Los Alamos "The Black Hole"

The Womb of the Bomb, Baby

It must have been poetic justice that Conrad and I sat in the very back of the bus. It made a good vantage from which to photograph the first roadcut that angled upward from Frijoles Canyon to the New Mexico Ranch School, which the government annexed in 1942 for the Manhattan Project.  (The Ranch School educated Gore Vidal, William S. Burroughs, as well as other notables who had been sickly children in need of fresh air, horses, cowboys, and the stout life of the high mesa).  Considering by way of the overlook geology how absolutely remote all this must have seemed in 1942, I felt bi-headed there in the stern as I craned to take in the westward ascent to the cradle of the bomb, then flipped my glance eastward to the hills of San Ildefonso where, in the frigid air of an early January dawn, deer dancers appear shaking their antlers in first light.

Center for Land Use Interpretations Matt Coolidge did ensure that we were aware that I-25, “the atomic highway,” is actually a pan-American route from the Bay of Alaska to Tierra del Fuego. He called the bomb “the primordial gadget” (nice ring to that) and referenced Los Alamos specifically, and the “Land of Enchantment,” linguironically, as “the womb of the bomb.” What enchants us, suggested Coolidge, is truth. “Highest technology blinds us with the white light of truth that poets, whether John Keats or David Bowie, have recognized as death.” (He said.)

Given the plethora of ways that New Mexico cultural outfits are choosing to celebrate Santa Fes coming 400th birthday (in 2010- with a new “History Museum” in particular, that spends a lot of time on World War II patriotism and war effort) it was welcome to hear a land-use brainiac reflect on  “geo-morphology,” sussed out as the inscription of human activities on earth. Long, long before the super-ricos paid millions for Jim Turrell to design “skyspaces” for the insides of their houses, this idea of human behavior creating new ecologies, not altogether “natural,” gave rise to what we think of as earthworks. And earthworks in their non-natural metamorphoses have in turn given rise to this bevy of intriguing art shows under the LAND/ART umbrella. Some New Mexico earthworks can grab and run with the “authentic” claim (Lightning Field, Star Axis). Others find artists and thinkers 40 years hence attempting still to say what of these marks on the ground, the imprinting body, and what relation does any of it have to monuments? I have written frequently in the past, for print, on the strangeness of monumental gestures, once thought to be impermanent, turning into pyramids, but have surely not been the first to remark that no one forsaw that “earthworks,” coined by Robert Smithson from a sci-fi-title, would become the monuments to deep-pocketed nonprofits and towering male egos that they have.The tower of power “rack” that lowers nukes under deserts, if only it could. Theres a test ban.
Without devolving too far into all that, the point (unspoken yet inferred) of Los Alamos as an earthwork of the most perverse sort, yet one absolutely in line with the human destroyer myth made manifest, guided the day, which led Conrad to frequently remark on the absurdity of traveling by bus, to so cool so close Los Alamos. He began making a video called Cantankerous Tanks well before 2001. Now I think to try to do that would get you arrested.

De rigeur was a stop at Ed Grothuss Black Hole, as well as a viewing of the video that Ellen Spiro made about Ed (Ed passed away a year ago.) Ed for those who do not know the Black Hole legend was an engineer employed by the Labs until 1969. Then, disgusted by the war in Vietnam, he quit and became an agitator-collector-patriot, the sort of man whose inalienable rights  the Declaration of Independence and now Maira Kalman inscribe. Ed was one of seven who stayed to fight off the fire in 2000 that threatened the Labs and destroyed houses. He argued even with children (God love him) over what he could charge for miliary helmets ($10, not $6). Whether haggling or holding up banners his energetic free expression never let go all our permanent embedded implication in the creation of the death star that is the atom bomb.
The effects of the fire Ed fought, nine years later.

At LANL, it seems, fascinating things go on under the guise of buildings resembling silos, near to bodies of water unfrequented by even a sickly looking bird.
I did not know or I did not remember, as I learned Saturday, that since 1992 nuclear testing has been banned by treaty. But that does not mean there  have not been international breaches by so-called outlaw states. The question of who was the first outlaw used not to be raised. Before President Obama gave his genius of a speech in Egypt some (me) would say we had no business preaching nonproliferation.

And even in the “post-nuclear” age, if thats what this is, Los Alamos gets trillions of dollars for ongoing engagement in weaponry. The tag is “stockpile stewardship,” and it means the Labs mission statement includes assuaging the Commander in Chief that should a bomb be “needed” (Er. Is Armaggedon really necessary?) the aging nuclear stockpile would work. It isnt often that we step right up to these issues as citizens, so I was aware, as we drove about watching videos on the bus and getting out periodically to go look at pix of the old ranch school or Fat Man, that I felt uncomfortable, even though the bus was pleasant enough.

All that said: what went missing Saturday (a bit) was the interpretive part of the land use. Coolidge could have gone farther. Okay, Los Alamos reflects end of innocence, blinding white light and so on. Yet what about all those legions crying for Michael Jacksons lost childhood even as we rode, watching video clips of departed Ed Grothus?

I would argue we are in a crisis of interpretation. By turns the society gawks, persecutes, adores, persecutes, gawks, kills, regrets, buries, exhumes, only to re-conduct the “24-hour news cycle.”  The blinding spangles of Michael Jacksons glove like the “rack” that is actually the bomb test apparatus fit to bore 1000 feet below the Nevada desert  (were testing legal) enchants us with what is untouchable.

Remote seems familiar, but for probably many of the same reasons people abuse substances, trying to feel something, anything, is what is at issue. Per Matt Coolidge, we are all bloody in the loss of innocence.

Let me end by noting, “Beryllium Research,” read a label on one of the labs older buildings. This led me to reflect on Joe Saenz, an Apache guide who packs horses through the Gila,and who fought for some 11 years for his right to keep feathers for religious practice. (He won.)

Beryllium was the red warpaint that the Apaches used when going on war parties. As face paint it was symbolic weaponry. I dare say that those run upon by raiding Chiricahua, wearing crimson under their eyes, would have considered the message quite literal. Indeed, Saenz told us, it was the Chiricahua Apaches refusal to surrender that has found them still the most outlawed tribe, excluded from the reparations to other American Indian bands that have won symbolic and real gestures from the U.S. government. He told us stories that Skull and Bones has the skulls of Geronimo and tiny Apache babies. That when Indian remains were repatriated to the Gila Cliff Dwellings medicine men were invited (Zuni, Navajo, Hopi) but the Apache (whose ancestral land is the Gila) were excluded.

Being warlike has continued to make them ostracized, said Saenz. That I can believe. The U.S. has forcefully conducted its belief of sole legitimacy to be warlike. Meanwhile, compared to the sterility of the lab grounds, the perfectly mundane ominousness that is conjured up, at the Black Hole, seems to promise democracy.  For, what Coolidge said at the front was, CLUI likes to encourage direct experience of places. To enter the Labs of course we were committed to staying on the bus. And to putting our cameras away keeping hands on our laps and making no jokes no jokes at all about photography lest we all be searched. So: Heres how it was. Used to be. Innocence. Experience.

“Dear Nadine,” wrote one scientist to his wife on August 7, 1945, “All hail the mighty atom!”

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