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How I Learned the Fukushima Step by Step
By Cecile Pineda
Wings Press Copyright © 2012 Wings Press
All rights reserved.
We picked out planets that are just the right size — between the size of Earth or twice that — and all are within the 'habitable zones' of their stars, at distances where there's the best chance for liquid water — and possibly life — to exist.
— Dan Wertheimer
Space sciences astrophysicist
There is no place more wonderful than this. There is no place more marvelous than here.
Starry night. All along the horizon, telescopes rotate, staring at the night sky: the Atacama Desert, where the skies are transparent like no other place on earth, free of the pollution of city lights, and of temperate zone moisture.
The human race is looking for planets. Hungry for planets in our own image, in the image of Gaia, of Earth. Planets near enough yet far enough from their distant suns not to burn up, not to freeze. Planets which show signs of water in their atmospheres. Planets that revolve around the maybe 50 billion stars in the local galaxy, in the neighborhood we call the Milky Way, and in the narrowest possible tranche of it, 1,235 planets have been sighted that correspond to such spacial parameters, and of those 1,235, 86 stand out, 86 which answer within reasonable limits to those conditions: sufficiently distant from their suns (but not too distant) to entertain the possibility of water.
Imagine 86 watery planets, each with its own orders of life: its own set of one-celled organisms, of invertebrates, of phyla inherited from a primordial past, of the first cone-bearing trees, of the first flower bearing plants, of mammals, of insects, of trees, and shrubs and flowers. Imagine 86 planets with their own hereditary, evolutionary lines culminating or perhaps on the way to culminating in sentient, intelligent beings with appendages to hold tools, to compose music, to create dance, with tongues to bend around the syllables of languages structured entirely other than any Earthlings can begin imagining. Eighty-six planets with their own dynasties of composers, choreographers, writers, poets, singers of songs. Take all the sounds of all the languages of 86 planets, and all the sounds of all the music of 86 planets, meld them together, imagine the chorus. Now turn down the volume to a whisper: the whisper of the sounds made by the sentient beings of 86 planets. That is only 1/600,000,000th of the sounds of all the neighborhood galaxy's planets, and, of the universe's, a fraction so unfathomable human cognition cannot imagine it.
But this one, this Earth, this Gaia is the one you have. This one, and only this one. Its rocks, its fossils, palimpsests of times more ancient than time, its petroglyphs of a mankind more ancient than language, more ancient than writing. Its horsetails and ginkos, survivors of an unfairytale age of dragons, of cone bearers, of spore bearers, of molds, of microorganisms, of nematodes, of annelids, of the lowliest of beings without which none of our living, none of our songs, or our musics, or our dances, or our writings or our tongues could ever have been possible.
This Gaia is all you have.CHAPTER 2
My neighbor is dying. Once he was on the bus to Mississippi, off to join the Mississippi Summer. He marched with Martin Luther King, Jr.
"Give me a hug," he says to me shortly after learning his prognosis.
"I need a hug, too," I tell him and I hold him tight.
He alternates between moments of great lucidity and hours of night terrors where his scrambled brain allows him at last to collapse into a chair facing the wall, waiting for a reprieve he looks to the dawn to bring. He knows he is dying. He has little time left.
"This is an emergency," he tells me, his still blue eyes wide with terror. "Call the police."
He's too panicked to stay in his apartment. I line up chairs outside along the hallway where I sit with him. After some hours of negotiation, it's clear nothing will do but to call the police. They arrive at 2 am. They ask the usual questions: do you know where you are? who you are? The deep philosophic questions we depend on our finest to formulate.
Judging from the name on her badge, one of these officers is a Latina. "El señor esta muriendo," I whisper. At once the tone changes. The questions yield to appropriate negotiations. The cops promise my neighbor that, come morning, his daughter will return to comfort him.
He summons me for a visit one last time. His eyes are shining. He sits enthroned in his chair in his bathrobe and underwear.
"This is an adventure! I'm going to write a book," he announces, slapping determined hands on his lap. "Here's how it starts:" He gives a sentence or two. "That's Chapter One. Will you edit what I write?"
"Now," he says to me, "now you, Ceil — he always calls me Ceil — you always have things to say about life on the planet; you need to write a book, The Book of Living and Dying. Will you do that?" He waits, all expectation. I've just come to the end of a five-year project but how can I thwart such compelling faith?
"Warren," I say, "I don't know if I can do it, or if I will do it, but if I can do it, and I do do it, I promise I'll dedicate it to you."
He smiles the smile of a mollified child. "Ceil," he says, "this is fascinating!" He means death. Dying is fascinating. "Don't you want to live long enough to see how it all comes out?"
"Dying takes a long time," I tell him, laughing. He has the grace to laugh with me. We are children playing with the red ball of death. We toss it back and forth. "I'm going to write about it," he says. "I starts like this ..."
He lies in his old man's bed. More and more he sleeps. Someone comes in to nurse his last hours, to turn him over in the sleep from which he will never awake. Once he marched alongside our great prophet, Martin Luther King, Jr. It ends like this.
Thirteen days later the reactors at Fukushima will explode, scattering deadly fallout over the entire planet.CHAPTER 3
Move Right Along. Nothing to See Here ...
From the day Chernobyl blew, from the time you fell to your knees in horror, you knew this next would come. You know what this means. You remember those hundreds of thousands of young Russian army recruits ordered to the disaster site by the USSR government, who died of radiation agony after building a sarcophagus large enough, and presumably strong enough, to entomb the massive reactor for a few hundred or possibly even thousands of years — but which began to show signs of failure in 1991, a mere five years after it was built.
Around Kyshtym, the site of a Siberian nuclear storage tank explosion in 1957, you know there is a zone where to this day the ground is said to move.
You know what this means. You know the fall-out plume will soon blanket the northern hemisphere. You know it will contaminate the food chain, on land, and on the sea. You know it will taint the soil, and the water, and the air you breathe. You know from now on, it will taint everything you drink and everything you eat.CHAPTER 4
The Wheel Turns
I want to scatter my goods, explode my possessions, send everything flying to where it may come to rest. Bury it. Bury myself. I feel I have outlived my usefulness. I have outlived my own life. But in the karmic soup I know nothing is lost. In the damped oscillations spanning the world, no effort is wasted. No action, no thought is without eddies, but where in the universe these waves dissipate is unforeseen.
I look about me at the busyness that still goes on around me. My own busyness, my sense of self-importance. From that perspective, I see how this one guards his territory — what he imagines it to be — how that one guards his wealth. How this one gropes for the gematria that will read the future to him.
But in the collective consciousness lives a spec. I know it lives embedded in each living cell, along with the protocol of living; it is the protocol of dying. So in the collective mind — which strives to place it outside — but mind does not live outside. It lies embodied in the living where there is no future and no past. Only one great mind. It carries this message from the beginning, from the first flash of light that dispersed the universes, spun great wheels of stars. All, all carries this protocol: alpha and omega. The beginning and the end.CHAPTER 5
Being and Not Being
Day five following our planetary catastrophe, I listen to the morning radio reports. After the three reactors, Units 1, 2 and 3, have exploded at Fukushima Daiichi, spewing untold quantities of radionuclides over the Pacific a so-called authority categorically states, "no one will die of this." It's the morning I say to myself: the way I feel, if I didn't have to deliver milk to the homeless shelter, I probably shouldn't leave home at all. Besides it's cold and misting. I slip into my parka.
The sun shines through the branches of a flowering cherry, pink as cake frosting. I'm flying straight into its coppery bark at what feels like 60 miles an hour. My car smashes into the tree with ferocious velocity. The tree buries my windshield in pink, sugary blossoms. It's the last thing I see on earth. Not exactly. My nose bursts. A fountain of red explodes on the curb where I bend, trying to keep the blood from staining my parka.
"You need to lean on something," suggests a tall, black bystander.
"Right now," I tell him, "there's nothing I'd rather do than lean on a black man." He lets me.
A truck driver pulls up, jumps out of his flatbed, passes me a clean white towel, which he urges me to press to my nose. People surround me. They want to help.
I'm not dead. Not yet.
It's five days after Fukushima Daiichi Units 1, 2 and 3 explode, thirteen days after Warren dies, and twelve days after I confide to a friend: I need something to shake me up. It's the morning I wake up to our post-Fukushima world where, just below the waterline, fear comes smashing like a wave that curls above the red stripe that marks consciousness' edge. It's the day two Fukushima workers are found drowned in a basement turbine room.CHAPTER 6
Floating on a Sea of Drugs
I lie in my bed. If there's pain at all, it's the referred pain of impact, which affects mostly my hips — my Achilles heel. Both have been replaced some seven years ago. These two days seem like an experiment: no mindnoise, no thought, or very little, no anxiety, no self-reproach, no wishing it might be otherwise. Only the recognition that my life is changed. I no longer have a car, will not have a car. Henceforth I will rely on public transport, taxis, a direction I have been moving in for some time, in some small way to defer the moment when the next drop melts off the arctic ice as the life of my planet melts before our unwatching eyes. It will probably cost me the same amount of money. It will only cost me time — a commodity old age generously provides.
The calm I experience now comes close to a state of meditation. I don't wonder if the effect will last. I do not desire it to last, or not. I simply observe. It feels good. It feels marvelous. It feels utterly unlike the way it has felt throughout my harried, driven, anxious, terrified life.
I have met death and it was beautiful. It showered me with a tree's love. It blessed me. It held me fast to this world as its roots hold it fast. Today its bark is scraped, but it still stands straight.
For two days, time seems to move as it has never moved, generously. I have no classes to meet, no appointments to keep, no book in progress. Time stands still, or very close. I like myself in this slow, silent mode, with no brain noise, just breathing in and out, as animals do when they rest. I ask myself: are there perhaps people living on earth who experience existence like this? Is this the baseline, living, living at last, without all of civilization's tortured overlay? Could I have — accidentally — come to some kind of essence?
But the clown mind plays tricks. Two dreams. I fill out a lottery form at the Cal students' union. I win a new car, un magnifique automobile, a phrase my mother, daughter of an electric car inventor, never tired of using.
I'm with a student group on our way to SoMa to view a film. It's just past dawn, but I'm speeding through empty, rain-slicked streets. I'll get there ahead of everyone else. In the ticket booth, the woman rubs her eyes. She's been sleeping there all night.
It's a surrealist film I want to see. She reminds me of its name, the one I have forgotten. I feed a bill into the admissions slot, push a red button. A ticket spills its paper tongue out at me. I have three tickets! A whole fistful!
The display case shows stills. A side bar shows a video animation: a woman on a train, a man with a gunshot wound. The woman screams, the image multiplies, the same woman screams again and again, the same man is shot. The color of the theater is wine red, the halls are painted color of coagulated blood, the walls are blood, the floor, the ceiling, the tickets are the color of dried blood — as if I had crawled inside an alien body, but it is not a body I want to inhabit. It is not a film I want to see. And yet, I have sped all my life to get here.CHAPTER 7
Incorporating the Body That is Earth
I lie in the dark, pondering the enormity, the unfathomable scope of the Fukushima disaster, the degradation to the planet — its soils, its air, its waters. I know the life of the planet has been changed irreversibly. I envision panicked mobs of people seeking the exit doors. But there are no doors. There is no safe ground. There are only time differentials. Perhaps fallout will not hit Bolivia for some time. Who will be the first to wear respirators in the street, or on coming home, to shed street clothing and put it in plastic bags to be decontaminated? Decontamination, we are told, is not a do-it-yourself affair. I see all this visually, viscerally. I think of the seas, the area of the Pacific waters, the size of Texas, the dead zone, choked by plastic.
Once a king made a wish. He whispered his will to the reeds of the river where it entered the gills of the fish; where the eagle caught it up and the bear, and the hunter ate its flesh. "Let me swim in the black gold of the earth, let me have so much I can bathe in it. Let me have enough to drink." Everything his hands touched turned to the black gold underneath the earth. The king died of thirst because that's all he had to drink.CHAPTER 8
The levels of Iodine 131 in one sample of Bay Area rainwater is 18,000% higher than acceptable levels. But there is no problem. In America there is no death. Because in America, there are no headlines. Death is always silenced. We are now living in the after. In a sense the earth has died. But we have not died. It is only a matter of time before all life is extinguished. The earth is a fragile being. She has a finite ability to absorb mankind's progress. Or the conviction of its Great Men that they know what's best: what kinds of energy are cheaper, what kinds of pesticides to use, what genetic engineering will improve crops or animals, what water systems can accept insignificant pollution, what people must be culled, what animals must be shot, clubbed or poisoned. What sea mammals must be deafened, what sonar is vital to national interests, what bombs will "work" best, what nuclear waste — waste which we ourselves have no means of storing — can safely be dropped in the form of DU onto the soils of others, who deserves life and who merits death. We Are Become God.CHAPTER 9
Now in its swan song, once more the human species behaves true to type. Response to a planetary catastrophe? Simple: start another war. Churn up the loudspeakers maximum. Blare the good news: here a bomb, there a mass grave. What fallout? Not here. Not I. Some small, blighted island, contaminated elsewhere. Trot out the humanitarian aid, the smarmy words of sympathy. Spread democracy and birth defects. Bow deeply. Apologize. Above all, apologize.CHAPTER 10
There is No Story for This
Twenty-three days have passed since the devastation at the Fukushima Daiichi reactors. Plutonium has been discovered in the soils and in the waters of the sea. There are no headlines. Japanese populations have not been evacuated beyond the 20 kilometer (that's 12.5 miles more or less) exclusion zone. The U.S. government advisory urges any Americans within a 50-mile exclusion zone to leave Japan, although for future reference, it should be noted that the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission requires evacuation around all U.S. reactors of only 10 miles. Iodine 131 above acceptable levels has been found in the rainwater as far east as Massachusetts. Americans have made a run on potassium iodide tablets. There have been no official announcements.
Excerpted from Devil's Tango by Cecile Pineda. Copyright © 2012 Wings Press. Excerpted by permission of Wings Press.
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