Friday, April 8, 2011
This Radiated World
The episode of This American Life last week was incredibly powerful. The theme--"See No Evil"--gave birth to stories of brothers trying to cope with the fact that one of them might have killed their mother, and of a gift store manager trying to figure out the source of his shop's shrinkage. But the most powerful stories came in Act II, which used the recent disaster at the Fukushima plant in Japan to launch into a discussion of the worst nuclear accident in history. The segment was comprised largely of translated passages read from a Russian book called Voices from Chernobyl. I dare you to listen without crying to the story of the new bride whose husband was sent in to deal with the disaster--in shirtsleeves and no protective gear.
I remember when Chernobyl happened. I was young and the TV reports were vague and terrifying. I can't help but think that most people who grew up during the Cold War must have some form of nuclear paranoia; off the top of my head, I can think of at least 20 poems I've written that have some element of nuke-related fear/fascination in them. When I was a kid and heard stories of the arms race, I conflated them with the space race, and used to envision a massive pile of rockets and space shuttles and nuclear missles circling the earth, a field of deadly rubble in constant orbit around the planet. And as to the use of nuclear power ... what is there to say? We're ruining the planet with oil and coal, but given the issues with nuclear waste, how can we treat nuclear energy as a true solution? In an unstable world where earthquakes and terrorism are realities, nuclear energy is a terrifying option, one requiring us to bury the consequences deep in the earth for future generations to deal with. It seems to me that one of the central metaphors of our time is radiation--the idea that something near us, something we created and have come to rely on to protect and empower us, to destroy our cancers and heat our homes, is simultaneously the source of an invisible poison. That poison is inseparable from power.
I've always been haunted by what Oppenheimer said about how people working at Los Alamos felt when the nuclear tests near Alamagordo, NM, were successful: We knew the world would not be the same. Few people laughed, few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita. Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and to impress him takes on his multi-armed form and says, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds."
Listening to NPR's ongoing reports on the disaster at Fukushima, I heard a story in which a reporter asked a local farmer whether he would leave the area due to all the pollution and fears of irradiated crops. He said that he would not. "This is our home," he said. "No matter what happens or how bad it gets, we have to live here." The same could be said of Earth.
This draft was irradiated.