Yucca Mountain As Metaphor in About A Mountain
IRA FLATOW, host:
Up next, Yucca Mountain from a different point of view. When writer John D'Agata moved to - moved his mother to the suburbs of Las Vegas, he began looking at the history of the government's plan to store nuclear waste deep in that Yucca Mountain. And the resulting book "About a Mountain" tells the story of Yucca and a suicide in Las Vegas, and in a way that's part reporter's notebook and part poetry. John D'Agata is the author of "About a Mountain." He's here with us. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.
Professor JOHN D'AGATA (Author, "About a Mountain"): Thanks a lot.
FLATOW: It's - you have wound a story of suicide and Yucca Mountain all together, in a very interesting way that you have done it.
Prof. D'AGATA: Yeah. Well, I guess when I approached the subject of Yucca, I started thinking about the way perhaps since the 19th century, we've wedded the idea of the scientific to progress. And how - I think, because of that, some of - well, its scientific catastrophes that I think has become some of our most potent metaphors.
FLATOW: Because we're running out of time, I'd like you to read a section of your book on page 85...
Prof. D'AGATA: Sure. Absolutely.
FLATOW: ...which begins, beyond the trees, the haze of heat.
Prof. D'AGATA: Sure. This is - this takes place on a hiking trip I take with Edward Abbey's son and my mom, looking out on a mountain, onto Yucca Mountain.
Beyond the trees, the haze of heat listed over desert. Fifty wavy miles, then highway strip, then miles. Then black encrusted ridges bumping silently from earth. So, Josh said, what do you think? Of what, I asked? Of Yucca, he said. Where? Straight ahead. Where? That low range. Really, I asked?
Yucca Mountain isn't pretty. And it also isn't large. From far away, the mountains just a squat bulge in the middle of the desert, essentially just debris from a bigger, stronger mountain that erupted millions of years ago and hurled its broken pieces into piles across the earth. The Shoshone say that Yucca is the carcass of a snake, a giant desert creature that was trying to find a drink collapsed there in exhaustion, rotted as it died. Better a cruel truth, Edward Abbey once wrote, than a comfortable delusion.
So we climbed the mountain higher and the spruce begin to wither and the bristlecones to gather, and the pitch of trail sharpened, and the edge of ridge straightened, and the soil whisked off limestone sheets and loosened them to shingles. Joshua pulled my mother quickly in front of him and said, watch it here, the path is narrow, as the path ahead began to fade and then it disappeared.
FLATOW: You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow.
That's a beautiful passage that you read there. What did you learn about - did you - you didn't set out to write a whole book about these two subjects together, did you?
Prof. D'AGATA: No, not at all. But I guess as I started saying, I think because these scientific catastrophes are such well-worn metaphors in our culture, I felt they needed a way to re-electrify our vulnerability to the metaphor. And so I wedded it to another metaphor, to the death of this boy in Las Vegas, a boy named Levi Presley, because I imagined that that was perhaps a more intimate kind of metaphor that we might be able to understand.
FLATOW: Mm-hmm. You just - you thought that to connect with the readers, you couldn't just talk about Yucca Mountain, but create a - weave in a character, real person.
Prof. D'AGATA: Yeah. I think so. I mean, the - what's interesting for me about Yucca Mountain is that it is supposedly the most studied piece of geology on the planet at this point. And yet, there's so much about it that we don't understand. I mean, I personally think it's the absolute worst place for nuclear waste storage. But there are still studies that were conducted looking at particular elements of the mountain that completely contradict each other.
And so, I'm kind of fascinated by this idea that we can surround ourselves with information, we can just pile up data after data after data and arm ourselves with facts and yet...
Prof. D'AGATA: ...still not be able to answer the questions that we have. And I think that suicide, not to simplify it, is the ultimate unknowable. And they seemed connected in that way.
FLATOW: You think we were in a state of denial about the mountain after we got all those facts?
Prof. D'AGATA: I think we're in a state of denial still. I mean, that line by Edward Abbey, a comfortable delusion, is ringing in my ears now.
I mean, it was just a few weeks ago that President Obama pulled the funding for Yucca, just a few days ago that the Department of Energy decided to stop pursuing Yucca. But it was also just a week or so ago that the president announced the construction of a new nuclear power plant in the U.S.
We seem to want the supposed benefits of nuclear power without having to deal with the waste. And it's - I think it's fairly irresponsible. I think it's actually pretty immature of us and typically American that we want something for nothing.
FLATOW: You've brought us full circle this hour because we started talking about nuclear power waste and about the president closing down Yucca Mountain.
John D'Agata is the author of "About a Mountain." Excellent read. Everybody who's read this will tell you it's - the way he's weaved the story is fantastic. He's associate professor at the University of Iowa, where he teaches creative writing.
I'm sorry we had an abbreviated talk with you today. But I want to thank you for taking your time to be with us.
Prof. D'AGATA: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
FLATOW: Good luck to you.