Donald Williams meditates on his visit to the Trinity Site in New Mexico, the location of the explosion of the first atomic bomb, and describes his trip through the surrounding desert with Tim, a student of biology at the University of New Mexico.
The Trinity Site
By Donald Williams, M.A., Jungian Analyst (Boulder, Colorado)
In the predawn of July 16, 1945, in the New Mexico desert east of Socorro, we tested the first atomic bomb. Robert Oppenheimer was thinking of a line from the Bhagavad Gita: "I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds," while Kenneth Bainbridge was saying to him, "Well, now we're all sons of bitches." Facing the wind and blinding light of a mushrooming atomic fireball, Oppenheimer saw our godlike power, and Bainbridge gave his quick and plain moral summary. Outside Carrizozo, a small town close to the atomic test site, an old rancher was wondering why the sun seemed to come up in the west and then go down again. Time was out of joint.
The Trinity Site is part of the White Sands Missile Range. The site is closed to the public except one day a year, the first Saturday in October. In the 1980s when there was still a cold war, when the Soviet Union was an "evil empire," and when we readily worried about nuclear war, nuclear winter, and the possible end of the human species, I decided that I wanted to visit the place where we first detonated an atomic bomb.
Trinity is hardly noticeable in the sage and yucca of the Jornada high desert floor southeast of Albuquerque. The blast crater, once ten feet deep and twelve hundred feet across, was filled in by bull dozers and is now level with the valley that stretches flat out north and south. A few miles east of Ground Zero, the Oscura Range juts up three thousand feet, dry and stark but cooled here and there by the passing shadows of clouds. Thirty miles to the west the Rio Grande slugs southward but there is no water here in the valley. This long, flat north-south passage was called by the Spanish, "Jornada del Muerto," the journey of death. Here on this patch of the Jornada, the first atomic explosion burst over the desert floor with a heat to equal the sun's core. It fused the sand into green-gray glass. Oppenheimer gave the place a god-like name, "Trinity."
I arrived at the Trinity site early on the first Saturday in October. It was also Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement. A thousand people came here today to see where the nuclear age began. Were this place stripped of the chainlink fence, the buses and portable toilets, the visitors, helicopters, jeeps and soldiers, you would never know that anything had happened here. There's a trace of radiation, of course, but we couldn't see it. The Army said that the radiation level was safe but the little brochure they passed out advised against scratching in the dirt for Trinitite and sniffing dust up your nose.
I imagined Robert Oppenheimer standing here forty years ago in this hauntingly beautiful and unwelcoming place. I could see him use his rumpled hat to shield the midday sun but nothing softened the heat, the blowing sand, or the wide open starkness of the place. His figure was swallowed up by the sameness of the valley--the desert has a way of hiding things in the open. The McDonald ranch house behind him was a small, unremarkable feature of the landscape, like Oppie himself. The sun was relentless and so was the pressure on him to make this "gadget" that would end the second "war to end all war." I imagined Oppenheimer saying aloud, "Batter my heart, three person'd God," unexpectedly recalling John Donne's "Holy Sonnet," and then he knew, "'Trinity' will do." Memory has its reasons.
"Batter my heart"--I remember these words. I first heard them on a fall day at Duke University in 1963. Inside a classroom twelve of us were seated around a long seminar table listening to Reynolds Price recite this holy sonnet. In his late twenties and with a Navy pea coat draped over his shoulders, he leaned forward as he spoke, and he pressed his outstretched right hand against the table as though he were touching all of us through this reach of smooth dark wood. His voice was deep, unswerving:
Batter my heart, three person'd God; for, you
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend.
That I may rise, and stand, overthrow me, and bend
Your force, to break, blow, burn and make me new.
I, like an usurpt town, to another due,
Labor to admit you, but Oh, to no end,
Reason your viceroy in me, me should defend,
But is captived, and proves weak or untrue.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be loved faine,
But am betrothed unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie, or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
I remember Reynolds saying, slowly, carefully, "This is the most violent poem in the English language."
"Batter my heart...." Oppenheimer felt the moral weight of the death and suffering spread across Europe and the Pacific. He had to build the bomb before the Germans. And he hoped this greater atomic violence would end violence. Did he know then whose hearts were to be battered--his, ours, or only Japanese and German hearts? If he thought beyond 1945, and I imagine he did, what did he think of those of us to come? Did he think the horror of an atomic weapon would finally humble us: break, blow, burn, and make us new?
But John Donne was wrong, and Robert Oppenheimer was wrong. The longing for peace persists but it will not be reached or satisfied through violence. Neither the sun that was unleashed over Trinity, nor the dead at Hiroshima and Nagasaki have made us new. Violence breeds violence. The children of an angry God are angry children.
Out there on the Jornada del Muerto was a thin unimpressive pyramid of lava ten feet tall with a bronze plaque reading, "Trinity Site." In the afternoon two teenage girls struck modelling poses in front of the monument while another aimed a Polaroid. Laughing, they walked to the center of the levelled crater and bent down to scratch in the dirt. Perhaps they didn't read the inside cover of the Army's brochure with the radiation warning--no scratching, no sniffing. A man with his young son on his shoulders walked around the bomb casing that was brought here for the day from the Atomic Museum at Albuquerque. The bomb was a replica of the "Fat Man," nicknamed after Churchill and dropped over Nagasaki. The few remaining visitors looked at the faded black and white prints of the first atomic explosion that were mounted on matboard and shabbily hung on the chainlink fence around Ground Zero. The captions beneath the growing fireball read, "0.006 SEC., 0.009 SEC., 0.016 SEC., 0.034 SEC., 0.1 SEC . . . .." There was no way to take in the event that shook the ground we were standing on. There is a violent madness we cannot fathom, a madness that persists and, despite all prayers, will not make us new or free.
I saw the Trinity Site, read the history, understood the physics as well as I could, got to know a few of the personalities and the politics of the Manhattan Project. Still, I wanted some other way to know the place where the atomic age began. By chance, I heard of a biology graduate student at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque who showed an interest in roaming the bare land near the Trinity Site...just out of curiosity. Tim Fisher loved plants, knew their likes, dislikes, and personalities, and he loved wandering in the desert; I didn't know one plant from another but I, too, loved to wander, especially in the desert. I picked Tim up at his lab at the University on a Saturday morning in March, and we drove south, planning to stop just north of the White Sands Missile Range to look around.
We took a back road, Route 14, and headed down toward Carrizozo. We stopped for awhile at Gran Quivira to walk around the 1,300 year old pithouse ruins of the Mogollon, Anasazi, and Plains cultures. When we walked up a small hill, Tim pointed out the salt bushes--about three feet high with grayish leaves--that surrounded us and the ruins in a circle. "The salt bush likes disturbed land," he said, "land that's been walked on, trampled on, and loosened up." Out beyond the ruins where there were no buildings and no paths, the land was undisturbed--and there were no salt bushes. "If you're looking for an archeological site, keep an eye out for the salt bush. It follows people and animals."
We drove further south through Claunch and then along the eastern rim of the Chupadera Mesa, about thirty miles north of the Trinity Site and Ground Zero. The mesa is a limestone outcrop about 7,000 feet above sea level with pinon pine and juniper and open grassy meadows. This is grazing range. Chupadera Mesa received the heaviest dose of radiation outside the Trinity area. The early morning wind blew the radioactive cloud northeast, the heavier particles began to descend, and afternoon thundershowers concentrated radiation around the mesa. Weeks after the explosion, some cows began losing hair. The hair grew back, but it grew back white, not a Hereford color.
We drove past easy sloping hills, no fences, no cows, no trees, no large bushes. We passed one house-- finally. It seemed strange to think of living in such a wide open place: Where do your eyes go when you don't look at trees, other houses, people, cars? We drove a mile past the house and pulled over. For a minute we looked at the smooth, brownish, unremarkable land sloping west away from the road. There were a few round patches of green snakeweed and a few yucca plants. Not much to look at, but I was excited, and I could see Tim's eyes light up and his cheeks redden with a contagious smile.
We hadn't walked more than a few feet from the car before Tim kneeled down to look at a large deserted anthill on the side of the road. It was circular, about two feet in diameter, a mound of loose gravel. He said the gravel had been turned up as the ants worked through the soil. The rainwater then washed away the soil and left the gravel that was heavier. At the perimeter of the gravel mound was a full circle of delicate plants with curved light brown stems and a curl of spines at the top. As I looked around, I saw the same plant scattered about, but here they were united in a circle, like miniature trees enclosing an oasis or some mystery at the center. Tim explained that the gravel let in moisture and kept it in--not like the crusty sand inches away where the rainwater ran off and quickly evaporated. Besides, this soil was probably enriched by the ants.
When we walked further away, I looked back at the car now dwarfed by the hills, the sky, and the mountains in the distance. I was used to seeing my old Datsun next to other cars and up against buildings. Here it stood out like the house a mile away and like we did on the hill. It stood out, and it seemed insignificant, like an odd colored snakeweed--nothing spectacular in the clear light and space stretching twenty, thirty, or forty miles from where we were.
Tim called my attention over to the cholla. "Cows don't like it," he said, "When they brush against it and knock a piece off, the cholla will put down roots and start growing." I was reminded of the plants a friend described in the Grand Canyon--plants with thorns and bristles and every imaginable way of sticking to you or to anything else that moves. My friend decided that those plants were determined to get out of the Canyon, to go anywhere but where they were, and they would do anything to catch a ride. For the next couple hours Tim and I looked at cholla, soaptree yucca, different species of sage, and wondered about plants he didn't recognize.
As we walked back to the car, Tim told me about a book he wanted to write, a book about a small piece of land he planned to observe over an entire year. He was thinking about a spot just north of Albuquerque, a place he could easily visit while still working at the University. He planned to study the changes and the activity on this patch of land during the different seasons, at different times of day, in different weather. Finally, I asked, "How small?" He said, "Oh, six feet by six feet. I think that'd give me enough material for a book."
Copyright 1992 Donald Williams. All rights reserved