I stand on the shore of the Salton Sea. Sea is a generous name for this body of water. The shore is lined with the decaying carcasses of the overpopulated fish that cover its sandy beach and the air is thick with the smell of rotting eggs, a result of the hydrogen sulfide that lingers in the air. Two years after this visit, one late summer day in 2012, this stench will stretch all across Southern California, over 150 miles to Los Angeles, where people cover their faces as they walk out doors.
The Salton Sea used to be a hoppin’ place. Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and the Rat Pack would travel here to host speedboat races at the yacht club—truly a nostalgic 60s lover’s dream. Now the Salton Sea looks like a post-apocalyptic nightmare out of Mad Max with rust coating abandoned vehicles stuck half in the sand, which slowly eats away at it’s metal frame as the wind sweeps by.
I am not visiting the Salton Sea for leisure. No one visits the Salton Sea for leisure anymore. I’m visiting as part of a class called Conservation of Natural Resources. During this class, we learn about conservation, environmental ethics, practical implementations, etc. And, naturally, we visit various places of ecological importance in the Colorado Desert.
I signed up for this class on somewhat of a whim. When I returned home from studying overseas, I felt like the meat of a person without any bones. The structure that I flourished under had been exchanged for a freedom that overwhelmed me and made me feel more trapped than routine ever did. The old off-white and grey buildings standing tall in the London mist were replaced with the long, flat mid-century modern homes that lined the streets of Palm Springs. When the desert heat hits me, goose bumps raise on my arms and my body shivers.
Mornings are the hardest part of the day for me. I wake up feeling like a heavy slug and I end up swearing at myself saying, “You fucking, lazy, useless, cunt. Get your ass up.”
I drive my tiny, silver car to lectures, then to the middle of nowhere of ecological importance, which sometimes smells of rotting eggs.
My professor tells us that the salinity of the Salton Sea is higher than that of the ocean, which creates a unique environment. This is clear by the fact that the dead fish on the shore far outnumber the humans. Other than the dead fish this is one of the cleanest bodies of water around. Of course, there are dangerous large algae blooms, which create too much for the fish to feed on. They lack any predators, so they become over populated and the lack of oxygenation causes the fish to die in large quantities. “Ideally,” she says, “the state would fund a project in which they would reroute water from the Colorado River to the Salton Sea, then dig out to the Gulf of Mexico so it could flow into the Pacific Ocean, but that’s unlikely to ever happen because it would cost millions of dollars.”
Instead, the body of water will slowly shrink as it evaporates and when large gusts of wind stir up the water the smell will travel 150 miles to people who will get angry enough to notice, but not angry enough to do anything about it. As the water disappears, sediment will likely create toxic dust and large dust bowls will wipe out crops and make the millions of dollars seem like nothing.
Under the clear water, I can see the remnants of the wooden houses and buildings that stood before it was flooded and made into a sea.
I’m not sure if it’s the smell of rotting eggs or the visual of dead fish or the clear water reflecting the desert sun so that it’s even brighter and hotter than anywhere I’ve ever been, but I feel okay here. It’s not a place that you can really stay in your head. It is what it is.
All of our excursions are like this. They make feel awake.
We travel to Whitewater Preserve and look at the nearby wind turbines. You can fit three H1 Hummers into the nose of the new models. The breeze makes my hair flap in the wind and I feel small. The turbines are reliable and easy to maintain, but must be put where there is consistent wind and as a result are put directly in the flight path of many species of birds. Thousands of birds have been killed by the turbines—a small amount in the grand scheme of things, but still notable. There are pros and cons to everything..
The Living Desert is a zoo that doesn’t feel like a zoo. Not long ago, I went to a very zoo-like zoo with one of my friends and I cried because one of the gorillas in large exhibit had eyes that reminded me of my grandfather. I started to think about Japanese internment camps—where people who looked like me were taken away from their homes and forced to try to make the best of things in an unfamiliar place. I think I like gorillas more than humans. The Living Desert is not like that. It consists of only species native to the desert. The exhibits are huge and their work is focused less on being a tourist attraction and more on preserving threatened species and restoring habitats. I think that if there must be zoos and human interference, I guess, this is the way I’d like it to be done.
I sign up to take a few more classes shortly after my trip.
In Entomology, I learn about insects. This doesn’t stop me from screeching when I see them out of context. In our classroom, there are multiple custom wooden chests with 20 or so thin drawers housing pinned insects and arachnids with little white papers beneath describing each specimen. I am charged with the task of creating a collection of my own. I have 3 different sizes of pins, specialty tweezers and scissors, two different sizes of kill jars, and a large collapsable insect net with green mesh. I am an insect catching master—my net technique is amazing. But when they get in the jar, I’m filled with remorse. I don’t like staring at them, trapping them. On these excursions, I also carry around a small vial of chemicals. We use ethyl acetate now because it leaves the specimen more flexible than cyanide, which stiffens them and makes them delicate to work with. The cyanide is quick, whereas the ethyl acetate takes much longer and you’re forced to either watch them squirm or leave them to a private last moment trapped in a room with a view of out, but no way. There are pros and cons to everything. I can't bring myself to do it. Instead, my professor allows me to play a game of catch and release—photograph the insects and send them on their way. He says he understands.
Reptiles of the Desert is my favourite class of all. It consists of almost entirely of lectures that take place on hikes. We explore Deep Canyon, a private reserve and research center. We examine the flora and observe the bighorn sheep living on the side of the mountain. Throughout the city,,there are statues of brightly painted bighorn sheep, but this it the first time I’ve seen one in person—majestic and sans bright paint—a threatened species in their natural habitat. I watch as they simply exist the steep face of the canyon, sometimes slipping and catching themselves on a lower ledge, unfazed. I watch as two bighorn sheep begin ramming their horns together, fighting.
We tread quietly and lightly through the canyon, so as not to disturb the snakes and lizards. This is their home and me must be courteous guests.
I observe a Chuckwalla, a lizard common to this area with a fat belly and a stern looking face. The lizard sits perched on a rock basking in the sun, chin facing upward. Chuckwallas are ectothermic and spend most of their day basking.
There is no thought of what could be for a lizard on a hot rock. Everything is what it is. Hunt and lie in the sun. Calm, peaceful, and ready. Content and present. Hiking throughout the desert, baked by the sun from above and below by its reflection off of the desert floor, I feel like that. And I can think of nothing better.
About the artist...
Jennifer Kiehl is a Chicago-based, Japanese-American writer and performer from California. She is the founder, editor, and co-host of Scout & Birdie. Additionally, she is the Director of Development, Grants & Corporate Relations for A.C.H.E. (Abused Children Heard Everywhere), a non-profit agency dedicated to providing support and legal guidance to survivors of sexual violence. Jennifer is a graduate of Columbia College Chicago where she received a BA in Acting. When not writing or performing, she spends her time giving cookies to dogs, eating baguettes, and hanging out with her plant, Plant. Keep up with her on Instagram @jenniferkiehl.
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