A Chernobyl Meditation

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I’m a-goin’ back out ‘fore the rain starts a-fallin’,
I’ll walk to the depths of the deepest black forest,
… Where the pellets of poison are flooding their waters,
… Where the executioner’s face is always well hidden,
Where hunger is ugly, where souls are forgotten,
Where black is the color, where none is the number,
And I’ll tell it and think it and speak it and breathe it,
And reflect it from the mountain so all souls can see it,
… And it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard, it’s a hard,
It’s a hard rain’s a-gonna fall.
 [Bob Dylan : A Hard Rains a'gonna fall]

The third angel sounded his trumpet, and a great star, blazing like a torch, fell from the sky on a third of the rivers and on the springs of water— the name of the star is Wormwood. A third of the waters turned bitter, and many people died from the waters that had become bitter. [Revelations 8:10, 11]

We cannot say how the wind blows. From whence, towards where, how strongly, how varied, bearing good or ill omen. The wind remains, even in this proud scientific age, a profound mystery.

And so it is that the fateful events of April 1986 have been blown into my ambit. I have been reminded of something that is part of the wallpaper of the 20th century, something I saw from afar, the implications of which I clearly did not grasp at the time. I am in the grip of this tale of horror, and feel compelled to make some sense of it.

To be sure, the events surrounding the explosion on the 26th April 1986 of Reactor Number 4 at Chernobyl Nuclear Power Station, Ukraine, have been exhaustively analysed, down to the second. Books have been written, which I have yet to read. I scan the facts, and they fascinate me. I’ve been doing more chemistry this week that I have done for 30 years. I see the pictures and they revolt me. But I want my words here to be few, and my response if at all possible, succinct.

There are 2 points of view I have had the privilege of knowing. Firstly, the recent photoreportage of biker-journalist Elena Filatova. Her plain and yet highly lyrical English prose compliments her photographs perfectly.

And secondly, a short interview by author Svetlana Alexievich called “Voices from Chernobyl: Chronicle of the Future” .

As a planet we are experiencing a radical shift. Some offer names for this – the post industrial age, post modernity, and the like. Of course there are a torrent of reasons making up the chaotic fabric of this age. But it seems to me that the Chernobyl tragedy played a pivotal role in the collapse of the Soviet empire, and shift of global power which resulted in the current wave of globalisation, with all its anxiety, it’s unknowing, its ill effects, as well as its promise. Alexievich makes some sense of this:

“We cannot read the sign of Chernobyl – it’s a foreign text. None of the great writers has dealt with this subject, nor has any philosopher. Chernobyl lies beyond the boundaries of culture.”

Key to this, she points out that rather that an event in the recent past, its effects are yet to be seen.

“Chernobyl changed space, Even a country that doesn’t build reactors will be hit by the fallout from another country… Chernobyl also changed time. Radionuclides take hundreds of thousands of years to degrade. This is too much for the human imagination. Chernobyl has only just begun.”

This shift from a well understood view on space and time, is profound.

Everyone deals with this sea change in different ways. For me, as one informed by scripture and faith, it places us in a particular mode of unknowing, not dissimilar to Abraham leaving all he knew on a hunch, the Israelites leaving Egypt on a promise, or of Jesus saying “nevertheless not my will but your be done”, and descending into the hiddenness of Sheol.

Maybe the size of the scope of the problem could help us to transcend the merely human response. Surely faith is about accepting that which lies beyond our event horizon. It is to quote the book of Hebrews,  “the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

“What good are our helicopters here? An entire culture collapsed, the familiar culture of war… the worms had bored a meter and a half down into the earth. Nature had obviously received signals.”

And

“We are changing – from a civilisation of fear to a civilisation of catastrophes. Progress has become dangerous, for both humankind and nature.”

Svetlana Alexievich’s observation shows us how our myth of progress has suffered a mighty judgement. The illusion that we can dominate or control the natural process of life. The materialistic belief that life is about conquest, and mere survival. Are we learning?

Surely a new sense of being, a new spirituality is called for. One which throws off these delusions, and honours the creation as something holy, not a resource to be used. This is not a mere issue of ecology, a “green” issue. It is a fundamental challenge of the heart.

It’s immensely fascinating how “accurate” a representation of the Chernobyl event, is the Revelation text. According to Wikipedia the Ukrainian word Chernobyl means “black grass” and refers to the weed mugwort, also known as wormwood. The star falling from the sky, the bitter waters, are powerful and poetic representations of radioactive fallout.

But to reduce the event to the idea of “prophecy foretold” and a Nostrodamusised response of awe at that we can do nothing about, misses the point. In fact, prophecy is mostly about a personal challenge to change, rather than a piece of cosmic cinema which we watch, as detached and spellbound audiences, rather than active participants.

Elena Filatova, although not a theist, has this to say bout the temptations of Jesus:

“Jesus rejects them all, but mankind is too weak. Science knows how to turn uranium stones into both weapons and bread. The people embraced the vision with unbridled enthusiasm, lured by the tricks of nuclear alchemy. Never mind the penalties of Time’s usury and the violation of all natural principles, the people chased after those tainted miracles, marched with nukes in parades, and shouted – Hurrah!”

And perhaps displaying Ukrainian religious roots, she makes this point:

“Chernobyl is a vital icon for modern Christianity, and a bitter fountain of learning for us all.”

Sarcophagus

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24 Comments »

  1. Don Rogers said

    Nic- Once again my educator’s background charges to the front. For many years, my favorite history subject to read and watch was WWII. Being born as it was winding down may have played a role in my fascination with the entire period. However, it was one, small book about the end of the conflict which grabbed my attention. That book was “Hiroshima”, by John Hershey. It is one of the few books which I have read at one sitting. True, it is a very short volume, but one which, as you might guess, packs quite an impact. I, of course, was a child as the “cold war” began to ramp up. I remember the “duck and cover” drills at school, wondering if the bombs would really fall. I also remember the real fear which manifested in October, 1962, with the “Cuban Missile Crisis”. It would be almost forty years before I would learn how close the world came to self-annihilation in those 20+ days. As I grew into an adult, many of the “cold war” fears were replaced by other things, although those fears never really went away until the fall of the Soviet Union began in earnest.
    Within the last month, I viewed a documentary on the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program. It was a real “eye-opener” for me. I never realized how vast the nuclear weapons race was and how abusive we had become of our planet, constantly pushing the limits of nuclear destruction. There were accidents. Thankfully they were small and never approached the likes of Chernobyl. I sat watching the two-hour program in a cold sweat. It is unthinkable that we took so many chances with that program risking the lives of so many innocents, all in the name of nuclear superiority. We are very fortunate to even be here today. Let us learn the lesson which has been given to us. One which almost cost us very dearly. I am truly amazed that there have not been more “Chernobyls” on a world-wide scale. Ours responsibilty, as a global community, is great. Our Source has been truly benevolent.

  2. Nic Paton said

    Hi Don. The more our inner historians jump to the fore, the better. Without a sense of history, our sense of truth will be compromised.

    I have been enriched by your point of view. You have very real reasons for your interests, fears and hopes, rooted in experience. My comparison, mine is quite abstract and speculative.

  3. timvictor said

    Chernobyl casts a shadow that will have long-reaching consequences. Unfortunately the little, incremental chernobyls gather against us. It has dawned on us, albeit a little late, that the Earth is mortal. We may be the unfortunate ones to contribute toward and witness the real changes to our environment. I wonder, given a real choice, wonder if I’d choose technology and comforts over a simpler life more in tune with nature?

  4. Rob Mills said

    I tol d yo uso It old yous o It oldy ouso It oldy o uso. I’m in a season of making sense of the inner pull between doing it and the paralysis of precaution, learning, being ready and all that. So a different angle. Dammit – mistakes, mistakes. Will we never learn!? Looking at Chernobyl and all the other possible repeats. Looking at my “Inner Chernobyl” (just listen to that..!) and pleading desperately to learn, to change, not to do it again not to fall into that hole again. There is a limit to how much this can be done on a rational, cognitive level (I think). So lets see. Someone clever in a pulpit once said “I prefer the way I do it wrong to the way you don’t do anything”.

    “The illusion that we can dominate or control the natural process of life.”: Is that the same as the illusion that we can preempt disaster by precaution? Part of the natural process of life, I am learning, is screwing it up. And if you look at whats happening at Chernobyl now – there is amazing forgiveness, nature returns, there is redemption. So I’m just adding a little reflection, not to counter what is said but adding to it. Is life possible without mistakes? Probably not. Mistakes are powerful sources of healing, I think this is being said. “I thought of everything, took all I could into account, I did everything I could to be sure, I interrogated my ego ruthlessly for delusion and despite it all I ended up in trouble.” The trouble with us is that when a mistake happens we make a rule, we erect a barrier, we put in another check and balance. And while this is necessary it also has the effect of diminishing life, undermining the divine-ness of humanity. Something about the mistake healing our hearts is missing. I think, too, that is what is being said. And now I must go, unfinished as usual.

  5. Rob Mills said

    Hmm. I feel I need to add some more… I want to link this stream of thought to the trickster and to the notion of hell.

    The idea of hell being consequence – being dammed as a result of one’s actions. Enter Chernobyl. You can’t do much better than that by way of illustrating the principle of consequence and you could throw in damnation too. And yet in all this, a strange idea wandering on the fringe of this discussion.. Was the trickster at play? – in this instance a deadly serious, very big bad practical joke. The idea of us screwing up despite all our best efforts clings to the edge of this discussion. There is a trickster element to this – a setup. I am less interested in exploring whether Chernobyl was a really bad practical joke than the more personal idea of screwing up despite our best intentions. In this there is a distinct trace of a setup. It seems humanity just cannot stay out of trouble. We are increasingly developing the capacity to replace natural disasters with ones of our own making (is there a difference?). And at least some of these are the consequence of noble intentions to make life better. Is this making any sense? Is the trickster playing bigger and bigger tricks with our own inventions? We can get all zealous and campaign for rights, compassion and love of the earth but I sense that this is not all. Trickster wisdom; understanding of trickster value is very rare and it seems to me now that until we begin to grasp and embrace what it is the trickster will have of us, teach us, make us be, we will continue to look with impotent horror, righteous offense and confusion on his tricks, making more rules and petitions to circumvent their repetition. The trickster is serious, deadly serious if necessary (it seems).

    I submit this as thoughts that are fresh to me, perhaps ill considered and a little raw but then that is what this here blog is for is it not?

  6. Nic Paton said

    Rob
    Of course – blogs are about process, dirty washing hung large.

    I think you have taken this in an interesting direction by 1) Acknowledging our inner catastrophe – our Inner Chernobyls and 2) Bringing the Trickster into the fray.

    I’ve been reading James Gleicks “Genius” about the prgress of 20th physics which made the A-bomb and nuclear manipulation possible. I ask – at what point should these scientists have stopped asking the questions which got us into these horrific realms of knowledge? It’s very hard, no, impossible, to stop a culture who believes in control, or even just in investigation.

    The fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a pertainant myth. But I “cannot read it” – like Alexievich says of Chernobyl, I find it too onerous.

    I think I shall have to read J Robert Oppenheimer’s (head of the Manhattan project) account – he was severely dumped by McCarthyism, and he regretted the outcome of Manhattan. But how could he have avoided it? Has the trickster got anything to say about unknowing our mortal knowledge?

  7. Gavin Marshall said

    Perhaps the reason we didn’t ask these questions before was that we were too fast asleep. Chernobyl was part of waking us up, as is the current ecological crisis. In the context of human history, what we’re experiencing is very, very new and we’re only really just starting to wake up to it.
    Waking up to what? The fact that the Earth isn’t an infinite ‘resource’ to be used for our purposes, and by abusing the Earth, we’re abusing ourselves.

  8. Sentinel said

    I like the points that Rob raises about learning and screwing up – it is unusual to be able to find anything positive in a disaster on such as scale as Chernobyl, but in essence perhaps it actually could be viewed in the same light as a kid falling off his bike and breaking his arm – hopefully he has learnt about the extra control and caution which is needed at greater speeds, and he will become a safer and more responsible cyclist, perhaps? It is worth noting that all the nuclear reactors built in western countries in the last 20 years are of fundamentally different design to the reactor which underwent catastrophic meltdown at Chernobyl, and such a feedback cycle is not possible under the newer designs. (This is of course not to say that nothing can go wrong, simply that _that kind of disaster_ is not possible). Progress and learning, on either an individual or a species scale, requires accidents and screw-ups – but perhaps the vital lesson of Chernobyl, beyond the specifics of design, is the reminder that learning bigger and more powerful technologies involves the possibilites of bigger and more powerful mistakes. Not unlike the way that from crawling, to walking, to running, to cycling, to driving, the incrementally increasing power of the mode of transportation is accompanied by incrementally increasing severity of potential accidents.

    Has humanity had enough fender-benders and scraped knees over nuclear power? Can we drive it safely yet? Nature, as we see, will show a remarkable resiliency in the face of our biggest screw-ups, and we are presumptuous in the extreme to think that we can “destroy life on Earth”. Life has endured bigger accidents than we could possibly throw at it, and come through shining. Destroying _humanity_ as we know it… that’s a different question…

  9. Rob Mills said

    OK so lets say we are never going to learn enough – unless we just grind to a halt and endlessly replicate something that seems to work. The trouble is that nothing ever worked well enough and it probably never will. Current disasters always make us look back at something more innocent and, under the circumstances, desirable. And we try to fix what we see went wrong. Life is climactic, cyclic and the universe is clumpy. Nothing about nature is very even or uniform. On the one hand we play, and nothing is much fun or even worthwhile if there is no risk. On the other hand we take the same risk, blindly, over again at our peril. So we learn, wake up, survive and live to move on to another risk. The universe is full of vast explosions and turmoil that we look at with awe and wonder from a safe distance a bit like Douglas Adams’ loudest band in the universe who had to be viewed from concrete bunkers a planet or two away. Its one orgasm after another. Thats the way of it. Perhaps the trickster is there (here) to ensure that we don’t ever even things out too much. I’m losing my thread now. I need to ponder the trickster, understand his poker game a bit more. Or is it HER game. She is a trickster in ways more mysterious and unfathomable than he.

  10. Nic Paton said

    Gavin
    I think the appreciation of the holiness of the earth waxes and wanes through the ages. But the problem of the development of technology is that it has continued unabated and ethically unchecked for many hundreds of years, while at the same time our apreciation of nature has diminished or been eclipsed by delusions of domination.

    Sentinal
    Thanks for the factual input. I would hope that science and applied science has learned from Chernie. But I am not sure it really has “bowed the knee” as in having a sense of natures holiness. It is merely trying to protect its own ass. Or am I being too sceptical? Thanks are due for the new cosmolgists like Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry.

    It’s a good point about nature being resiliant. While nature and life hold a very delicate balance, they also rebound amazingly. Human life is paradoxically robust and fragile. Life with a capital L transcends it all, and it is this we need relationship with.

    Rob
    Despite the fact that we cannot UNknow or unlearn, we can somehow surrender to that which is larger than us. Forgiveness and Grace is a state which doesn’t “return us to the garden” or wipe out our memories, it just relocates us in the largest context, the Love of G-d if you like, outside of ourselves and our ego, which we constantly lose sight and track of.

    I think of Oppenheimers soul, of the designers of Chernobyl – how did they deal with their guilt? Fool that I am I think Grace is sufficiant even for those who have wrought monsterous, or maybe just magnificently inappropriate, deeds.

  11. Rob Mills said

    I agree that ultimately there is nothing left but to surrender, all said and done. And to trust in Grace. But I do acknowledge the value of being prompted by the Chernobyls, prodded into better ways. Even though ultimately we have to defer to something beyond ourselves we are still bound to plod alongside our disasters and pick out the jewels. One last thing: Enter divination. A field dismissed by conventional society as “unscientific”, superstitious nonsense, and predictably labeled as evil by mainstream Christianity. Were we to give space to these intuitive practices that extend our vision beyond rational logic we would have access to a far richer array of insights and possibilities. I’m curious about why this field has attracted so little attention on this blog. Perhaps I have missed it.

  12. Gavin Marshall said

    Nic – I agree that there have been many cultures far more in tune with nature than where we’re at now. What’s new, however, is that we’re the first that has the power to literally destoy the earth. Much of our ‘progress’ (industry, technology etc.) has been with a sense of invincibility – not being aware of the consequences. But – slowly we are becoming more aware, more awake.
    In the movie ‘Entheogenesis’ there is someone (I can’t remember who) who speaks about these things as being birth pains before the birth of a new humanity. I found this refreshing as I had really only seen the negative, and she was implying that these things need to happen, in a sense, as part of evolution. I think the key is whether we will wake up in time, or whether this will be the end.

  13. nic paton said

    Rob – But the focus of this blog entry is Chernoby! … do you think it should have been called “Divination” instead? What does that mean, and how does it link to this conversation?

    Gavin- I look forward to seeing the DVD (moving as I am rather slowly on with the material you gave me).

    But it’s a good question – optimistic or pessimistic? I heard someone claim “Christians are short term pessimists but long term optimists”. Aside from that rather blanket statement, I guess people do see both sides of the future, at varying times.

    I think our understanding of “sin” has an awful lot to do with whether we are optimistic or pessimistic.

  14. Gavin Marshall said

    Nic, what do you mean by how an understanding of sin has a lot to do with whether we are optimistic or pessimistic? Could you ellaborate?

  15. nic paton said

    Gavin
    Well ones view of the nature of the human negatives – sin, illusion, maya, unawareness – will govern whether one believes in a good or a bad outcome. We will have to discuss the great themes of salvation, however we want to badge them.

    To some, salvation from sin is eventual but inevitable. To others its highly exclusive, and many are not “going to make it”.

    Basically put a belief in “original sin” will cause one to be a pessimist – most of humanity are going to be damned.

    And equally a low view of sin – that it is simple illusion, where personal responsibility, or repentance, is downplayed, and enlightement upplayed, will make one an optimist.

    Neither pole do it for me. My view is that “sin” is as real state from which G-d must save us. But I don’t hold to the “guilty until proven innocent” approach. Someone I heard recently said – we are not “born sinful”, but are born INTO a sinful world. I know Pauls teaching seems to say the opposite, but I intuit that most christian interpretations of Paul are not right.

    It makes the world of difference if you are in essence a sinner, or if you are a human needing redemption from a sinful world. I don’t mind having to do theological dances, I just don’t want to do the dance most evangelicals have to do – we are precious, halleleujah yes, because “Jesus says so”, but we are filthy unworthy reprobates bound for hell, because “Jesus says so”. It’s just not an paradox I feel comfortable with any more.

  16. Rob Mills said

    Nic, sorry I’m being characteristically obscure – or is is genetic? I was thinking about divination in two ways: 1. Very generally in terms of this blog – the whole exploration of emergent (Christian) spirituality, not this thread or particular discussion. Meaning… if we are to explore shamanism, archetypes like trickster and other aspects on the fringes of conventional Christianity divination is there. 2. Specifically relating to Chernobyl… divination has played an important role in most pre-industrial cultures and, in those cultures, is accepted as an important tool in planning and decision making. Divination – seeing beyond conscious rational limits may just give insights that moderate our dangerous inventions. (I tuned my Land Rover with a pendulum and got a 25% reduction in fuel consumption). What if the team that designed Chernobyl embraced (took seriously) as part of their design practice mystical/intuitive insights. How about the corporate mystic/sage who throws the bones at board meetings? If part of this discussion on Chernobyl is exploring how we be more in harmony with our planet I think divination is an important component. And… I’m interested to know what everybody else thinks – I’m curious not critical. For me my forays into divination are an important part of my spiritual literacy.

    Gavin. Your comment “whether we will wake up in time” highlights the idea supported by a growing foundation of theory and evidence in quantum physics that our thinking, perceptions and beliefs shape reality. That we are very much co-creators. I remember someone interviewed in the “What the Bleep..” movie saying that quantum physics makes us take responsibility – that we are not passengers.

  17. Gavin Marshall said

    Nic – I think I see where you’re going with that. Similar to what Joseph Campbell is saying about the christian myth of Nature being fallen – will influence how you approach these things?

    Rob – what you’re saying about divination is interesting. Seeing beyond the event to what it’s saying to us? Reading the signs of the times. Chenobryl is a prophetic event? Some see divination as foretelling the future, while I see it as a way of connecting with ‘The Soul of the Earth’ – what do we sense she saying through these things? What is helpful for me is playing with these things poetically and see what emerges – allowing one to listen and see on a different level, to the level of historical fact. This allows events like Chenobryl to move from an historical location in time, to the realm of myth, allowing it to speak symbolically, rather than ‘just’ an unfortunate tragedy.

  18. Don R said

    Perhaps Robert Oppenheimer’s words upon viewing the first test of the atomic bomb do fit this discussion quite well.

    Words from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now, I am become death, the destroyer of worlds, who has come to annihilate everyone.”

  19. Gavin Marshall said

    Reading these blogs often set off a train of thought which is similar, but slightly different from the intention of the blog. In the past I’ve often led a discussion ‘astray’ by my own agenda, so I thought it would be best to write my own blog about what I was thinking instead of interrupting a convversation that is going in a particular direction.

    I did so here: http://jamplease.blogspot.com/
    The only reason I’m posting thiks link is because after writing it, and reading this last post, I felt it fitted quite well into this conversation after all. And so I ammended it to include some of the comments here ;)

  20. nic paton said

    Gavin
    I was going to comment on the I’ll have Jam Please Blogspot, but just couldn’t put myself through it. Sorry. However I did read it and it was a worthy writ. I agree with almost everything you say but I do find you a little perjorative regarding religion as manifestation of dualism, by definition – that’s too perjorative for me. Your current Earthcentric path, as well as my post-christian one, are both religious postures.

    I personally enjoy the unpredicatability of a conversation and so your “deviations” are welcome. There are times to stick to a topic, but mostly I like what emerges in the flow.

  21. Gavin Marshall said

    hmm – I wasn’t saying that all religions are dualistic, but was reffering to those that were. While I understand what you mean by religion when you refer to the both of us having ‘religions’, when I use the word, I am refering to a more ‘formal’ structure of thought, dogma etc. and in that context I would see myself as outside a particular religion.

  22. [...] The Destroyer of Worlds I read this article today: July 16, 1945: Trinity Blast Opens Atomic Age. I’m also involved in a discussion at Sound and Silence entitled A Chenobryl Meditation. [...]

  23. Steve said

    Have you read Wolves eat dogs by Martin Cruz Smith, a whodunit set at least partly in the ruins of Chernobyl? You might find it interesting.

  24. [...] – bookmarked by 2 members originally found by PanicAttheDiscoE14 on 2008-12-26 A Chernobyl Meditation http://soundandsilence.wordpress.com/2008/07/04/a-chernobyl-meditation/ – bookmarked by 1 members [...]

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