Particle Beams

"Luminous Quanta of Divine Intelligence…" dispelling the nuclear delusion

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Chimayo Garden

Jason pollinating the corn

Chimayo is a small village downwind of Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s known for its healing soil and the adobe church that was built to offer its healing powers. At Easter, there’s a pilgrimage to the church; people walk all the way from Albuquerque, 80 miles to the south. Most of the people who live there are Hispanic farmers, with a few gringo artists and eccentrics mixed in. Many also work at the Lab.

I was thinking about whether I would like to live there as I savored the beautiful landscape on a crystal clear summer morning. Recent rains had made the mountains green and the vegetation abundant, enhancing the charms of the little houses and shops along the roadside. The blue sky was studded with cloud formations each more magnificent than the last.

I was on my way to visit the Disarmament Encampment, conceived last year at a conference of young people held in Albuquerque by a new group called Think Outside the Bomb (TOTB). It’s a clever title — I like the way it echoes Einstein’s comment that you can’t solve a problem using the same terms with which it was created. You have to think outside the box to get rid of the bomb.

My directions weren’t good, but whenever I felt lost, a sign popped up. After driving down a dirt road full of potholes, I puzzled at a fork in the road until I saw a sign nestled in the grass that said “Park.” Down the driveway, a couple of young men were walking toward me. One of them looked familiar; was it Jason?

I had first met Jason at a meeting of northern New Mexico nuclear activists in Santa Fe. Soon after, I ran into him in the hallway at a meeting about the construction of the new bomb production facility, at LANL – Los Alamos National Laboratory — the Chemistry and Metallurgy Replacement building. He was leaning toward the wall as if he had taken refuge in an alley to duck a strong wind. He had looked at me plaintively. “I just couldn’t take any more of it,” he said. We had a bond right there.

Now I parked the car and headed down the driveway in the hot July sun. A pig grunted somewhere. Cloud formations continued to shape shift. A curious feeling came over me, as if I had been somewhere like this before. Now what was that about?

Jason was being interviewed by another young man with a camera the size of a cell phone while he walked about in the organic garden he had created weeks ago in preparation for the encampment, pausing to scoop some pollen out of a corn plant and deliver it to another plant, pollinating it. His arms hung at his sides as he gestured with his hands, his quiet intensity revealed in the set of his shoulders.

Now he interrupted his conversation to greet me with a firm hug. I told him I’d come to write about what they are doing and where could I put my laptop? We talked a little bit about him, and I found out he had graduated from UC Berkeley. He directed me to the Media tent, a-buzz with laptops and cell phones pursuing press coverage. There I ran into Jonathon Clarke Williams, an organizer employed by Peace Action, who offered me a tour of the camp. We crossed over the bridge – a single wooden plank over the acequia where some children were playing. They demanded a “high five” to pass. The wet sleeve of the boy’s shirt slapped my hand. We laughed.

On the other side, Jay Coghlan, director of NukeWatch, was sitting on the ground under a tarp, talking with a circle of young people; Jay is an expert in the absurdities of LANL policies. Further down, people were setting up art materials in preparation for making the wonderful puppets that have become a mainstay of protests since they were used in Seattle. The group was heading into Santa Fe the next day to demonstrate at the Plaza. Nearby was my destination, the row of composting toilets.

I know about composting toilets. In Sonoma County, California, where I lived for two decades, composting toilets were illegal, even though is some areas they represented the most practical solution to the problem of deteriorating septic systems. The County didn’t know how to insure proper maintenance.

Here I wondered about the disposal of the solid wastes. Jonathon knew the process well. He assured me that it only took two months for any bacteria to be neutralized. But what if it got into the groundwater? It’s 60 feet down, he said, it will never get into the groundwater. I chuckled. “Yes, that’s what they say at Los Alamos, and there it’s 600 feet down.”

“Yes,” he said, with some irritation at the comparison. “But ours only lasts two months, and theirs last thousands of years.”

It was a good answer.

The system here was very simple. An area had been set up with a string of little stalls separated by canvas “walls”; toilet seats set in plywood had been placed on top of five-gallon buckets. One sat facing a wall of trees; quite nice. No intoxicating smell of heavy chemicals; no smell at all. When done, one covered one’s donation with some old leaves from another bucket, keeping away flies while helping to supply nitrogen to the process. No muss, no fuss. I guess the buckets were emptied every night into the pit that Jonathon had described. Walled off by hay bales, the contents would become rich compost in two months time.

Pretty cool set-up, I thought. I’m told you can learn a lot about your health by looking at your shit. This outdoor bathroom told me a lot about this permaculture camp. I don’t know whether this compost is really safe enough for the vegetable garden, but certainly it will fulfill its role of completing the food cycle by going back into the earth. The process is clean and simple, and a whole lot of water is saved. (For a more complete discussion of composting, see

Jeff goofing for the camera

Bull's eye!

I walked back to resume my conversation with Jeff Freitas, the fellow who had been interviewing Jason when I came in. He wanted to interview me! That was a surprise. I had mentioned that I was writing a book, and something I said intrigued him, I don’t remember what. He was extremely easy to talk to; one thought led easily to another. Now I reflected on my experience at the composting toilets to illuminate my general feeling of déjà vu. I was seeing this moment as if it were superimposed on the Sixties. We had come round the spiral again.

In those days, the move “back to the land” was a much more primitive experience. Think stunted carrots and wooden bowls full of black beans for dinner. And where the end product went, nobody knows; outhouses are not quite the same thing as composting toilets, and as I recall there were not very many of them.

As much as this experience seemed enfolded in the earlier one (would this be David Bohm’s idea of the “implicate order”?), there were other differences. Lots of people went naked in the communes, and of course most of them were stoned. Here, sensitive to the needs of the surrounding community, which grapples with the devastating effects of serious drugs like methamphetamine, no drugs were allowed.

As for sense of purpose, in those days the experience was the purpose I suppose – the defiant act of burning one’s draft card and leaving so-called civilization to explore the sense of connection that later evolved into holistic health, ecology, and new spiritual practices like meditation and ritual. The encampment was a summer vacation, not a full time residence, and its dedication was quite specific: to bring youth together to protest the bomb. Even then, it would never have existed without the Sixties, the one grown so inextricably out of the former that you can’t miss the signature if you try.

Jeff and I talked for a couple of hours about all this, and while I’m looking forward to seeing his video, the conversation itself was reward enough for me. There was magic in it. Quite literally. Starhawk had been here, doing her Earth Activist Training with these kids. Perhaps that great permaculture witch had left an energetic trail in this land; that too is familiar to me. It’s a beautiful piece of land, owned by a mother-daughter team who teach natural healing methods to young people here. Their magic is here too.

But, said Jeff, many of my friends say that the Sixties failed.

Failed? With the Civil Rights movement followed by the women’s movement? With the protests that finally ended the war in Vietnam? And the spiritual explorations? I don’t think so! It’s true the world seems to have gone retrograde, especially with Bush and the war in Iraq. Does that mean we failed?

It’s just taking longer than we expected, I told Jeff. Now we’re in the midst of a period of dissolution that we predicted all those years ago. Climate change is crashing in. Obama’s clear campaign voice has run into stone walls. The economy is affecting everyone. If we’re finding it hard to come up with solutions right now, that’s because it’s not the time for solutions. It’s a time to bear witness, to strengthen our networks, and be prepared.

Maybe I got a bit carried away. If that bomb goes off, and it could, we are going to be hard put to feel positive about the movement of Time.

But until the end comes, it’s not the end of the world, is it?

Could be, it’s only the beginning.


Written by stephaniehiller

August 12, 2010 at 2:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Storming the Barricades in Los Alamos

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It’s been decades since youth spearheaded a campaign against the bomb, but in recent years, a new group called Think Outside the Bomb has formed, based in Albuquerque but drawing its members from all corners of the country.

TOTB is an offshoot of a group organized by University of California students,  Nuclear Free UC from Santa Barbara, who protested against the University’s alliance with the nuclear industry. (Until a few years ago, UC ran the labs; now that the Sandia National Laboratory, Lawrence Livermore and Los Alamos are run by a private consortium, UC is still involved in management.) In 2006, a few of those young people came out to Albuquerque to serve as interns with the Los Alamos Study Group, and last year some of them named themselves Think Outside the Bomb and put together a conference in Albuquerque.

They were so delighted with the results that they decided to try “something bigger,” as Jonathan Clarke Williams, an organizer with Peace Action based in Washington, DC, told me the other day.

That ambition gave rise to this year’s ten day “disarmament encampment” in Northern New Mexico. The group held several meetings in surrounding cities, gained an impressive amount of press coverage, and then launched three nonviolent actions. On the 65th anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima, 150 people marched to Los Alamos National Lab. There, some crossed the fence into the area where the new Chemistry and Metallurgy building is going to be built; eight people were arrested.

It was something new, a revival of something old, for here in New Mexico activist groups have assumed the attire and professionalism of the lab and have taken to court, attending endless hearings, paging through massive documents, consulting experts and writing voluminous rebuttals to challenge, and sometimes sue, the labs. As Joseph Masco wrote in The Nuclear Borderlands, an anthropological analysis of New Mexico’s unique position in the nuclear industrial complex, these serious and detailed legal challenges have forced the labs, if not to clean up their acts, at least to answer to someone outside their privileged walls where secrecy has been a hallowed tradition.

The return to storming the gates hearkens to earlier times and, perhaps, times to come.

Alas, the local press, which gave such generous attention to the appealing idealism of the encampment, printed nothing about the nonviolent action in Los Alamos.

I visited the encampment twice during their stay here and was enraptured by the beautiful young people and the environment they created. For me, a graduate of the Sixties (so to speak), this experience was at once something familiar, and something new. What follows in the next installment is a report of my visit. In the light of some of the discussions about what is going on these days with a nuclear policy that speaks simultaneously of disarmament and modernization, this little piece may seem nostalgic and sentimental. So it was. But I hope you will find a germ of truth in this bit of rapture.

Written by stephaniehiller

August 12, 2010 at 2:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Remembering Nagasaki Aug 9, 1945

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PARTICLE BEAMS: Dispelling the nuclear nightmare with the laser of truth

This blog is going to be about, (sigh), nuclear weapons and how to get rid of them. I named it Particle Beams because those are lasers like the ones that they are trying to use to create Strategic Defense against incoming nuclear missiles. So far, Strategic Defense, commonly known as Star Wars, does not work. Reagan gave up a chance to make a treaty with Gorbachev for nuclear disarmament because he wouldn’t give up his Star Wars and Gorbachev wouldn’t sign any agreement as long as Star Wars was in place.

This is how disarmament always gets derailed. Fear and distrust over-ride good sense and hope. We’re afraid of the Bomb – afraid of our own shadows – and with good reason.

I believe it’s going to take something more than bean-counting to eliminate this terrible scourge that threatens to annihilate human life in seconds,  leaving the planet uninhabitable for centuries.

It’s going to require an evolutionary leaptake vision — an understanding of where the bomb came from, why it was invented, and how we can evolve out of the insane mess it has made of our so-called civilization.

Because if you look at America today – its secrecy, its lies, its domination by the military-industrial complex, its corruption, and what’s beginning to look like its inevitable demise, you can trace all that back to the invention of the Gadget.

In order to develop the vision we need to actually get rid of it (and survive), we’re going to have to bring the dread thing out of the closet, examine it, discuss it and demand that it be buried once and for all.

According to repeated surveys, two-thirds of the American public agree that nuclear weapons should be eliminated. But even then, most people just don’t want to talk about bombs over dinner.

I am here to encourage everyone to stare this gruesome thing in the face so that we can get rid of it. You know, it’s just like conquering monsters in nightmares: you have to look at them! Like the Witch in Wizard of Oz — when Judy Garland poured water on her, she melted. Just like that.

This blog, “Particle Beams,” is about piercing the delusions of the nuclear imagination and making it disperse. Just like that.

Because that is what is sustaining the whole multi-billion dollar nuclear enterprise: a delusion. The belief that this country needs 5,000 thermonuclear weapons on hair trigger alert to protect us from our enemies, who are currently a batch of ragtag terrorists lurking in the mountains of Pakistan and threatening to take 4 million American lives with a nuclear bomb to pay the US back for 4 million Muslim lives presumed to be lost as a result of American policies.

Someone should just laugh. Really. It’s beyond ridiculous. Yet here we have people like Senator John Kyl pressuring President Obama to budget more and more money for nuclear weapons “modernization” by saying “we won’t ratify that New START Treaty you finally signed with Russia unless you pay for more weapons.” Do you know that the nuclear weapons budget is already higher than it has ever been — higher than at any time during the Cold War?

I mean, life was more civilized in the sandbox, boys. Give it up!

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Senator John Kyl (R-AZ) deserves an entry of his own, and he’s going to get it.This is supposed to be an introduction for heaven’s sakes! You know, “a letter to the world/that never wrote to me.” [Emily Dickinson]

For unknown reasons, I’ve been thinking about the bomb my entire life. I don’t ever want to live through what the Japanese people endured in Hiroshima or Nagasaki. I don’t want my children to live through it. I don’t want you to live through it or die in it, and I don’t even know you. Nobody should have to experience nuclear war.

People like to say that we should just forget about it. What you resist, persists, they say, bungling the words of the great psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who meant the opposite of this excuse for denial. He meant that if you resist your own deepest desires, they will go into your shadow but they will never go away.

Another common perspective on the bomb is that even talking about nuclear war is too negative. Let’s talk about positive things – angels, gardens, peace and cookies.

That’s another pretty excuse for denial.

Taking a stand against something negative is a positive act. Two negatives make a positive – isn’t that basic algebra? If you say NO to a very bad thing, you are putting positive energy in the right direction.

So today, on the 65th anniversary of the US bombing of Nagasaki – a completely extraneous and unnecessary act of cruelty that even freaked out J. Robert Oppenheimer – I ask you to consider for one minute what it would be like if a nuclear bomb was exploded in an American city.

If you don’t know, please go see the new movie Countdown to Zero, so that you can find out. You need to know! The way to make something dark and nasty go away is to bring it to consciousness. That is what Jung meant.

Countdown to Zero was made by the makers of An Inconvenient Truth, and it caps a worldwide effort to eliminate nuclear weapons once and for all (see for example It’s very well done. You can find the movie listings at the movie’s web site.

I think you’ll agree with what we are saying here in New Mexico, where the bomb was built: “65 years is enough! IT’S TIME TO RETIRE THE BOMB.”

I’ll be back tomorrow to tell you about a great new youth movement called Think Outside the Bomb. I look forward to your comments!

Written by stephaniehiller

August 9, 2010 at 2:32 pm