Book Description: The primary narrative thread, Albert seeking a more authentic off-the-grid life in Maine, attempts to subvert that archetypal storyline of someone fleeing to the woods to escape the perceived problems of society. The attempt at subversion lies in the fact that Albert, despite having many models to show him how to do such a thing (Thoreau, Dick Proenneke, Eustace Conway), struggles with the concept of how to make it actually work. An opportunity arrives in the form of a settlement from the government in acknowledgment of his father’s cancer death. His death was the result of working at a government lab that intentionally irradiated the forest, intentionally polluted meadows with heavy metals and toxic compounds, and so on in the name of scientific research. Albert sees his father and the land as casualties of this research, and hopes to use the money to aid his off-the-grid project. Finally, when Albert is in Maine, the novel addresses issues of land use, animal rights, and, in terms of the family theme, how time in nature has increasingly been shown to be therapeutic for children with autism.
Excerpt – Chapter 4
In 1947, in the heady years that followed Victory, on five-thousand acres in the geographical center of Long Island, long after every native was exterminated or resigned to reservation life or city life or town life or another mode of settling things, and not too long before the residential post-war creep extended like a skin condition this far east, the U.S. Army base known as Camp Upton formally ceased to be and became the Atomic-Energy-Commission-administered (and then the Department-of-Energy-administered) facility known as Brookhaven National Laboratory. Surrounded by oak and pine forest, the Lab was naturally fortified from the enemies then eyeing the Nation, but, because a Nation cannot leave security entirely to geographic advantage in an age when threats may come from above, there were, nearby, surrounding the Lab like a palisade, more Nike missiles in position than the Lab would ever need. In keeping with the age-old notion that there is safety in numbers, more weapons were the only things that put the collective mind at ease. This ease was mere illusion. On some level (psychological, spiritual, schoolyard), a Nation that recently vaporized so many innocent people with two unprecedented Bombs expects that karma or the all-seeing eye atop the pyramid on the backside of the dollar or whomever oversees the basic and generally accepted what-goes-around-comes-around ethos cannot permit such violations of compassion to soften into history without direct address, and so such a Nation sleeps with one eye open. In the meantime, Science is the sage that promises to answer all.
Many educated, intelligent, science-loving people whose roots were not far removed from European soil flocked to the Lab with dreams of service to the shining city on the hill but also to the arduous and cumulative and often morally gray endeavor of human knowledge or betterment or, God forbid, enlightenment. If you accept that these were not bad people, not minions devil-sent to carry out a diabolical, insidious project to remind the world that it requires absolute evil to define absolute good, do you simply write them off as well-intentioned nerds whose thick and black-rimmed spectacles were fitted with the wrong prescription from the outset, rendering them incapable of seeing how their ant-like contributions would in time destroy some unsuspecting future members of the Colony?
It takes a certain sort of person to appreciate a hermit thrush and its unintentional ability to lift a human’s spirit with its singing, a certain sort of person to look upward with humility at the reticulating branches of an oak that’s been around so long it must in some sense pity humans their inherent brevity, to marvel at its water-uptake genius and its respiration, its sequestering of CO2 without reminding anyone that such a service should be recompensed. It takes a certain sort of person to accept that certain places on the earth have long been spoken for and are not meant for a clear-cut or a cul-de-sac or mineral extraction or an interstate or any of the multitudinous mutilations profit says it is okay and perfectly natural, nay, inevitable to perpetrate.
Back in 1960, it took a certain sort of person to reflect, on entering the forest that belonged now to the Lab, that nature was created to be put at man’s disposal. It took a certain sort of person to walk in with nothing, no ancestral sense of kinship with the woods, no sorrow in the lonely knowledge that the road toward Progress had to be unmerciful, with nothing but the satisfaction that he found the raw material for an experiment that other cytologists and ecologists (and maybe even physicists) would wish they’d had the kindled wisdom to conduct.
So the eminent cytologist Arnold Hicks Sparrow had the Lab’s maintenance crew fence off 123 acres of the pine-oak forest that had grown according to natural laws for generation after generation, and, on November 21st, 1961, Dr. Sparrow led the team that bombarded the center of those woods with cesium-137 gamma radiation for up to twenty hours each day over the ensuing seventeen years, ending quietly sometime in 1978. The genesis of the experiment was the understandable fear that the USSR could at any moment bomb New York or Washington or someplace nondescript that no one in the Pentagon would expect; the genesis was the que sera reaction that we might as well determine what the fallout would destroy botanically and cellularly so that our brightest minds could get a handle on the finer points of Armageddon ahead of time. As early as 1962, the biologist/ecologist George M. Woodwell noted without apparent irony or angst that “cesium-137 gamma radiation altered the normally stable pattern of ecosystem behavior.” The Drs. Sparrow and Woodwell detailed, with the sort of creepiness that only a tone of clinical detachment can convey, the effects of anywhere from two to several thousand roentgens on trees, plants, aphids, ants, and deer mice, which for some reason they did not refer to as deer mice but as Peromyscus. Five concentric circles ringing their respective zones extended out from the center, the region of the most intense irradiation, which the scientists referred to as “the dead zone, the zone of total kill.” In the study’s conclusion, Dr. Sparrow wrote, again without apparent irony or angst: “The dead oaks and pine in Figure 1 are mute evidence of the lethality of gamma radiation.” No one mentioned that the half-life of cesium-137 is 30.17 years. No one mentioned whose unfortunate role it was to finally remove the irradiated soil and where that unwanted soil went. No one mentioned if the soil, so unwanted, was removed at all. And, certainly, no one mentioned anything about apologizing to that mute, abused, and unloved patch of earth the Lab refers to unofficially as the Gamma Forest.
Because of the Lab’s stated commitment to exploring peaceful uses of nuclear radiation, because the seven Nobel Prizes awarded to twelve of its scientists since 1958 are a testament to the Lab’s humanity and its pioneering spirit, there is no need for apology. On occasion, the Lab may reluctantly acknowledge that the blazing of the sort of scientific trails we are discussing here may sometimes call for some remediation to clean up the necessary messiness of genius, but the Lab is clear apology has no place in an institution whose existence is dependent on the will to not be bound to anything as unenlightened as the troubles of the past.
So the Lab celebrated in 1947 the commissioning of its Graphite Research Reactor. So it puffed its chest out just a little bit more in 1958 when it turned on its High Flux Beam Reactor. So it ran its white fingers through its oiled hair in 1959 on opening its Medical Research Reactor. So its thumbs strained its suspenders when in 2010 its Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider promised to unlock the secrets of the stubborn universe. But, of course, the Lab was well aware that, when you play with fire long enough, you can expect a burn or two. You can’t help that. It is the nature of the beast. You can, however, keep the injuries from your neighbors for a while—until the neighbors get to wondering about the smoke that seems increasingly to waft from your serene direction.
After decades of denying it had anything to do with the mounting anecdotal evidence of rare tissue cancers in children who lived around the Lab’s perimeter, of breast cancer in women whose faucets poured water drawn from the aquifer beneath the Lab, of brain, lung, testicular, esophageal, and other cancers among the Lab’s employees, after decades of intensive, focused obfuscation, the Lab admitted in 1997 that its spent-fuel pool at its High Flux Beam Reactor had been leaking six to nine gallons of tritium-contaminated water per day for a period of twelve to twenty years into the aquifer that provides water for over a million of its neighbors. The EPA assured the people that the leakage posed no threat to public health.
Whether the Lab enjoyed this moment of unburdening and found it so cathartic that it wanted to share more, or a higher power than the DOE demanded it go public with its findings, isn’t absolutely clear. What is clear, though, is that the Lab admitted that its Linac Isotope Producer was a likely source contributing to the three tritium plumes that emanated from the Lab. It admitted the existence and pinpointed the location of the Graphite Research Reactor spill site. It admitted to a Building 830 pipe leak that emitted cobalt-60, hydrogen-3, cesium-137, plutonium-239, and americium-241. It admitted to radiologically contaminating soil at the Particle Beam Dump and the Alternating Gradient Synchrotron Experimental Area. It admitted to a Bubble Chamber spill area. The Bubble Chamber was “used for the storage of drum- and liquid-filled scintillation counters. Scintillation oil is mainly composed of mineral oil and trimethylbenzene.” It admitted to a trichloroethylene spill area. It admitted that for three years in the Meadow Marsh, adjacent to the Gamma Forest, it discharged raw sewage containing aluminum, cadmium, copper, iron, lead, silver, zinc, and other inorganic compounds to examine the effects of such discharges on natural systems. It admitted to contamination at Building 702, which contained a graphite pile, biological shield, control rods, and other equipment. One concern here was contamination via the “experimental holes.” According to the Lab’s “Graphite Pile Removed, Area of Concern 9, Final Closeout Report,” “One of these, known as the animal tunnel, was employed to irradiate animals.” It admitted to PCB soil contamination at Building 96. It admitted to mercury soil contamination at Building 464. It admitted to fifty-five biological, chemical, and radiological waste pits containing arsenic, barium, beryllium, the hepatitis virus, et cetera. It admitted to Area of Concern after Area of Concern.
It admitted no malfeasance, and it issued no apology.