Craig Dworkin, Professor of English
University of Utah
The gull swerves shoreward, her single wing’s skin swept back by the wind, curving to a thin ellipse . . . lips kissing out in puffing pouts, billowing swells distending, then concaving in a sudden exhalation and impulsive retreat, with the pistoned pant of pneumatic bellows rounded out in punching bouts — the heaving beat of slung booms sung with canvas slaps and snapping sheets — as the prowling prow ploughs the turfed surface of tilled surf, a newly tilted cant briskly pitching to the bank, with high-skewed angles of yaw and little sign of damping, taking flight beneath the porous spume confused and calcinated white like fluid tufa; ranked rows advancing toward the scaw, across the sunken causeway, refraining in hydrographic canticles chanted like a choir of angels over yawning caverns in a chaos of cataclasmic chasms; reaching, zephyr impended, stressed pinions stretched before each sudden collapse, the surface soon smooths iron flat, as if by the passing of some floating screed, then just as quick distressed, discrete — quills stalled in squalls of aqueous, scrawled calligraphs scripted by degrees like the ligatured arabesques of some furious caliph’s impetuous, pent, tempestuous scrid decreed — flapped in fraught semaphores of repeated dilation and fleet diastolic release.
The boat, in short, floated upon the troubled waters.
Its iron hog-chain, taut, maintained (so shallow-hulled, the structure arched without a cinch to stay the sagging of the ark), despite the strain. Lacing traceries of salt brine wove over waves on which they rose and fell in gliding float, slickly slipping, assuming thin synaptic threads of froth before assimilating smaller nodes, and then distending, purging in dispersion — the process cycling over again in turn from ebbs attenuating in their drift to amalgamates subsuming; the surging spume in wroth, now rousing, spurged. Annealed by the unctuous slaver of the spindrift, the cambered hull, by nature punctual, was laved.
Following the mesoscale’s sostenuto series of demotic avisos furiosos, in its isosmotic pressure, sailors sent lassos lashed as hawsers to provisos, the moorings anchored in desmostic, isosceles restraints, so soon cut through with Phrygian precision up to the ricassos by the wuthered flaying of sustained fletched laminae against untenable tensile detrusion — slack lashings frayed to glossoscopic symptoms as the ship’s set sossling to the subsequent stillness of the silted, calm substratum of capsizal’s newly ceilinged, quagged Sargasso Sea, which, were there some auditor, seems to be sospiring only with a basso’s soss in full remorse, while no salvatic band of virtuosos — or even any lone, late sospitator, redeeming, arising — accedes.
The sailors’ signals of extreme distress, morsed in morphing and repeated, urgent appeals, went, in brief, unheeded.
Brigham Young's pride and joy, the Timely Gull — the largest craft of any consequence to venture on the waters of the Great Salt Lake in the decade since the middle of the century, when Stansbury launched the Salicornia, itself a first-rate frigate, consorted by a skiff, trafficking with stately dignity upon the bosom of those solitary waters, circumnavigating, to make his mensual mensuration of its bleak and naked blood-red shores, without even a single tree to relieve the eye as he surveyed the lacustrine topography that framed the desolation’s stillness of the grave below the distant peaks — had been of a sudden gale-ripped from its moorings at Black Rock and, in the heavy winter winds that rose in February’s fury, tossed upon the petrose shore above the scuttling waves, in splinters, staved. Piled by the stormwinds’ hostile pummel, the riven timbers would stay hidden by the self-same waters that had made its construction a necessity when they submerged the spit that had bridged a herd-path track to Antelope Island, until celebrating its sesquicentennial by raising up its beams above the brack again, in a palisade of paling stanchions driven in the sand. The deocculted pickets would appear to local shrimpers like the broken spears of some defiant phalanx sparing with the sky.
Before Young fitted up his ship with grommeted garments of flaxen canvas waxed as sailing cloth, allowing the breath of god to speed it towards its purpose, two carthorses, martingaled like the dolphin-striker of The Gull herself, with tackle harnessed to a treadmill, in turn connected to a stern wheel, propelled the ship; the pair of equine trekkers walked upon the water, hyaline eyes fixed in the distance on the reflectance of a blinding luminescent destination — ever receding and never attained. As they ambulate, clouds of midges, risen by the morning warmth, swarm and clamber; brine flies glaze the shoreline; the margin of the lake, in haze, conflates the horizon’s halation with its minimal hypsographic measure. The horse-marines plod on across the halcyon waters of the salinated inland sea.
Young’s cattle-barge had been designed and piloted by pioneer Dan Jones, a Welshman out of Halkyn, who had captained steamships on the Mississippi, navigating converts by the hundreds in pilgrimage up river to Nauvoo. Freighted in its day with flagstone, cedarwood, and salt, The Gull was meant to carry livestock, ferrying Young’s herds in seasonal rotation from periodic pastures on the long-grassed Lake isles and, against the impendent threat of Ute attack on shore, deliver them with swift elusion to the sanctuary of some saline keep, secure beyond defile, dangling at its scrap-iron anchor, long stay apeek, in tantalizing appropinquity, just out of earshot of the rancorous chorus of the battle-cries and war-whoops, even for the keen-eared quadrupeds. The skittish phobic bovine, though, would soon lapse back, amnesiac, settled in their placid taciturnity: impassively at ease, indifferent to the spectacle of distant hoof-stirred dust that shrouded raided ranching plats, immune in their abeyance, preoccupated only with the tranquil rustle of the breeze amid gramineæ.
Assuming that the average dairy cow extends to a length of around one-hundred inches, and that they boarded arkwise, two-by-two, in double ranks upon the barge’s tarred and mitred planks, and that the carlin of the Gull spanned a full forty-five feet, as widely reputed, it could have carried a score of cattle at a time in full continual transport. Supposing that the coil of Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty were the scroll finial of a seventeenth-century viola da gamba, the strings of that mighty instrument would stretch to two-thousand, one-hundred-and-seventy-six feet, almost thirteen times the length of the intestine obtained from a prodigious specimen of a full-grown ox or steer, locally prized for the high collagen of its submucosa and externa. With the peritoneum soaked and serosa scraped and the surface steeped for days in a potash of potassium hydroxide, the tight-wound entrails can sound a dulcet timbre, almost vocal, when strung as strings, amber hued and rosinous, attached from box to bridge. The lowest of those catgut cords would call for the sacrifice of roughly 184,320 animals, which would entail nine-thousand two-hundred and sixteen voyages, accordingly, of the barge to deliver (and discounting the thousands calved in the interval so as not to leave the island vacant). Cruising at two horsepower, ship stowed to bale-cube capacity at twenty register tonnes, it would have taken Dan Jones a decade and three full months of steady sailing, in continuous loops from shore to shore without pause, to accomplish the conveyance. In order to maintain a baroque-era pitch, in even-temperament tuning, the D string of that gigantic jetty bass viol would require a tension of almost fourteen billion Newtons. The force would thus be four-thousand times the winds — deafening in themselves, coursing the shore and raking the sands — that once careened the great and mighty hull of the devastated Timely Gull in that fatal winter gale of 1858.
hog-chain: Peter G. Van Allen: “Sail and Steam: Great Salt Lake’s Boats and Boatbuilders, 1847-1901,” Utah Historical Quarterly 63: 3 (Summer. 1995): 201.
extreme distress and repeated urgent appeals: The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition, ed. J. A. Simpson and E. S. C. Weiner (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989): sv. “S.O.S.”.
pride and joy: Annie Call Carr, Editor, for The Daughters of Utah Pioneers: East of Antelope Island (Kaysville: Davis County Company, 1948): 29.
consequence: Simon F. Kimball: “Early-Day Recollections of Antelope Island,” Improvement Era Vol. X, No. 5 (March, 1907): 336.
frigate: Howard Stansbury: An Expedition to the Valley of the Great Sale Lake of Utah: Including A Description of its Geography, Natural History, And Minerals, and an Analysis of Its Waters: With an Authentic Account of the Mormon Settlement (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo & Co., 1852): 11. Stansbury overstates the class considerably; a more modest yawl or dorie would have been more accurate [see Gary Topping: Great Salt Lake: An Anthology (Logan: Utah State University Press, 2002): 224].
Salicornia et seq.: Stansbury, op. cit..
Black Rock: “Low Water of Great Salt Lake Reveals Ghosts of the Past,” Salt Lake Tribune (18 August, 2014).
submerging the spit: Topping, op. cit., 208; cf. Marlin Stum: Visions of Antelope Island and Great Salt Lake (Logan: Utah State University Press, 1999): 125.
spears: Brian Mullahy: “Great Salt Lake Gives Up ‘Mysteries’ as Water Drops,” KUTV (5 November, 2014).
sailing cloth, et seq.: see President Young’s journal of 30 January, 1854: “I christened her the Timely Gull. She is forty-five feet long and designed for a stern wheel to be propelled by horses working a treadmill, and to be used mainly to transport stock between the city and Antelope Island.” Other accounts describe the gull "fitted-up as a sailing boat" [Journal History of the Church (25 June 1856), LDS Archives]; see also Stum, op. cit., 127.
flagstone, cedarwood and salt: Andrew Jensen: Latter-Day Saint Biographical Encyclopedia: A Compilation of Biographical Sketches of Prominent Men and Women in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Vol. II (Salt Lake City: Andrew Jensen History Company, 1920): 660; cf. David E. Miller: “Great Salt Lake: A Historical Sketch,” Utah Geological and Mineral Society Bulletin 116 (June, 1980): 12.
Lake isles: Bill Durham: “Sailors of the Briny Shallows,” Westways 49 [Los Angeles: Automobile Club of Southern California (March, 1957)]: 52.
attack: see Thomas G. Alexander: Brigham Young and the Expansion of the Mormon Faith (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019): 292; Richard Tomas Ackley: “Across the Plains in 1858,” Utah Historical Quarterly, ed. J. Cecil Alter Vol. IX (1941); Peter Gottfredson (Editor): History of Indian Depredations in Utah (Salt Lake City: Skelton, 1919): passim.
scrap-iron: Topping, op. cit., 205.
scroll finial: see Ephraim Segerman: “The Sizes of English Viols and Talbot’s Measurements,” Galpin Society Journal 48 (March, 1995): 33-45.
prodigious specimen: see Black’s Veterinary Dictionary, ed. Edward Boden, 19th Edition (Lanham: Barnes & Noble, 1998): 282.
collagen: Voichita Bucur: Handbook of Materials for String Musical Instruments (Switzerland: Springer, 2016): 482-486.
potash: Bettina Hoffman: The Viola de Gamba, trans. Paul Ferguson (London: Routledge, 2018): 43.
amber: ibidem, 45.
lowest: Atthanasio Kircher: Musurgia universalis sive ars magna consoni et dissoni in X. libros digesta, Lib. V (Roma: Corbelletti, 1650): 440.
14,400: Sadly, this is almost fifty times the head available to Young from his historic herd and an order of magnitude larger than the common Church holdings at the time.
baroque-era pitch: Bruce Haynes: A History of Performing Pitch: The Story of “A” (Oxford: Scarecrow, 2002).
tension: the absolute mensur of a D string, in actuality, cannot practically exceed 79cm given that its breaking point is a tone lower at 88.7 cm, calculated from the limit of approximately 260Hz per metre, a value independent of diameter [see Hoffmann, op. cit., 41].
fatal winter: William Mulder: [untitled review of Norman F. Furniss: The Mormon Conflict: 1850-1859 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1960)], History News 16 : 12 (November 1960 – October, 1961): 145
On the occasion of Spiral Jetty's fiftieth year, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts invited four brilliant Utahns to share their perspectives.
Craig Dworkin is the author of over a half-dozen books of poetry, including, most recently: The Pine-Woods Notebook (Kenning Editions, 2019); DEF (Information As Material, 2017); 12 Erroneous Displacements and a Fact (Information As Material, 2016); Alkali (Counterpath, 2105); and Chapter XXIV (Red Butte Press, 2013). He teaches literary history and theory in the Department of English at the University of Utah and serves as Founding Editor to the Eclipse archive <eclipsearchive.org>.