergone several briny baptisms which have left an aura (or perhaps crust is a better term) of agedness that belies the fact that it was constructed, geologically yesterday. The pelican, conversely, has been preserved in a state of arrested decay, spared the instant deconstruction fated most no-longer metabolizing clots of nitrogen and carbon.

Both strike the addled visitor as rather insignificant blemishes on the gleaming crystalline flats. But in a sea of uniformity, blemishes catch the eye.

Wait a minute, didn’t I promise a ‘sciencey’ post? Don’t worry we’re getting there…maybe.

1 – Actually, I haven’t seen this film since college. It might not even be Sternberg’s ‘trachodon’ in the movie, but it’s something like it. There is a clip on youtube. It’s not the hadromummy scene, but one with a vaguely chilling foreshadowing of Smithon’s death in a plane crash while surveying another piece in Texas.

18 Responses to “Death Throes pt. 1”

  1. carel Says:

    Happy to see you blogging about pelicans, Neil. I’m working on a post about the fellers myself.

  2. Neil Says:

    Thanks Carel. I’m looking forward to it!

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