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Reawakened Beauty: The Past, Present, and Future of the Jordan River

Posted By Salt Lake County ZAP
March 03, 2021

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Finding Beauty in Unexpected Places & at Unexpected Times
Center for Documentary Expression and Art

2020 was a hard year for Utah and the nation. The pandemic robbed many people of their accustomed realities, including income, stability, health, and, in the worst cases, life itself. At CDEA, it compelled us to adapt and evolve in troubling circumstances.

We recently completed an eight-week Artists/Scholars-in-Residence program, Reawakened Beauty: The Past, Present, and Future of the Jordan River, which plunged us into uncertainty, caused us to reinvent our residency, and gifted us with glimpses of beauty and serenity in the midst of a global pandemic. 

ReAwakened Beauty is a residency we’ve done for many years, albeit under very different circumstances. We love offering the residency because it embraces several of our great passions: environmental rights, writing (poetry and prose), photography, and fieldwork. This year’s residency, conducted in partnership with Brighton High School and TreeUtah, was designed to follow our traditional model of using environmental literature, documentary photography, creative writing, and restoration field trips to introduce students to the Jordan River’s human and natural history.


Brighton High School Wildlife Biology students carry out restoration fieldwork on the Jordan River and photo-document it for possible use in a school exhibit.

Through July and August 2020, we prepared the residency syllabus, but when September arrived with the most unpredictable aspects of the pandemic, all sense of “normalcy” was lost. Under these strange and limiting circumstances we had to find ways to offer content to students online, rather than in person. 

There were many times, especially during the residency’s first weeks of remote teaching, when we couldn’t tell if we were speaking to 5 or 35 students. We were not able to hear or see students who were joining us remotely via Google Meet due to privacy protocols. Similarly, we had difficulty connecting with the students who were present in the classroom, but dispersed and not fully visible, due to social distancing requirements. Our experience was akin to speaking into a void. 

Still, over time, students started to engage with our materials through brief written remarks and, later, enthusiastic responses to the field trip alongside the Jordan River. As the residency progressed, they opened up in remarkable and beautiful ways through poetry and photography.

A new aspect of the 2020 ReAwakened Beauty that emerged was the introduction of ritual and meditative practices, such as “calling in” and “releasing” the directions and sharing a meaningful poem at the beginning of each session. These practices helped instructors and students situate and “ground” themselves, and allowed us to create “sacred containers” inside which we all felt more safe, held, and supported. 

These combined activities (traditional and new) resulted in inspired visual and written work by students, which included haunting self-portraits, discoveries of nature in their neighborhoods, poems that revealed the mysterious life of trees, and images of planting along the Jordan River. Student work reflected all facets of the eight-week residency and illustrated how students pondered their circumstances, responded to uncertainty, and celebrated planting new life in times filled with civil unrest and a raging global pandemic.

Some of the remarkable student work produced during the residency included the combination of writing and photography. Students carried out innovative photography assignments such “Self-Portrait,” “View From My Window,” and “Walkabout,” which allowed them to gain deeper insight into their own circumstances as well as their surroundings. 

For the “Walkabout” assignment, we introduced students to the Australian concept of Walkabout, which traditionally refers to a rite of passage in Aboriginal societies, when males, ages 10 to 18, live in the wilderness for as long as six months and make the emotional and spiritual transition into manhood. At Brighton, students were asked to walk around familiar or unfamiliar areas taking photos that might shed new light on their worlds. We also invited students to take their time and pay attention to the small details they encounter.


In the “Self-Portrait” assignment, students explored the difference between selfies and self-portraits and created a self-portrait that explored their place in the world. The assignment was created in direct response to the isolation imposed on students by the school-wide quarantine brought by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For students who embraced the assignments, opportunities emerged to produce unusual and thoughtful work, such as this self-portrait by Noah Turnbridge: 


This is how I look when Im not wearing a mask. In the picture I am dead. I am still breathing but Im not alive. I cant find my head. I am like a carved pumpkin with the candle blown out, cold and empty, left outside to rot and then get thrown away.

            - Noah Turnbridge

We were similarly surprised by the ways in which students responded to the work of Mary Oliver and Charles Simic, poets that explored the idea of “soul” in nature and going “inside” a tree: 


Becoming A Tree

Go inside a tree
That would be my way.
Let somebody else become a bear
Or even a selfless chair.
I am happy to be a tree.

From the outside the tree is a riddle:
No one knows how to answer it.
Yet within, it must be cool and calm
Even though there is lots of noise and talking,
Even though it’s hot outside.
The tree is tall and strong
From the roots up,          
Well nourished and well rounded on the inside.
I have seen the trees working together
So perhaps it is not a solo effort;
Perhaps there is a working community under the soil
and above the surface
Telling each other what is going on.

- Hagen Snell


It is a fascinating experience to adapt to new and difficult circumstances only to discover appreciation for unexpected gifts hiding in plain sight: small visual details, poetry, Fremont Cottonwoods swaying in the breeze, the movement of water, and the flight of geese—some of which appear in student photos of field trips:

Year 2020 and the experience of conducting and completing a residency during the COVID-19 pandemic reminds us that the most profound and most memorable experiences of our lives emerge in deeply troublesome times. We will remember this year as one of the most challenging of this new millennium, and also the year in which we received many unexpected gifts of beauty. And for that we are grateful.


Canada geese fly over the 120-acre Jordan River Migratory Bird Refuge restoration site in South Jordan.


Here are some of the key ingredients essential for restoration work: long-handled steel shovels, rakes, wheelbarrows, plants, and dedicated people.


Brighton High School Wildlife Biology students and CDEA faculty engage in residency activities: bringing in new plants, planting native species, watering saplings, and documenting the residency process.


Brighton High School Wildlife Biology students clean up after restoration activities at the Jordan River Migratory Bird Refuge in South Jordan.


Center for Documentary Expression and Art is a ZAP grantee and a production and teaching entity. They build nationally-traveling documentary exhibits and teach documentary arts to K-12 students. For more information visit