How Not to Get Stuck in a Tar Seep

Photo by Gretchen Ernster Henderson

13. Learn how to identify one. Nicknamed “death traps,” tar seeps are ghostly pools of raw oil that creep up from tectonic fractures and spread across the earth like tacky flypaper. An unsuspecting bird or animal that crosses a melting seep can get fatally stuck.


12. Consider the season. As temperatures rise, the surface melts and natural asphalt bubbles up from underground sludge. Frozen in winter, the tar seeps awaken in summer—sticky and stinky—to remind visitors to be cautious.


11. Prepare to be offline. When you approach the tar seeps at Great Salt Lake, you will lose cell service. Pack food and water. Notice how the reputedly dead sea spreads to the edge of the horizon. Encircling mountains sink like teeth of an open jaw on the verge of swallowing the sky.


10. Consider the weather. Around the tar seeps, even on a seemingly still and sunny day, there is movement, buoyant in dense salt water, evaporating into the atmosphere. Birds flock and fledge around habitable marshy edges. Brine flies buzz. Microbial life swims, finless, in colorful saline saturation, immune to the burning sun.


9. Notice migrations. Great Salt Lake’s tar seeps lie near the convergence of two of the four major migratory bird flyways of North America. As the lake recedes from drought, more seeps have emerged. If a bird or animal is used to wandering in winter when the tar is not sticky, it sets up a trail. When the seeps melt in warmer weather, these animals may become trapped.


8. Consider the climate. By the tar seeps, near abandoned attempts at oil drilling, Robert Smithson created his land art in 1970 called Spiral Jetty. Over decades, the rising and receding lake has left the artwork dry as an unexpected barometer for climate change. Both Spiral Jetty and the tar seeps are earthworks—one man-made, the other nature-made—suggesting natural agency and articulations beyond words.

Fascinated or terrified by tar seeps? Read more about them here!


7. Be mindful of other ways to get stuck. When I visit the tar seeps of natural asphalt, almost two years after being hit by a car in a crosswalk of man-made asphalt, I barely think of my body meshing with pavement. Instead, I try to imagine how pelicans land here. These tar seeps wouldn’t be mistaken for streets. The seeps enact a different kind of collision, even slower than a car crash, but no less deadly.


6. Reconsider the site. Tar is a perfect preservative—freezing, drying, encasing organisms as when they were alive—fossilizing a life span in fragments. Oil extractions and Spiral Jetty both have been called scars upon the earth. Smithson once described the lake’s water as blood from the heart. “Chemically speaking,” he wrote, “our blood is analogous in composition to the primordial seas.”


5. Relate your body with other living bodies. With veritable seas inside us, evolving with living bodies of water and of land, Great Salt Lake remembers. Through flooding and receding, erosion and dispersion, the lake’s memories may accumulate to impact its existence over time, the way personal events compress. Tectonics suggest that stones remember in their own way, storing up tensions until they quake.


4. Wear old shoes. Humans have used natural asphalt or bitumen for centuries. Across cultures, tar has caulked and mortared walls, waterproofed boats and roofs, coated flint implements, lubricated equipment, filled gaps in canoes and protected rigging on ships, illuminated photography, treated wounds, and generally stuck things together.


3. Seep into place over time. Fossil sites tell stories in layers, revealing time in reverse. Where La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles revealed bygone animals like mammoths and saber-toothed cats, the seeps of raw oil at Great Salt Lake entrap current life as time capsules for the future. Each time I visit deepens my sense of place, where perceptions can spiral from a DNA helix to the galaxy of the Milky Way.


2. Consider where death meets life. Like a massive inkblot on the planet, a tar seep swallows all languages that attempt to describe it. Bacteria break it down. Destruction and creation roll into one. There is something more philosophical at work, too. As tar sticks things together, it challenges a human tendency to classify: disarticulating anything that gets trapped. Bacteria line our guts, maintain our body chemistry, and one day decompose us back to dirt. Unless . . . you get stuck in a tar seep.


1. Watch where you step.

Gretchen Ernster Henderson writes across environmental arts, cultural histories, and integrative sciences. Her recent essays have appeared in Ecotone, Ploughshares, and the Kenyon Review, with coauthored articles in Nature Sustainability and Conservation Biology. She is the author of five books, including her latest, Life in the Tar Seeps. She is a senior lecturer at the University of Texas at Austin and has also taught at Georgetown University, MIT, and the University of Utah, where she was the 2018–19 Annie Clark Tanner Fellow in Environmental Humanities.