I’ve always know I grew up in a special place, and that the landscape and scenery comprising Los Alamos was the largest part of its magic, surpassing the intensity of its historical significance, the unique advantages of educational opportunities unavailable in most public school systems, and the feeling of physical safety living in a secured, gated community provided.
I always knew this, but it came most strongly into focus in February of 2008 as I sat in a workshop on how to incorporate a sense of place into memoir. At one point the presenter asked us to draw maps of our personal community, “the space you move around in on a regular basis,” and draw boundaries around the areas of danger – areas where we do not feel personally safe, and either avoid, or feel anxious going into. One of the participants lived in northern New Mexico, and she identified “that toxic city I see at night, glowing on the mountainside above the town where I live.” She was referring to Los Alamos. She was talking about my heart’s home, the place where I grew up, the land that gave me an enduring love of nature, the canyons where I had sought solace and inner peace during tumultuous teen years. A couple of others chimed in about the horrors of that polluted blight on the planet. Although rationally I was sure they knew better, their words emphasizing that nightmare of a place, as if the toxins were endemic to and identifiable with the place, seemed analogous to blaming a victim.
My heart ached, and I felt like a mother who caught bullies throwing rocks at her toddler. At that moment, an all-consuming love of place as strong as the love of a mother for her child exploded into full ripeness. I wanted to jump to the defense of the land. I had no desire to fight with those women, but to set the record straight. I wanted to stand up and scream, It is not the land! Be angry with the people who made the decisions to dump toxins onto this sacred soil, to deface and contaminate it. But the land itself is an innocent victim! Cry for it. Mourn and lament, and pray for its healing.
Two things held me back. First, it would have been a serious disruption of the purpose of the workshop, and thus inappropriate. As a veteran workshop leader myself, I feel an obligation to respect and support a colleague’s agenda. But beyond that, I have not kept up with the atrocities that surely have been committed there and was not prepared to address that angle. No, I needed to hold my tongue until I found my center on the matter. I did not want to get sucked into a political debate with win/lose positions when I knew there was a truth we could all agree on if I took the time to find it.
Ultimately I have decided that I have no desire to learn further details of the rape of that land. It’s bad enough that it has suffered a double assault from mankind. Not only have all sorts of lethal toxins been irresponsibly dumped there over the second half of the twentieth century, but in 2000, the Jemez mountains that form a scenic panorama wrapping half the horizon of the town were charred in a senseless, preventable firestorm caused by one irresponsible decision by a single Forest Service employee. The heat was so intense that the soil was glassified in many spots, and it may take eons to generate enough topsoil to support normal vegetation again.
How ironic it seems that what I fervently hope was the last assault on that land by fire, a natural event in most regards, caused the same sort of enduring devastation from intense heat as the unnatural assault on land in other regions caused in nuclear blasts.
Even in the face of my sickness of soul about the tragedies men (I used the word men in the historical sense, since few if any women have ever been directly involved in these decisions) have brought about on this land, I can’t feel hatred for them. I deeply believe that in early years they simply did not know enough to fully recognize the consequences of their acts of expediency. In later years, although I know nothing but vague generalities, I know that political systems sometimes reward behavior that is not in the public’s best overall interests, and that these systems can destroy large chunks of human souls.
But enough of that. My purpose here is not to discuss or analyze the atrocities that have taken place in Los Alamos, the philosophy of good and evil, moral corruption, or anything that profound. My intent is to celebrate my memories of a land that I knew as good and pure; a land the Indians held to be sacred; a land that nurtured me as I came of age. It is not a land I can return to in anything but memory, and I hope that my memories of a simpler purer time there will help others to see that what is left of the unsullied earth needs to be maintained, love, and cared for with all the vigor we can summon forth.
© 2009, Sharon M. Lippincott