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Literature and the Politics of Uranium

Molly Wallace

I am perhaps an odd person to be at this forum. First, I am not a citizen of Canada; I’m not even a permanent resident, though the application is in. I am a recent transplant to the country from the United States. Secondly, though I am affiliated with Queen’s University, which might sound promising, I am not in the sciences, which might study the uranium cycle, but rather in the humanities, and specifically, in the English department, where I specialize in contemporary American—that is US—literature. So, I am hardly an expert on the materialities of the uranium cycle. That said, though, I do have an interest in the literature of environmental justice, and I find in the current debates about the so-called nuclear renaissance, the notion that nuclear power is somehow a clean and green alternative to fossil fuels, a real amnesia that attention to literature might help to remedy, for the nuclear has left a clear indelible ecological footprint around the globe, traceable not only in medical records and soil samples but also in diverse literary production.

As you may know, much of the impact of the uranium cycle in the US has been felt in the Southwest, where the uranium mining has particularly affected native peoples and especially the Navajo, who have since imposed a moratorium on such mining on their lands. During the Cold War, the nuclear testing also took place in the desert southwest, affecting the so-called downwinders as well. One of the most poetic of descriptions of uranium in American literature comes in a novel by Laguna Pueblo writer, Leslie Marmon Silko, titled Ceremony and published in 1977. The novel traces the immediate aftereffects of the second world war as well as the long term oppression experienced by the native people, and at the end of the novel, which is itself a kind of ceremony, Silko’s protagonist discovers in the rocks of an abandoned mine a way to understand the uranium cycle:

he walked to the mine shaft slowly, and the feeling became overwhelming: the pattern of the ceremony was completed there. He knelt and found an ore rock. The gray stone was streaked with powdery yellow uranium, bright and alive as pollen; veins of sooty black formed lines with the yellow, making mountain ranges and rivers across the stone. But they had taken these beautiful rocks from deep within the earth and they had laid them in a monstrous design, realizing destruction on a scale only they could have dreamed. (246)

This passage connects the desert southwest to the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, reminding us of the devastation of those weapons, but, of course, though nuclear weapons were not used after that in war, they were used frequently during the subsequent cold war, as the US and the USSR repeatedly each bombed themselves in an attempt to deter the other, and this too had a profound impact on the human life and ecology of the southwest.

Terry Tempest Williams in Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, discusses the environmental hazards, for human beings and wildlife, in Utah where she and her family had lived for generations. Recalling memories of above ground testing in the desert, Williams reminds us: “When the Atomic Energy Commission described the country north of the Nevada Test Site as ‘virtually uninhabited desert terrain,’ my family and the birds at Great Salt Lake were some of the ‘virtual uninhabitants.’”

With the end of the Cold War, the US government recognized and, to some extent, took responsibility for, the impact of uranium on these populations. In 1990, the congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, providing for financial compensation to families of those miners and downwinders who contracted cancers and other serious diseases as a result of their exposure to radiation. But as uranium prices have risen again in recent years, mining is again proposed in the region, and though above ground testing has stopped at the Nevada test site, subcritical nuclear testing continued past the Cold War.

Given this renewal of interest in the nuclear—despite the problems of mining and waste disposal, despite the dangers of reactor meltdowns—we might feel discouraged. Mining companies seem to have power and economic incentive and the backing of government, and those who oppose mining might feel, by contrast, limited in terms of numbers, time, and energy. And so I conclude by offering inspiration in the form of a poem from an earlier era of community activism. This is a poem by June Jordan, published in 1980, as conservative President Ronald Reagan took office. The title is “From Sea to Shining Sea,” which draws, of course, from a rather patriotic song about the US: “America the Beautiful,” but the poem begins on a much less celebratory note. The first line is “Natural order is being restored,” but this so-called natural order is not so much ecological as it is ideological.

Natural order is being restored
Natural order means you take a pomegranate
that encapsulated plastic looking orb complete
with its little top/a childproof cap that you can
neither twist nor turn
and you keep the pomegranate stacked inside a wobbly
pyramid composed by 103 additional pomegranates
next to a sign saying 89 cents

Natural order is being restored
Natural order does not mean a pomegranate
split open to the seeds sucked by the tongue and lips
while teeth release the succulent sounds
of its voluptuous disintegration

The natural order is not about a good time
This is not a good time to be against
the natural order

Here, those pomegranates, placed in a wobbly pyramid, sold for the unnatural price of 89 cents, which doubtless hides the human labour and resource that brought it to the store, represent nature out of order, but presented as order, and the ominousness of the final lines—the natural order is not about a good time—stand as a threat against those who would topple it.

Much of the poem that follows is an enumeration of problems, which she marks with the refrain: “This was not a good time to be”—“This was not a good time to be gay” “This was not a good time to be Black” “This was not a good time to be old” “This was not a good time to be young” “This was not a good time to be without a job” “This was not a good time to have a job”, and each of these sentences is accompanied by reference to the contemporary socio-political and economic situation in the United States, with civil rights laws overturned, federal funding for healthcare and education slashed, and the like. Among the many reasons that Jordan enumerates for why was not a good time, include the transport of nuclear wastes, testing of nuclear weapons, and the location of nuclear missile silos—not a good time to be in Queens, Arkansas, or Grand Forks, North Dakota, respectively.

Given the situation here currently, we might echo Jordan’s rather depressing assessment. One might say this was not a good time to be a landowner facing the mining act, or a good time to practice civil disobedience, or a good time to follow Algonquin law, or a good time have to drink water.

But Jordan concludes on a more positive note, and provides precisely the kind of vision of possibility that forums like this one provide: Interrupting her string of “not a good times”, she says “Wait a minute,” and the poem turns: “This is a good time/ This is the best time/ This is the only time to come together/ Fractious/Kicking/Spilling/Burly/Whirling/Raucous/Messy/ Free/ Exploding like the seeds of a natural disorder.”

When the dominant order involves taking beautiful rocks and doing monstrous things with them, when it involves seeing people and birds as “virtual uninhabitants,” it is only by disrupting the ideological “natural” order with a natural disorder that an ecological natural order can be restored. And, as we attempt to connect the local issues here in Ontario with the global reach of the uranium cycle, I would offer literature as one possible means to help us to bridge the geographical and historical amnesias that have accompanied the current nuclear renaissance.

Selected Literature of the Uranium Cycle

Clements, Marie. Burning Vision. Talon Books, 2002
Play by contemporary Canadian author.

DeLillo, Don. Underworld. New York: Scribner, 1998.
Novel of the Cold War.

Jordan, June. “From Sea to Shining Sea.” In Barbara Smith, ed. Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New York: Kitchen Table / Women of Color Press, 1983.
Poem about “natural order.”

Millet, Lydia. Oh Pure and Radiant Heart. New York: Harcourt, 2005.
Novel about return of three atomic scientists from 1945.

Silko, Leslie Marmon. Ceremony. New York: Penguin, originally published 1977.
Novel about Laguna Pueblo and Navajo veterans of World War II.

Ortiz, Simon. “It Was that Indian.” Woven Stone. University of Arizona Press, 1992.
Poem about uranium mining.

Vonnegut, Kurt. Cat’s Cradle. New York: Dell, 1998, originally published 1963.
Comic novel about bomb.

Mason, Bobbie Ann. An Atomic Romance. New York: Random House, 2005.
Novel about nuclear power.

Williams, Terry Tempest. Refuge. New York: Vintage, 1991.
Creative nonfiction about her mother’s cancer and the ecology of the desert Southwest in the US.