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Lake Effect: 'Compass Points: Great Salt Lake'

A selfie of a woman wearing sunglasses in front of a wetland
Margaret Pettis

I’m Margaret Pettis, and I’m a retired school teacher, currently a kayaker of the Bear River, and a poet and an author of all sorts of books.


Above my writing desk,
propped between antlers,
fossils and stones,
hang two watercolors
of Antelope Island.

Across a blue horizon,
inadequate in miniature,
clouds surge eastward,
climbing encrusted shores.

Salmon pink playas nuzzle
the sky’s trembling veil.

My horse picks her way
through bitterbrush and boulders
to the rim of Stansbury Island.

She grabs at rattlegrass,
her bit dripping green foam,
as the cumulus parade rolls in
its untethered Great Basin floats:
hoary mammoth, pastel turtle,
carousel pony, plump trout
mushrooming into mermaid,
snow white anvils
ascending the dome.

Dark shadow islands
mottle the silver lake,
whisper stories from Nevada.

Our sailboat tips—
we are a pelican wing
skimming the turquoise
cabochon of Utah sky.

Cub, Hat, Badger,
Egg, Rock, Mud—
simple appellations
for low-water islands—
give way to Gunnison,
where Alfred Lambourne
slept a year in the company
of one-fifth of Earth’s
white pelicans— and all
of the Great Basin’s stars.

Awake, he painted
the pastel glimmer
of the saltiest lake
in our hemisphere,
faced the crash
of electric storms,
rode the crimson cusp
of the planet.

Along the Promontories,
a band of range mares,
udders nudged by foals
knowing no barn,
holds the gravel road with horse
majority, then drifts off,
permitting us to downshift
and rumble toward Rozel.

At the lake’s edge, we shield
our eyes, scan bright islands
perched on the seam of sky,
enter the pewter mirage
at the great spiraling mandala.

Suspended in time with crystal
and basalt, we follow
its silence into ourselves.

In the refuge, swallows—
those mad tailors—
dart under bridges, press
beaks full of mud
into teacup nests.

Like appaloosa spots,
snowy egrets punctuate
the maze of dark channels.

In the shallows, herons,
still as reeds, eye fish
before beak-strike.

Mud flats crack
into drought’s clay tablets—
stilt, avocet, phalarope
caught in cuneiform.

Wind rattles through bullrushes,
Paiute shelters unbundled.
In pigment and paper,
I carry home each day
the hues of Great Salt Lake,
tucked with sage-scented fingers
among a quiver of sable brushes,
tufts of bison hair, a jackrabbit
tail, and butter-bright feathers
of a fallen lark. I had walked
again on the brittle grey floor
of our own Dead Sea.

'Compass Points: Great Salt Lake' – from the book, 'In the Temple of the Stars', by Margaret Pettis

Aimee Van Tatenhove is a science reporter at UPR. She spends most of her time interviewing people doing interesting research in Utah and writing stories about wildlife, new technologies and local happenings. She is also a PhD student at Utah State University, studying white pelicans in the Great Salt Lake, so she thinks about birds a lot! She also loves fishing, skiing, baking, and gardening when she has a little free time.
Ellis Juhlin is a science reporter here at Utah Public Radio and a Master's Student at Utah State. She studies Ferruginous Hawk nestlings and the factors that influence their health. She loves our natural world and being part of wildlife research. Now, getting to communicate that kind of research to the UPR listeners through this position makes her love what she does even more. In her free time, you can find her outside on a trail with her partner Matt and her goofy pups Dodger and Finley. They love living in a place where there are year-round adventures to be had!