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The Tainted Desert

Environmental Ruin in the American West

By Valerie L. Kuletz

New York: Routledge, 1998
336 pp., $22.99 (U.S.), $31.99 (Canada), paper
ISBN: 0-415-91771-9

As recent budget discussions on Capitol Hill have made so clear, with the Soviets out of the picture, the Cold War continues for a U.S. establishment addicted to global mastery. How timely, then, that a new book examines the terrible price we've paid for this addiction here, much closer to home. For readers familiar with the anti-nuclear efforts of the Southwest Research and Information Center, Valerie Kuletz's The Tainted Desert: Environmental Ruin in the American West might seem to cover familiar ground; but it is ground we're doomed to have to keep treading until we get it straight. In this voluminous, sober, and occasionally poetic study, the author reminds us how we have rationalized the systematic poisoning of our land and its indigenous caretakers through four decades of fearing death from afar.

Kuletz' own perspective is unusually privileged. The daughter of a weapons scientist, she grew up at China Lake, the U.S. Department of Defense research and testing center in the Mojave Desert. For years she could see over the California border the spectral mushroom clouds of each new explosion at the Nevada Test Site, and later could feel the earth move when those tests went underground. It's a personal history, she writes, that has made her familiar with the high-wire fences, the radar antennae, stealth aircraft, and well- maintained roads leading off into the middle of nowhere. Such personal history makes her "keenly aware of the signs of power in the landscape" and able to recognize the tell-tale signs of objective authority masking the magic trick of invisibility.

The first of the book's two parts looks at the competing world views that have laid claim to the Southwest interdesert region: the Mojave, site of the heaviest nuclear testing and dumping; and the Four Corners area, where uranium was discovered and experimented with. Here the desert is a site of collision for two wholly incompatible cultural constructions: the Euroamerican (that the land is impractical, a non-productive object whose sole value comes from the fact that it is lacking in use), and the Indigenous (that the land is sacred).

For the Paiute and Shoshone in the Mojave, and the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni in the Four Corners, the land is a metaphor for no less than life itself, with place names that speak of springs, animals, and valuable plants.

Kuletz pays special attention to how maps and symbols have been used to represent this region. More than anything else, the Cold War was sold to the public through maps representing the spread of communism, especially in Indochina and Eastern Europe. In the Southwest, map making and other "social-scientific" processes of objectification retain their weapon-like status to control and contain a competing world view. For instance, just before the entrance to the Nevada Test Site a sign attempts to teach visitors about that part of the Mojave region and its people: "Archaeological studies of the NTS area have revealed continuous occupation by prehistoric man from about 9,500 years ago. The last aboriginal group to occupy the site was the Southern Paiute who foraged plant foods in season and occupied the area until the coming of the pioneers." As history, the claim may come as a surprise to the Southern Paiute families who were forcibly ejected from the land when testing began in the 1940s; as anthropology, it makes no mention at all of the Western Shoshone, who lived nomadically on this land for centuries.

Comparing official maps (with top-secret zones covering thousands of miles) to activist maps of radioactive hotspots, mines, and secret "areas," Kuletz illustrates how control is taken through the process of rendering invisible that which should not be seen. Unable to control representation of their own land and bitterly divided over how to represent their own formerly nomadic relationship to it, the Shoshone and Paiute have been reduced to quarreling over the rights to claim a valley or canyon as their own. Such mapping can also play a role in reclaiming the land for the people, though, and Kuletz reminds us that "naming and mapping the land opens a space for other critical narratives to emerge." Indeed, half the maps she provides here were obtained through activist networks who understand this point; and she includes many individual voices, such as Corbin Harvey (the Western Shoshone spiritual leader) and a Laguna Pueblo woman with cancer whose family had all died from the health consequences of mining uranium.

The second part of The Tainted Desert zooms in on one project in particular, the proposed construction of the longterm storage facility at Yucca Mountain, just west of Las Vegas. Yucca Mountain is one of two long-range plans being currently debated to permanently house nuclear waste (the disputed Waste Isolation Pilot Project near Carlsbad, N.M., is the other). If completed as planned, the project will house most of the lethal atomic waste known to humanity, more than 70,000 tons of high-level waste in all.

To explore the inner workings of the political machine operating behind the scenes at Yucca Mountain, Kuletz takes the reader on a fascinating tour of the facility, from the gaping entrance where tiny workers expose the massive scale of the project, to the daily air-conditioned bus tours from Las Vegas; from egregiously biased cultural and environmental studies, to the "Healing Global Wounds" protests that bring white and native people together as witnesses to the misappropriation of sacred and wonderful land. In all, Kuletz pulls together a wide array of technical and cultural material to paint a picture of a wildly contested site whose future remains uncertain.

Something hinted at here but rarely explored is the almost mystical way in which oppositional ways of being have come together in the same place. It might be argued that this is not the domain of the activist but of the artist, such as photographer Richard Misrach, whose starkly beautiful picture of an atomic crater illustrate the cover of The Tainted Desert. Indeed, there are even elements of prophecy to native beliefs, such as the story of the giant mythological snake that lives buried beneath Yucca Mountain who shakes uncontrollably when angered. What science might see as merely a seismic fault waiting for discovery can also be seen as a dangerous portent of trying to control the environment. In the end, who's to say which perspective is the greater?

Reviewed by Robert J. Rosenthal

Available from:
Routledge
29 W. 35th St.
New York, NY 10001

Robert J. Rosenthal is membership coordinator with the Independent Press Association in San Francisco.

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