Experiencing Trinity

Trinity Site marks entrance to original ground zero, site of first atomic bomb test. Photo: Olivia Fermi © 2009


A swirl of controversy continues to surround the Trinity (Explanation of terms: Trinity, Ground Zero, etc.) test and subsequent atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which occurred over 50 years ago.

The extreme variation in responses from people I’ve spoken with in all walks of life, of various ages and cultures show me, while there are indisputable facts, there is no objective perspective about the past, particularly not about the events which ended World War II. There are strong feelings and intense opinions about what was right, what was wrong and who was just in their actions.

I deeply desired to understand for myself what happened and why. I thought I could, with a little study, find some definitive answers.

Instead, I have come to judge the strong views of how World War II ended as a clash between values and paradigms – existing at the time – and – existing now. Whether then or now: at once intensely personal, thought-provoking and visceral.

If it is impossible to accurately judge the past through the present, why am I engaging in this inquiry at all?

Because it engages me and gratifies me. Like a mountain climber, I happen to love the process of inquiry – looking always for the next metaphorical hill to climb in search of a new vista. Why else? Because the systemic, world problems we now face require clear thinking – and for this we need clear hearts!

And so in my pilgrimage to Trinity, I returned to my own body and the perceptions arising from her. I abandoned preconceived interpretations and allowed my visceral responses to guide me and found myself transformed thereby.

To more accurately portray the experience, the rest of this account is told in the present tense:

April 4, 2009: Trinity, New Mexico, USA

It’s a sunny, breezy day. My colleagues and I arrive at the Trinity Site around 10:30 am. The parking lot, unpaved, is large, fit for a stadium-sized crowd. How strange to have a parking lot so big, filled only twice per year and three times every five years. So many SUV’s, I feel threatened…

I’ve been grumpy this morning and now we arrive a kind of numb fury overtakes me. I feel somber and determined. Fascination alternates with revulsion.

Matt, an artist who has invited me to collaborate, asks Joe, our videographer, to focus on me for some filming we’ve been doing. Joe is surprised but agrees when he sees both Matt and I in accord. I hadn’t expected it and I am honored Matt realizes it is important to me to explore this pilgrimage for myself.

I tell Joe I am almost incoherent – a swirl of emotions fills me. Joe reassures me I don’t need to talk. But I want to, as it helps me to stay grounded and to witness the flow of my experience.

As we walk along the barbed wire corridor into the desert and Ground Zero, he and I stop to look at the “Keep Out” signs every 30 yards or so. I take occasional pictures to help soothe me and ground me. There are lots of people who look big. I feel the otherness most strongly, a kind of fury and its pressures.

As we step into the vast circle of barbed wire which surrounds Ground Zero, I remark this is a place where the contradictions we live in our society all arrive at one central point and intensify. Logically, intuitively and viscerally, this is a time and a place to allow the contradictions of thought and of emotion to surface; and I do.

We walk toward the flat-bed truck bearing the simulated Fat Man (plutonium bomb dropped on Nagasaki August 9, 1945). While I can and do contain the emotion, it’s intense. Tears moisten my face. I turn away and back again, stewing in the intensity of grief for what has occurred.

I walk away from the stark reality of Fat Man to look at a strange black pyramidal obelisk, a monument to the test of the first atomic bomb Gadget. Adults and children swarm around and take turns against it, for their family photos. I photograph the scene.

A few feet away are the remains of the tower, less even than what I’ve viewed in historic photographs. This is the actual point of Ground Zero, where the Gadget was detonated. My grandfather and the others witnessed the world change forever some distance away. Here more than anywhere, I imagined it would be empty, but it’s thronged by photographers waiting to take their turn at shooting a few stubs of metal, all that is left of the tower. I take more pictures.

I don’t want a turn here either. My guts are hanging on and I’m almost mute.

I suppose my head knew there would be a crowd, but the reality of the swarm of tourists is more intense and real than I had ever imagined it would be. My belly, my heart, my mind are grieving, present to the moment of my own experience as different as it seems to be from the others’ around me.

My shawl ripples, billowing in the wind. I hold it out over parts of my face as a shield from the sun. Its bright red declares my otherness from the crowd as well as my deep ties to all women who wear colorful shawls.

Joe ushers me back to Fat Man. Again I feel as if there is a force field surrounding the model. I don’t seem to want to walk any closer. My stomach feels slightly ill. Yet, I need to be closer, until I can touch it, so I do. More crowds. I tear myself a little and take a few photos to ease the tension. The grief returns and I stutter something about prayer circles not postcards.

I walk to the far end of the circle where old black and white still photos of the Trinity explosion hang spread out along the barbed wire fence, like stations of the cross. Again, there is the sense of not wanting to get too close: I watch the people walking to each photo and view the scene as a whole.

The wind, the sun, the openness I love, something and my mood shifts.

Joe and I talk. Although he pressed Record, he tells me it didn’t take. I clarify he’s saying the emotion of my encounter with Fat Man which we both thought he’d captured.

He directly meets my gaze of wonderment. My head clears. I imagine it’s all okay. I know he wants to try again with the remaining few minutes he has on his card. Now I am in a lighter mood and even feeling bliss. I tell him I don’t know if I can get in touch with it again.

Matt appears and we talk. He says something and suddenly the emotion is there again in all its intensity.

Joe and I return to Fat Man for the third time. Initially the emotions are the same: fury turns to mourning and I stand in the desert alone in my own imagination, yet part of the crowd. I tell Joe and the camera, this should be a place of mourning. Writing it now, I feel the sadness again and the tears well up.

Then like the wind outside, but more focussed, I sense a simple current swirl together and travel down through my body from the crown to my feet and beyond into the Earth. My feet feel completely stable, as if part of the ground. All the emotions resolve and I find myself at peace and energized.

Joe and I return to the parking lot, taking a few more pictures along the way. We meet up with Matt and he buys us each a Fat Man pin. I don’t want to believe I’ll ever wear it. Yet somehow I know it’s important to take the offering with its strange mix of symbolic meanings. I want to own it.

We head to the Ranch School where the Gadget was assembled. For me, after what I’ve experienced at Ground Zero, this is anti-climactic. I relax, joking with some interns from LANL about making sex toys out of Little Boy and Fat Man. You know, like for real: nuclear sex instead of nuclear bombs!

For me, all the levity and kidding, including the t-shirts, the squash game, the off-color jokes give me a way to release layers of taboo, denial and numbness, edging me closer to a place where I could feel the intensity of emotion waiting for me at stops along the  Trail.


Later that day, Joe remarks at the growth he sees in me from having made the pilgrimage to Trinity. I remember months ago, when we first started talking about the project in general and our intentions. It was Joseph Hung who said we could in some way dedicate our collaboration to healing the nuclear legacy. I was expanded by his daring words and thank him for his role and his integrity in stewarding us in this direction.

And a hearty salute to Matthew Day Jackson, new friend and colleague, for his artistic vision and process; and his honouring and generosity in offering me a safe container for mine.

Posted in Fallout.

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