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Once did I see a slip of earth,
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold; — how no one knew
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

USGS/NASA's Earth Observatory

Satellite view of the Salton Sea in the Sonoran Basin & Range Ecoregion.  [Photo credit: USGS/NASA’s Earth Observatory]

We’d been staying in Palm Springs and, one day, we chose as our destination the Sonny Bono Salton Sea National Wildlife Refuge. I imagined there would be nature trails and excellent birding at the southern tip of the Salton Sea. At the refuge headquarters, we climbed the boardwalk and saw only sparrows in the foliage, and no water.

The Salton Sea is a landlocked lake in Southern California over two hundred feet below sea level and saltier than the Pacific Ocean. The current water-filled “sea” was formed in 1905 by a flood from the Colorado River and is now fed by rivers, creeks, and agricultural runoff. Before that, over eons, sometimes the inland “sea” (or “sink”) was a lake, sometimes it was dry. Even now, sometimes the water level is high, like when hurricanes in 1976 and 1977 washed away a mobile home park and a seaside bar in Bombay Beach; or the water might be low, like what we saw, a shoreline so far off that docks and boat ramps had become stranded upland artifacts.

The volunteer manning the S.B.S.S. National Wildlife Refuge desk said that Niland was the only town anywhere near with cafes, and if we ate lunch there, we certainly should visit Salvation Mountain and Slab City. He said, after that, the mud pots at the edge of the Sea were worth a look.

Might see it, from the mossy shore
Dissevered float upon the Lake,
Float, with its crest of trees adorned
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

1.

IMG_5903

Salvation Mountain near Niland, California

After lunch at the Buckshot Cafe in Niland, we drove east toward Salvation Mountain. After a few miles, a garishly painted ridge came into view. Pop-art, like the cover of the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine album. I was on the wrong side of the car to just stick my camera out the window so I asked Chuck to stop. I got out of the car but was still too far from the “mountain” so I walked on, turning from the road onto the dirt driveway, coming closer, until I had reached the base of the slippery-looking slope constructed of straw bales covered with plaster and topped by a large white cross.

On this mountain, amid painted waterfalls, flowers, and snow fields, were super-sized, raised letters spelling “LOVE” and a large Valentine-heart with a message requesting a visit from Jesus. A sign warned to stay on the “yellow brick road” – a painted-yellow path to the top.

Several old travel trailers painted with religious messages languished in the dusty parking lot and beyond all of this was another structure, like a jumble of multi-hued huts or a cattywampus igloo, as if the designer-builder had suddenly decided to follow an entirely different whim.

IMG_5908

Salvation Mountain near Niland, Calif.

Entering this structure, I found myself beneath a scaffold of tree branches painted—fabulously, in many colors—giving the effect of an entirely organic edifice subject to continuous change. Not the growth and the seasons of a forest, but the ideas that had led to the construction, and now—I suspect—the painting, and repainting, continues.

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Inside a Salvation Mountain structure.

Outside again, I saw a young couple had climbed to the top of the “mountain”. The girl wore a filmy white dress like the diaphanous fins of a fish swimming in a strong current. The couple ran along the painted ridgeline, holding hands and silhouetted against the blue sky.

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Salvation Mountain

Later though, as we were climbing into the car in the dusty parking lot, I saw them again. The man held a camera and the woman’s dress dragged in the dirt. He motioned her to stand beside one of the painted-trailer relics—for a picture.

Food, shelter, safety there they find
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives — and die:
A peopled world it is; in size a tiny room.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

2.

Driving through Niland, toward Salvation Mountain, we had seen people dressed in black who seemed to be on the brink of doing something. They loitered beside a building, apparently vacant, the architecture in a Greek style with huge columns along the street-sides. As we drove past, I saw that each person gripped a camera. Perhaps they were discussing apertures, shutter speeds, and white balance, and—from their angle of view—the photos would be densely detailed, showing pillars and lintels, cornices and footings, with little of the sky or anything as rooted as a tree.

Later in the afternoon, as we drove toward the Salton Sea’s boiling mud-pots, we saw the same group, this time they stood, scattered like dominoes, on the sun-baked and salty-white lakebed where they seemed to be evaluating the photographic possibilities of two dead trees in the same way one debones a fish, picking it apart, bit by bit. I had been watching a flock of widgeons on the marsh side of the road, but instead turned my camera toward the photographers gathered around the dead trees.

IMG_5916

Above the water line of the Salton Sea.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little Island may survive
But Nature, though we mark her not,
Will take away — may cease to give.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

3.

We continued on, following the Refuge volunteer’s directions (cross the bridge, stay to the right) to the place on the San Andreas Fault where mud boils at the surface, creating small craters, cones, and stalagmites. The volunteer had warned us not to walk up to the craters, nor to walk around and between the cones, because the earth’s surface might not support our weight. But if there had been walkways and railings, guides and guards, such an up-close look would have made us the giants, as if we had entered one of Tolkien’s fantastical landscapes or Dorothy Wordsworth’s “little Island”. Instead we had to make do without close inspection, only listening to the burbling and splashing while the sulfur-stench stitched our airways.

IMG_5945

Mud-pot volcanoes at the edge of the Salton Sea.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn — the Isle is passed away.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

4.

A couple days after the Salton Sea expedition, we drove west of the Coachella Valley and Palm Desert, climbing on Highway 74 through the Santa Rosa Mountains. At a viewpoint, we parked and looked over the edge at where we had been driving uphill, following loop after loop, ascending the rugged terrain. A boy from another automobile hopped over the stone wall and so gained an unimpeded view of the rough-cut mountains and the distant Coachella Valley that water has transformed to green even as the worst drought looms.

Palm Desert & Coachella Valley from Highway 74 in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Palm Desert & Coachella Valley from Highway 74 in the Santa Rosa Mountains.

Buried beneath the glittering Lake!
Its place no longer to be found,
Yet the lost fragments shall remain,
To fertilize some other ground.

—Dorothy Wordsworth, “Floating Island”

5.

Some truths we know. And some we’ve yet to learn. Because our lives are short compared to a tree. Because the Salton Sink filled with water after dikes broke in 1905. Because trees can only grow to decent size when they are not flooded. Because a man’s life work was to create a fantastical hillside but now he has dementia and resides in a nursing home.

Because relics are woven through our existence.

_____

Notes, Links & Poems

How to read this post in case I don’t get around to adding another post: Deconstructing Discovering Dorothy Wordsworth between Salvation Mountain and the Salton Sea.

1. Consider how short human life is relative to Nature.

2. Consider our transient nature.

3. Consider each observation (#s 1-4) as having a “floating island.”

Links:

Dorothy Wordsworth (1771-1855), Bio at The Poetry Foundation

Floating Island by Dorothy Wordsworth

Mud Pots Signal Possible Extension of San Andreas Fault, NASA/Earth Observatory (7/29/08)

Salton Sea (Wikipedia)

Salvation Mountain (Wikipedia)

Salvation Mountain Website

Sonoran Basin & Range Ecoregion (BLM website)

USGS/NASA’s Earth Observatory images of Salton Sea.

Floating Island

BY DOROTHY WORDSWORTH

Harmonious Powers with Nature work
On sky, earth, river, lake, and sea:
Sunshine and storm, whirlwind and breeze
All in one duteous task agree.

Once did I see a slip of earth,
By throbbing waves long undermined,
Loosed from its hold; — how no one knew
But all might see it float, obedient to the wind.

Might see it, from the mossy shore
Dissevered float upon the Lake,
Float, with its crest of trees adorned
On which the warbling birds their pastime take.

Food, shelter, safety there they find
There berries ripen, flowerets bloom;
There insects live their lives — and die:
A peopled world it is; in size a tiny room.

And thus through many seasons’ space
This little Island may survive
But Nature, though we mark her not,
Will take away — may cease to give.

Perchance when you are wandering forth
Upon some vacant sunny day
Without an object, hope, or fear,
Thither your eyes may turn — the Isle is passed away.

Buried beneath the glittering Lake!
Its place no longer to be found,
Yet the lost fragments shall remain,
To fertilize some other ground.