My daughter, Coco, is looking at an aerial photograph of Plutonium Valley on the last page of Emmet Gowin’s newest book, The Nevada Test Site. The image, taken just east of Yucca Lake, depicts military highways and flat-topped, pinched-sided mountains in the foreground, stretches of nothing in the middle, and more mountains on the horizon. Everything resembles gently crumpled shades of silver, with the exception of a few deep creases in the hills that are almost a true black. It’s a picture of total visibility that belies the dangerous amounts of raw plutonium still present in the landscape six decades later.
For the past 30 minutes—besides looking at photographs—my third grader has been singing her way through the captions, skipping over unfamiliar words like “plutonium” and “subsidence crater” while attempting “nuclear,” “radioactive,” and “structural debris.” She sings latitude and longitude coordinates, descriptions of blast zones, and details about the practice of detonating subterranean bombs to the tune of “Seasons of Love.”
On four separate pages, she serenades me with facts about Sedan Crater, the 1200-foot-wide, 330-foot-deep hole that was created in 1962 under the auspices of the Plowshare Program, an operation intended to “develop peaceful uses for nuclear weapons”—which would be laughable if it wasn’t awful. In reality, the failed, 104-kiloton experiment shot massive dust clouds into the sky that rained radioactive particles across the country before reaching the Atlantic Ocean thousands of miles away.
When Coco finishes singing The Nevada Test Site, I ask her if she knows what it is about.
“Yeah. Craters,” she says. “And how he left his city on an airplane, when there was a giant storm.”
I’ve flipped through this book a hundred times, always struck by the beauty of the landscape first, then stung with something like shame. It’s uneasy beauty—almost sublime but less scary, more sad, irradiated and still. I like Coco’s take better. To her, it’s an action sequence.
The photographs are final shots of someone escaping—or surveying—a scene of apocalyptic devastation. The nuclear tests are a giant storm, transforming the landscape to the point of un-liveability.
I doubt either reaction is what Gowin was thinking of in the mid ’90s when he photographed the aftermath of four decades of atomic testing, but the effect is the same—imagery of nuclear wastelands that exploits the gap between our morality and sensuality and tightens the grip on our throats once the hole is there.
Coco doesn’t have a hole in her throat yet, and though I’m not a true believer in the “no tragedies before fourth grade” mantra, I stop short in explaining nuclear destruction to her.
It is too soon and too bleak. There is nothing you can do when it comes to atomic warfare…that is why it is so terrifying.
Growing up in a home with a bomb shelter (which is not uncommon for Midwest ranch houses built during the Cold War), I was—like my daughter—familiar with nuclear buzzwords, but oblivious to their meaning. The word “nuclear” sounded like a fresh start, something “new” and “clear.” “Fallout shelter” made me think of people falling out of the window of our basement bunker (yes, there was a thin, glass window embedded in the 12-inch concrete wall, completely defeating its purpose). Mainly, though, I thought of the room as a place to disappear into when I wanted to scare my sister.
It took my sixth grade class folding 1,000 paper cranes (and reading Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes) before the purpose of our bomb shelter became clear. Though we were a good 30 years past imminent nuclear threat, something about surprise detonation and the vaporizing of 214,000 lives felt very close. We learned about nuclear winter, radiation poisoning, and what the word “fallout” actually meant. Never once did it cross my mind that there was also a state where people tested atomic bombs, or that I would one day live in that state, let alone in a future time when nuclear war was still a threat.
Two weeks ago, Kim Jong-Un drove a brand new intercontinental ballistic missile (most likely capable of reaching U.S. mainland) down the streets of Pyongyang during a military parade in an effort to raise the stakes for nuclear arms negotiation. This, after four years of our country pulling out of several international arms treaties, including the Iran nuclear deal, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty this past May.
Next week, we will either re-elect someone whose administration is currently pressuring other countries to withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty or we will elect a man who will do his best to avoid—accidentally or on purpose—Tweeting us into nuclear war (but who stops short of calling for disarmament).
The choices are not equally bad. One is much, much worse for many, many more reasons than nuclear annihilation, which is as scary and present as ever. And although the atomic bomb—and the image of the mushroom cloud—has become shorthand for the way we will certainly destroy ourselves, I think it ends slower and with a different picture.
It’s Plate 59 in Gowin’s book, simply titled, “Area 3 Radioactive Waste Management Site, Looking Southeast, Nevada Test Site, 1996.”
Framed at a tilted, drone-like angle and taken from several thousand feet up, the image depicts three dozen sunken test craters—five of them hemmed in by a road that seems to begin and end at a large, oblong, radioactive management plant. The facility resembles a racetrack, a strip mine, and—from this vantage point—a poor imitation of Michael Heizer’s City. Sagebrush and creosote encroach on the edges. Nothing grows in the craters. In many ways, the scene is the opposite of a mushroom cloud.
There is no blast of light before a burst of loss—just sun beating down on earth degraded by decades of misuse. This is the picture of the end: Western Shoshone land stolen for atomic testing; clean-up facilities that can’t possibly fix what has been broken; a rapidly warming Mojave Desert that, just last year, saw a massive bird population collapse due to the hotter, drier conditions.
Atomic holocaust may or may not be coming for us, but climate change is here and it is not the great equalizer. The ones who are used to losing— ecosystems, vulnerable communities—will continue to lose. It’s bleak, but at least there’s something we can do to make it less of an apocalypse. It’s an action sequence.
Support the #DontBombTheBighorn campaign and sign the Friends of Nevada Wilderness petition to oppose the latest military land grab in the Great Basin, a proposal that will turn over 300,000 acres of federal public land to the military for weapons training. For more information on volunteering and donating, go to www.nevadawilderness.org.
Sign the Sierra Club petition to urge Gov. Sisolak to adopt an equitable State Climate Strategy in December. Petition priorities include decarbonizing all sectors of the Nevada economy, transitioning jobs from the fossil fuel economy, and supporting communities most affected by the impacts of climate pollution. To get involved locally, visit the Toiyabe chapter.
The Nevada Test Site by Emmet Gowin, with a foreword and contributions by Robert Adams, was published by Princeton University Press in 2019.