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


4 comments for “Here be monsters

  1. March 17, 2011 at 12:21 pm

    I’m starting to feel like I’m in Annie Hall and I’m trapped in the car with Christopher Walken.

  2. March 17, 2011 at 12:23 pm

    Yeah, I bet the Japanese people are certainly going to think so after they read this:

  3. Sylvia Hazel Hunter
    March 17, 2011 at 10:13 pm

    My heart definitely goes out to the people of Japan. I visited Osaka, Newagawa, Kyoto, and Hiroshima almost 3 years ago, and it was a life changing experience for me. The Japanese are so humble and have such a kind spirit. I also shared your love of watching UltraMan!

  4. March 18, 2011 at 8:56 am

    You should remember this… Wasn’t it the Happy Raine Show? The fake Indian woman who did the cartoons and the Three Stooges and Flash Gordon every day at 4 p.m. These were in the pre-Sesame Street days, of course…

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