April 22nd, 2012 — 6:21pm
Áshįįh, Looking Southwest, 2010 (Photo By Author)
Salt Lickers (source)


Salt has long been connected to pilgrimage. Ancient merchants traveled long distances to secure the mineral. Later, sites of salt acquisition themselves, became destinations, due to their cultural significance (a famous example is the Wieliczka Salt Mine near Krakow). Sourced for its culinary and industrial applications, salt is either mined (rock salt) or harvested where it evaporates from bodies of water (sea salt). Due to its uneven geographic distribution, salt was an essential part of early economies. The Latin root sal is the origin of salary, showcasing it as perhaps the most valuable mineral of the ancient world. This is an ironic superlative considering the spice’s banal connotation as the condiment which has invaded almost every processed food and litters dining tables worldwide in canister or packet form.


Zuni Salt Lake is a formation in Catron County, located in west-central New Mexico. Sited on the south side of Carrizo Valley, the lake occupies a circular depression ringed by steep rock walls. On the crater’s floor is a shallow, seasonal body of water that, when evaporated, deposits crystals for easy collection. The lake has been an important resource materially and spiritually for autochthonous groups, notably the Zuni for whom the lake is the sacred home of female deity Ma’l Oyattsik’i, the Salt Woman.


I arrive alone at the lake at noon, driving south from Gallup on asphalt and then gravel. It is November but the day is sharp and bright. Leaving the car, I race down a ravine, cut in the circumferential hills, hoping to reach the shore but am detained by a wire fence securing the lake’s perimeter. Back up on the northern ridge, I see black cinder cones looming behind the plane of the water, with mineral deposits clearly evident along the shore. A pier juts into the water in front of a storage shed. Two adobe ruins sit nearby. The breeze is surprisingly unspiced. I stand and think about the trail from the lake forty miles north to the Zuni Pueblo and the connection of that society to this terrain. Frequently, architecture attempts to… more


All animals need salt to survive. While those ‘in the wild’ may be able to satisfy their nutritional needs with a carnivorous diet or access to natural salty sources such as brine springs or brackish water, domesticated animals are often dependent on commercial agricultural salts to maintain a healthy diet.


These compressed salt blocks, known as salt licks, are fascinating objects, arriving in countless colors, flavors, and mineral-fortified varieties to meet the nutritional needs and palates of the most discriminating of livestock—periwinkle, copper, maroon; apple, wild persimmon, sweet acorn; cobalt, magnesium, selenium… Lick by lick, the animal’s tongue carves out rounded caverns and hollows. In a gradual transformation, the block loses its angles and assumes an organic form. Both the pristine and the partially-consumed salt lick may be considered formally, as sculptural objects. Providing evidence of an aesthetic potential are the hundreds of livestock-sculpted salt works that have been submitted and exhibited at The Great Salt Lick, an annual contest in Baker County, Oregon, where salt blocks are evaluated on their formal qualities.


Curiously, a parallel exists between these unconsciously fashioned objects and works of contemporary architecture as well. Armed with software, architects are able to ‘sculpt’ buildings as desired, producing forms that appear as organic volumes instead of more orthogonal structures. This shift towards mineral inspiration can be seen in the work of Frank Gehry and Herzog & de Meuron, among others. Buildings are expressed variously on the spectrum between crystallized polyhedra and tongued subtraction. It is a surprising inversion that contemporary advances in technology allow the construction of buildings that resemble the work of livestock. While some may see this comparison as suggestive of the vacuity of today’s architecture, it is more accurately a testament to the wide formal influence of crystal formations, a trend similarly captured in the aesthetic appreciation of a carved salt lick.


Jack Murphy



Aurora Tang


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