Iowa Writes

CECILE GODING
Do Not Dig


I am sitting in some ordinary place, waiting, arrested by a rendering in a magazine. Thorns puncture the desert sky in a hundred different places.

The Landscape of Repulsion, reads the caption, is a mile-square steel and concrete briar patch, erupting from the American desert two thousand feet above a radioactive burial cave in the future, our future. At present, the briar patch exists only on the drawing boards of The Marker Project, a team of anthropologists, linguists, architects, materials specialists, artists, and psychologists hired by the Department of Energy to devise a keep-off sign for "people." Underneath the Landscape are steel drums full of highly-radioactive tools, gloves, handrags, everything that will stay radioactive for the next ten thousand years.

Am I looking at New Mexico? Or Old Mexico? Why not ship our waste to another country? (We have shipped everything else.) Or why not to my home state of South Carolina where, like New Mexico, we cannot or will not keep any of this from happening. Maybe my old state would welcome the project. According to my map, South Carolina's landscape contains as many nuclear power plants as the state of New York.

I am sitting in some ordinary place, waiting, arrested by a rendering in a magazine. Thorns puncture the desert sky in a hundred different places.

The Landscape of Repulsion, reads the caption, is a mile-square steel and concrete briar patch, erupting from the American desert two thousand feet above a radioactive burial cave in the future, our future. At present, the briar patch exists only on the drawing boards of The Marker Project, a team of anthropologists, linguists, architects, materials specialists, artists, and psychologists hired by the Department of Energy to devise a keep-off sign for "people." Underneath the Landscape are steel drums full of highly-radioactive tools, gloves, handrags, everything that will stay radioactive for the next ten thousand years.

Am I looking at New Mexico? Or Old Mexico? Why not ship our waste to another country? (We have shipped everything else.) Or why not to my home state of South Carolina where, like New Mexico, we cannot or will not keep any of this from happening. Maybe my old state would welcome the project. According to my map, South Carolina's landscape contains as many nuclear power plants as the state of New York.

I picture a band of people something like us, approaching this landscape ten thousand years from now, wondering what the briar patch has to offer. For some reason, I picture them out in the middle of nowhere, not where people live, but where people have not lived for generations. Yet they have forgotten why not.

Like Elizabeth Bishop in her waiting room, I am "too shy to stop," so I read the story straight through, then look at the date—1998—realizing, and this even scarier, that the cave and the project will have grown since then, and that it grows ever more interesting to me, a literacy teacher.

Other ideas on the drawing board bear similar titles, all in English—monuments called Spikes Bursting through Grids, Menacing Earthworks, Black Hole, or simply, the imperative DO NOT DIG, with its implied OR ELSE. To accomplish its goal, which is to warn three hundred future generations not to open, our hands-off sign will need to grow very old, twice as hoary as Stonehenge, and as sacrosanct as the great pyramid of Cheops, what is left of it. What kind of language will survive the years? Aramaic, once the lingua franca of the Middle East, lasted less than two thousand before it was displaced. What will writing be like then? Will people read the way we do? Will they make the same assumptions about language? For example, that ✉☠✆✉ੀ⌛⌨ in one place mean ✇✍✌☜☺☠✈ in another?

✠✡♎●❑♦◆ੀ DO ▪«✶ ◎å⌖✧Ð○ô. ❽③Ä✉✈✇ RADIO ❀❞①❶◉◻ ✴⌑✰✆✉k�⑥ ❷ STAY ①ॐ☠⬁➔ ⌫✰⌑★·❿❷④ ⌘♦ ♓♎❽ DIG.

The latest, most popular, idea is that the Landscape of Repulsion be replaced by a kind of concrete comic strip, or several of them, a mile long and wide. No words, or hieroglyphics. Just pictures rendering consequences, the consequences of digging. Reading may require travel.

But here is another worry. It has to do with trust in the printed word, or concrete comic. Even if someone does read DO NOT DIG thousands of years from now, why believe? Why not dig right in? I think I might.

One day at school, I start to talk about The Marker Project to the first person I run into, an older man, a teacher, our custodian. I start to explain the whole story—the comic strip and the landscape and the crown of thorns—but he stops me. Waitaminute, Cile, he says. He tells me the solution is simple. Instead of making the marker and its message more eternal, it should be made extra rickety, right? It should be made out of that corrugated cardboard or that cheap plywood. That way, he explains, the warning would need to be rebuilt every few years or so.

I could imagine then such a structure, graffitied with the symbols of our slangy present. It was so simple. The problem did not have to be solved for all time after all.

When next I was in the waiting room, there were no magazines.

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


CECILE GODING

Cecile Goding is from South Carolina, where she directed neighborhood adult literacy programs for some years. Her essay "Six Degrees of Fluency," set in Charleston, won a GAMA award in 2000 A.D. She lives and works in Iowa City.

This page was first displayed
on July 28, 2006

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