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Op-Ed: Robin Flinchum Sept 2004

All day yesterday I could hear the bombs dropping on Fort Irwin, the army training grounds that cover thousands of acres of the Mojave desert near Barstow, California. Fort Irwin is a two-hour drive from where I live on the edge of Death Valley National Park but the noise carries in the still, warm air.

It's a horrible, nerve-wracking sound--a quiet, muffled boom followed by a trembling of the earth that makes a little hum in everything from the trees to the windows to the china in the kitchen cabinets. The dog looks up and growls each time it happens, then nods back off to her napping. But me, each time that hum passes through me I feel an awful dread.

That muffled boom is the sound of war and destruction. Here in my desert, at least for now, it's an imitation of war, a training for war, 'friendly' bombs dropped on 'friendly' soil. But each blast has an impact, each blast leaves a horrible gash in the desert landscape, frightens the wild life, and rips apart the silence that makes life here so much more bearable than in all the noisy places of the world.

Each bomb falls on soil that might contain a wealth of secret history--could destroy the fossilized tracks of mammoths and dinosaurs who roamed the land thousands of years ago, could destroy the petroglyphs left by Native Americans centuries back, or the cairns and claim markers left by prospectors in the not so distant desert past. Each bomb has the potential to pollute and destroy a fragile water supply, contribute to the extinction of yet another delicate desert species of plant or animal, and make the land ultimately uninhabitable for humans.

But it's even bigger than that. Each bomb has the potential to destroy human lives, to destroy any hope for peace, to destroy any chance we have to rise above the worst of what is human and become better than our fears.

I came to the desert years ago in the vain hope of escaping the reality of war and its counterpart our human disregard for the land. Here, in a land of extremes, we must learn balance, practice harmony in order to survive. Here we are small and we are reminded of our smallness every time we turn our faces up to the far-reaching, ever-blue sky.

It feels good to live in a land I can never take for granted. I found a certain measure of peace here in the quiet calm brought about by the 126-degree heat of a July day. For on a day like that your only hope for survival is to practice the art of sitting still until you are liberated by the cool hours after sunset.

But now the stillness is breached, the silence broken.

When fighter planes come whooshing through my little valley of silence, skimming so low to the ground that I imagine I feel a breeze from their passing, I wonder what we as a people are thinking. Is there no place left in the world where peace and reflection matter more than fear and tyranny?

Even inside Death Valley National Park I can find no silence. I flee there in hopes again of escaping the reminders of war but as I brush my teeth in an open air camp one morning, several military helicopters fly overhead and soldiers wave at me as they pass.

I didn't go there to see soldiers. I went to see lizards and snakes and scorpions and coyotes, and to spend a little time not thinking about war. The bottom line, however, is that today I cant not think about war. I cant hide my head in the desert sand or still my fears in its silence.

Even this remote desert is no longer a sanctuary. Finally I come to understand that the only sanctuary left is the one we must begin to create for ourselves by putting peace and logic first. The environment can not give us peace, but rather it must be the other way around.

These buzzing, hammering sounds of war are everywhere, like chanting fans at a baseball stadium, to remind me that the game isn't over yet and all the players must remain on the field. Like those brave souls all around the world who've been marching in protest of the Bush Administrations penchant for war, I must face the machine and say often and out loud that I do not believe this kind of destruction is the answer to what ills the world today.

Much as it pains me I can no longer claim silence as a refuge, for in times like these our silence is as powerful a weapon against peace as any bomb ever made. If those of us to whom it matters continue to speak then perhaps one day it is possible just barely possible that our collective voice might carry louder and longer than the noise of all the weapons in the world.

Then, and only then, I may have true silence in my desert at last.

More stories by Robin Flinchum

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