Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Great Salt Lake

On July 24, 1847, Brigham Young and his flagging congregation of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints reached what he declared to be the Promised Land. They found this.

The Great Salt Lake is glorious, striking, beautiful and fascinating, but welcoming it is not. I cannot imagine making the difficult journey from Illinois, watching loved ones sicken and die only to be told that this is where we were going to live.

Leftover from the pre-historic Lake Bonneville which stretched across more than 22,000 square miles during the last Ice Age, the Great Salt Lake is 75 miles long by 28 miles wide. It covers 1,700 square miles and has a maximum depth of 33 feet. The lake has no outlet; water only leaves by evaporation and with over 2.2 million tons of minerals flowing into the lake each year it is anything but fresh. Depending on evaporation the lake’s salinity is between four and 28 percent. As a frame of reference, the ocean is at three percent. Although it does support brine shrimp and birds, the water is too salty for fish. Algae thrive in the lake and it literally smells like brimstone.

We arrived at the Great Salt Lake the week after I covered the Heritage Harvest Festival for Lancaster Farming. The Festival, held on the grounds of Monticello, was a celebration of small local producers: artisan farmers and craftspeople who grew heirloom fruits and vegetable and made goat’s milk cheese and cider. It was lovely and the homemade donuts were the best I’ve ever eaten.

Standing on the shore of the Great Salt Lake, however, Buy Fresh Buy Local took on a whole new meaning. It is one thing to try to shorten food chains in central Virginia or in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania where I grew up. But there are whole sections of the country where food for people does not easily grow. If we move to a local food system, who is going to feed those people?

Eventually, the Mormons thrived. I’m not sure that the same would be true for their contemporary counterparts. Given the number of people now living in the Salt Lake Valley, they better like brine shrimp.

The Great Salt Lake is extraordinary. I’d been there before, but every time I travel I am reminded of how magnificent our country and world is. Next stop – Yellowstone!

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