Terrain.org recently asked a number of writers what the “apocalypse” means to them, how the idea of impending global disaster factors into their work, what weight the impending end-of-life-as-we-know-it adds to their daily lives. We asked for a comment on the situation, for reactions, suggestions, and artistic engagements. How should we respond to the fact that today we’re confronted with the very possible demise not just of our culture, but our world? Where can we go from here? How should we proceed? Are we hopeful—or are we just waiting for the other shoe to drop? What happens when it does?
The future is now, at the Salton Sea.
For David, Diantha, David, and Caroline.
Salton Sea, California – June 2012
Smears of heat rise from the car, the pavement, my sister’s head. I step out of the car and onto a dead fish, crushing its skull under my heel. The air’s so dry it shivers, the sun so strong that freckles pop like paint, and the stink—from tons of dead and decaying fish—makes us all sputter and choke. The Salton Sea is the kind of place most people go out of their way to avoid. Not me. I’ve talked my family into coming here, all because of a photograph I’ve seen.
Tilapia can stand bad treatment better than most fish—hotter water, higher salinity, more PPMs—but sometimes the Salton Sea gets to be too much even for them. When that happens, they die off in huge numbers, sometimes as many as eight million a day. I walk down the beach with my family, all of us crunching tilapia underfoot. Their eyes go first, pecked out by ravenous shorebirds, but eventually all the fish transform from curled-up wholes to neat ladders of vertebrae to, finally, pearly piles of loose scales that lie scattered across the beach, like bingo chips.
I lean over the water’s edge, but don’t step in. The water itself is tea-dark, but its surface is bright as tinfoil. Broken slabs of concrete jut underwater, and stubs of rebar. We walk slowly past a row of abandoned house trailers, wrecked during the last of the big storms. Here’s a planed-open shower stall, a rusty stove with its door wrenched off, a shank bone from a big dog, maybe a Lab. Here, washed up on the water’s edge, lies an empty pack of SkyDancer cigarettes, a warrior in a headdress lifting his open palm to the pale blue sky.
We were joking in the car, but that’s all evaporated now. We’re squinting at the water, a little confused, a little sweaty. There’s something eerie about being here, even at high noon, and I’m not sure why. This beach feels like a place located outside the bounds of normal time. Like an amusement park, maybe, or an abandoned pleasure ground. But we’re missing something. Calliopes and tin whistles: this beach is silent.
Cue the music, coming to you live from an unseen band. Somewhere, some fellow sings, beyond the sea/ Somewhere, waiting for me. The trumpets, nasally muted, swing along in the background, counterpointing the melody, propping it up. A drummer brushes the skins, and despite the terrific heat, everything is very, very cool. And you’re here to see it all: the sleek cigarette boats peeling the water open; gulls flying past crinkled mountains; the platinum sun. The ice in your drink goes to water and you swallow it. When a breath of wind passes over your face you’re immediately grateful, as if heaven sent it particularly to you, just to see if you’d notice.
For thousands of years, Desert Cahuilla Indians lived here, watching the water come and go, and farming on these banks. But the Salton Sea’s current incarnation began as a mistake. In 1905, the Colorado River, which had been diverted to irrigate local agriculture, overcame its banks and poured full-bore into the desert for two years, until engineers from the Southern Pacific Railroad finally blocked it with tons of riprap. The Alamo and New Rivers continue to drain into the Salton Sea, as does agricultural runoff from the Imperial Valley. Since 1909, the Torres Martinez band of Desert Cahuilla has held the title to ten thousand acres of land that lies on the bottom of the Sea.
In the mid-1980s, Richard Misrach shot a series of large-format photographs of the Salton Sea. These images, collected in Desert Cantos, are dangerous viewing for those with a certain bent: they’ll put a spell on you. Take this one, “Diving Board, Salton Sea,” 1983, of an empty swimming pool with a diving board and a flooded horizon receding to the vanishing point. The floodwater surrounding the pool is a strange, limpid blue, with a depth impossible to divine. I’ve gone back to the image again and again, trying to figure out why it haunts me. Partly it’s the story that the empty pool contains; what turned a resort into a ghost town?
But more than that, it’s something in the water. This is no ordinary sea, no ordinary sunset, and despite its calm surface, the water reminds me somehow of solvent, mercury thinned with gasoline. This is water with an opinion.
The sun doesn’t do all the work, but it does what you can’t. You pour barrels of water into pools you’ve dug, go round to tend the ones you set out yesterday and the day before. The sun licks the pools dry, like the fire of the Lord on Elijah’s offering, licking up the water on the altar and the water in the trough and the water soaking the wood, then the wood and then the pieces of the sacrifice and then the stones of the altar, cracked open in the flames. Sweat crawls down your neck as you rake these things over, turning the damp spread of new salt into neat piles. Pinch the stuff between your fingers and taste of it. Precious dust, come to you free, waiting in the desert like manna. Bow down in the sand, eyes shut from gratitude or knifelike sun. Nobody here to see you or ask why.
After World War II, speculators promoted the Salton Sea as a resort destination. At just sixty miles south of Palm Springs it seemed like a sure bet. Agents brought investors by the busload from Los Angeles to put their money down on tidy lots lining the curving residential roads. Boomtowns like Salton City Beach, Desert Shores, and Bombay Beach—where we’re standing now—grew up along the water’s edge, where boaters raced across the water, setting world records. The salinity (saltier than the Pacific) and elevation (200 feet below sea level) combined to make this very “fast water.” Frank Sinatra and Guy Lombardo played shows at the Yacht Club just down the way.
But over the next twenty years, the boom faded, and then the storms hit. Tropical Storm Kathleen in 1976, Doreen in 1977—the second “hundred-year storm” in two years’ time—followed by seven years of heavy rains, which reduced the trailers we’re walking past to support beams and twists of insulation. A few people still hang on in town, but nobody lives on this beach anymore. The flooding patterns were too unpredictable, and most of the time, the whole area stinks to high heaven. A few years ago, the state tore the Yacht Club down.
I can see why Richard Misrach shot his photographs in the mellow, rosy light of sunset. Noon is grimmer than I’d expected, and the scene is stark and sad in the eye-watering sun. Scalded, scabbed. There’s a woman in a bikini doing a fashion shoot on the water’s edge. She vamps and poses on the broken concrete, the sea shimmering behind her. A car whips into the parking lot, the woman at the wheel scanning the area for someone she doesn’t find. (Vanity tag: KANNABA.) She cuts the wheel hard, and as she streaks away, we can hear the Bon Jovi she’s cranked up, Who says you can’t go home?
Wasn’t this what I’d wanted to see? Evidence of a practice apocalypse, terrible but local: if you’re lucky, you can leave it behind. We stopped to see the disaster, but which one? Dozens of bird species depend on the Salton Sea, and these beaches can teem with egrets, herons, gannets, terns. Yet there are massive bird die-offs too; during the worst one, in 1996, park rangers worked day and night and still couldn’t keep up, stuffing dead pelican after pelican into the open window of the same incinerator that undertakers like to use.
I head for the car. Buttons of salt on nail heads, rusty radio stuffed with sand: if you go looking for a portent, everything you find will seem like one. I know that on the bottom of the Salton Sea there’s an old salt works, a locomotive, a railroad track. When the river flooded in 1905, it covered everything, double lines of track leading down and vanishing into the water. On a slab of broken concrete, someone’s written MEMENTO MORI, MEMENTO VIVERE in neat Sharpie letters. What looks like lime Jell-O bubbles in a pair of footprints on the water’s edge. It would be so easy to float here, the muscular water holding me up, but I can’t bring myself to do it.
We drive away, passing a truck loaded with gleaming fists of garlic and a tidy trailer park named for St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things. Past a billboard that reads “$99.80 Down, $99.80 A Month, Ten Years You Own It. Everyone Qualifies.” And even though I know the Salton Sea is an old-time swindle, even though the car still reeks from dead fish and iodine, I’m tempted. You can get it for a song. Said Bon Jovi, Who says you can’t go back?