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Radioactive Girl Scout

October 30, 2013

First Published in fNews Magazine 10/30/13

Girl Scout Camp

When I was a kid, I was a full fledged, sash-wearing, cookie-selling Girl Scout. For two weeks of every summer and countless weekends, I spent time at Camp Welaka, a small site located on the outskirts of the larger Jonathan Dickinson State Park (JDSP) in Hobe Sound, Florida. The camp consisted of army surplus tents mounted on raised platforms (to protect us from the seasonal flooding) on a sandy terrain speckled with pine trees and palmetto bushes made humid by the Loxahatchee River snaking through the grounds. Each summer spiders and mosquitoes feast on the hapless campers only to be killed in mass as trucks spraying pesticides drive along the dirt roads of the camp. One summer my girl scout best friend and I noticed strange red lights emanating from across the park. We devised fantastical stories to explain the glow in the night sky, stories of Red Martians and the invasion of the rival Boy Scout’s Camp Tanah Keeta. As the years passed, the red glow became accepted, and like the trucks of pesticide, was not discussed.

 

Flash forward a decade or so, to my stint as a K-12 drawing teacher. I was reassuring a young pupil that she would not get lead poisoning from the shiny grey smears on her hands, and had the realization that although I knew that pencils were graphite and not lead I didn’t actually know their history. I looked into it. The process started benignly enough, with a history that involved shepherds marking their sheep and graphite’s amazing properties as a cannonball lubricant. From there I began to make drawings that toyed with these histories. Following the trail from artistic to industrial uses, I started playing with it’s conductivity. This resulted in drawings that with the help of electric currents lit up LEDs. Wanting to explore this material further I stumbled across an article that mentioned graphite was used in nuclear reactors.I will state for the record that I do not pretend to understand nuclear fission or for that matter life in general. I do know that the very first reactor ever built used 771,000 pounds of graphite, which equates to shit ton of drawings by 3rd graders. The graphite is there to both reflect the neutrons back to the reaction and help the reaction along. This discovery was congruent with my arrival in Chicago, the home of that very heavy first reactor, known the world over as Chicago Pile One, CP1 to it’s friends. It was built in a squash court under the football field at the University of Chicago, but was soon moved to it’s current and final location in Red Gate Woods.

 

Red Gate Woods.

 

Red Gate Woods is located just outside of the city and is part of the Cook County Forest Preserve. Marked by two monuments reminiscent of gravestones, are Plot M and Site A. The two sites are accessible by trail system the runs through the park. Site A is the burial place of CP1, surrounded by a lush forest the trees have yet to take over grass field in the shape of the foundations. Plot M, a small circular clearing in the middle of the park has the dubious honor of being the world’s first nuclear waste pile. My first visit to Plot M was in the dead of winter, and multiple trails were closed due to snow. At first the plan to find the site involved using our phones, but unfortunately forest preserves don’t have great cell reception. Prior to the visit, I had drawn the map of the site multiple times, as a type of remote viewing. Although it was the dead of winter and all the trail markers were covered I was able to find the site via an alternate route, apparently the remote viewing worked. I was and remain intrigued that these sites are located within a nature preserve. Researching Red Gate Woods led me to look into the history of other parks and preserves. What I discovered was that many parks also share histories complicated by government regulations that seesaw between masking and exposing the manufacturing refuse of the past.

While digging through Chicago’s military industrial burial grounds, I recalled those lights that in my youth I had attributed to boy-scout-abducting aliens. It turns out that in the mid ‘80s the state of Florida sold a parcel of land to the federal government to build the Jonathan Dickinson Missile Tracking Annex(JDMTA). A large microwave tower protruding from the northern section of the park, was the source of the red glowing lights. I dug in further. Prior to being a Florida State Park, JD had been Camp Murphy, a World War II training ground for the then highly classified radar system. In its heyday the site was made up of one thousand buildings, including a bowling alley. Remnants of those buildings can still be seen on the landscape, in the form of foundations and in some cases whole buildings used today by the park staff.

 

Through my work I have developed a way of exploring these sites visually even when I cannot visit them in person either due to geographical or environmental restrictions. Delving into materials made available by the Freedom of Information Act, I create physical remnants of the unseen. Sometimes these are hand-drawn maps that involve layering and transparency of simple photographic stereographic techniques, scrims, reflections, projections, and infrared photography. My work questions the shift that occurs when a place goes from restricted to public access. What do we really know about the ground we walk on?

 

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