I know I’m a bit late to the party, but I want to write about the Oppenheimer movie today. I haven’t seen it and don’t plan to, though that is mostly because I just don’t watch movies. (I prefer books, in large part because of how much time I spend in front of a screen for work.) I want to reflect on this movie because I’m grieving how we humans still persist on believing there is actually “empty space” left on this planet.
A friend (and faithful follower of my blog posts) shared this review of the movie, which focused on how “The blockbuster movie leaves out the real story’s main characters: New Mexicans.” You see, the US government ignored the fact that the Trinity Site in southern New Mexico, where Oppenheimer and his buddies detonated the first atomic bomb, was not empty space.
The vast open land of the Tularosa Basin was not unpopulated—although the movie perpetuates the fiction that it was. Thirteen thousand people, along with countless animals, lived on ranches, homesteads, towns, and an Apache reservation within a fifty-mile radius of that first explosion. None of them were warned it was coming. All those families have experienced higher rates of cancer in the eight decades since—and the US government has done nothing to compensate (especially for the astronomical healthcare costs) the people who lived downwind of the blast, although they have done so for folks living near the Nevada Test Site.
The erroneous concept of empty space on this continent goes all the way back to white settlers insisting that the vast interior landscape of the US was there for the taking—that it wasn’t already occupied by various Native tribes who migrated with buffalo herds instead of building recognizably permanent settlements. In a sense, I believe it continues today as we ignore the ravaging impact of our fossil-fuel dependency on the vast “empty” Arctic while polar bears starve and warming oceans acidify.
There is no empty space on this planet. We live within a complex web of life, and we won’t thrive if we harm the rest of the web. We must recognize and acknowledge that. Much of my beloved home state of New Mexico was impacted by the building and detonating of the first atomic bomb. (Read that first review linked above to learn about the impact on Native peoples in northern New Mexico.)
We don’t exist in a vacuum and never have. It deeply matters how we treat our fellow creatures on Mother Earth—humans and animals and plants and minerals. I invite you to pay attention to each thing your eye encounters when you next leave your home or workplace. Don’t take anything for granted. Find a way to cherish and honor it all.
Then please write your congressperson and ask them to take action on the current bill that seeks to compensate New Mexicans whose families, lands, and livelihoods were poisoned by Oppenheimer’s first atom bomb.