What You Don’t Know

by Grant Smith

In Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place, Terry Tempest Williams recounts the painful journey of her mother’s cancer and the influence of her environment as an essential agent in her struggle to cope. Williams compares the unnatural human influence on the natural environment around Salt Lake City and juxtaposes it against the unnatural effect that cancer has had upon her mother and her family as a whole. The result is a poignant reminder of the whole of humanity–that the health of us as a group of people depends on the health of our natural world. We are not a group apart, endowed with a wealth of resources to use and abuse; we are inherently a part of the natural world, engaged in a symbiotic relationship of reciprocity.

In the chapter “Pintails, Mallards, and Teals,” within a vignette that comes shortly after her mother Diane’s passing, Williams addresses the government’s approval of nuclear testing and waste storage in Utah, the same unnatural influence that has caused cancer and suffering in her family. Williams recounts, “a blank spot on the map translates into empty space, space devoid of people, a wasteland perfect for nerve gas, weteye bombs, and toxic waste. The army believes that the Great Salt Lake Desert is an ideal place to experiment with biological warfare” (241). The passage ends when a government employee from the Department of Energy visits the proposed area for nuclear waste. “Once there, she got out of the vehicle, stared into the vast, redrock wilderness and shook her head slowly, delivering four words: ‘I had no idea.'”

Although the exclamation “I had no idea,” standing alone, is quite ambiguous; when put into context with the rest of the passage, the message is made clear. The woman “had no idea” that this “blank spot” on the map was far from “empty space.” The desert is a place of beauty, reverence, and reflection. “If the desert is holy, it is because it is a forgotten place that allows us to remember the sacred… In the severity of a salt desert, I am brought down to my knees by its beauty. My imagination is fired. My heart opens and my skin burns in the passion of these moments” (148). Just because this space was devoid of people — empty of human society, industry and “civilization” — does not mean, as one official from the Atomic Energy Commission deemed, that “it’s a good place to throw used razor blades” (242).

The revelation, through these four simple words, from an authority originally deeming the environment as an appropriate place for nuclear waste, is emblematic of a deeper issue of perspective in American culture. Through Williams’ dictation of this passage, she makes implications that those who justified nuclear tests on American soil did not appreciate the natural environment that provides us sustenance and did not take into account the long term effects of radioactive pollution. Such pollution affects both the wildlife there as well as the humans who live in the outlying regions. Williams’ family has been irreparably altered by this decision. Several generations of women in her family have been plagued by cancer in a pattern that can not be explained by anything apart from these nuclear tests. The woman from the Department of Energy saying that she had “no idea” makes one question if any consideration for the environment ever occurred.

In Glaucus, or, The Wonders of the Shore, Charles Kingsley states “mystery inexplicable on the conceited notion which, making man forsooth the centre of the universe, dares to believe that this variety of forms has existed for countless ages in abysmal sea-depths and untrodden forests, only that some few individuals of the Western races might, in these latter days, at last discover and admire a corner here and there of the boundless realms of beauty.” Kingsley denounces a utilitarian view of nature that simplifies our environment into what can be utilized for man’s profit. He stresses the “boundless” variety and interconnectivity of the natural world. What is not specifically said in this passage is the opposite side of Kingsley’s argument: the assumption that the corners that aren’t admired by man are therefore without value.

Within American culture, a utilitarian view of nature has been set as a precedent. Strip mining, industrial pollution, deforestation — even automobile culture– is destructive to the natural environment that we label as America. The mass usage of natural gas to fuel our increasingly complex lifestyles is unsustainable and harmful, yet business continues as scheduled. In the context of Williams’ work, Refuge, nuclear testing is arguably the most heinous of consequences stemming from a utilitarian view of our natural world. As the desert around the Great Salt Lake was labeled a “blank spot,” it is, as Kingsley allows, not one of these “corners” that was admired by man. Kingsley was right: the utilitarian notion that man is the center of the universe is indeed conceited and will prove to be our downfall as we continue to destroy and irreparably alter the land we call home.

Another parallel can be drawn to the essay “Cutover” by Jan Zita Grover. In North Enough: AIDS and Other Clear-Cuts, Grover discusses the cultural legacy of damaged landscapes, focusing on a deforested region in northwestern Wisconsin. ” . . . I could call it damaged, but that would be to emphasize only its scars; what surprises and moves me is the nimbleness and unexpectedness of its recovery.” Grover suggests a problem with labeling the seemingly ugly and ravaged landscape as “damaged.” To our cultural and historical understanding, human effects on this region have damaged it through over-forestation, destroying the environment and ecology of what it used to be. Yet in Grover’s observation of the growing bogs and hardy jack pines, she is struck by the “nimbleness and unexpectedness of its recovery.” Although in a conventional sense it would be hard to say that this region is truly recovering, Grover points to its ability to adapt. To the thoughtful and patient observer it is undeniable that nature is recovering this landscape. While its forest has been cut away, the bog spreads.

Through the lense of experience in the Cutover, Grover obtains an altered perspective to the human understanding of life and death as a beginning and an end. In her experience with “Perry”, and the ravaging effects AIDS has on his body, she explains that he as an individual is adapting to the effects of the disease. Grover draws a parallel between the bogs of the Cutover with the reaction within Perry’s leg to the infection. “He is turning into something else, rich and strange — a dead organism, human peat. Dear bog.” Although this adaption comes with the final consequence of death, his damaged body, like the damaged landscape of the Cutover, points to a natural reaction. “Like that small meadow, the bay outside my door is slowly transmuting, stilting up to become a bog…If the next century is unusually dry and warm, the breakdown of water plants in the bay will accelerate and the bog along the western shore will expand; eventually the bog will dry to meadow. At that point, trees will begin to move in from the edges and form a swamp forest.” In this sense, Grover reaches an appreciation of the nimbleness of natural reaction to unnatural influences. It appears to bring her comfort that, while death appears absolute to our human perspective, we can rely on the paradigm of natural reaction that transcends our human understanding of a beginning and end. Williams concurs that “We usually recognize a beginning. Endings are more difficult to detect. Most often, they are realized only after reflection” (193).

Much like how Grover explores how culture shaped the “Cutover” into a damaged landscape, Williams explores “the Unnatural History of Time and Place.” These are in essence, the same goal, the same journey. As Grover compares her work with AIDS patients to the damage of the Cutover, Williams compares her mother’s struggle with cancer to the unnatural changes in the environment of Great Salt Lake. Grover would passionately refute the existence of a “blank spot” on the map. Although many of its human inhabitants might condemn the Cutover as barren and empty, used up of its usefulness, for Grover, “beauty flashes out unexpectedly.” Furthermore, she would likely be struck deeply by the damage that has been done to the desert. Compared to the destruction caused to the deforested cutover landscape, the destruction caused to Utah’s desert is more grotesque — and more permanent. It has altered and mutated the very nature of the environment down to a molecular level. It is the mutative destruction of nuclear waste and it will leave its cultural legacy of the past century until the end of time.

In my lifetime, I have discovered that wilderness, for me, provides a solace and rebirth that cannot be found in any societal construct. I have found that the habits and structures of American civilization are unsustainable. As Thomas Merton in Raids on the Unspeakable writes, “They have constructed a world outside the world, against the world, a world of mechanical fictions which contemn nature and seek only to use it up, thus preventing it from renewing itself and man” (11). The “daily grind” brings about depression and exhaustion. Our biological nature as animals of the earth despairs; it screams out at the unnatural patterns of our modern lives. We spend our days in traffic, sitting at desks, often becoming consumed by technology regardless of where we may be. Even for exercise we lift manufactured weights and run in place within the confines of a building. I choose not to ignore my nature. I am aware of the emptiness of many of the rituals of capitalist society and although this awareness might bring unhappiness, I embrace this discontent over ignorance. In this sense, I feel that I live a double life, where two separate entities clash and concede.

When I feel drained by the trivial struggles of society, that separate part of me yearns to get away. A weekend backpacking trip, although physically tiring, is, in my experience, the most rejuvenating and uplifting activity to combat this cabin fever. One of my favorite hiking spots is a Wilderness Area nestled in the mountains of West Virginia named Dolly Sods, a high-altitude plateau situated on the Allegheny Mountains within the Monongahela National Forest. In order to reach Dolly Sods, I must drive up the mountainside’s seemingly endless switchbacks on a lonely fire road until reaching the plateau. From there, I can choose from a multitude of trailheads. Often times, I navigate a circuitous route that is about 15 miles in length. One of the most unique aspects of this environment is the frequent transition of ecosystems within this relatively small plateau. Throughout the hike, I am confronted with rolling hills of blackberry bushes and heath barrens. With surprising quickness, my surroundings suddenly transform into a pine forest, and I am escorted by the tall trees along the passage of a heavy stream surging towards the lowland of the plateau. The stream stagnates into sphagnum bogs where thick spongy vegetation will suck at my unsuspecting boots. It is truly breathtaking and the austere landscape can often be lonely, but it is definitively not empty.

In a direct parallel to the desert around the Great Salt Lake, Dolly Sods was once utilized as an “empty spot,” deemed appropriate for military testing. In 1943 and 1944, Dolly Sods was part of the West Virginia Maneuver Area. The army utilized Dolly Sods as a practice range for artillery and mortar fire. In 1997 a work crew excavated the trails around Dolly Sods and found 14 live mortar shells. Although scarring from these explosive devices can be observed with a keen eye and the risk of stumbling upon live ordinances is still a small possibility, the landscape appears undeterred. Today, signs warn against the threat of finding live armaments. Even since the military usage of the 40s, Dolly Sods has been at risk. The unique environment has been threatened by developers, coal mining operations, and expressways. Not until the area was purchased by the Nature Conservancy and donated to the Forest Service in 1993 was Dolly Sods classified as a Wilderness Area and protected from development for residential and industrial projects.

What differs between Dolly Sods and the desert surrounding the Great Salt Lake is not the intentions for its use, but the manner in which it was used. While the damage caused to Dolly Sods pales in comparison to the horrific effects of nuclear fallout, both projects utilized these wilderness regions — these “blank spots” — destructively, without regard to the environment. Dolly Sods serves as an example of how we can avoid a destructive legacy. Although the unique and beautiful environment was abused and neglected, our society, through awareness and action, has come a long way in efforts toward maintaining its health. But all too often this is not the case. All too often we have abused and neglected beyond repair. All too often we “had no idea” of the consequences. The reality is that the radioactivity that unnaturally harmed Utah’s desert and its inhabitants for the past half century will continue long after we are gone. Even when people forget it ever happened, its cultural legacy will be secured in the mutated molecules of the landscape. Although it can be limited through the proper disposal of nuclear waste, it cannot be fully healed. In this passage, and throughout Refuge as a whole, Williams warns against a utilitarian view of nature that ignores the symbiotic and essential links that tie us to our environment. She stresses awareness and action against the detriments of our cultural legacy that, although caused in a blink of an eye, will have consequences on the environment for ages to come.

Visit Grant’s blog: On Muddled Waters