A Witch in the Desert

Nevada Test Site, New Year 1999-2000

by T. Thorn Coyle

I trekked to Nevada for the Gregorian New Year, 2000. In the strange city of Las Vegas I gathered with 500 or so faith-based activists, mostly of the Christian variety, for "Millennium 2000: Walking the Ways of Peace". There was one other Goddess worshipper (a former Catholic nun) there, along with a few Jews, some Buddhists, two Atheists and one Muslim. There were very few non-White faces in the crowd.

I was invited to the edge of this capitalist wonderland by the Nevada Desert Experience, to lead workshops on the Labyrinth as meditation for activists, to perform in a New Year's Eve concert and, most importantly, to walk on Western Shoshone land, stolen and ravaged by the United States government through years of nuclear testing.

Photo by Yuki Sato

While leading my workshops on the Labyrinth, I explained its Pagan roots and showed how we Witches use it. We walked the seven circuit path my partner and I had taped out in the meditation chapel, singing Donald Engstrom's song, "Every step I take is a sacred step, Every step I take is a healing step." The workshop was intended as a respite from the more intense workshops: by radical Japanese youth and survivors of Hiroshima: by women living down-wind from nuclear power plants: by activists attempting to find fresh insight and renewed faith in the long struggle against nuclear power and nuclear war. In Nevada, that struggle began in the 1950's with Christian Anarchist Ammon Hennessy and his one-man fasts and demonstrations against nuclear testing. Every August, he would fast one day for every year since the dropping of the bombs on Japan.

So, where were the other Witches? Perhaps Pagans didn't care to celebrate a Christian date. As I said before singing my paean to the Great Mother, "Charge and Covenant" in that New Year's Eve's concert, "As a Wiccen, the Millennium doesn't mean much to me, but I'm happy to be here with you all anyway. We celebrated our New Year back on Halloween." But a more likely answer is this: for Pagan activists, the nuclear tide has gone out. So many of us protested and demonstrated against nuclear proliferation in the 1980's and have gone on to other issues. I can understand this, myself having focused on serving the poor for the last five years. However, out in that desert I couldn't help but feel that the fact of the nuclear industry churning on in relative obscurity and post-Cold War silence makes it all the more imperative that we retain a presence, a finger that points to the madness.

During the 1990s, Witches in Florida protested the Cassini launches, a few others from San Francisco protested at Livermore Labs and at Bechtel Corporation, which has a five year, $1.5 billion contract with the Department of Energy (DOE) to manage the Test Site. Others have journeyed in small groups or individually to the Nevada Test Site. Out in the sere beauty, nestled in the foothills, I couldn't help but wish for more.

Photo couresty of Nevada Desert Experience

Since 1995, Bechtel Corporation has been charged with maintaining the capability to perform full scale underground nuclear tests in Nevada and to conduct sub-critical underground tests to aid in the research of weapons manufacturing. Sub-critical tests involve surrounding nuclear material, such as weapon-grade plutonium, with 50-500 pounds of high explosives and detonating it 960 feet underground. These tests are also carried on above ground in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Los Alamos, Sandia National Laboratories and Livermore Labs are all part of the Stockpile Stewardship and Management program. This SSM is supposedly in place to ensure the safety and reliability of the US nuclear arsenal, taking care that accidental detonations and the like do not happen. In reality, these places are used to test and design new weapons in defiance of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty signed in 1996.

The nuclear industry is alive and making money. Lawrence Livermore Laboratories in California is building a massive Nuclear Ignitions Facility, the size of a football field, which will use laser fusion to ignite tiny thermonuclear explosions. It was conceived solely to aid

new weapons design without even a pretense of helping with safety and reliability. The DOE itself has designed a new nuclear weapon, the b-61 Mod-11, made to penetrate buried bunkers. According to the Military Production Network, they are currently working on new weapons for submarines.

After the concert that New Year's Eve, we gathered around a bonfire at the old Peace Camp in Mercury, across from the makeshift Atomic Cafe. Western Shoshone Elder Corbin Harney thanked us all, as he always does, for our presence. He mentioned that, because of people like us returning time and again, that the lizards, out of all the absent animals, were finally beginning to return to the land. Bishop Tom Gumbleton and Corbin Harney blessed the fire and offered sage as activists including Dan Berrigan and Ibrahim Malik Abdil-Mu'id looked on. We then lit our candles from this fire and began the midnight procession to the Test Site itself. I drummed as another activist played guitar and sang. Martin Sheen walked ahead, ringing a giant bell. The group from Japan carried bright paper lanterns on little sticks. The procession was long and beautiful, a stream of candlelight in the cold night.

While waiting to cross the line, an image filled my mind. I had a vision of strewing the road in front of the Test Site with flowers. I wanted to fill that road with flowers to speak of the beauty that we carried there, and as a bright promise that the plants of the desert would return. I had another vision of prayer flags hung from the barbed wire. These prayer flags would carry the pictures of all the animals that had been driven from the sacred land by radioactive dust and the tremors of years of testing: first above ground, then underground and finally the current, sub-critical tests.

Crossing the line at the Test Site is, these days, a dance of long-standing protocol and ritual. I could say it is meaningless, for nothing happens. There is no struggle and no trial (except for those like Joyce Parkhurst and Martha Scarborough, recently released from 6 months in jail for cutting down fence around the Test Site). We were simply escorted to a cyclone fence pen where we waited until issued a $350 citation which we would never pay. Ritualized arrests.

But, as Witches, we know the power of ritual. We know the power of dancing on sacred land, however wounded. We know the power of song and prayer. This is what those activists willing to travel to the desert still risk. There is no heady risk of confrontation with "the authorities." It is a risk of faith, rather than body. It is claiming our own authority that to walk that land is in itself important. Walking that land is a risk of need: for the needs of the animals and plants; for the need of the Western Shoshone who work for peace; for the need of security forces hired because of poverty and lack of skills. We carried the light of the need-fire within us, even after our candles were left as a shrine outside the cattle bar and barbed wire.

While the Wackenhut Security person (Wackenhuts are private mercenary soldiers with nine-millimeter guns) was writing up my citation at about 2:30 that morning, she began fumbling and said, in a human moment, "You'll have to excuse me, I'm cold." I replied, "You need those fingerless gloves." She spat out, "The only gloves I have are for shooting my gun and that's all I need out here." Then she muttered, "But they're not much good for writing in." She needed more than her gun out there. Having nothing else to give, not a warm coat or a better job, I wished her good morning and walked off past the floodlights surrounded by the dark, sheltering desert. The giant bell greeted me, ringing for my release, and the Japanese contingent shouted "Happy New Year." I returned to my partner for a kiss.

Three hundred and thirty of us were arrested and released. I wanted hundreds of thousands. I wanted enough people to circle the entire Site, though the 330 and the prayers and songs of over 500 would have to suffice for that night's vigil.

The Western Shoshone invite us to the Nevada Test Site. They will be running a relay around the Site, culminating on Mother's Day. Will we journey there to dance and sing and walk that sacred, much wounded land? Can we greet the lizards and strew flowers? Will we bring some magic back to weave with Western Shoshone sage and Christian prayer? Will we join together in the desert, and at the offices of the Department of Energy, at Bechtel Corporation, Los Alamos, the Pentagon, Bath Iron Works, Lockheed-Martin. . . We can strew flowers and dance everywhere. We can sing to the spirits of those who work in those places, and to those who have died of radiation poisoning. We can pray for the land, our Mother. That is what I need.

Interested in forming/joining WAND, Witches Acting for Nuclear Disarmament? It doesn't matter where in the country you live, we can plan face-to-face regionally and over email nationally. For more info, contact Thorn at tcoyle@sfsu.edu

For more information about the Mother's Day action and Nevada Test Site, contact the Shundahai Network at (Shundahai is Western Shoshone for "peace and harmony with all creation.")

T. Thorn Coyle is a writer, dancer, priestess, teacher and activist who studies philosophy, religion and herself, in San Francisco.