Editor's note: This article is part of a series reviewing Utah and national history for KSL.com's Historic section.
SALT LAKE CITY — Anyone who has driven through the Bonneville Salt Flats on I-80 has seen it: A massive trunk shooting out of the remote Utah desert with what, to a child's eye, resemble giant lollipops sticking out of the top.
It becomes a sort of calling card for home on long drives, the colorful spheres looming on the horizon signifying that your journey is nearing its end. Some of us grew up giving it nicknames like the "lollipops" or the "tennis ball statue," and as we moved into adulthood even fewer of us ever bothered to figure out its meaning or purpose.
The sculpture has an interesting history in Utah, though. Called "Metaphor: The Tree of Utah," it's more casually referred to as the "Tree of Life." Ask for directions to the sculpture, about two hours west of Salt Lake City, and even Google Maps favors the "Tree of Life" designation.
Swedish artist Karl Momen created the Tree of Utah between 1982 and 1986, donating it to the state in 1996 and returning to his home country. The tree is 87 feet tall and made of 225 tons of cement and five tons of welding rod. Nearly 2,000 ceramic tiles were also used, along with 100 tons of crushed natural rock and minerals native to Utah.
Momen said upon its completion that he spent $1 million of his own funds on the work of art, which he claimed could be seen for up to 17 miles on a clear day.
Momen saw the surrounding area as stark and flat, and it's said he wanted to bring a burst of color and beauty to an otherwise colorless landscape. This was more of a simple observation than an insult; Momen loved the Utah desert and meant his sculpture to be a tribute to it, a symbol of life in an inhospitable world.
The artist spoke with KSL-TV in 2011 about the moment that gave him his inspiration for the piece:
"August 1981, and I didn't know anything about the desert," he said. "A walk, the crunch of the salt and I was so taken with the desert and then it didn't take me many minutes to think something must be done here."
At the time, Momen was pitching an interpretive center for the sculpture, a peaceful desert haven where visitors could retreat from the outside world, if for only a moment.
For now, the tree remains surrounded by a fence to protect both the work and the people admiring it. It has long been reported that the words to "Ode to Joy" by Friedrich Schiller can be read on the plaque at its base, but it's hard to find any evidence of the ode being present at the sculpture. The only quote on the sculpture was attributed to Momen in a 1986 United Press International article, but many people mistakenly attribute that quote to Schiller.
Herman du Toit, author of Vision in the Desert, a book about the sculpture, explained what happened with the plaque. Du Toit said both "Ode to Joy" and the Momen quote were originally on the sculpture, but he believed the bronze plaque containing the ode was stolen around 20 years ago.
Regardless, Du Toit said the sculpture stands for something incredible, regardless, and he hopes more Utahns will take the time to learn about a public art fixture most people take for granted.
"If you open your mind to it, you’ve got the flattest terrain in the world and this man comes along and builds this enormous perpendicular monument to the universe," he said. "It’s a singular thing ... This thing should be celebrated."
Du Toit is still working on helping Momen to realize his original vision for the area. He said funding for the interpretive center has been secured; they just need to secure the $2 million for UDOT to create a safe place for vehicles to pull off.
Until then, visitors will keep flying past the massive, glimmering orbs at freeway speeds. Those who do stop are left with Momen's own quoted words, which are an ode unto themselves: "A hymn to our universe, whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination."
Steph Grimes is a writer and editor based in Las Vegas. Find her at about.me/stephaniegrimes, or follow her on Twitter: @stephgrimes