Thirty years ago, Home! a Bioregional Reader published a widely distributed quiz that challenged people to test their knowledge about the place where they live. Bioregionalism is an idea that human well-being is founded in relationships with natural systems—flora, fauna, geology, climate, fire and water. In the Reader, Peter Berg and Raymond Dasmann write, “The term refers to both a geographical terrain and a terrain of consciousness—to a place and to ideas that have developed about how to live in that place.”
Love of place and local knowledge are seen as essential to sustainability. In the interest of placemaking, CATALYST writer Amy Brunvand is revisiting the bioregional quiz with a series of 12 articles about the Wasatch Front bioregion.
- Geology: What ecological and geological processes influenced the land forms?
- Land Use: What is our land use history?
- Stewardship: Where are the protected areas? Where are the sacrifice zones?
- Waste: Where does our garbage go?
- Water: Where does our drinking water come from? Where does sewage go?
- Human Ecology: Who lived here before us? How did they survive?
- Migration: Name five resident and five migratory birds.
- Fauna: What nonhuman residents live here? What animals have become extinct?
- Flora: What are the major plant communities? Where can you find them?
- Food: How long is the growing season? Name five edible native plants.
- Fire: When did the area last burn? What is the ecological role of fire?
- Dark sky: Were the stars out last night? In what phase is the moon?
Range after range of mountains
Year after year after year.
I am still in love.
When you live in Utah, geology is everything. Deep time meets you on the surface with no need to dig.
The original 1990 bioregional quiz challenged readers to point north, but nobody who lives on the Wasatch Front would have any trouble with that. We orient ourselves to geological compass points—the Wasatch Mountains to the east; the Oquirrh Mountains and Great Salt Lake to the west.
Geology crops up with unusual frequency in small talk. A person on the street could probably tell you that the quartz monzonite used to build the Utah Capitol building and downtown LDS temple was quarried at the mouth of Little Cottonwood Canyon (although they’d probably call the stone “granite”); that the Bingham Canyon Mine is one of the world’s largest open pit mines (you can see it from outer space!); that the valley floor is a hazardous earthquake liquefaction zone made of unconsolidated sediment from Pleistocene Lake Bonneville.
We talk casually about the Wasatch fault and the inevitable “Big One” that has begun to seem more ominous since March 2020 when an earthquake and aftershocks shook the city for weeks. If you ride a bicycle in Salt Lake City, you need an ebike or one with low gears in order to make it to the top of the Wasatch fault scarp. The ancient Lake Bonneville beach forms a foothills bench for the Bonneville Shoreline Trail where people walk their dogs and watch the sunset over Great Salt Lake.
Unlocking the stone-hearted mysteries
As an undergraduate student in the 1980s, I was so in love with rocks that I got a bachelor’s degree in geology at the University of Utah. I thought that learning science would teach me to understand the stone-hearted mysteries of Utah’s landscapes, and to some extent it did. To this day I can look at static rock layers and see a geologic history of motion—ancient surges of ocean waves, the steamy chaos of magma intrusions, a sudden crash of erosional rockfall; I can read the thermometer baked into igneous rocks, and imagine a whole ecosystem based on a few tiny fossils.
But, even though we students took countless weekend fieldtrips to commune with rocks, there was not much in the curriculum to acknowledge a terrain of consciousness. The things we studied were mainly considered interesting according to their economic or, occasionally, their scientific value. From that standpoint, John McPhee’s book Basin and Range (1981) came as a revelation, with its poetic descriptions of plate tectonics and unabashed pleasure in the geologic exposures in the Great Basin.
Salt Lake City lies on the eastern edge of the Great Basin, an extensional tectonic feature that goes all the way across Nevada to the California border. This is a place where mountains, as McPhee wrote, “come in waves, range after range after north-south range, consistently in rhythm with wide flat valleys: basin, range; basin, range; a mile of height between basin and range.”
Rain and snow that falls in the Great Basin has no outlet to the ocean. Water collects in the basins and evaporates, leaving behind dissolved minerals in playas and saline lakes of which Great Salt Lake is the largest.
Green, red, grey
The state of Utah is trisected by a pinwheel of geomorphic provinces with the forest-green Wasatch/Uinta Mountains to the northeast, the red-rock Colorado Plateau to the South, and the grayscale Great Basin to the west. When we go on vacation, people on the Wasatch Front turn toward the glamorous Wasatch Mountain ski resorts or head south to Utah’s legendary “Mighty Five” national parks.
The Great Basin is the red-headed stepchild, revealed in Chip Ward’s environmental classic Canaries on the Rim (2000) to be a neglected dumping ground for toxic industries, military training runs and hazardous waste.
Other writers have noticed that the spacious Great Basin landscape is alienating to non-native settlers. In Overlook (2006), Matthew Coolidge, co-founder of the Center for Land Use Interpretation, describes how the industrialized, degraded lands of the Great Basin have become almost literally invisible.
Counsel from the mountains
However, the desert can also tap into human spirituality. In Believing in Place (2003), Richard V. Francaviglia writes, “The Great Basin has taught me as much about belief as it has geography.”
The perspective of bioregionalism asks us to consider not only how geological landforms affect the way we live, but also what they imply about how we should live. Our parallel mountain ranges support recreation on one side and a mining industry on the other, but they are also a cause of Salt Lake City’s chronic air pollution. The mountains form a bowl where cold winter air settles after winter storms, held down by warmer air at higher elevations—the infamous temperature inversion. The inversion tells us that by taking better care of our air, we could also take better care of ourselves. Everything emitted by our machines and furnaces stays trapped in the air we breathe and ends up in our lungs.
In effect, the mountains counsel us to build a better city: to place limits on car-dependent urbanization and seek cleaner alternatives to burning fossil fuels.
A particularly interesting bioregional study of the Wasatch Front is a PhD thesis, Big Smelly, Salty Lake that I Call Home, written by Carla Trentelman who is now a professor at Weber State University. The title expresses a sense of deep ambivalence that people feel towards a place that many find ugly and hard to love.
Indeed, Trentelman found that a surprising number of people who live near the lake seem to have no real awareness that it is there at all—a bit like not realizing that the Serengeti ecosystem is in your backyard. Great Salt Lake wetlands have been designated by the Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network as a Hemispheric Reserve—that is, a site that supports more than 500,000 migrating shorebirds each year.
Still, the character of the lake is elusive. Marvelous birds appear and vanish with the seasons. The lake is so shallow that the water level rises and falls dramatically due to wet years or drought. The floodplain surrounding the lake is much, much larger than the lake itself and baffles people who want to build permanent structures. Surrounding marshes, mud flats and salt flats make it hard to know where Great Salt Lake begins and ends.
Great Salt Lake, in short, is a strange and wonderful bioregional mystic. It seems that we can never truly become native to this place until we learn to turn toward the west, to call Great Salt Lake and the Great Basin home.
Amy Brunvand is a published poet, essayist and librarian for the University of Utah’s Office of Sustainability
John McPhee. Basin and Range. Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1981.
Van Andruss, Chrisopher Plant, Judith Plant and Eleanor Wright, eds. Home! A Bioregional Reader. New Catalyst Books, 1990.
Utah Geological Survey. Engineering Geology of the Salt Lake City Metropolitan Area, Utah. UGS, 1990.
Chip Ward. Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the West. Verso, 2000.
Richard V. Francaviglia. Believing in Place: A Spiritual Geography of the Great Basin. University of Nevada Press, 2003.
Matthew Coolidge. Overlook: Exploring the Internal Fringes of America with the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Metropolis Books, 2006.
Carla Koons Trentelman. Big Smelly, Salty Lake that I Call Home: Sense of Place with a Mixed Amenity Setting. PhD Thesis, Utah State University, 2009.