Upcoming talk at CU Boulder, and the ‘wasteland which recalls the war’

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A map issued by the FDC restricting flights over nuclear facilities, here designating a restricted area around Rocky Flats plant between Denver and Boulder

I will be giving a talk this Friday at the University of Colorado Boulder, as part of the Geography Department’s Colloquia Series. More details on exact place and time can be found here. As the end of the abstract notes:

This colloquium provides some insights into the intellectual history of no-man’s lands and explores their significance for political and social research. Drawing on research in Cyprus and Israel-Palestine, the paper proposes a conceptual framework that addresses the specific genealogies, agendas and intellectual import of no-man’s lands in the 21st century.

As I noted in this blog before, this part of the world has its share of exclusion zones and sites of enclosed abandonment. In particular, these no-man’s lands feature a tension between environmental degradation, pollution and destruction on the one hand, and the conservation of wilderness on the other. I will touch on this aspect in my CU talk, but in a couple of weeks, Kristen Iversen, the author of Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats, will be speaking about the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant at the University of Denver (details here).

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Like the Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Rocky Flats Nuclear Weapons Plant was a classic example of the Cold War military-industrial complex, operating from 1951 to 1989. However, Rocky Flats gained notoriety for repeated contamination and recurring accidents, a series of high profile protests and an FBI raid that led to the plant’s final closure.

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Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovksy and fellow meditators, blocking the supply rail for Rocky Flats nuclear weapons plant, June 1978. Photo: Joe Daniel

Most of Rocky Flats today is a wildlife refuge. The US Department of Energy, which managed the site after its closure, transferred more than 4,000 acres of its peripheral lands — a “buffer zone” created to minimise public exposure to ever increasing soil and water contamination— to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2007. DOE kept behind locked gates the site’s hot buried heart—called the Central Operable Unit—for testing and treatment of the remaining immovable contamination.

Beyond their particular histories, these sites expose a deeper dialectical narrative of catastrophe and revival that were highly influential in the popular imagination of no-man’s land in the 20th and 21st century.

Again, this is a subject that deserves a much more detailed treatment, but it is important to note that what seems to be a conventional transition from militarized ‘dead zones’ to wildlife refuge (as in the cases above, in Chernobyl or the Korean Demilitarized Zone) is not obvious at all. The debate regarding the fate of Western Front’s No-Man’s Lands after WWI presented very different attitudes toward the return of nature. In After the Ruins: Restoring the Countryside of Northern France After the Great War, Hugh Clout describes the ‘zone rouge’, areas throughout northeastern France that the French government isolated after the war. The land, which originally covered more than 1,200 square kilometres (460 sq mi), was deemed to be too physically and environmentally damaged by the conflict for human habitation.

Here is a vignette into the sort of debate that took place regarding the menacing ‘return to nature’:

“During a visit by Minister Loucheur, the devastated communes of the Chemin-des-Dames were awarded the croix de guerre but, as M. Doucedame insisted, that honour ‘does not bring them bricks or building stone (ibid). Mayor Bezancon from Soupir argued that ‘wasteland which recalls the war and all its horrors’ should not be tolerated and that abandoned land would simply be a breeding ground for ‘vipers, foxes, badgers, and boars which would destroy crops up to 10km away’ (Comite d’Action des Regions Devastees 1925: 45). He believed that if the red zone were not reclaimed a ‘major scheme for improving land and public health [would be] necessary within ten years, since life would be impossible in these conditions’. (After the Ruins, p.266)

Clearly, the return of “vipers, foxes and badgers” was no reason for celebration. The important thing to note here is, however, the dynamic relationship between warfare destruction and natural restoration: no-man’s lands invite a much more nuanced attention to the cultural and historical specificity of this relation and the far-from-conventional status it holds today.

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Map showing totally destroyed areas in red, areas of major damage in yellow and moderately damaged areas in green. Source: d’après Guicherd, J., & Matriot, C. (1921). La terre des régions dévastées’. Journal d’Agriculture Pratique, 34, 154-6.

Sadly, on the date of Kristen’s talk, I will be at the AAG where Alasdair and I will be convening a special session on No-Man’s Lands featuring Derek Gregory, Najeeb Jan, Claudio Minca and Paolo Giaccaria. Much more on that soon.

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