How Can We Hope to Warn Future Humans of the Poison We’ve Buried in the Ground?

On the Attempting to Imagine the Unimaginable

By  Matt Jones

In 1959, a badger burrowed through the security line surrounding the Hanford Nuclear Reservation in Washington State. The site had been established in 1943 as a part of the Manhattan Project and was home to the first ever full-scale plutonium production reactor. The plutonium manufactured at Hanford was used in the first nuclear bomb tested at the Trinity Site in New Mexico and the Fat Man Bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki in 1945. Despite the site’s high level of security, the burrowing badger was not the first or the last creature to breach Hanford’s security line. Over the years, both while the site was active and after it was decommissioned, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation also had trouble with wasps, ground squirrels, pocket mice, and rabbits that spread hundreds of curies of radioactive waste over thousands of acres through their droppings. Tumbleweeds also proved to be a particular nuisance due to their root systems that grew up to twenty feet, reaching down into the contaminated soil, taking up radioactive material like strontium-90, and then breaking off to “blow around the dry land.”

Two years later in 1961, an experiment called Project Gnome was carried out in southern New Mexico. Project Gnome was “the first of twenty-seven domestic nuclear detonation experiments conducted under the auspices of the Atomic Energy Commission” and also held the distinction of being the first weapon test to be completed outside of the Nevada Test Site since Trinity in 1953. The closest cities to the detonation site were Loving and Carlsbad, and for the special occasion, buses brought in more than 500 people to witness the experiment. While the test was billed as an entirely contained explosion, a radioactive vapor vented up through the ground and into the atmosphere within minutes of the detonation, not that anyone saw it, of course.

Today, the old Project Gnome site is marked by a concrete pedestal. The marker includes limited information about the original test done back in 1961 and makes no mention of the potential for residual radioactivity. Over the last 57 years, cattle have used the marker as a scratching post, not only wearing down the message, but also shifting the sign several feet from its original location.

Animals also caused unforeseen havoc in 2013 when the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden was forced to shut down due to a massive influx of moon jellyfish clogging the plant’s intake piping. Interestingly, this wasn’t the first time the “world’s biggest boiling water reactor and the largest nuclear facility in the Nordic region” had closed unexpectedly. The same thing had happened before, in 2005. Blooms of moon jellyfish had also clogged the USS Ronald Reagan’s condensers while the carrier was docked in Brisbane, Australia, in 2006, and halted all operations at the Sual coal-fired power plant in Luzon, Philippines, in 1999.

Article continues after advertisement

In his 2015 essay “Infectious Connectivity,” the futurist John A. Sweeney describes these massive blooms of jellyfish capable of shutting down everything from major nuclear power plants to warships with “the tactical capability to engage a small country” as a sign that we are living in what he calls “postnormal times.”

While the traditional field of Future Studies is often divided into scenarios of “near future, medium future, and far future,” Sweeney explains that, “in postnormal times, futures are divided into the black elephant, the black swan, and the black jellyfish.”

There was a society of “livestock keepers and river-bottom farmers.” A society of mole miners. A society dominated by women “through the selection of girl babies.”

The black elephant is part of the “extended present” and only includes the next 15 to 20 years. The black swan “exists beyond the next 15 to 20 years yet has no definite time horizon.” If a black elephant is essentially part of the foreseeable future, in many ways predictable, then “black swans in the Familiar Future(s) are not perceptible or articulated, even by experts, which is to say that they can and might appear seemingly ‘out of the blue,’” but they make a certain amount of sense in hindsight. The third type of tomorrow, the “black jellyfish,” refers to what Sweeney calls the “Unthought Future(s).” The Unthought Future(s) is filled with more questions than answers and “is a radical space of pure possibility—it is not unthinkable . . . but rather a space populated with seemingly infinite alternative futures.”

—

Life in the nuclear age is synonymous with the postnormal condition precisely because the atomic era teems with unthought and unexpected futures: uranium-laden rabbits, invisible plumes of radioactive vapor, though it was only in the 1970s that the US Government officially passed a law and created a task force to contend with the infinite unknowns of a nuclear reality.

Article continues after advertisement

In 1979, the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant (WIPP) was authorized as a research and development facility “to demonstrate the safe disposal of radioactive wastes resulting from the defense activities and programs of the United States.” Located about 25 miles east of Carlsbad in southern New Mexico, the plant consists of 16 square miles surrounded by a guardhouse and safety fencing. The WIPP site is a deep geological repository, meaning it has a stable geologic environment deep beneath the earth’s surface where nuclear waste can be stored. In this case, that environment is a 220-million-year-old salt bed 650 meters beneath the earth’s surface. The WIPP site is the world’s third deep geological repository to ever receive a license to permanently dispose of radioactive waste for a period of 10,000 years.

The intention of the WIPP plant is to bury waste in rooms 650 meters underground “that have been excavated within a 910-meter-thick salt formation.” Once these hidden rooms are filled with waste, storage caverns will be collapsed and sealed within 13 layers of concrete and soil. Given the nature of the salt rock formation, the salt itself will act as a sealant that fills any cracks and fissures surrounding the casks of waste. Once 75 years have passed, the waste will be deemed officially isolated. Then comes the challenging part, because after the waste is isolated, it continues to live on, degrading very, very slowly.

In a 1990 letter written from Carl Sagan to Dr. Richard Anderson of Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, the popular American astrophysicist attempted to articulate the primary challenge facing projects like the WIPP. Sagan wrote, “Several half-lives of the longest-lived radioisotopes in question constitute a time period longer than recorded human history. No one knows what changes that span of time will bring. Social institutions, artistic conventions, written and spoken language, scientific knowledge and even the dedication to reason and truth might, for all we know, change drastically. What we need is a symbol invariant to all those possible changes.”

Essentially, the WIPP plant needed to not only successfully isolate radioactive waste for a period of at least 10,000 years, but also to mark the site of that waste in order to warn future generations of the dangers hidden beneath the soil.

Having already foreseen the monumental nature of such a task, the Department of Energy had convened the Human Interference Task Force back in 1980. According to the DOE report released in 1984, the Human Interference Task Force was designed to “determine whether reasonable means [existed] (or could be developed) to reduce the likelihood of future humans unintentionally intruding on radioactive waste isolation systems.” Whereas sites such as the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden had or would be faced with intruders like moon jellyfish and rabbits, the HITF was concerned with potential human interlopers. The task force was charged with devising a “method of warning future generations not to inadvertently intrude upon the site of a nuclear waste repository.” In essence, while the first challenge at the WIPP was one of burial, the second was primarily one of language. Specifically, the WIPP needed to discover and design the symbol Sagan spoke of, the one that could somehow be understood in all possible unthought future scenarios.

To accomplish this seemingly impossible feat, two advisory committees were assembled. The first was the Futures Panel, assigned with developing “scenarios of future environments within which the warnings would have to operate successfully.” The second was the Markers Panel which was responsible for recommending “marker strategies that coincided with the environmental criteria suggested by the Futures Panel.” In other words, one group was charged with dreaming up potential unthought futures while the other was entrusted with designing messages for each possible scenario.

The Futures Panel was divided into four teams, each of which included a social scientist, a decision analyst, a physical scientist (usually a physicist), and a futurist. Over the years, linguists, semioticians, science fiction writers, anthropologists, folklorists, sociologists, engineers, and climatologists also contributed their skills. In the creation of each future scenario or unthought future, factors such as “institutional memory, predicted changes in language and cultural makeup, forms of written communication, patterns of regional migration population density, technological advancements, resource use and availability, and developments in the physical environment” were considered.

These Futures Panels imagined a number of broad-scale future scenarios. Inherent to each of their potential futures was the understanding that “scenarios for future societies can be exhaustive only in trivial categorizations such as ‘a technologically more advanced society’ vs. ‘a technologically less advanced society.’” Panels made assumptions about literacy, the continuity of human existence, and about whether or not future societies would even know what the WIPP was.

Then those broad potential futures were broken down into an almost infinite number of hyper-specific future scenarios. There was a society of “livestock keepers and river-bottom farmers.” A society of mole miners. A society dominated by women “through the selection of girl babies.” A United States “replaced by a new State of Eastlandia, which establishes prison mines in New Mexico.” A 2991 civilization in which a 2,000-foot underground high-speed transportation tunnel between Houston and Los Angeles slowly disrupts the architectural integrity of the WIPP through construction and vibrations. There was even a future in which the expansive growth of the maquiladora industry in northern Mexico, when combined with “massive immigration from Mexico and Central America during the preceding centuries,” creates the Free State of Chihuahua. A 1994 report prepared for the Committee on Technical Bases for Yucca Mountain Standards of the National Research Council found that, “At this level of embellishment and detail there is an endless number of scenarios and thus no hope of listing them exhaustively.”

Too many reminders desensitize the listener, rendering the potential danger something of a myth or fairytale itself.

While some or perhaps even most of these future scenarios seem absurd, unlikely, or impossible, it is worth pointing out that the architects of the USS Ronald Reagan and the Oskarshamn nuclear power plant in Sweden likely never imagined that their creations could be brought to a halt by a swarm of meddlesome moon jellyfish. And therein lies the essence of unthought futures: as Sweeney writes, “they remain outside the framework of current thought.”

What is ultimately interesting to me about the project of creating a warning that can last at least 10,000 years into the future is not whether it can be done successfully, because in all likelihood, it cannot. Though a number of scientists believe themselves capable of creating a message that could physically endure the passage of such a substantial amount of time, many more question whether or not the message would be able to be interpreted correctly if at all.

No, what is interesting about a project designed to communicate 10,000 years in the future is that we think it can be done. That we even try. That we cling to hope of success.

—

To get a sense of how a message might last long into the future, it is not only important, but necessary to probe the past. For instance, the fifth-century BC sarcophagi of the Phoenician king Eshmunazor II of Sidon bares an inscription that reads:

Even if men tell you to, do not listen to them, for every ruler or
commoner that opens this resting-place or takes away this sarcophagus . . .
or that carries me off from this resting-place—may he have no
resting-place among the Rephaim, and may he not be buried in a grave, and
may he have no son or seed to come after him, and may the holy gods extradite
him to a powerful ruler who shall rule over him, to cut him off, every ruler
or commoner that opens this resting-place, or that takes away this sarcophagus,
and the seed of that ruler or of those commoners. May there be for him
no root below or fruit above or living shape under the sun.

Eshmunazor’s sarcophagus was originally discovered in 1855 and can now be found in its latest final resting place: The Louvre. Which is all to say that, despite the king’s gruesome warnings, his sarcophagus was still opened and carried away from Lebanon.

In another instance, survivors of the tsunami responsible for Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011 began to discover “gnarled stone tablets” shortly after the catastrophe, some of them hundreds of years old, placed by ancestors at particular points along the shoreline to mark high-water points. One stone unearthed after the tsunami was from 1933, and it read:

Houses built on hills will bring peace to the children and grandchildren. With the thought of devastation of the great tsunami, Remember never to build houses below this marker. Both in Meiji 29 and Showa 8, the waves came to this very point. And the entire village was destroyed; only two survived in Meiji 29, and four in Showa 8. No matter how many years may pass, do not forget this warning.

Residents of the Sanriku coast had forgotten about the stone warnings over centuries. “They did not remember that this coastline has been plagued with the angry waves as long as written words have existed,” though forgotten is probably the wrong word, because the stones existed. The warnings impressed upon them were legible, though over time those warnings had lost their potency.

Peter van Wyck, a professor in Concordia University’s Department of Communication Studies, asks, “What is the threshold—the semiotic dosage—in the present, to ensure [a message’s] transmission to the future?” In the case of a fable like “The Boy Who Cried Wolf,” too many reminders desensitize the listener, rendering the potential danger something of a myth or fairytale itself. On the other hand, not enough reminders ensures that any message will soon be forgotten.

In addition to the frequency and urgency of a warning, there is the matter of designing a message that can actually be interpreted by future humans. The inscription on Eshmunazor’s sarcophagus was translated from Phoenician, a language that was thousands of years old and no longer spoken. For modern humans to even begin to conceive of what language might look like thousands of years in the future, they must first consider what it would be like to travel back in time and hold small talk in the Stone Age. In that prehistory of 10,000 years ago, goats and cattle were just being domesticated, wheat and barley were first being cultivated in northern Mesopotamia, and megafauna like the cave lion, saber-toothed cat, and megatherium still roamed the earth.

Even the language of 1,000 years past is often unintelligible to the most learned scholars. This is no better evidenced than within the opening lines of Beowulf: “We Gardena in geardagum, þeodcyninga, þrymgefrunon, hu ðaæþelingasellen fremedon. Oft Scyld Scefing sceaþena þreatum.”

While Beowulf has been translated into Modern English time and time again, the fact remains that there is no absolute translation of the epic tale’s opening line from Old English. Such is the nature of language. Over time, it degrades, or at least evolves. Later, when it is reconstructed in the hope of finding meaning, much of the derived message depends on who is doing the deciphering. Is the translator one of the Human Interference Task Force’s predicted mole miners? A scientist from the Free State of Chihuahua? As late as 2013, the translation of the opening line of Beowulf was called into question by Dr. George Walkden of the University of Manchester who determined that a single word had been mistranslated for the last 200 years.

Even Pandora’s Box, one of the most recognizable creation myths of ancient Greek culture, has been mired in debates over the translation of individual words that give the story entirely different meanings. For example, the “box” in Pandora’s Box was originally a large jar—a cornucopoeia, a pithos (meaning an “immovable storage jar”), or a pyxis (a “small portable vessel”). It is difficult to know which vessel for sure because Erasmus of Rotterdam is thought to have translated “pithos” to “pyxis,” perhaps by mistake. Some tellings of the myth also do not state whether it was Pandora who opened the box or Epimetheus, the brother of Prometheus. The most widely disputed translation in the myth, however, revolves around the word that is at the very heart of the story itself: “hope.”

Common retellings of Pandora’s Box explain that, in retaliation against Prometheus for stealing fire, Zeus sends the first human woman down to earth: Pandora. With her, he sends a large jar that contains all the calamities and ills of the world. When Pandora inevitably opens it, all manner of terrible things fly out and she shuts it just in time so that only one thing remains inside: hope.

According to scholar T. Gantz, the Greek word for hope, elpis, should not be translated to “hope” but instead to “‘expectation’ or ‘awareness,’” so that, following Pandora’s opening of the jar, humanity “would be denied the full knowledge of their sorry condition.” In other words, ignorance is bliss. That elpis, awareness, should remain trapped in the box or the jar is really a gift to humanity.

Some scholars suggest that translation is both necessary and impossible in that “what makes translation necessary is the duplicity of given words; what makes it an impossible enterprise is that [doing such] will involve ‘an essential loss.’” In other words, deciding on one translation precludes the possibility of another. Still, at the heart of the issue surrounding the translation of the word elpisin Pandora’s Box is not just the writer’s interpretation, but the audience’s understanding of the story’s overall message. One understanding tells us that “hope is not the sole good in the midst of evil—it is the greatest evil of all.” Another suggests that Zeus had much darker and more nefarious intentions, with the god planning for Pandora to close the box and trap hope inside it. In this version, hope is not the thing that humanity holds onto, but something that never entered the world. Yet another interpretation of the myth is that Zeus “wanted to punish but not annihilate humanity and therefore gave them the resources of hope to help them survive in the midst of adversity.”

French historian and anthropologist Jean-Pierre Vernant explains that, “since evils are . . . inextricably intermingled with . . . good things . . . and it is impossible for us to foresee exactly how tomorrow will turn out for us, we are always hoping for the best.” Regardless of the myth’s many different interpretations, most iterations of Pandora’s Box present hope as something that cannot exist apart from fear or evil. In his book The Principle of Hope, German philosopher Ernst Bloch describes hope as a sort of “not-yet,” as if it is always just out of reach but no doubt somehow visible in the distance, and if not visible, then capable of being sensed in some way.

While the projects undertaken by the Human Interference Task Force and the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant were rooted in science, the concept of a message that could last for at least 10,000 years was also undoubtedly entrenched in hope. In terms of Pandora’s Box, the radioactive waste sealed below ground can be viewed as the world’s many ills; the warning marker above ground as hope, or at least some remnant of it. Perhaps most pertinent of all to the nuclear age is that Pandora’s opening of the box, or jar, itself was an accident, a terrible one, but an unintentional act nonetheless.

On March 28th, 1979, in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, something happened. That was all anyone really knew, at least at the time. In fact, the events of that day have been described as a kind of “mysterious ‘happening’: the melting of fuel rods, the appearance of a hydrogen bubble, and the release of radiation near several small communities in Pennsylvania.” Later, what happened in reactor number 2 of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Generating Station would officially be dubbed the Three Mile Island Accident.

More than a nuclear accident, however, the Three Mile Island catastrophe also embodied what professors Thomas B. Farrell and G. Thomas Goodnight call “a rhetorical crisis.” In other words, it was a disaster of language. While the accident was initially rooted in the “failures of two pumps essential to the plant’s secondary cooling system,” it turned into a rhetorical crisis when, for five straight days, no one was able to explain what had happened or whether the danger had officially passed. While company officials at Three Mile Island first described the failure as an “incident,” the story continued to unfold in the traditional manner of a “disaster narrative,” one in which the experts could neither explain nor “agree upon its costs.” Were citizens safe? Was the resulting radioactive contamination dangerous?

While Charles Gallina, an official at the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, acknowledged that there was “a serious contamination issue on site,” Charles Blaisdell of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency disagreed, urging nearby residents not to worry. He claimed that the current radiation level was equivalent to what people would receive if they “played golf in the sunshine.” Even after 400,000 gallons of radioactive waste were discharged into the Susquehanna River, a Department of Environmental Resources spokesman said the majority of the contamination would “be dissipated like bubbles in soda pop.” While experts had trouble agreeing upon the effects of what had happened, reporters also had trouble translating technical jargon to the wider public, especially because “they had nothing visual to convey, given the invisibility of the [resulting radiation].” The accident itself was ambiguous and could neither be “verified of disconfirmed by the senses.”

Dick Thornburgh, Pennsylvania’s governor at the time of the accident, assured local citizens that all was fine while also ordering the evacuation of pregnant women. Later, he would describe the reporting around the Three Mile Island incident as an “unending avalanche of misstatements and second-guessing from virtually everyone who had an opinion.”

Of course, many accidents are inevitable. We often describe accidents as “waiting to happen,” though this common turn of phrase can be interpreted in two different ways: one in which the waiting is active and another in which the waiting is passive. The accident passively waiting to happen envisions calamities like the ills in Pandora’s box, waiting to be unlocked by either human ingenuity or foolhardiness. In contrast, the accident actively waiting to happen is truly out of our hands, a force in and of itself. These accidents are closely associated with acts of God. They are remnants of old cosmologies and mythologies like those about the three sisters spinning the threads of fate. They refer to events beyond human control that could neither have been predicted nor prevented.

Though prediction and prevention are not mutually exclusive. Some accidents and disasters are foretold long before they happen yet still carry on to their conclusion.

—

Etseo Ayah saw the future. A potential future, anyway. A shadow of a shadow of a shadow of a thing. Prophecy is odd in the way that it happens before it happens. The words are true as soon as they are spoken aloud, even if the foretold future never actually arrives, because, as Maurice Blanchot has noted, more often than not, “Prophetic speech announces an impossible future . . . a future one would not know how to live and that must upset all the sure givens of existence.”

This impossible future is exactly what Etseoh Ayah, the Seer of the Sahtu Dene People, had foretold. He had seen strange people descending into a large hole in the ground. Not his people, not the Sahtu Dene that had inhabited the shores of Great Bear Lake in the Sahtu region of Canada’s Northwest Territories for thousands of years, but white people. He saw them carrying tools and machines into the earth. He saw houses that emitted plumes of smoke, and he also saw a bird. A great flying bird.

Etseoh first delivered his prophecy in the 1880s, and at that time, it was difficult to know exactly what his vision meant, and perhaps even more challenging to pinpoint when it started to come true.

Was it in 1896 when Henri Becquerel first isolated the radioactive properties of uranium, or two years later when chemists Marie and Pierre Curie first discovered radium?

The accident passively waiting to happen envisions calamities like the ills in Pandora’s box, waiting to be unlocked by either human ingenuity or foolhardiness.

Was it in 1932 when the Eldorado Mine opened on the eastern shore of Great Bear Lake to begin mining radium, or later that year when Canada’s Department of Mines first published studies showing “the dangers from inhalation of radioactive dust”?

Was it 1940 when the Eldorado Mine closed because of the outbreak of World War II, or 1942, when the mine reopened, this time shifting the focus of its operations to uranium ore?

Was it in 1945 when that same ore was pulled from the ground to be shipped to Port Hope, Ontario, where it would be refined before being purchased by the US Military, shipped down to a Manhattan Project laboratory in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and then flown overseas to be dropped on Hiroshima?

I suppose one could say that the B29 superfortress that carried the Fat Boy bomb was Etseoh’s flying bird. While 26-year-old Thomas Wilson Ferebee, one of the B29 bombardiers that day, could vividly recall how bright the bomb was, language failed when he attempted to describe the event. “There are no words,” he said.

In the case of Etseoh Ayah and the Sahtu Dene people, there really were no words to describe the uranium ore mined from their shores or its devastating effects. As professor Peter van Wyck explains in his book Highway of the Atom, “In the Slavey language [of the Dene], there are no words for radiation, radioactive contamination, or risk.” The Dene who hauled the ore sacks, who piloted the river boats, who ate fish from contaminated dredging ponds, who “worked for twelve hours a day, six days a week,” whose “children played with the dusty ore at river docks and portage landings,” whose wives and daughters “sewed tents from uranium sacks,” who died by the dozens over the years from cancer—not only had no knowledge of uranium’s radioactivity; they had no language for it.

Though even the word “radioactive” itself does little to explain the many meanings and countless unthought futures bound up in its letters. The Oxford English Dictionary defines radiation as “the emission of energy as electromagnetic waves or as moving subatomic particles, especially high-energy particles that cause ionization.” It does not mention the unthought futures or the postnormal phenomena or even Old Man Ferdinand, a former logger, guide, and stevedore, and the first Dene person to die of cancer. In many ways, radioactive is a word without edges. The meaning of it seeps invisibly beyond notions of containment.

And when it comes to designing a warning that can last at least 10,000 years, words are unlikely to survive. As Andrew Moisey notes in a 2012 article in Qui Parle, linguists have suggested that all verbal and written languages lose their potency over time. Instead, such a long-lasting message would need to rely on a “natural language of forms,” one that is “older and deeper than culture, something that is species-wide, part of what it is to be human.” Architect Michael Brill drew on this natural language when he proposed a “Landscape of Thorns” to mark the WIPP site in 1991. These thorns would be “slanted in an irreverent discordance” and would penetrate “several stories above the desert floor, extending the same invitation to people that dead grass offers ants.” Unlike the symmetry of the Egyptian pyramids “whose perfect geometry and marble facades made them giant jewels in the desert,” evoking the curiosity of treasure hunters and archeologists alike, the concept for the “Landscape of Thorns” would use “irregular geometries” and “rude materials” to signal “danger to the body.”

Another design from the 1991 report to make use of natural language was entitled “Black Hole.” It called “for sixteen square miles of heat-absorbing black granite,” which, oddly enough, bore a striking resemblance to Maya Lin’s controversial Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Unlike the war memorial, however, “Black Hole” did not seek to commemorate, for what lay beneath the proposed marker “must never be celebrated, yet in some fashion must always be remembered. The expenditure of the monument must be equal in magnitude to the waste contained beneath it . . . It must be a calling to remembrance that celebrates nothing.”

At the heart of Dene mythology is a larger belief that “culture and landscape are inseparable, as stories cannot exist without their physical context.” For instance, the Dene believed that it was “bad medicine” to come too close to Somba K’e, a local rock formation, and they avoided the landmark whenever they traveled because of what was buried beneath it. Stories had been passed down from generation to generation that imbued the rock with equal parts reverence and revulsion, respect and fear. The natural language of the physical landscape dissuaded Dene visitors in the same way the creators of the “Landscape of Thorns” and “Black Hole” hoped to deter potential interlopers from approaching stored radioactive waste.

In his 19th-century prophecy, Etseoh Ayah claimed he’d seen white men loading a great bird with things they pulled from the earth. He said, “I saw what harm it would do when the big bird dropped this thing on people—they all died from this long stick, which burned everyone . . . But it isn’t for now; it’s a long time in the future. It will come after we are all dead.” Etseoh died in 1940, two years before the Dene mine turned its attention to uranium

In his 1951 report “Five Years After,” biophysicist Eugene Rabinowitch traces the scientific moments in history that gave scientists “a vision of terrible clarity” regarding the nuclear age. These moments include “the atomic pile and the Trinity test,” both occasions in which scientists could foresee “the cities of the world, including their own, falling into dust and going up in flames.” While Etseoh Ayah had prophesied the bomb that would fall on Hiroshima, Rabinowitch’s work was very much a prophecy in reverse, what Peter van Wyck calls a “retroactive catastrophe of knowledge” that illuminates the disasters of history while also rendering history itself a disaster.

In her 1996 lecture “The Future of Time: Literature and Diminished Expectations,” Toni Morrison contends that it is not only the past that is a catastrophe, but also the future. She opens her lecture by saying, “Time, it seems, has no future. That is, time no longer seems to be an endless stream through which the human species moves with confidence in its own increasing consequence and value.” She attributes this “terrible futureless-ness” to 50 years of living in an atomic age, an era “in which the end of time . . . was and may still be a very real prospect.”

Perhaps the most unique aspect of life in an atomic age is that it asks us to consider a future devoid of humans. The pursuit to design a marker for the WIPP site not only highlights language’s inability to capture and communicate the dangers of radioactive waste, but also hints at a shift in the way we think about the past, present, and future, and the relationship between them. While Etseoh Ayah’s prophecy predicts the burgeoning phase of a nuclear reality, what proves to be even more illuminating than the content of his prophecy is how it is told, the language used to convey the warning.

“I saw,” he says, “I saw,” as if the future itself had already happened.

—

The first-ever photograph of an atomic bomb was captured on July 16th, 1945. The bomb was named “Gadget” and was composed of a “6-foot sphere with a grapefruit-sized Plutonium core,” according to Amanda Macias in her 2016 article in Business Insider, It was detonated near Alamogordo, New Mexico, under the codename “Trinity,” and the explosion produced “a mushroom cloud soaring 40,000 feet into the air.”

The photograph was taken on a Mack Streak Camera which allowed for images to be captured at “0.0000001-second intervals.” There were actually 52 different cameras being used that day, and while each was designed to capture various stages of the atomic bomb’s explosion—everything from minute details to light wavelengths to gamma rays—the subject of the 100,000 photos that were produced was undeniably the explosion. The fireball and the ascendant mushroom cloud. The event itself.

While Etseoh Ayah’s prophecy predicts the burgeoning phase of a nuclear reality, what proves to be even more illuminating than the content of his prophecy is how it is told.

In his 1980 book Camera Lucida, theorist and semiotician Roland Barthes maintains that there are essentially two elements that make up the essence of every photograph, the first of which is the subject or studium. The studium refers to that which has been intentionally placed in the frame by the camera’s operator. In other words, you point a camera at an atomic fireball and you capture an atomic fireball. The second element, what Barthes calls the punctum, is that which “punctures” the subject or studium. The punctum is that “accidental mark or detail of the photograph which ‘pricks,’ stings, [and] wounds the beholder.” In describing Alexander Gardner’s 1865 photograph of Lewis Paine, taken just prior to Paine’s execution for the attempted assassination of Secretary of State W. H. Seward, Barthes writes, “The photograph is handsome, as is the boy: that is the studium. But the punctum is: he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake.” Barthes argues that this dichotomy composes the essence of the photograph, the “that-has-been” or the “prophecy in reverse,” the inevitable yet unpredictable soul of the photograph in which the “past is brought forcefully into conjunction with the present so that hindsight can interplay with prophecy; we know the future of the past.” The punctum is intractable and accidental yet “nonetheless already there.”

The punctum of the first photograph of an atomic bomb is not an awareness that the subject has succumbed to time. It is that the studium in the photo—the bomb—is very much alive and might, in fact, continue living on, for lack of a better word, forever while humans succumb to its effects.

To consider a project like the one to mark the WIPP site is to encounter what philosopher Quentin Meillassoux calls an “arche-fossil.” An arche-fossil is both a reminder of a time before humanity and a glimpse of how that ancient past intersects with our present. The difference between a fossil and an arche-fossil is that a “fossil is a material bearing the traces of pre-historic life” while an “arche-fossil is material indicating traces of ancestral phenomena” that occurred before human cognition or development. Arche-fossils help us understand the lives of things far older than humans “such as the radioactive isotope whose rate of decay provides an index of the age of rock samples, or the starlight whose luminescence provides an index of the age of distant stars.” One primary example of an arche-fossil is our sun. Consider the fact that our entire world is illuminated by the light of a billions-year-old star. Consider that the future is illuminated by this very same light, yet so often, it shows us only a sliver of what we wish we could see.

Meillassoux once said that to consider the arche-fossil is “to think a world without thought.” Our universe is roughly 13.7 billion years old, the earth roughly 4.5 billion, the first signs of life 3.5 billion, and the genus homo only 2 million years old.

To design a message that will exist 10,000 years into the future is also to consider that there may be no humans left alive to encounter or interpret it. That we will one day be fossils, as alien and inaccessible as ancient texts that continue to defy translation. Yet, when pondering the many unthought futures that inform the project of making a marker for the WIPP site, it is important to remember that we are putting ourselves in the shoes of our descendants 10,000 years from now, looking at a message from their perspective. If there is anything that can give us hope for the long future ahead, it is the discovery of our presence in the long past. Petroglyphs on cave walls that go back over 10,000 years tell us, at least, that someone was here at some point. If that gives us hope, then it is possible to assume that any such marker we leave behind, even if it is discovered but never interpreted, might give hope to some faraway descendant.

The future is only a distant line on the horizon. Hope too is a horizon. And beyond that? More hope, another horizon. More time. More unthought futures.

__________________________________

This essay originally appeared in New England Review (Vol. 40, No. 1) under the title “The Unthinkable Fossil of Hope.”Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, New England Review. Copyright © 2019 by Matt Jones.

Matt Jones
Matt Jones
Matt Jones has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Alabama. His prose has appeared in the Southern Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Atlantic, Post Road, Ruminate, Chicago Tribune, and various other publications. He has received support from the Ohio Arts Council, the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, the Leopold Writing Program, and the Willowtail Springs Nature Preserve and Education Center.





More Story
Red State Blues: Traveling in Transition In winter 2018, I made a driving tour of the great national parks of Utah and Arizona. Places like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches,...