ILLICIT OBJECTS (7)

By: Wayne Chambliss
July 14, 2017

One in a 25-part series of nonfiction stories about objects of illicit significance. This is the third volume in the PROJECT:OBJECT series. Please subscribe to the P:O newsletter; and purchase P:O apparel and accessories — all profits will be donated to the ACLU!

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This is Trinitite. I’m not supposed to have this specimen. Even so, the crimes which brought it into existence outnumber, and far outweigh, the ones that brought it into the United States.

A layer of this Charleston-green glass formed on October 14th, 1953. Molten sand cooked by the first atomic detonation on Australian soil, just before a 15,000-foot-tall radioactive cloud swept east from Operation Totem’s ground zero – across Wallatina and Wellbourn Hill, and thence to Townsville – poisoning and ultimately killing dozens of unsuspecting, unevacuated Aboriginal people.

I collected it in the Woomera Prohibited Area, at the foot of the Totem-1 bomb test obelisk at Emu Field, wearing a black “Lovecraft Rocks!” t-shirt emblazoned with the writer’s image in headphones, spinning vinyl. I also had on a respirator, disposable gloves, and medical booties: business casual for the Chthulucene.

Getting there took some doing. First I flew ten thousand miles from Los Angeles to Darwin, where I met my friend m1k3y. m1k3y is the self-described leader of an asteroid death cult, a connoisseur of nuclear exclusion zone literature, and, as it turned out, a crack navigator. From Darwin, we drove south, to Coober Pedy, a troglodytic opal mining community where prospectors live among the 1.2 million tunnel shafts they’ve dug below ground. There, we practiced with a GPS antenna and cached maps, equipped a 4×4, and lit out through the Dingo Fence for the Anne Beadell Highway: two hundred miles of unsealed track into the seemingly uninhabited Woomera. Along the way, I managed to knock off a mirror, stave in the passenger door, shred one tire, and fatally puncture another. Routine use of an air compressor became necessary. When we finally limped back into Coober Pedy, the rental agent took one look at her truck, swore Klein blue, and quit work on the spot.

More imprudence. Alpha radiation can’t easily penetrate the dermis. The real risk lies in ingesting particulates. So when I tell you m1k3y and I set up camp a few miles from ground zero – in a vacuum-quiet field of sticky red dust, among the footprints of evaporated buildings – and cooked our supper there, and that I left the tent unwashed afterward, and that I still keep a Ziploc bag of mildly radioactive glass on my dining room table, I’ll understand if you shake your head at me. I will.

When people ask, confusedly, why I invest as much as I do into exploring these blasted heaths, I usually say something about bearing witness, exorcising dread. But look, it’s no secret I feel doomed. Ask anyone. The suicidal ideation of the Cold War was infectious, and I caught it young. These places make sense to me. They seem… sympathetic, somehow. Emu Field looked like a window onto extinction smashed from the inside: irradiated shards of a glass I could see myself in, however darkly. What I magpied home from Operation Totem is a sample of that bleak, private geology – anthropogenic, nihilistic, almost black. My ruin stone.

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ILLICIT OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Kio Stark on PEEPSHOW TOKEN | Sari Wilson on TOMBSTONE PARTS | Annalee Newitz on CAR-BOMB REMNANT | Tito Bottitta on MOONINITE DEVICE | Eric Bennett on DIRTY MAGAZINE | Natalie Kestecher on EROTIC RECORDING (audio) | Wayne Chambliss on RADIOACTIVE TRINITITE | Julian Hoeber on PIG HAMMER | Catherine Newman on HOARDED VICODIN | Josh Glenn on JAY-PEE SLUGGER | Nicole Pasulka on SHROOMS (audio) | Paul Lukas on STOLEN CORKSCREW | Shelby El Otmani on OCCULT CANDLE (audio) | Sam Dingman on HACK DOCUMENTS (audio) | Andrew Leland on GUIDE CANE (audio) | Douglas Rushkoff on LEARY’S STASH BOX | Kalila Holt on BURNT UNDERWEAR (audio) | William Gibson on RACIST BOOK | Alison Fensterstock on FUNERAL FLOWER | Julia Barton on PREGNANCY TEST (audio) | Miranda Mellis on GOLD TEETH | Katie Notopoulos on COPULATING PIGS | Ramona Martinez on STOLEN REMNANT (audio) | Wesley Stace on TOM WAITS NOTE | Mike Montiero on BO DEREK CARDS.

TALISMANIC OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Veda Hille on CROCHET SHEEP | Gary Panter on DINOSAUR BONES | Jami Attenberg on SELENITE CRYSTAL | Annie Nocenti on MINIATURE DICE | Wayne Curtis on CLOCK WINDING KEY | & 20 MORE.

POLITICAL OBJECTS series: INTRODUCTION | Luc Sante on CAMPAIGN PAMPHLETS | Lydia Millet on PVC POLAR BEAR | Ben Greenman on MATCHBOX CAR | Rob Baedeker on PRESIDENTS PLACEMAT | L.A. Kauffman on WHEATPASTE POSTER | & 20 MORE.

SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS at HILOBROW: PROJECT:OBJECT homepage | PROJECT:OBJECT newsletter | PROJECT:OBJECT objects (Threadless shop — all profits donated to the ACLU) | POLITICAL OBJECTS series (1Q2017) | TALISMANIC OBJECTS series (2Q2017) | ILLICIT OBJECTS series (3Q2017) | LOST OBJECTS series (4Q2017) | 12 DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE by Significant Objects | 12 MORE DAYS OF SIGNIFICANCE by Significant Objects. ALSO SEE: SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS website | SIGNIFICANT OBJECTS collection, ed. Rob Walker and Josh Glenn (Fantagraphics, 2012) | TAKING THINGS SERIOUSLY, ed. Josh Glenn (Princeton Architectural Press, 2007).

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