For the past week, my reading has plunged me back into the world of nuclear nightmares. I spent one week-end reading Kristen Iversen's Full Body Burden, a book which combines memoir with a history of Rocky Flats, a plant which made plutonium triggers and was a huge polluter. Four days later, I read Kathleen Flenniken's Plume, a book of poems rooted in the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, another huge polluter. Both are great books, and I'll review them more thoroughly on August 21 and 22.
Plume and Full Body Burden in the same week--my brain is full of Superfund sites! I thought of Jeannine Hall Gailey and what she's written about Oak Ridge (go here and here for great interviews). I thought of my college and grad school years which were spent not very far away from the Savannah River Site. I remember a time when nuclear pollution was found upriver, where experts declared there was no way it could have migrated there. I'm not sure that anyone ever figured it out. And when I did some Googling, I found no reference to those incidents. Now you read about the Savannah River Site (on the admittedly few sites I went to), and it sounds very bright and clean and patriotic. Very early 1960's.
I spent my youth with one eye trained to the distance, looking for that telltale mushroom cloud. I didn't think about plutonium particles leaching into the soil. I didn't think about nuclear pollution in sediments in lakes and river beds. I didn't think about water tables being polluted. Well, not often. I was more worried about the huge blast.
Nuclear scientists and historians will tell us that I was right to be thinking in terms of nuclear explosions. But I also should have been worried about pollution from the plants making those bombs. In the long run, that pollution will probably prove more dangerous.
I spent some time thinking about lung tissue and how easy it is to damage it. I have a colleague at work who bemoans the fact that we do so little manufacturing here. But she forgets that a lot of manufacturing was very dangerous, both to humans and the land, regardless of safety standards.
I thought of those workers in cotton mills who would die of fibers embedded in their lungs. I thought of those workers in nuclear sites who would die of plutonium particles embedded in their lungs. Those nuclear sites were often sold as offering better jobs at higher wages to the community. And yet, so many would die.
I thought of a picnic that we went on when we were in college. My friend's family had land in rural South Carolina, complete with a picnic table under a gazebo. Because it was a hot Spring day, we planned to go swimming in the river that bordered the family's land.
That river was the Savannah River. We knew about the nuclear pollution showing up in places where it shouldn't. We swam anyway. I was careful not to swallow any water. Oh, how little I knew about nuclear waste!
On the way home, we took note of scorched pines and wondered if we were seeing nuclear pollution. We thought about those movies that haunted our college years: The Day After, Testament, and Threads, the nuclear war triumvirate of movies. We thought of post-apocalypse landscapes.
But sometimes, a forest fire is just a forest fire.
I'm working on a poem that weaves these ideas together. I'm also thinking about a larger collection of poems, one that weaves together nuclear obsessions with global warming obsessions and just for fun--a dose of monastic wisdom here and there. Stay tuned!
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