Excursions: Trinity Site

This month I finally visited a place I've been meaning to see for over three years: the Trinity Site.
The Trinity monument. I caught this image in between visitors coming up for a pose.
Trinity, as you may recall, was the testing site for detonation of the first atomic bomb, which occurred on July 16, 1945. J. Robert Oppenheimer helped to select the site, as he had visited New Mexico and was familiar with the terrain. It's a valley located near Socorro at the White Sands Missile Range. Like much of New Mexico, it's an isolated region, enveloped by mountains, desert, and mile upon miles of open sky. Yet it has a most extraordinary history, witnessing a scientific development that has irrevocably changed the world. 
The Trinity Site, 16 milliseconds after the first detonation of the atomic bomb. Image courtesy of http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/trinity-atomic-bomb-site
I first learned about Trinity after moving to Roswell back in 2013. I'd known about atomic testing and its connection with the Southwest, but prior to living in New Mexico, I'd never really given it much thought or made the connection. One summer morning during some coffee shop banter though, I learned about the site and decided that I should see it. 

Trinity is only open to the public two days a year: the first Saturday in April and the first Saturday in October. The National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque offers tours, so my boyfriend and I signed up with them and prepared for adventure.

Trinity is about two hours from Albuquerque, but since you're only allowed to take pictures of the site itself, I don't have any images from the drive. The first stop at the site is Jumbo, the steel container that had been built for the first bomb. 
Jumbo on trailer. Image courtesy of http://www.atomicheritage.org/history/trinity-test-1945
Initially, scientists weren't sure the bomb was going to detonate, so by encasing the bomb, they hoped to preserve the plutonium and use it again. As the testing date drew closer, however, scientists became increasingly confident in their design, and decided to dispense with Jumbo, hence why it survives today.

Another stop at the site is the McDonald Ranch. Built in 1913, this was where the plutonium core for the bomb was assembled.
Sgt. Herbert Lehr delivering the plutonium core (or more probably half of it) for the Gadget in its shock-mounted carrying case to the assembly room in the McDonald Ranch farmhouse. Image courtesy of http://www.atomicarchive.com/Photos/Trinity/image3.shtml
Visiting the house really helped to put the site into perspective. The summer of 1945 had been a hot one, and the scientists involved in the project were working in extraordinarily primitive conditions. These chemists, physicists, and mathematicians were brought to the middle of nowhere to work to design and build the bomb, yet the compound itself was incomplete and essentially had to be built as they worked. I mean, here they are assembling a plutonium core for an atomic bomb in an old ranch house that could have looked just at home in 1885 as it did in 1945.
The site has been restored on a couple of occasions, but it still provides an striking example of the sense of place.

The landscape around the ranch is also quite striking, very classic New Mexico with its mountain ranges encasing a wide, expansive valley. I could easily see Peter Hurd or one of his contemporaries making some beautiful landscapes from this place, especially with a small house like the McDonald Ranch in view to add some anecdotal detail.
Then there's Ground Zero itself, which today is demarcated with a monument assembled from lava rock. It's a good thing it's there, because aside from the visible depression in the ground, you'd never know this had been an atomic testing site seventy years ago. At the time of the detonation, all plants and animals were incinerated, and even the sand itself had been melted into a green glass that's come to be known as Trinitite. It's an image that that evokes passages from Revelations in its efficient and almost otherworldly destruction, yet today, the most striking quality of Ground Zero is its normalcy. Even the radiation levels are so low at this point that they're practically negligible.

There's also a replica of the bomb itself, which further helps to recreate the context of 1945.

Ground Zero is enclosed by fences, which is as much intended to demarcate the site as it is to act as a barrier. A series of historical photographs describing the history of the detonation and its immediate aftermath have been attached to the fence, which provides an interesting juxtaposition between past and present. The photographs show you what had happened, while the landscape itself resists these images with its persistent normalcy.
Patrick Nagatani, Trinitite, Ground Zero, Trinity Site, New Mexico, 1988-1989, chromogenic color print. Image courtesy of http://denverartmuseum.org/collections/photography
Trinity has left an indelible impact on popular culture, helping to usher in the Atomic age and all the repercussions that went with it. Hiroshima and Nagasaki were only the beginning. From Dr. Strangelove to The 1,000 Paper Cranes, the bomb defined the outlook of an entire generation around the world.  In Patrick Nagatani's series, for instance, Trinity Site itself makes an appearance, with a rain of Trinitite glass adding an apocalyptic overtone.

As for me? The one sketch I made of the site was this cactus from memory. 

Don't get me wrong, Trinity is an extraordinary historical moment, a testament to not only our seemingly boundless capacity for massive creation and destruction, but also a powerful reminder of what we can accomplish when we put aside our differences and collaborate. The scientists at Trinity came from all over the country, and many more had escaped Europe, but they all shared a collective goal, to beat Germany, and that drove them to create the most powerful, technologically advanced weapon of its time, all while working within the primitive conditions of 1940s New Mexico. It seems we're only capable of that level of focus and cooperation during times of desperation. 

What struck me most, however, was the way in which the land reclaimed itself. When the bomb detonated it had taken out all plant and animal life in the area, but within a year the cacti had started to regrow, as their deep root systems had been unaffected by the explosion. Animals began to return soon after, and within a few years the land had more or less reclaimed the area. The regrowth reminds me of a quote from Peter Hurd, who spent a lifetime painting and studying the ecology of the Southwest:

“What a fascinating proving ground this land has been for plants! Here nature has evolved hundreds of new genera, adapting them through the ages to conditions which would seem impossible."

Visiting Trinity is above all else a humbling experience. One of our most profound modern achievements, the atomic bomb, barely registers as a blip on this landscape, and reminds me of how small we really are within the grand scheme of Earth's unfolding history. Regardless of what we do, life will persist on this planet in one form or another. The real question is whether we will be here to witness it.