Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

by Sheila McMullin

Science reasons we came from glass. Water vapor trapped in glass, encapsulated in an asteroid leaving Mars crashing into Earth. Water stimulating growth on Earth. We may have come from Mars, not just men, all of us. Earth is defined as a water-based planet needing the sun, needing the water more. To be living means we traveled a long way to be prosperous. I think of feminism like water, and water like camaraderie. Love is said to connect us all… water seems more tangible, physical, material, transformative; engaging all our senses, is divine, spiritual, cleansing, life-giving. Water is a currency. Water unites, and it is ravaged.

::

I wanted to let my hair shine weightless in the pool. Knowing only some of my hair was there. Knowing if I wanted my hair to grow back, I would receive scores of cortisone injections into my skull. This procedure doesn’t work for everyone. Knowing my fret over losing my hair was deemed cosmetic and uncovered by insurance. Knowing losing one’s hair is only a side effect of alopecia. The root of the problem was more emotional, more stress-related. Perhaps under the care of a therapist to work on relaxation strategies I could realign my immune system without the injections. Knowing long-term emotional health care is also cosmetic and uncovered. I was in high school.

It was there in the water where no one could really see me; I fell in love with floating. Being outside, with the sun on my skin, holding my breath, and concentrating on sitting on the bottom in a weightless arena. I would do anything to keep close to water.

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1946: At the moment the light traveled and hit their eyes, the far away sky heard compliments. Then the far away sky heard the explosive sound, which had already seen bulldoze the palm trees. Sound came as a shock wave on the ocean top, and knocked like a thud against the wooden chests of all the observing soldiers. Huge fire and ocean dirt rolled up into the skies.

It was said: it reminded me of the setting sun, it was the most awe-inspiring sight I have ever seen, greatest thing I had ever seen.

::

After the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government chose to experiment with the atomic bomb over the water. Their location: the Bikini Atoll.

The U.S. government employed military duty to explore the offensive or defensive power of this weapon. A Harnessing of the Basic Power of the Universe, it was called. Under the guise of the benefit of mankind.

::

Operation Crossroads at Bikini.

While the American military explained to the Bikinians they would have to leave Bikini (so the bomb could be dropped on their home in front of cameras as God’s calling), Bikinians were unaware what the camera was. A Native Bikinian recorded in the 1988 documentary Radio Bikini is quoted to this effect.

Cut to stock footage: Take after take of admiral explaining the dropping of the bomb in multiple inflections in front of a quiet, sitting Bikini audience.

The Bikinians were boarded to sail to the island, Rongerik, an uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands. Leaving their home, they watched the military burn everything into the sand.

::

“One of the most important, and one of the most dramatic elements concerned with the dropping of the bomb is the photographic aspect,” says Operation Crossroads Military Personnel.

As human beings in an inter-connected global economy we focus on sight. What are others doing and how does it compare to what we are doing? We need this coverage to keep progressive. So often our coverage fails to awaken us to an underlying damage being done.

::

It was awesome glory being a spectator in this waterscape. But future be told, no one was just a spectator at Bikini. Especially those merely 20 miles away.

“Do as you’re told and nothing bad will happen to anyone,” says Operation Crossroads Enlisted Soldier, John Smitherman. None of the soldiers had any real knowledge of radioactivity—a word not yet in common vernacular. Before Veteran Smitherman died in the late-80s, he suffered from incredibly swollen ligaments and amputated legs. He died of cancer.

Marie Curie had coined the term radioactive barely 50 years earlier.

The displaced Bikinians still in harm’s way, still unable to go home, suffer today from disproportionately high rates of cancer and diabetes. More data and testimonials can also be found at Unnatural Causes.

::

Cut to stock footage: Huge fires pirouette into the sky. Able detonates, makes fish into birds obliterating every test dummy battleship in the bomb’s radius.

To my knowledge, only slight reparations have been given to Marshallese Islanders and Operation Crossroads veterans.

::

A slow war of pollution at levels never before imagined entered into the waterscape.

Within ten hours of detonation soldiers were at ground zero. They continued to wash, drink, and bathe in the water their ships and islands floated in.

The animals aboard the test dummy military ships were ravaged by the radiation. The animals’ skin was tested for causal reactions to radiation—as if not enough evidence was found in Japan.

::

Waterscape: Within two months of their displacement, the Bikinians were starving on their new island, Rongerik, with inadequate food and water supplies. Military escorts visited to display pictures of the bomb exploding over their home. Baffled by what they were really seeing and reasons as to why they could not go home, a U.S. soldier is over heard saying: “At least they admit it.” The Bikinians he means… to not knowing exactly what is that atom bomb?

Rongerik was an already uninhabited island within the Marshall Islands, so why bomb Bikini? If a bomb needed to be dropped, why Bikini?

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1946: The term bikini for the swimsuit was coined by Louis Réard, the same year as the nuclear testing on the Bikini Atoll. In a design race to create the world’s smallest swimsuit, he found inspiration in the smallest atom creating the most destructive earthly force.

What I am to write, I hate, because it is the saddest thought I’ve ever had. Why did a bomb need to be dropped on Bikini? Because people were there. Cultural constructions demand the need for a human presence, so beginning operations can be valued as important, after which, those people can be ignored.

Réard was not making an anti-war, anti-nuclear testing protest with the naming of his swimsuit. Taking advantage of the already exoticized island body and culture, the built-in fame of the word bikini, and its proximity to water, the bikini swimsuit was born de facto propaganda.

Waterscape: When we talk nonchalantly about our “beach bodies” or “bikini ready” what are we then saying? Bodies devastated by cancer? Homes burnt to the ground? When we get a biniki wax, what are we waxing? Ripping away Earth. To be clear, I wear my two piece because I want the sun on my body. But because I want, cannot mean a forgetting or ignoring of this history. I’d do anything to keep close to water.

Wearing a bikini hasn’t become an act of protest quite yet. I know some wear suits decorated with radioactive symbols, but most of our conversations of the female body in this highly sexualized suit does not focus here. A sexist hyper-active focus on the female waistline displaces the history of Bikini.

And then I wonder: What else is tiny? What else is polluting our water?

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Plastic is a miracle product providing cheap resources for over 7 billion people. But plastic never decomposes, only breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that sea creatures and land animals eat. Or plastic absorbs into our soil and skin, which then affects our hormones and biological composition. General disregard of waste finds its way into our oceans—oceans which are now huge trashcans.

On a readily visible level, sea creatures ingest these molecule-sized plastics and begin the process of self-embalming because they were eating what looked like their natural food source.

Do you know where the plastic things go? The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The Gyres. A great displacement of our belongings right into the ocean. There is no “throw away,” only a throw into.

I fear plastic on my worst days, and ignore it on every other day. I fear a tasteless, scentless, clear poison in our water. Drink the water and slowly mutate into the immortal Barbies and Kens. Soon, this won’t be a choice, it hasn’t been for our animals.

::

As we become more artificial we lose our love. As our water sources become more polluted, water quality becomes an even higher concern, becomes more valuable, and less people receive access to clean water sources and healthy, prospering environments.

Place is not free of plastic, of radiation, of our use of water. We have a lot to do. Not only do we have to prepare and plan for a sustainable future, reduce our dependence on plastic, re-evaluate our need for massive destructive weapons, we have to be filled with historical knowledge. Knowledge, like water, can fill every gap in us.

In my 13th year I was baptized in the ocean, in the dull waves under a cliff in California. We come from water, inherit water, and I wanted to pay my respects. After my baptism I wore my first bikini.

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Ocean Fragments: The Bikini Atoll and Plastic Seas

Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon

What is your relationship to the natural world? And do you bring the natural world into your writing?

As I answer this, I’m looking out my window at a madrona tree with its peeling bark, huge areas of blackberry bramble, and low-growing ferns, all while listening to a crow and eagle have it out somewhere near this cabin on a hill.

Because I live in the Northwest, and particularly in a small rural town where you have to commute by ferry to visit, my relationship with the natural world is intimate. We are more than dating, we are significant others. We see each other regularly. As a mountain biker, I ride deep into the trails of our forests. I never know what I’ll see when I pedal off into nature: some days deer, some days owls, occasionally a black bear. As a paddleboarder, I see the world from atop the water—blue heron and kingfisher above me, flounder and moonsnails below.

In the last year, several writing conferences have asked me to teach classes on “nature writing,” which seemed odd to me because I never considered myself a nature writer. Though looking over my work, it does appear that the landscape has slipped into my writing quite frequently. I guess just as the city writer writes about her urban landscape, I write about mine, which tends to be lush and green and growing.

 

Sketch of a Fig Tree
(forthcoming in Hourglass Museum, published by White Pine Press in 2014)

Halfway through the day with the sun like a halo
over my neighbor’s house, I think about God
and time and if it’s possible to feed my soul with a pen
and ink drawing I saw at a museum by an artist
whose name I didn’t recognize.

Somewhere across the country my house is falling apart,
or maybe it did years ago, returning to my old neighborhood
to realize the streets were never as big as I thought
and the house I lived in was not as nice
as the house down the road, but I was never allowed
to walk that far.

I’m older now and what’s falling apart is the sunset
I try to watch from my office window
where I’m surrounded by books
and it doesn’t matter how much the fog moves in
or if there’s a neighborhood where kids fight

about the color of poppies. I think back to the fig tree

that grew in my yard and how the leaves always reminded me
of being somewhere else or in the middle of a Rousseau painting
where the jungle was a prayer and everything I needed
was above me and all I had to do was reach up,
all I had to do was open my hands.

 

What aspect of human nature are you finding peace with? What are you cultivating?

Instead of “finding peace,” I’ve made peace with people’s belief that being busy is important and that money is worth more than one’s time. These are areas I’ve struggled with and when I see others caught up in a life they aren’t happy with (but not making any changes to improve their lives) I try to find understanding instead of trying to fix everything.

I feel the same way about people who have a lot of promise and talent; it pains me to see writers and artists not taking risks with their art out of fear, or worse, they may even be self-sabotaging possible opportunities. As I’ve grown older, I’ve learned to stretch myself and do things that make me feel uncomfortable—that is where growth occurs. I want other writers and artists to push themselves as well, but I realize we each make our own decisions and while I may offer suggestions or advice, I know ultimately, we each create our own path and are responsible for our own lives, so I do my best to respect and understand others’ choices.

I’m cultivating creativity, imagination, bravery, and authenticity as best I can.

 

 

What is your understanding of why violence against women is “naturalized” in our culture?

This is a hard question for me to answer because I’m not sure “naturalized” is the word I’d use. Overlooked? Ignored? Forgotten? Not spoken of? Disregarded? For me, “naturalized” implies acceptance and that violence against women has adapted to all conditions in our culture, which I don’t think it has. Our culture has become and is becoming more aware of violence against women and there is outrage. There are pockets in our culture where it happens more and where it happens less, but in all areas there will always be people who speak out against it and there will also be denial or disregard.

As for understanding why violence against women or why it still happens in our culture, that I cannot comprehend.

 

What is your nature’s candy? And why?

The sweet smell of lilacs in early spring because they remind me of Walt Whitman.

Plucking off a blossom of the honeysuckle that winds itself around the treehouse and tasting the nectar.

Strawberries that have stretched from my neighbor’s yard into my yard because it’s always a surprise even though it’s somewhat expected.

Figs picked off the tree in my backyard in August; a luxury in every way.

Blackberries in late summer because the vines that take over my yard, each year, apologize with fresh fruit and I make a wicked blackberry crumble.

 

When do you leave a wall intact, when do you knock it down? 

Most of my walls are down until I lose trust in someone, then I build amazing forty-story creations that can’t be scaled by any amount of words or actions.

I leave walls intact when I can see the benefit of privacy or security.

I knock them down when they are no longer fun to climb.

 

Lady in the House Questions: Kelli Russell Agodon