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
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...