01 April 2008

Struck by fragility

Mid-morning in Los Alamos: I’m walking among the prickly pears.  Pinon pines. Bush-size and tree-size junipers. It’s too early in the Southwest spring for wildflowers. All around me but well hidden are horny toads, sidewinders, diamondback rattlesnakes and lizards of huge variety. Bobcats walked here while I slept. Pumas, too. Elk and deer. 

Under my feet: Red dirt. Tan dirt. Brown dirt. White dirt. Everywhere is rock of all shapes and sizes: blackish-red volcanic boulders contrasting with smooth basalt. Crumbly, melty, mesa rock in wavery stripes of pink and coral.

Above my head: Red-tail hawks soar interconnecting spirals in a cloudless, china-blue sky.

In my ears: A chorus of birdsong, which starts at sunrise and doesn’t end until nightfall; the shush of the unimpeded wind and suddenly, a shocking, huge ka-boom -- the sound of an explosion.

“What was that?” I ask, startled. My sister and I are walking the soft, sandy bottom of an arroyo in the wilderness near her house.

“Oh, the lab blew something up,” she says, unconcerned. But I’m curious, so she points to some nearby mountaintops. A brown plume rises into the air above one of them. It starts to shred on the wind and is nearly gone before I can prepare my camera for a photograph.

 “They do it all the time,” she shrugs. “You live around here for a while, you don’t even notice anymore.”

It’s easy to forget that it was in this very desert that busy scientists with pencils and slide-rules came up with and tested the nuclear bomb. Yesterday, I teared up, moved by the sublimity and grace of Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, viewed in the hush of the Santa Fe gallery with her name. 

The blast is an abrupt, ugly reminder of the human hell we create even here, surrounded by this wild, fragile beauty.  

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