Here be monsters

As a kid, I loved–I mean absolutely adored–Japan­ese daikaiju eiga: mon­ster movies and tele­vi­sion shows.

I, of course, arrived too late to the party of the orig­i­nal Godzilla, released in 1954, but I sat riv­eted at the spec­ta­cle of Destroy All Mon­sters, fea­tur­ing the shudder-inducing tri­fecta of Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra, in 1968–my appetite for such fare hav­ing been whet­ted start­ing in about 1966 by the Ultra­man series.

Hay­ata, my first Asian crush

Do you remem­ber Ultra­man? He looks now exactly like a guy in a sil­ver suit doing lame karate with  “mon­sters” who were also guys in  var­i­ously col­ored suits adorned with horns, tails, dor­sal fins, and other rub­ber accou­trements vaguely sug­ges­tive of the dinosaur.

But at the time, I was enthralled, and Hayata–Ultraman’s alter-ego–was my first Asian crush, paving the way, along with his cohorts in Japan’s myth­i­cal “Sci­ence Patrol,” for a pas­sion­ate love of car­toon­ishly inflated bat­tles of good vs. evil from the Green Hor­net to Kung Fu through Crouch­ing Dragon, Hid­den Tiger, Heroes and far beyond.

So it’s with a chill that I rec­og­nize that the source of those deli­ciously scary long-ago mon­sters and the source of my com­pletely adult night­time ter­rors of the past week are one and the same:


Our new nuclear night­mare: Fukushima

Somehow–though I was born dur­ing the Cold War, though I remem­ber  things like SALT and START, Reagan’s ‘80s-era arms race and pop star rebukes like Sting’s “Rus­sians,” though I’d even quite recently read about  peti­tions and protests against the expan­sion of nuclear power at  nearby Lake Anna, and resigned myself to the notion that nuclear energy might some­how be “green”–I’d man­aged to for­get all about … actual radi­a­tion … how lit­tle any­one seemed to under­stand it when I was grow­ing up, even though it shaped our most  minute choices. Not to men­tion how much it fright­ened us.

Godzilla, Cold War symbol

Now I’m recall­ing that Godzilla–conceived less than nine years after  Hiroshima and Nagasaki–embodied those fears, too. Accord­ing to his “ori­gin story,” he was the prod­uct of a nuclear det­o­na­tion: a ves­sel  and an apt metaphor for  all the free-floating anx­i­eties inspired by “mutu­ally assured destruc­tion”  dur­ing the nuclear age.

In the sixty-odd inter­ven­ing years, of course, the Berlin Wall had fallen and–aside from dis­tant fears of ter­ror­ists with dirty bombs–the long nuclear night­mare had come to seem like just that … a bad dream. But in the wake of Japan’s 9.0 earth­quake and 30-plus-foot tsunami waves, the repressed has returned with a vengeance, and the  car­toon mon­ster that so haunted my child­ish dreams now seems infi­nitely prefer­able to the cat­a­stro­phe of the Real.

I live half-on-half-off the grid–I have high speed inter­net but no cable or satel­lite TV–so it’s some­times dif­fi­cult to get the news. What I see on the inter­net are head­lines from around the world bleat­ing “Worse than Cher­nobyl.” What I hear on the net­works, between “human inter­est” fea­tures and ads for the mir­a­cle belly fat cure, are reas­sur­ing noises from the nuclear power indus­try and from the admin­is­tra­tion, coo­ing: “It’s impos­si­ble that any­thing like that could hap­pen here” and “We’re stay­ing the course on nuclear power.”

Just asking–are you reas­sured? ‘Cause I’m not.

Now, I’m a rea­son­able gal. I totally get that it’s prob­a­bly too soon to talk about mak­ing national pol­icy on the basis of events on the other side of the world whose full dimen­sions and impli­ca­tions may not be known for years. But these pro­nounce­ments on “U.S. com­mit­ment” to nuclear energy seem geared more to the fears and anx­i­eties of mar­kets than to those of ordi­nary Amer­i­cans. And from where I sit, hav­ing risen at five a.m. so I’d have time for inter­ces­sory prayers for the peo­ple of Japan before I have to get ready for my day’s teach­ing, that seems … just so wrong and so emblem­atic of the things that make me despair of our country.

I am a per­son securely anchored in a place–a place that I’ve just been forcibly reminded is within  50 miles of the North Anna Nuclear Gen­er­at­ing Sta­tion. So, in the face of the heart-breaking images pour­ing out of Japan, what I want to hear from  the dis­em­bod­ied talk­ing heads  on TV that seem to have so much say over my life is not their com­mit­ment to ensur­ing that investors are able to con­tinue to extract their bajil­lions from the nuclear indus­try. What I want to hear is that they have a place–or fail­ing that, I want to hear they under­stand what it means to live in a place, par­tic­u­larly a place where the obscene under­belly of the nuclear promise has sud­denly become abun­dantly, heart-wrenchingly evident.

Appar­ently, there are no longer any coin­ci­dences in my life. Yes­ter­day, the book I’m read­ingWen­dell Berry’s Home Eco­nom­ics–con­tained a pas­sage that almost made me say “amen” out loud at the bus stop. In an essay titled “Home Defense and Higher Edu­ca­tion,” the author describes a pub­lic hear­ing for a pro­posed nuclear power plant near his farm (!) Now this is an old book, pub­lished in 1987, so the hear­ing prob­a­bly took place in the  the early 1980s. I do recall there being a flush of nuclear power con­struc­tion and anti-nuke activism dur­ing that period…

Any­way, dur­ing this long-ago hear­ing, the pro­fes­sion­als seemed near to car­ry­ing the day until a young woman asked a decep­tively sim­ple ques­tion: How many of the experts tes­ti­fy­ing, she asked, lived within the 50-mile dan­ger zone sur­round­ing the plant? When the answer came back … not a one, it revealed the pro­fes­sional advo­cates, in Berry’s words, as “the purest sort of careerists–‘upwardly mobile’ tran­sients who will per­mit no stay or place to inter­rupt their per­sonal advance.” He continued:

In order to be able to des­e­crate, endan­ger, or destroy a place, after all, one must be able to leave it and to for­get it. One must never think of any place as one’s home; one must never think of any place as any­one else’s home. One must believe that no place is as valu­able as what it might be changed into or as what might be taken out of it.

That’s where I almost said “amen” out loud at the bus stop.

Berry went fur­ther, indict­ing our sys­tem of higher edu­ca­tion, which, he pointed out, was cre­ated to edu­cate local kids to strengthen local com­mu­ni­ties but that instead turns out preda­tors, loyal only to their own pro­fes­sions and their own advance­ment, who return the favor of pub­licly sub­si­dized edu­ca­tion by rav­aging their own com­mu­ni­ties and every­one else’s, too, in the name of the almighty dol­lar. Here, I went quiet, think­ing of my own students–those bright sweet kids who seem so clear-eyed about the lifestyles to which they aspire and what they are resigned to hav­ing to do to achieve them …

Some peo­ple might say Berry’s por­trait is over­drawn. I say I don’t think he goes quite far enough. This ten­sion he’s describ­ing, between com­mit­ment to a place and a rest­less, buc­ca­neer­ing place­less­ness, is one that I see as being woven into the very fab­ric of Amer­i­can cul­ture from its ear­li­est begin­nings. For every Jef­fer­son bleat­ing that “those who labor in the earth are the cho­sen peo­ple of God,” there were, after all, dozens work­ing the soil (or their slaves) to death in search of quick prof­its then mov­ing on to the next fer­tile field.

You know it and I know it. This way of think­ing about the earth–as raw mate­r­ial to be exploited, rather than as our haven, our home, our habi­tat,  as any­thing that might be pre­cious or in need of protection–is a deeply ingrained habit in this nation. To change it, there would have to be another Amer­i­can Rev­o­lu­tion, one more far-reaching than the first: a rev­o­lu­tion in values.

I don’t know if such a rev­o­lu­tion is on its way or not, but to see why one might be needed, we need look no fur­ther than the drawn faces of the Japan­ese prime min­is­ter and  emperor, the stunned and stricken faces of the offi­cials from Tokyo Elec­tric Power: the faces of men who thought they had domin­ion over nature and who have now been undeceived.

The North Anna plant, exactly 50 miles from my house



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