Congratulations to our author Vittoria di Palma, whose recent book Wasteland: A History has just received the Louis Gottschalk Prize for an outstanding historical or critical study on the eighteenth century, awarded by the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies. Read on for an excerpt from the book’s introduction, which makes us want to read the whole thing all over again. And for further reading, click here to read the December 19, 2014 guest blog post by Vittoria di Palma.
The tiny island of Vieques lies about eight miles east of Puerto Rico, bordered to the north by the Atlantic Ocean and lapped to the south by the Caribbean Sea. Beginning
in the early 1940s, when the navy purchased twenty-six thousand acres—about three-quarters of the island—for $1.6 million, Vieques served as the largest training area for the United States Atlantic Fleet Forces, providing miles of undeveloped coastline for training exercises involving ship-to-shore shelling and aerial bombing strikes. But on the morning of May 1, 2003, jubilation began to spread among the island’s inhabitants as they watched the United States Navy prepare to depart the island of Vieques for good. For decades, they had put up with the loud explosions that set their living room windows rattling, the huge warships anchored at spitting
distance from their pristine beaches. But after 1999, when two five-hundred-pound bombs fired from a Marine jet missed their intended target, killing thirty-five-yearold security guard David Sanes and injuring four others, the protests started. Small and local at first, they involved not much more than isolated acts of civil disobedience: cut fences and trespass. But as this David and Goliath case began to attract international attention, and as high-profile politicians, actors, and artists joined in,
including the Reverend Al Sharpton, Benicio del Toro, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., voices calling for the navy to leave grew louder and more insistent, and the protests swelled into sit-ins, marches, and candlelight vigils. In 2001, after protracted battles in Congress and in the face of strenuous objection on the part of the Armed Forces, President George W. Bush announced that the navy would leave Vieques in May of 2003 and transfer management of the land it had used for military exercises to the
Department of the Interior.
Two years after the departure of the navy, the area it formerly controlled was designated a federal Superfund site, and the Environmental Protection Agency mandated a cleanup. But the cleanup too, proved contentious. Residents have been critical of the navy’s practice of burning large areas in order to locate leftover munitions and their penchant for detonating in open air the bombs that they find. Puerto Rico’s health department has linked the island’s high rates of cancer, liver disease, and hypertension to the presence of toxic chemicals in the island’s soil, groundwater, air, and fish. In addition to a toxic cocktail of tnt, napalm, depleted uranium, mercury, lead, pcbs, and a host of other hazardous substances present on the former navy testing sites, the eastern third of the island has the bonus of thousands of hidden and unexploded bombs. To avoid the possibility of residents or tourists stumbling upon and inadvertently detonating any live ammunition, the Department of the Interior has set aside more than seventeen thousand acres as a wildlife refuge for nesting leatherback and hawksbill sea turtles (the latter on the list of critically endangered species) and other forms of wildlife, “with the area used for exercises with live bombs . . . designated a wilderness area and closed to the public.” Despite Puerto Rico’s vigorous promotion of Vieques as a prime tourist destination, this section of the island is not expected to be open to human visitors at any time soon.
The idea that an area that had been used for exercises with live bombs, saturated with hazardous substances and deemed unfit for any human being to set foot in, might not be a suitable habitat for vulnerable forms of wildlife seems to have occurred neither to the U.S. government nor to the navy. But this is not really so surprising. By 2003, scores of toxic, polluted, or otherwise dangerous sites closed off to human use had become—by accident or by design—havens for rare species of birds, plants, and other forms of wildlife. Some of these had subsequently been reopened as wildlife observation and recreation areas—an early famous (or infamous) example is the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge, a site that has been dubbed “The Nation’s Most Ironic Nature Park” due to what appears to be its astonishing transformation from a toxic wasteland to a wildlife refuge offering the kinds of sights and activities usually associated with wilderness areas. But the irony engendered by sites like these is misplaced, for their apparent transformations are less physical or ecological than they are conceptual, dependent entirely on assumptions embedded in our ideas about different kinds of landscapes and the kinds of associations that are evoked when we encounter and use terms like “wilderness” and “wasteland.”
At the turn of the nineteenth century, dichotomous ideas of wilderness as pristine nature and wasteland as ruined or defiled nature became fully codified in Western philosophy, literature, and art. Wilderness, and, in particular, its place in the formation of a specifically American subjectivity is a topic that has been masterfully treated by a number of authors, including Roderick Frazier Nash, Max Oelschlaeger, and William Cronon, and my book owes many debts to their pioneering work. This, however, is not a book about wilderness, but about wasteland. But what exactly do we mean by “wasteland”? The term conjures up visions of wild and remote landscapes like deserts, mountains, steppes, and ice caps, and, at the very same time, derelict and abandoned landscapes like former military bases, boarded-up mines, and shuttered industrial plants. How do we resolve this apparent contradiction? How can we understand the fact that “wasteland” is a term used to refer to land, like a desert, which is as yet unmodified by civilization, and to land, like the site of an abandoned chemical plant, which has been consumed and exhausted through industrial excesses? In other words, how can wasteland be culture’s antithesis, as well as its product? One answer is that in both cases, wasteland is a landscape that resists notions of proper or appropriate use. But this is only part of the story. The fact that a term originally used to denote landscapes that stood apart from or outside of human culture is now frequently applied to sites that have been ravaged by industry, abandoned by
the military, or contaminated by chemical waste, points to something more. It is a telling sign of a shift in our attitudes toward technology and toward our place within nature. This book aims to investigate that shift.