Tragedy, coincidence and patterns

Review of “Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West” by Sarah Alisabeth Fox.

  • The first nuclear test detonation, code named Trinity, at the White Sands Proving Ground in New Mexico, 1945.

    cc via wikipedia
 

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West

Sarah Alisabeth Fox

328 pages, hardcover: $29.95.

University of Nebraska Press, 2014.

Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West constitutes an unofficial history of the atmospheric testing era (1951-1992) — the human stories that were never part of the record. Sarah Alisabeth Fox, a folklorist, spent eight years talking to people from the Four Corners region of the West. Their accounts bear witness to a series of personal tragedies: lung disease, late-term miscarriage, children with rare leukemia. Though government-collected data found clear links with radiation exposure, the findings were buried to reassure citizens of the safety of nuclear development. The scientists succeeded in splitting the atom; in turn, the downwinders’ stories split apart the “official fictions” created to hide the consequences.

In St. George, Utah, for instance, 5-year-old Claudia, playing on her swing set, watched a “big red ball come up over the horizon.” Decades later, her father and sister succumbed to cancer, her own toddler to monoblastic leukemia. Animals were affected, too: In 1953, sheep and lambs in Cedar City died en masse. Over time, these individual tragedies morphed from possible coincidences into discernable patterns. “As modern-day observers, our first question … is invariably… of scope: How many bombs? How much uranium? How much sickness?” Fox delivers a seminar in Nuclear History 101 with intelligent clarity, drawing from “declassified federal documents, archival records, journalistic coverage, and epidemiological studies,” and merging the results with downwinders’ stories.      

Officials condescendingly dismissed the downwinders’ experiences, Fox notes. Regarding the sheep die-off, she writes, “Raising sheep is not something one does on a lark while sitting atop a horse, contemplating wide-open western spaces.” Outsiders might have a “preconceived notion of rural ignorance,” but the ranchers themselves rely on “a cultural system of common sense drawn from local, experiential knowledge of forage conditions, weather patterns, plant characteristics, diagnosis and treatment of a variety of diseases, predator management, breeding, and lambing.”

In addition to illuminating the past, this book also sheds light on the present, challenging us to wonder what “official fictions” are being constructed today. We can learn from the downwinders, recognize the connection between living systems and act to protect our lives and the planet we depend on before more disasters occur. “Common sense tends to be undervalued as a source of wisdom,” Fox writes, “yet the body of knowledge it encompasses is by no means simplistic or generic.”

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • CUSTOMER SERVICE ASSISTANT - (PART-TIME)
    High Country News, an award-winning media organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a part-time Customer Service Assistant, based at...
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....