6 January 2009

Islands of the mind

One of the...places now receiving protection, Johnston Atoll, was formerly used to stockpile chemical weapons.
-- US vows 'huge' marine protection.

After almost a thousand miles, we at last saw land -- a tiny, exquisite atoll on the horizon. Johnston Island! I had seen it as a dot on the map and thought, 'What an idyllic place, thousands of miles from anywhere.' As we descended it looked less exquisite: a huge runway bisected the island, and to either side were storage bins, chimneys, and towers: eyeless buildings all enveloped in an orange-red haze...my idyll, my little paradise looked like a realm of hell.

...Migratory fowl stop here by the hundreds of thousands, and in 1926 the island was designated a federal bird reserve. After the Second World War it was acquired by the US Air Force, and 'since then', I read, 'the US military has converted [it] into one of the most toxic places in the Pacific. It was used during the 1950s and '60s for nuclear testing, and is still maintained as a standby test site; one end of the atoll remains radioactive. It was briefly considered as a test site for biological weapons...[and in] 1971 became a depot for thousands of tons of mustard and nerve gas, which are periodically incinerated, releasing dioxin and furan into the air...All personnel on the island are required to have their gas masks ready.
-- from The Island of the Colour-blind by Oliver Sacks (1996)

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