Canaries on the Rim

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This is a book as much about landscape as about political action; telling a story in which neither exists without reference to the other.

Chip Ward

Reviewed by Megan Shaw

Friday, January 28 2000, 8:05 PM

This newest installation of the Haymarket Series was scouted by Mike Davis for Verso, and it is expectedly consistent with the best traits of his work. It is a book as much about landscape as about political action; telling a story in which neither exists without reference to the other. Chip Ward is the Utah activist who started West Desert Healthy Environment Alliance (West Desert HEAL). He began the work that evolved into this organization in response to his growing consciousness of toxicity in the Utah desert.

Canaries on the Rim describes the step by step process Ward and his comrades undertook to wreak havoc with the military industrial complex's plans to sweep the nation's leftover Cold War poisons under the "rug" of the Utah desert. Ward starts small, with changing the schedule of the disposal of leftover missiles, and ends pretty big--targeting the nuclear waste project aimed at the Yucca Mountains. His narrative reminds me of Judi Bari's stories of enacting radical change one small step at a time, with humor. He and his group were unhappy with the regular detonation of aging missiles at a nearby army facility, and with little previous experience as activists, they persistently appealed to the authorities by targeting rules and watching the cumulative impact of many complaints. Over time they succeeded in getting the army to first blow up smaller loads in deeper pits to minimize the noise, then getting them to account for wind direction when picking their detonation days, then they claimed damages to property from detonations. Finally, after forty years of regular detonations that fractured plaster, woke babies from naps, and set off alarms, the army relocated the detonations project away from town.

That is just one of many actions described in the book which are moving accounts of very ordinary people deciding to take on the military-industrial complex, and winning. By the end of the book we are in step with Ward's current battle to protect the fault-line ridden and volcanically active Yucca mountains from becoming the country's central uranium rod dump. Along the way, he describes prodding the entire state of Utah into consciousness about the health impact of numerous pollution centers, taking on the army's chemical demilitarization project which incinerates nerve gas, and bringing to its knees the giant magnesium processing plant, Magcorp. These bogeys stand large and deeply scary, yet from Ward's perspective they are human institutions built in the shadows of unaccountability that for all their scariness reveal many provable flaws when brought to the light of day, flaws that ordinary people can use as hand-holds when tearing them apart.

In recounting the incremental increase over the years in his consciousness and his activisim, he succeeds in telling the story not just of his growth as an activist, but also the growth of his own knowledge base about the Utah landscape, about the United States Government, and about the technical aspects of weapons destruction. The most impressive aspect of his narrative is the respect with which he treats those who are at different levels of environmental awareness, both himself earlier in his life, and the many people who surround him in his community. This is one of the few books about political action that I would strongly recommend to people who I thought could stand to develop some political consciousness, because it doesn't condemn those people whose lives have not been structured toward such consciousness. In fact it is respectful of the difficult choices people must make to earn a living out in landscapes of scarcity, and therefore respectful even of those who have lived for years in silent complicity with "business as usual." To many leftists, such people are objects of scorn. Yet they are the people who most sorely need to have such ideas offered to them in ways that they can hear, and are most seriously in need of understanding just what can be done to improve their lives.

Ward contextualizes all of his stories within the intense desert landscape that has inspired so many to use it as a trash site. After having read the book, I feel as if I've had a guided tour for the blind that gave me vivid, wide-angle views from the rims of the Utah valleys whose dusty floors house our country's decomposing chemical weapons stockpile. And inseparable from the landscape are the human communities that absorb the impact of these toxins, concentrating them at the top of the food chain. Ward makes careful note of the systematic placement of toxic sites near Native American communities and other disenfranchised people. Observing the desperation of Native Americans to find some advantage for themselves in this game of "betting the ranch at the nuclear casino," he reports on communities that are divided--with some members eager for the cash payoff that would come with nuclear byproduct deposits. And he grasps that whiteness is not a simple level of entitlement, as he observes throughout the book that Mormon communities, remembering their marginalized status from the 19th century, have in the 20th century been over-eager to "prove" their patriotism by being quiet bystanders to intensive environmental contamination.

All of his observations are knitted together by his gentle and unassuming narrative style, making the book a quick read. A sad, but inspiriational and deeply satisfying read.

Canaries on the Rim is published by Verso  

Copyright © 2000 by Megan Shaw. All rights reserved.

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