As we approach the second anniversary of this website, it seemed a good opportunity to look back over the almost 100 stories, poems and essays I’ve posted to bring you 10 of my favorites in no particular order.
Fire Diary: June 29, 2011 – Santa Fe, New Mexico
The wind changed to the southeast during the night, then dropped, and heavy smoke settled over Santa Fe. People are buying paper masks—“You have to soak them in water or they won’t work,” Tom the druggist told me. Across the valley, the fire at Los Alamos is now 3 percent contained but this means little in terms of smoke; twelve houses there have been burned and everyone except for a couple of holdouts is gone. Twelve thousand people have been spread all over the county, with friends and in casino hotels.
There is still no word about how close the fire is to the nuclear waste containment sites at the Labs; my friend Susan remembers going up with other photographers and journalists during the 2000 Cerro Grande fire and photographing a huge concrete pad where thousands of barrels of waste sat waiting to be taken south to storage in caverns at Carlsbad (a decade ago, we fought valiantly but fruitlessly to prevent this use of friable salt caverns). Now even more barrels are waiting, covered with a “fabric dome” which must prevent them from suffering sunburn. Annoyed by questions, the lab director announced querulously, “There is absolutely no risk. None.” He did not give any reasons.
The birds are eerily quiet this morning except for the hummingbirds, persistently attacking my feeder. Ravens, said to be among the smartest of the birds, circle and swoop erratically in groups of five; I haven’t seen them behaving like this before.
A call has gone out to donate toothpaste, shampoo and deodorant for the six hundred fire fighters at Los Alamos .When I took my donation to the Food Depot, people were bringing in shopping carts of paper towels and food which was not wanted. Yet how useful it is, for us, to bring something, no matter what purpose it serves, or doesn’t. “I have good friends up there,” a woman told me. We depend on these strangers for our lives.
Fire Diary: June 28, 2011 – Santa Fe, New Mexico
This morning at eight am the Las Conchas fire has burned 60 thousand acres of forestland west of Los Alamos—it started two days ago—and was spotting into a technical area at the nuclear labs, those highly secret, Manhattan-era production sites for plutonium triggers and other deadly weapons. In fire-fighting parlance, the fire is “running, crowning, and spotting,” shooting embers half a mile ahead of its advance. Los Alamos was evacuated last night: ten thousand people in an orderly procession of cars, vans and trailers inched down the mountain.
The wind, blowing west with gusts up to thirty miles an hour, is sending large white clouds, almost interchangeable with real clouds, across the valley into Santa Fe, but the greasy ash that covered cars and outdoor furniture yesterday has not arrived.
The issue, as it was with the last fire in 2000, is the safety of the nuclear waste stored at Los Alamos for the past sixty years, some underground, some in concrete buildings, some in barrels under a fabric canopy. As always, we are being told that there is nothing to worry about. It is impossible to know where these barrels under their canopy are reposing, in relation to the fire, or what preparations are being made to prevent them going up in flames. This is always the story. Trust, we are told; believe the reports going up on the web and heard intermittently on the radio (we have no local television station). All will be well.
Meanwhile the sale of fireworks in big white tents along the highway continues; most are on tribal land, not subject to state control, and in fact neither the governor nor the legislature is empowered to prevent their sale anywhere. The rockets are not supposed to fly higher than ten feet, though, which is supposed to be reassuring, and people are urged to go to public displays at various high schools.
Why does it seem so likely that we will have a firework-lit conflagration next weekend? What is the combination of ignorance and bravado that allows men and boys to continue to explode these devices in a landscape so scorched by drought that there is almost nothing green left? The dark, rusty olive pinion and junipers, with their scaled, desiccated trunks, will go up like torches.
There is a desperate human need to exert this terrifying power, so random, so casual, so impossible to stop. Our symbols of dominance—gunners firing on civilians from fighter planes a mile up in the sky—have long since penetrated our imagination, as popular culture roots into a primeval need to destroy.
Friday we will join a drum circle paying for rain. It seems a weak set of symbols compared to tracer bullets lighting up a screen.