pelicans in exile

As of last week, Luft said, there were fewer than 1,000 adults. As of Thursday, there are virtually none. All the state biologists observed were a few dozen juvenile birds, too young to fly, hiding in some rock outcroppings – Leia Larsen, Salt Lake Tribune/ June 30, 2023

we fly high 
we fly wide 
we live on islands 
we nest on the ground.

other birds hatch like colts, ready to run
our children arrive as naked as yours
featherless and vulnerable as scrotum
everyday we leave them in the care of the waves
we fly the lengths of lake 
we fly over tar seeps
fly over salt sea 
glide until river water
fish until we have enough to feed them
before nightfall, we return.

when we fly high
we see the scar you made of a mountain 
we see the waters strangled by your tracks
we see the patterns of your poison.

when we fly wide
we watch you pave habitat
we reel in the steam heat rising from the smelter 
we feel you working at the speed of destruction.

since time before memory
we have slept within water’s embrace
the place we called safe, you called gunnison.

we saw the sea diminish
until the tide did not return,
we witnessed the end of our protection.

when four-leggeds crossed the sand bridge 
they came swiftly, all teeth
when teeth came, many of us left 
for a while, some of us bore the peril
and watched as foxes slaughtered 
our helpless children.

last spring, the rest of us departed
when we left our nests for the final time 
pink sand still glittered through the sticks.

and though we have nowhere to go,
we know this home is over—

we left our young
we left our dead 
we flew high 
we flew wide
and we fled.


Great Salt Lake is my teacher, my dear companion, and my imperiled neighbor. 

The lake is also one of over one hundred diminishing inland seas worldwide and an essential refuge for twelve million migratory birds. I have lived on the land she made with her waves for over half a century.

Three years ago, I heard scientist Dr. Bonnie Baxter explain the impending threat of losing the lake entirely due to human diversion. Like many listeners, I was rattled by her description of the perpetual toxic dust storm that would arise from a desiccated playa in the lake’s absence. Around that time my mentor, Deena Metzger, encouraged me to begin listening to the sea herself. I turned my broken heart in the lake’s direction.

The lake’s voice then came in dreams and then a call to keep a vigil on the shoreline for forty days and nights in the winter of 2022. Not accustomed to winter camping, I was surprised by the invitation. 

Nevertheless, I borrowed a camper and moved myself to the water’s edge to become a neighbor to microbialites, bison, and ravens. Once there, the lake prompted me to call on others. She beckoned us and we came. Over a thousand people participated in the vigils on Antelope Island. We are now preparing for our third winter vigil on behalf of the Great Salt Lake, one that will begin on the Utah State Capitol steps on Tuesday, January 16th, and continue each day of the state legislative session until March 1st. 

When the life of someone you love is at stake you stay with them. 

Until recently, Great Salt Lake provided a vital nesting ground for white pelicans. As many as 20,000 individual birds lived on Gunnison Island on over 5,000 nests. As humans have continued to dam, dredge, and divert the waters, land bridges to the island have become exposed, allowing predators easy access. In May of 2023, the last adult pelicans left their home, in some cases leaving behind flightless and defenseless chicks. Their nests are now empty. 

This poem imagines this exile from the pelican’s perspective. As devastated as I am by this loss, I remain devoted to bearing witness to the beauty and vitality of this water body and all of the lives she sustains. 

Even as we teeter at this precipice of unfathomable harm, our movement to restore and replenish the lake is swelling. We are learning to love more robustly and visibly. We are transcending our tired divides. We are gathering on behalf of everything that matters.

About the Author

Nan created River Writing in order to foster voice and authentic connection. Everyone is welcome in her circles. This community-held writing practice was designed for anyone willing to pick up a pen. A recent PBS documentary highlights River Writing as a method of repair for what is broken in our relationship with the natural world.

Her debut poetry collection, prayers not meant for heaven, was published by Toad Hall Editions in the summer of 2021. Nan’s story lake woman leaving, a modern myth, was awarded the 2022 Alfred Lambourne prize by Friends of Great Salt Lake. In the summer of 2023, Nan was chosen by Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for a Mayor’s Artist Award.

As the poet-in-residence on Antelope Island, Nan led day-and-night vigils on behalf of the imperiled Great Salt Lake throughout the 2022 and 2023 Utah State legislative sessions. During her weeks on the receding lake shore, she assembled the praise poem called irreplaceable, a collective love letter containing over 400 individual voices from lake-facing citizens. The epic ode is a community cry for this essential ecosystem’s full restoration. In the May 2023 special issue of Desert Report, Nan offers a reflection on relationship with the lake from the perspective of two winter vigils.

Nan continues to advocate for Rights of Nature, legally defensible personal rights for ecosystems, including Great Salt Lake. Her work gives voice to their inherent right to live, flourish, and evolve in natural way. The words emerge from a devotion to repairing the breach between humans and the rest of the sentient, singing earth.

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