In 1962, the poet George Oppen published a poem called “Time of the Missile.” “My love, my love,” he wrote, “We are endangered / Totally at last.” It was the right year to come to that conclusion—the year of the Cuban missile crisis and the year nuclear testing reached its all-time peak. In 1962, the United States conducted ninety-eight nuclear tests and the Soviet Union seventy-eight. Thirty-five of America’s tests that year were atmospheric—launched by rocket or dropped from a plane—all but two of them in the Pacific Ocean. The rest were detonated underground in Nevada. Traces of the atmospheric tests were mostly scattered by the winds and absorbed by the seas. But the underground tests—and there were at least seven hundred more over the next thirty years—left a pox-like pattern of craters in the desert some sixty-five miles northwest of Las Vegas, a stark monument of deliberate ruin.
If you examine the Nevada nuclear test sites using Google satellite view or its equivalent (start at the Sedan Crater—37°10’36.7″N, 116°02’46.2″W—and work your way south), you see an irregular array of circles. They’re scattered within a rough grid of service roads and cross-hatchings that have been bulldozed into the surface crust of a long north–south valley. But a satellite view almost inevitably turns landscape into metaphor. Analogies spring to mind so forcibly that it takes a conscious effort to resist them, to insist upon the reality of what you’re seeing. Yes, the landscape looks almost lunar. Yes, these could be nightmarish crop circles or dusty, haphazard versions of the center-pivot irrigation fields you come across throughout the semi-arid West. Some of the circles do indeed look like the top of a fallen cake or the entrance to a subterranean ant colony. But each one is a subsidence crater, the slumping cone that results when hundreds of thousands of tons of earth and rock are vaporized far below ground.
In 1996 and 1997, the Department of Energy and the US Air Force allowed the photographer Emmet Gowin to take photographs of Nevada’s nuclear landscape from a helicopter. These have now been gathered in a new book, The Nevada Test Site, published by Princeton University Press. Gowin’s original prints aren’t large, about 10” x 10”. But even slightly reduced in size, they give a sense of extraordinary scale, thanks to the raking light and the stark immensity of the Nevada basin. The intimate clarity of Gowin’s lens makes it look as though every detail within its range is aspiring to be noticed. On the desert floor, cause and effect seem to have been reversed. The craters look as though they’re ancient geological formations, the roads added later by curious investigators exploring these strange formations. But, of course, it happened the other way around. The roads—some of them only dusty tracks—led to shafts drilled hundreds of feet into the earth. Down those bore-holes nuclear devices were detonated, causing a subterranean tremor (sometimes felt in Las Vegas) and raising a strange, flattened plume of dust, lifted by a wind with no direction and for which there is no name.
Nearly all of the circular scars in Gowin’s photographs were caused by explosions that the Department of Energy calls “weapons related.” In other words, they’re the test-bed of this country’s invisible nuclear arsenal. By the time Gowin photographed these sites, most of the infrastructure of observation—towers and trailers, temporary shelters and great girths of cable—was long gone. The exception is the serried ranks of troop placement trenches scratched into a hillside in Area 5. The landscape has an archaeological feel, especially where the irradiated desert soil has been scraped away, leaving behind dark etchings in the silvered surface of the earth. Looking at these photographs, you feel as though you’re witnessing the preliminary survey of an unknown planet—a close flyby revealing traces of abandoned alien activity. Except that the aliens are us and the planet, to use Oppen’s words, “is / Impenetrably ours.”
Alien and unknown—those words practically define the Nevada test site. After 1951, when nuclear testing began in Nevada, this landscape was hidden from public view, access severely restricted. (Access is still restricted, except for official tours.) Until 1993, after the fall of the Soviet Union—our main nuclear adversary—Americans knew almost nothing of the extent of our own country’s testing. The final tally published by the Department of Energy that year—1,054 nuclear tests overall—is a terrifying number, given that we still live in the shadow of the two small atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The Nevada Test Site is an act of recovery, a way of creating a visual counterpart that will help us begin to understand—and remember—the cumulative impact of 1,054 nuclear tests. What it can’t reveal is traces of the hundred atmospheric tests that were also conducted in Nevada before 1963—or, of course, the long-term effects of testing on the environment, on the nation, and on ourselves.
Emmet Gowin is best known for photographs of his family in Virginia—domestic black-and-whites, peaceful images of his wife, Edith, and children taken in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Nevada Test Site records a realization that many of us have come to, looking back on our lives: nothing was ever what it seemed. If you look beyond those intimate early portraits of Edith Gowin, of children wrestling on the grass, of the overlapping generations, you realize that this—this testing—is what was going on. It was always there in the background. Gowin’s later career has been shaped by this fundamental awareness.
I want to record here an instance of my own dawning awareness, something I didn’t know until recently. I was born in a little town called Meeker in northwestern Colorado. On May 17, 1973, long after my family had moved away, three nuclear blasts were detonated simultaneously roughly thirty-one miles southwest of Meeker and some six thousand feet underground. Each blast had a yield (that harvest-like word) of thirty-three kilotons—slightly less than the combined power of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs. The purpose? To liberate natural gas—nuclear fracking. The test was unsuccessful, because the gas was radioactive. On that day, two ways of being “endangered totally” were fused into one. All our lives we’ve been threatened—and are still threatened—by the instantaneous heat of the sun, in the form of nuclear weapons. And all that while, the slow heat of fossil fuels was being fired, with consequences that are now swiftly revealing themselves. Today, we can give George Oppen’s words—“endangered / Totally”— a completely new meaning, though he will always leave us wondering about the nostalgic sound of the phrase, “at last.”
The Nevada Test Site by Emmet Gowin is published by Princeton University Press.