A Letter on Chernobyl, May 1986

Anselm Kiefer, Die Sechste Posaune (1996)

At the beginning of the year 1986 Halley’s Comet appeared in the skies. Returning on a 76 year cycle, its last appearance had been in 1910, shortly after the birth of my father. Since this comet has been recorded since about 260 BCE, perhaps the apocalyptic vision in St John’s Revelations resonates with a certain historical experience:

And there fell a great star from heaven […]
And the name of the star is called Wormwood
And the third part of the waters became wormwood;
And many men died of the waters
Because they were made bitter.
– Revelations 8.

The stranger resonance, however, is that the Ukrainian word for the common bitter herb ‘wormwood’ (Artemisia absinthium) seems to be ‘chernobyl’…

As befits such a traditional augury , 1986 seems to have been a pivotal year. Both in human history and for me personally. In that year, according to Australian ecologist Tim Flannery, the roughly five and half billion individuals of humanity as a whole seem to have for the first time ‘overshot’ planetary carrying capacity, i.e. used more energy and resources and emitted more wastes than the planet can ecologically sustain. In that year, on the 26th of April, both a nuclear reactor at Chernobyl in the Ukraine and the soi-disant ‘communist’ system it was embedded in imploded, marking the possible end both of the dream of nuclear fission as a cheap source of infinite energy and the definite beginning of the end of the dream of state socialism that had begun with the Russian Revolution. The end of the latter dream in 1991, in turn, marked the end both of the epoch of the Cold War since 1947 and of the ‘short twentieth century’ that had begun with the European mass enthusiasm for inter-imperial war in the summer of 1914.

As the invisible radioactive cloud from the Chernobyl meltdown moved above us in Germany and emitted its contents as a contaminating rain (“and a third part of the waters became wormwood…”), I wrote a letter to my parents back in Australia.

Hofheim, 6th May 1986

Dear Granny and Grandpa,

Well, I guess that was the famous straw that broke the camel’s back: Tripolis [Reagan’s bombing], Chernobyl, Titanic, Tasmania [a distant place to emigrate to]? Here the authorities (who appear absolutely helpless, confused and self-contradictory because something like this was supposed to “never occur”) have officially warned us off consuming milk, leafy vegetables, fruit. (Even more small farmers will go bankrupt).

They have advised children not to play in the sand, in puddles or in meadows, playgrounds have been closed etc. etc. Of course everything is said in a mollifying way (“no acute danger” – that says it all) in order not to cause ‘panic’ and because one really doesn’t know anything precise about the effects. The shit has diminished in the air (although it’s still coming down here and there), but instead it’s now building up in the soils and water, in some cases at extremely high levels.

I don’t want to bore you with the details (you can read about them in Der Spiegel when you get here), but we are hoarding (war! a war against nature…) homogenized and powdered milk, frozen food, and are buying fruit from the southern hemisphere etc. You leave your shoes outside, wash yourself and Sascha thoroughly, remember not to go into the garden in slippers etc. I’ll probably buy a little Geiger counter off Volker (Francoise’s husband), for about 800 DM. THAT’S HOW BAD THINGS HAVE GOT!

We oscillate between depression and boundless rage, I talk to my students (big sense of concern, whereas a lot of our colleagues are on a stupid playing-it-all-down trip), I talk to the people I teach yoga, attended a laughably small demonstration (about 2000) in Frankfurt on Saturday, want to try and create some suitable street theatre with my students… We now have to ACT, in two weeks everything will be forgotten and they’ll continue building Kalkar [nuclear reactor], Wackersdorf [nuclear reprocessing plant] etc.

The reaction of the Greens was in my opinion extremely weak and disappointing. – We understand Tripolis and Chernobyl as WARNING SHOTS, and shall be emigrating. Barbara has already told her mother of our intention (not yet disinherited). We are feeling pretty fragile. I can use the Geiger counter in Oz as well, to measure the French fall-out, but they have no nuclear reactor AS YET. (And I shall fight to the last that they never have one)…

Have fun and a relaxing time. You can come here because the strontium etc. will remain in the soil, food, water for another 30 or more years anyway…

Love

Peter

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~ by Peter Lach-Newinsky on April 28, 2011.

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