“Destroyer of Worlds”

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In southern New Mexico every sunset looks like it might be the end of the world. This picture was taken at the New Mexico Museum of Space History just after closing. The museum is on a hill overlooking the town of Alamogordo and, beyond it, the White Sands National Monument. Above the parking lot, a few old rockets and aircraft point out over the expanse. Signs say: Keep Off. One of the gadgets is a XQ-4 drone, developed by the US Air Force in the 1950s as a target for missiles. With the sun dropping down, pastels ripple and swirl across its plated fuselage. It appears to be aimed above the San Andres Mountains – its destination, perhaps, the Jornada del Muerto desert. This was where, on July 16, 1945, the US Army detonated the world’s first nuclear device during the Trinity test. One of the generals witnessing the explosion was spellbound by the “searing light.” “It was golden, purple, violet, gray, and blue,” he wrote. “It lighted every peak, crevasse, and ridge of the nearby mountain range with a clarity and beauty that cannot be described.” Years later, another witness, Robert Oppenheimer, would describe Trinity in much darker terms. For him, it brought to mind a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Today, past military horrors, their apocalyptic trajectories, remain scorched into the Land of Enchantment. They continue a radioactive half-life, evident in the ongoing health impacts of people living nearby. They show up, too, in another evening’s sunset.

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