a book-blog mired in irony by Chellis Glendinning

in honor of the 200th anniversary of

the Luddite Rebellion

1811-1813 to 2011-2013

X: more fear and loathing

Dr. 666 reports that 47,000 acres have burned and the fire is now 70 percent contained.  The laboratory is out of immediate danger. But the blaze has dropped into the canyons leading to nearby Santa Clara Pueblo. It rages now toward their sacred sites.  And there's a new problem in view: runoff. The mountain above Los Alamos is completely denuded. In a few weeks, when the summer rains begin, floods could gush tons of mud down the barren slopes and into burned neighborhoods. It is projected that, if two inches of rain were to fall in one hour, the mud could take out Pueblo Canyon bridge. Or breach the Los Alamos Reservoir dam. The resulting wall of water could then spill like Pompeii's lava down the canyons and pick up the contaminants now mixed with ashen soils no longer anchored by trees and grasses.  The whole transuranic stew could then flush into the Rio Grande and flow downstream — through eight pueblos, the cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, Texas, and all the way to the Gulf of Mexico.
"It doesn't sound good," I tell 666. My voice is hoarse.
"No.  It doesn't."
         "I thought I would know enough to make a decision about coming home by now," I say. "What do we know?"
"Nothing. Everything's a scenario. Nothing's tacked down."
He describes a community meeting pulled together by antinuclear activists and organic growers at the Cloud Cliff Bakery in Santa Fe. It is a scene of fear and anger. A farmer from Dixon shouts that the smoke smothering his village was neon orange. A Truchas man says he couldn't see through the floating ash to the hay bales in his yard. What have we been exposed to?  everyone wants to know. Two officials from the NMED attend the meeting. They listen but say little.
"Come home."  666 surprises me. "The smoke is pretty much gone. When you see the place, you'll be able to make your own decision. Come home."
I don't really need more confirmation that we're living in a postmodern world, but here it is: choices of the most crucial import come down to personal perception. Until this moment, I have been pinning my future safety on some apparently impossible illusion of scientific certainty. The truth is: I may never know.
Friday, May 20: I aim the Honda south. It sports three new cracks on the windshield and a multitude of new rattles emanates from somewhere in the rear. Indeed, when I pass Antonito mountain, the sky to the south is blue, with only a few whitish fire clouds riding the Jemez Mountains over Los Alamos. I enter the Española Valley through the old road at San Juan Pueblo. I am not prepared for what I see and feel. The air is crystalline. The valley is infused with the sweetness of the Russian olive blossom — and a monstrous human heaviness dwelling lower than the axles of a lowrider.
My house looks okay, except the soil in my garden has long since cracked dry and the plants withered into oblivion. I dedicate myself to leaving it as is — the 2000 Disaster Garden, I call it— dried out seedbeds in testimony of the Cerro Grande fire. I surprise myself on Sunday when, like a mirror of disaster survivors everywhere, I wake up wanting flowers. To the vaqueros and farmers of the valley, a store that sells flowers, and from other regions to boot, is anathema to local ecology, and indeed the one-year-old Golden Leaf in Española has not been stampeded with business. But on this Sunday, the first calm weekend after the worst of the fire, the place is stampeded. Like me, everyone suddenly wants flowers.
Uncertainty does not recede because I am back in Chimayó.  I pore over the newspaper, glue my eyes to the local news, learn everything about the Los Alamos homeowners' tragedy — but nothing about possible contamination. Meanwhile, the fire finds its final resting place in the canyons above Santa Clara Pueblo, and indeed it destroys their sacred sites.
Since the fire began, LASG has been busy conducting bird's-eye surveys of the fire, ascertaining facts from government agencies, being interviewed by the media, fielding a phone call every minute from the public. I break into Greg Mello's swirl of urgency and take him to lunch.
He tells me that the NMED has, at last, posted some statistics on their website. But there are problems with the figures — the main one being that they may not be accurate.  The problem is not new to LANL. If you want to know where old dump sites are or the location of a weapons bunker, you're faced with a purposely tangled labyrinth of numbers and details. Greg has been studying LANL for a decade, and he still doesn't have a comprehensive picture. As to facts about the fire, he describes the problem as "a military-like clamp on information." Thirty percent of the lab and 40 buildings burned, he says, and yet the media was told that only a couple of trailers went up.
Whatever is known becomes so because of public outcry. Some 160 air-quality monitors are finally set up by DOE, EPA, and NMED teams. Some are "rad swipes" put in place for only brief moments. Others are for continued sampling. Most are geared to check for radio-nuclides, a few to test for chemicals. The radiation figures range from zero elevation to ten times normal.  For chemicals, they show no elevation. But when were the samples taken? And in what locations? In fact, no government agency admits to taking measurements in the most affected places during the worst of the fire. Plus, a "deep throat" from the lab discloses to antinuclear groups that the monitors located in the most sensitive areas of the lab were not even functioning during the fire. Most of the fallout blew northeast, in the direction of Española, Chimayó, and Truchas, but these places were not tested. After the fire, DOE-contracted Bechtel Nevada did one lonely rad swipe in Española, and the bulk of the others to the south, toward Santa Fe where the wind rarely blows. Another arena for controversy concerns the nature of measured radionuclides. Are they normal forest fire by-products like radon daughters which emit alpha and beta, as the lab insists? Or are they gamma radionuclides, the human-made kind that would be emitted from the lab? LANL and the DOE skirt such questions.
Meanwhile, by happenstance, a cadre of Russian peace activists and scientists has been visiting New Mexico. Sergei Pashchenko of the International Depleted Uranium Study Team has been pronouncing that radiation levels are 30 times above normal. Again, the question is where and when?  Whatever the answer, he's had an impact. I run into a couple of Chimayosos at Sam's Club in Santa Fe who, freaked to the gills after meeting Pashchenko, bolt from their home. They beg me to leave too. I'm scared, but I have to chuckle when I ask them where they moved and they answer "Pecos." Pecos lies east, just over the mountain from Chimayó. As we know from the travel patterns of radioiodine after the Nevada above-ground tests of the 1950s, airborne contaminants do not necessarily land near their source. They can glide on the wind for miles and drop down in, say, Pecos.
Mello gives an ironic chuckle over his egg salad sandwich.  He knows someone who, aiming in the 1980s to flee the ravages of war, moved to the Falkland Islands. He looks me in the eye with his Zen grip. "What place is safe anymore?" he presses, and I get the feeling we are holding on with no more than this breath.

Wednesday May 24: the fire is almost contained. It has burned a total of 48,000 acres of park service, national forest, LANL, city of Los Alamos, and Santa Clara Pueblo lands. At its peak, over 1400 firefighters fought the blaze. Now there are 600.  The immediate damage could exceed $1 billion.

Dr. 666 and I attend the second meeting at Cloud Cliff Bakery. This time officials from LANL and NMED join antinuclear activists, environmental illness doctors, and pueblo leaders on the panel. The by-now predictable clash of realities is played out like a drama with no final curtain. The lab people adamantly claim normalcy as regards emissions; the antinuclear folks parade the unknowns and official evasions. Finally, a man from India jumps up and bellows, "HOW MANY ATOMS DOES IT TAKE TO KILL A PERSON?!" Everyone freezes.
The calmest speaker is Vickie Downie of Tesuque Pueblo. She reminds us that, similar to Hindu prophesies, Native American predictions have long foretold a time of volcanoes, earthquakes, droughts, floods, and fires if humankind does not respect the Earth.  We are living in these times, she says. The essential point is not to try to control them. It is how we live them.  Not enough people are thanking Creation for the water, trees, animals, and land, she says, and she invites us to express gratitude in our every thought and act.
At the dawn of the Nuclear Age, when Los Alamos scientists blasted the first atomic bomb across the New Mexico desert, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita: "Now I am become Death,  the destroyer of worlds." To some people the Cerro Grande fire represents vengeance of the original death, Hiroshima's blackened skeleton returned to its source. To some, the fire is the revenge of the Anasazi who lived at Bandelier before the white people intruded with their laboratories and bombs. To others, it is the work of the Hindu deity Kali at the start of the Age of Kali Yuga.
Outside the meeting, 666 and I linger among the last of the olive blossoms. To us all, the Cerro Grande fire has been a terrible confrontation with the current disarray of human existence and a call to remember, through the layers of fear and loathing, who we are. The good doctor vows to return to his former identity; he is ready to rename himself Robert Shaw. He walks me to my Honda and, neither aflame with confidence nor beaten into ash, I make a vow too. I vow to drive home. (2001)[i]

This blog is a book. Please feel free to read the next chapter now. Go to the Table of Contents under the introduction on the right side of the page and click on the next chapter.

[i] Part II of Chellis Glendinning, “Fear and Loathing in Los Alamos: On the Lam from the Cerro Grande Fire,” Orion, Winter 2001, pp. 50-59.