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Tuesday, December 2, 2008
Naming the Monsters
This essay was written by Stefene Russell as a preface to her poem Go South for Animal Index. Go South was scored by Poetry Scores (producers: Matt Fuller and Chris King) and released on CD in 2007, in a limited edition that included this essay by the poet and an essay about the score by one of the producers. (Though nearly out of print, the CD and accompanying pamphlet may still be available in independent book and record stores in St. Louis.) The photo of the poet is by Thom Fletcher from his Fletchr site.
Naming the Monsters
By Stefene Russell
Go South for Animal Index was written in 1998, on a manual typewriter jury-rigged with a purple cash register ribbon. I wrote it in my scarcely furnished apartment, sitting cross-legged on the floor. The original is now in the possession of the Skuntry Museum in Chesterfield, Missouri.
The poem is made up of stanzas stitched together with quotes from The Nag Hamadi, a bit of astrology, some Bhagavad Gita by way of Oppenheimer, John Donne, and the words of people who have shivered under the shadow of the atom. That includes Africans who died mining uranium in the Congo, the White Mesa Ute tribe in Blanding, Utah, who still live three miles away from an open-air uranium tailings pond, the hibakusha of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Ukrainians and Belorussians exposed to radiation by Chernobyl, and the residents of the little Mormon towns downwind from the Nevada Test Site.
Why do I think about radiation so much? Because I was in the womb when the Baneberry shot, detonated at the Nevada Test Site in December of 1970, contaminated a storm that buried Salt Lake City in radioactive snow. Because I grew up thinking that it was normal to develop three or four different kinds of cancer before you turned forty. Because I grew up thinking that thyroid problems, kidney disease, and weird auto-immune disorders – consequences of being on the wrong side of fallout clouds – were normal. Because my best high school friend, Mary Frances, developed cancer at age 14 and died at 23. And because two weeks after her funeral, I was assigned to write a story about an organization in Salt Lake called Downwinders.
As preparation, my editor instructed me to find a copy of Carole Gallagher’s American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War. Gallagher is a photojournalist who spent a decade in the Southwest, interviewing the people who lived around and worked inside the Nevada Test Site. The book is harrowing. It includes black and white photos of Native Americans, Mormons, former Test Site workers, atomic veterans, and the children of downwinders, most of them suffering from multiple cancers, paired with their stories of illness and betrayal at the hands of the U.S. government. The Atomic Energy Commission pursued shot after nuclear shot, though it knew (by its own admission) what effects fallout would have on surrounding populations. Near the front of the book, Gallagher includes a fallout map of the United States charting where all the pink clouds drifted after they left Mercury, Nevada; Utah is nearly obliterated. She quotes a declassified AEC document from the 1950s that described those living downwind from the Test Site as “a low-use segment of the population,” thereby justifying the practice of waiting until the winds shifted towards Utah, away from Las Vegas and Los Angeles, when they detonated bombs.
One of Gallagher’s sources was J. Preston Truman, who founded Downwinders in 1978 “to expose the plight of downwind residents, whose fallout exposures have caused cancers, leukemia, and other illnesses, and to obtain justice for their injuries, and to fight for an immediate end to all nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site and elsewhere.” J. grew up in Enterprise, Utah, right in the path of the fallout from the Test Site. He watched as his schoolmates developed unstoppable nosebleeds, then leukemia; he watched as grown men lost their hair and teeth and half their body weight before succumbing to cancer. He himself developed lymphoma at the age of 17. Unlike his patriotic, religious community, J. didn’t buy the line that this suffering was the will of the Lord, or that it was unpatriotic to question the motives of the United States government. And he started raising some hell.
J. now lives in Idaho, so he wasn't there the day I met Steve Erickson and Winston Weeks, the other two members of Downwinders, at Junior’s Tavern, a pickled egg bar that Socialists and underage drinkers liked to frequent, with chewed-up naugahyde booths, a couple of wobbly pool tables, one pinball machine, and a glass case full of antique beer cans. It turns out I would spend at least a few nights a week at Junior’s for the next couple of years, talking to Steve and Winston about all things nuclear. It was Winston, Steve, and J. who directed me to my sources for “A Place Where I Can Lie Down,” an article that appeared in Salt Lake City magazine in the fall of 1998. That information later went into Go South. Though it is straight-up 20th century history, it almost reads like myth.
In January 1913, Captain Richard Sharp, an employee of Belgium’s Union Minière, was prospecting for copper in South-Central Africa. He had heard stories of Ghost Warriors, a tribe in the Katanga region feared because they literally glowed in the dark. They would attack at night, radiant, eerie, blue-white figures running through the forests; surrounding tribes thought they possessed magic powers. Sharp was familiar with the work of Madame Curie, the French scientist who had successfully refined pitchblende ore into luminescent radium, which was used for watch dials and gun sights. The ghosts were men from the Bateke tribe who had discovered the world’s purest deposit of uranium fissioning right out of the earth in a place called Shinkolobwe. Though smearing radioactive mud on their bodies gave them a temporary edge in tribal skirmishes, the Bateke would come to discover, like others after them, that direct contact with radioactive material has its consequences; their flesh began to rot off their bodies. It was if hell had sprung a little leak and leached through the Earth’s crust.
Sharp claimed Shinkolobwe for Union Minière, and operations began immediately. One of the hallmarks of the Belgian Congo ore was its ability to spread suffering wherever it went. The African miners who inhaled radon gas and uranium dust carted ore in open wheelbarrows, breathing in particles that would emit alpha radiation from within their bodies, causing lung cancer, leukemia and lymphoma – the same illnesses suffered by Navajos who worked in the uranium mines for Kerr-McKee on the Colorado Plateau in the early part of the 20th century and the Czech miners who had worked in the mines of West Bohemia in the 19th.
In the meantime, Union Minière had a world monopoly on radium and charged $70,000 a gram for it. Eventually, its mines would return even handsomer profits when the heaviest element on earth – uranium – found a market.
On August 2, 1939, at the instigation of Leo Szilard, Albert Einstein wrote to President Roosevelt, advising him that “extremely powerful bombs of a new type may … be constructed … by setting off a chain reaction within a large amount of uranium.” The Nazis were well aware of this, Einstein continued, and would certainly begin constructing a “superbomb.” Thus the Manhattan Project began, and the United States government purchased 2,000 tons of pitchblende ore from the Shinkolobwe mines. Much of this ore was refined by Mallinckrodt Chemical in St. Louis (where workers often handled uranium with bare hands). In August of 1945, two of these “extremely powerful bombs” were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The waste generated by the Manhattan Project – tailings left over from that pure uranium that simmered out of the earth’s crust in the Belgian Congo – were first stored near Lambert International Airport, earning it the strangely innocuous nickname “The St. Louis Airport Cakes.” That area (located about a mile from where my husband grew up) became a Superfund site and is still marked with little yellow flags that warn passersby of radioactivity. In 1968, the Cotter Corporation bought the waste and had 100,000 tons of it transported in open railroad cars to its uranium mill in Cañon City, Colorado for re-processing, where it was rechristened the “Congo Raffinates.” That site, too, is still contaminated. The federal government purchased what was then renamed “The Cotter Concentrates” in the late ‘70s, eventually storing it at the Nevada Test Site. It was first classified as “strategic material” (i.e., bomb fodder) though in 1995 the AEC gave up trying to extract anything from it and finally declared it “waste.” The Cotter Concentrates would have remained at the Test Site indefinitely had International Uranium Corporation not purchased them for processing (or, as some charged at the time, dumping) at its White Mesa Mill near Blanding, Utah, three miles downwind from the White Mesa Ute Reservation.
One of the most vocal opponents of the uranium mill, a White Mesa Ute named Norman Begay, worried that these wastes were not only poisoning the groundwater on the reservation, but were spiritually dirty, too. As he explained to Utah Governor Mike Leavitt in 1997, “It has the blood of one million people tied to it, no matter where it is taken … We cannot allow this material, and the devil’s curse which will always be on it, to be buried in our sacred lands.”
Less than a year after writing that letter, Begay and his wife, Shirley, were killed in a car accident in Shiprock, New Mexico. Some wondered if it was a politically motivated murder like Karen Silkwood’s, but it was never investigated as anything other than an auto accident. At the time of their death, the Begays, along with members of the Navajo, Sioux, Hopi, and Comanche tribes, were fighting the mill so that they could establish the Native American People’s Historical Foundation, or Great Avikan House, on the site where the mill stood.
Translated from the Ute, Avikan means “a place where I can lie down.” Avikan is located between IUC’s mill and White Mesa; from there, you can see Shiprock, New Mexico; Cortez, Colorado; and Monument Valley, Utah. It’s a hilly little area that feels both electric and calm, the site of both an ancient Hopi temple and an even older kiva.
Not long after completing a survey of archaeological sites and drafting plans for an interpretive center, the board of Great Avikan House learned that UMETCO (a subsidiary of Union Carbide, the company whose leaking chemical factory blinded and killed thousands of people in India) had purchased Energy Fuels Nuclear and would begin shipping in waste to the White Mesa Mill. After some heavy political blowback, Energy Fuels Nuclear decided to keep the tailings in Monticello, but soon after, IUC stepped in and began shipping in the leftovers of Little Boy and Fat Man. It was sitting in plastic-lined tailings ponds when I drove down to Blanding in the summer of 1998. There was no one in the office; if I had been a terrorist in a Haz-Mat suit, it would have been a dandy day to gather some strategic material.
I wrote about Avikan and White Mesa, hoping that it would start a dialogue about the mill and how it was affecting the reservation. I found out that most people don’t really worry too much about stuff like that, which is probably why there are so many nuclear waste dumps on Indian reservations. One of the people I spoke with when I was down in Blanding, Michael Hutchinson, told me that a 23-year-old kid on the White Mesa reservation had just died of kidney failure the week before I arrived. (It is interesting to note that workers at the Mallinkrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis suffered from chronic nephritis and kidney disease at 218 times that found in the general population.) Naturally, I thought of Mary Frances. I thought about what it meant to have the leftovers of Hiroshima dumped in what many Native American tribes consider one of the holiest places on Earth; the Utes say this was the birthplace of the human race.
When I wrote Go South, I was in the worst kind of tarry despair. I was still grieving over the death of my friend, still shocked that the government considered me and other Westerners a “low-use segment of the population,” still shocked that our country had conducted radiation experiments on people and animals. I guess I was trying to pull some kind of community around me, even if it was only constellated in purple typescript on a piece of ratty typing paper.
The world is a lot scarier than it was 10 years ago. Thanks to global warming, the nuclear power industry is ready to fire up the cooling towers again. Uranium is in a bull market. On September 7, 2007, Denison Mines Co., which now operates the White Mesa Mill, received a permit to begin refining uranium ore in earnest for yellowcake production. Uranium was the reason given for going to war with Iraq, and now the country is covered in depleted uranium dust from U.S. munitions. Cancer in Southern Iraq has gone up more than 60 percent as a result, and birth defects, including hydrocephaly, are rampant. The Bush administration is accusing Iran of enriching uranium for weapons production (Iran says it’s for nuclear power), grousing that this is not permissible, even as the U.S. designs new generations of “bunker-busting” nuclear warheads and begins dress rehearsals – Divine Strake, had it not been scuttled, would have been the first – for resumption of nuclear testing. I had noticed with some relief, somewhere around 2000, that the mushroom cloud disappeared from popular culture to the point where it almost seemed quaint. Now, in some of the most popular shows on TV, the plot revolves around nuclear holocaust.
Maybe I don’t have the luxury of feeling gothic about radiation anymore, because things have gotten so bad. Or maybe it was learning how the Navajos deal with monsters: they call them by their names. This was how they dealt with them in European fairy tales, too. The Navajo word for uranium is leetso, which means yellow-brown dirt or “yellow monster.” The Navajo word for “monster” is nayee, which doesn’t translate as “evil scary animal with sharp teeth and claws,” but rather “that which gets in the way of a successful life.”
In the Navajo tradition, Hataałii (singers) are known as medicine people whose ceremonial songs restore hozhó, or balance. Go South was written in multiple voices – Bateke, Ute, Navajo, Mormon, Russian, Japanese. So, of course, the poem found its best life as a song cycle written by Chris King and Matt Fuller, brought to life with the help of many other musicians, singers, and technicians. I don’t believe in the idea of St. George: one lonely guy in chain mail slaying the dragon. Hataałii is plural. Any attempt to name the monsters, to sing them back down into the Earth where they belong, requires a chorus.
– September 2007