The Luminescence of Trinity: Consecrating Nightmare at the Center of a Sacred World — Part 1
Happy 100th Birthday to Jackie Robinson, Athlete-Activist and Breaker of the MLB Color Line

The Luminescence of Trinity: Consecrating Nightmare at the Center of a Sacred World — Part 2

By Kay Whitlock

A fireball begins to rise, and the world's first atomic mushroom cloud begins to form, nine seconds after Trinity detonated on July 16, 1945.
A fireball begins to rise, and the world's first atomic mushroom cloud begins to form, nine seconds after Trinity detonated on July 16, 1945. Photo credit: US Department of Defense.

August 8, 1945

Dear Folks,

We have been getting all this atomic bomb dope today and yesterday. I don’t know what to think. If only a third of this dope is factual it revolutionizes the whole world; necessitating a complete new set of ideas . . . If this is a fact the war is over, I am coming home, but the whole idea scares me. I guess the first thought that flashes thru anyone’s mind is what is going to happen in the future when two nations go to war with this equipment . . .
from a letter written by my partner’s father, then a young naval officer serving aboard a minesweeper in the Pacific


Download the full PDF of “The Luminescence of Trinity: Consecrating Nightmare at the Center of a Sacred World,” as the two-part series is presented in its original narrative format.


I am often drawn to historical battlefields and sites by a sense that the memories, the ghosts, the landscape will somehow reveal more than I have yet learned through book-and-documentary-related study. And by the inchoate sense that I may even be changed by it, that in mysterious ways, my justice vision will be moved toward greater wholeness. In solitary reflection in places where something terrible happened, I listen to the land, to winds, to the rustle of leaves. I cull histories, photographs, poetry, and survivor accounts to try to conjure in my imagination the people and the place and the moment. And sometimes something close to that happens, a quiet ripple in time and perception that somehow shifts how I see and experience everything. When I lived in southern Colorado, long before a national historic site was created, I periodically drove out east to Sand Creek, where a long-ago cavalry massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho peoples—mostly women, children, and elderly people—took place. There, I sat alone for hours and in silence on land unmarked by buildings or pathways. For whatever reason, Shiloh still disquiets me in a way many other historic battlegrounds do not.

Perhaps Trinity Site, part of a vast, desert landscape, with blue mountains off in the distance, had metamorphosed into that, an elegiac lamentation murmured by earth and sky.

First-hand witnesses to the Trinity test use vivid words to describe what they felt, heard, and saw as this new force, capable of annihilation on a global scale, was released: “breathtaking,” “awe,” “grandeur,” “fantastic.” They reported that the flash of light came first. Then, as Val Fitch, an enlisted man with the Army’s Special Engineer Detachment noted, “It took the blast wave about 30 seconds. There was the initial loud report, the sharp gust of wind, and then the long period of reverberation as the sound waves echoed off the nearby mountains and came back to us.”

The expanding fireball and shockwave of the Trinity explosion, seen .025 seconds after detonation on July 16, 1945.
The expanding fireball and shockwave of the Trinity explosion, seen .025 seconds after detonation on July 16, 1945. Photo credit: US Department of Defense.

I imagined the memory of that sound would yet be echoing; that the ground would still tremble, at least in my heart. But the ghosts had fled. We were greeted on arrival by imposing banks of port-a-potties and a few scattered tables where friendly local people behind gas grills offered hot dogs and hamburgers for purchase.

From there, it was a quarter-mile’s walk to Ground Zero, marked by a stone obelisk erected long after the test, and surrounded by a tall chain link fence. Along the pathway, cheerful people at a mobile souvenir stand sold commemorative mushroom cloud t-shirts, pins, and other ephemera. The clicking of Geiger counters on display tables confirmed the still-radioactive nature of trinitite, a greenish, glasslike substance of fused sand and other particles created by the intense heat and force of the first atomic blast.

If Trinity Site is a shrine, trinitite is its sacred relic. Collectors have acquired a lot of the stuff—allegedly before its taking was banned in 1952—and we saw scattered bits of it on the ground, though most has been buried. While visitors are assured that no health risk is posed by its presence, signs warn that taking trinitite is theft of government property. But we saw teenagers scrounging for some in the dirt. On the way out, just the other side of Stallion Gate, we encountered many weekend vendors hawking chunks of trinitite for sale out of their cars and trucks.

A series of large Manhattan Project-related photographs is displayed along a northern segment of the Ground Zero fence. Save for the photo of the Trinity Site Polo Team, these are iconic images of the bomb and the buildup to the test, long familiar in bomb lore. There are no photographs of the devastation to the peoples and landscapes of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Courtesy buses took us a short distance out to the McDonald ranch house—the Army seized the house from a local family under protest in 1942 and never returned it—where final assembly of the active plutonium core for “the gadget” took place before the completed bomb was transported to the test tower. Because there are so few “things” to actually see at the site, people flocked to an empty room to take selfies under a single lightbulb dangling on a cord from the ceiling with a sign marking the space as “Plutonium Assembly Room.”

Of the few hundred people we saw at Trinity Site, more than a few were Japanese Americans and visitors from Japan. There were also many young men, predominantly white, who had served in Iraq or Afghanistan and were accompanied by buddies, wives, and girlfriends. They made jokes about The Bomb, but the laughter that greeted them was short-lived and uncomfortable, a series of staccato barks. Some people, not many, brought their kids who seemed bored. Others, like us, were in their sixties and older; many of these men wore hats or other indicators of their status as veterans of earlier wars and eras. Mostly, there was silence, which did not seem so much reverent or contemplative as baffled: What the hell?

Trinity Site
Trinity Site. Photo credit: Kay Whitlock

Whatever anyone was looking for, I doubt that they found it.

All this is to say: Trinity Site is a monument of erasure. A memorial offering only the assertion that something awesome took place here, and that Americans did it. And by “erasure,” I don’t mean what many people consider the emptiness of a desert landscape. I grew up on a shortgrass prairie. It has always been the arroyos, the deserts, the tablelands and plateaus, the spare places where movement always seems to happen only at the corner of vision that most stir my soul.

No, this void is intentional. Crafted entirely by humans, it is something akin to a hidden entombment. Buried somewhere deep beneath the assertion of magnificent accomplishment is something no one is supposed to notice.


Part III: Sacrifice

But Mr. F was wrong yesterday when he said that this country is so old it did not matter what we Anglos do here. What we do anywhere matters, but especially here. It matters very much. Mesas and mountains, rivers and trees, winds and rain are as sensitive to the actions and thoughts of humans as we are to their forces. They take into themselves what we give off, and give it out again.
—Edith Warner, journal entry, June 24, 1933, In the Shadow of Los Alamos


At an unmarked place along the roadside on the way to Los Alamos, at the edge of lands belonging to the San Ildefonso Pueblo, stand the remains of a small adobe tearoom/café run by Edith Warner and her friend and companion Tilano, a pueblo elder. Once open to the public, the government permitted the teahouse to remain open during the intense Manhattan Project years solely for the purpose of providing refreshments and brief respite to Robert Oppenheimer, the theoretical physicist who led the A-bomb development effort, Niels Bohr, and other atomic scientists and their wives.

One overcast and rain-swept morning, my partner and I drove to Los Alamos. On our way,

following the careful directions provided by a friend, and without encroaching upon San Ildefonso lands, we stopped near a small turnout and walked back to look at the remnants of small buildings where Warner lived and worked. Peggy Pond Church, who knew Warner and Tilano, notes that the lives of tearoom visitors were all heavily-surveilled, filled with tension, and circumscribed by stringent restrictions and security measures. Accordingly, she writes, “there were many people at Los Alamos who felt that only their evenings at Edith Warner’s kept them human.”

Warner’s story deserves to be encountered on its own terms, especially in her own writings and journals, most of which were published after her death. Although she did not know any details until after the Trinity test, she almost certainly sensed and feared a terrible weapon in the making. Yet she did not hate the scientists. Nor did she justify their work, nor did she comfort herself by simplifying in her mind the magnitude or violence of what was being created. Instead, rooted in the love of earth, water, and sky, and recognizing the ultimate importance of respectful, compassionate, evolving relationship—to people and all beings as well as to the earth—she saw more deeply, and with clearer vision, what this all meant. Hers was not an activist vision, but nonetheless it quietly subverts supremacist notions by refusing to see human beings as somehow separate from or in dominant relation to nature. Rooted in Indigenous understandings, it  recognizes well-being can only result from just, respectful, and non-destructive relationship in many intersecting realms.

This is where—along the road, near a crumbling adobe teahouse, in that particular New Mexico landscape that includes the San Ildefonso Pueblo, and in the writings of Warner—I finally caught a sentient glimpse of larger in relation to Trinity. A powerfully sensate inkling of wholeness, or at least something closer to it, that goes far beyond daylight recognition. And that’s when I began to recognize the luminescence of Trinity for what it really is: part of a murder-suicide pact on a global scale. I didn’t agree to this pact—though new generations of cheerleaders cling to the dream of the technological fix—and neither did most of you.

The luminescence of Trinity touches everything; it has since the first test, and it continues to touch lives and ecologies, mostly in ways that are harmful, not immediately visible, forgotten, and ignored. And it violates every possible, sane understanding of “right relationship.” The same is true for all structural forms of violence.

For the most part, political perceptions and discourse are so fragmented, so hopelessly rent, not only in the mainstream, but along the liberal/progressive/left spectrum. I know that transformative change is fought for, and begins to arrive, in bits and pieces; in fits and starts. But our animating analyses and visions should never be piecemeal.

Mainstream political and economic conversation depend on disassociation as an organizing principle of dialogue, policy, platform. There is a civic habit, deeply engrained, of never addressing wholeness and the kinship of human and other sentient beings. It could be done. Not by ignoring the constituent parts of structural violence—white supremacy, economic violence, gender violence, ecological devastation, genocide, mass extinction—but by addressing them specifically and with regard to the dynamic relationships among them. Yet many of us say that is impossible because “it’s too overwhelming,” or “we’ll lose focus.” Often: “we’ll lose our funding.”

But what is the cost of voluntarily spinning endlessly in the lethal centrifuge of cosmetic change and fatalism created by accepting existing terms of debate? It’s time to establish new ones; to work as hard to shift consciousness as we do policy. Groundbreaking efforts by abolitionists and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to shift both consciousness and priorities already provide some heartening models for thinking differently. Others will emerge. The alternative is to let fear, rage, and failure of imagination triumph.

Structural violence is not “inevitable,” nor is it “necessary.” Its varied forms constitute a series of interrelated murder-suicide pacts organized by dominant power hierarchies around the rhetoric and practices of supremacy, survival, and security. These pacts are then invested with a quasi-holy status. But it is a shabby holiness, and phony, manufactured at the bipartisan crossroads of greed and an unquenchable thirst for domination.

Eventually, these pacts will take us all down—peoples, other sentient beings, cultures, ecologies, smaller caring economies—but some have long been going down first and hardest, in alignment with the dictates of racial capitalism which require never-ending blood sacrifice. The geographer and abolitionist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has defined racism as “state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death.” And this group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death is not only raced but classed, gendered, and overtly or covertly eugenic to the end.

Better to name and publicly withdraw consent to these unwritten pacts. Better to expose and discard the consecration of nightmare. Better to go larger. 


Read part 1 of “The Luminescence of Trinity: Consecrating Nightmare at the Center of a Sacred Word.”

Download the full PDF of “The Luminescence of Trinity: Consecrating Nightmare at the Center of a Sacred World,” as the two-part series is presented in its original narrative format.


About the Author 

Kay Whitlock is a writer and activist who has been involved with racial, gender, queer, and economic justice movements since 1968. Her political vision is unapologetically abolitionist. She is coauthor of Considering Hate: Violence, Goodness, and Justice in American Culture and Politics with Michael Bronski, the award-winning Queer (In)Justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States with Joey L. Mogul and Andrea J. Ritchie, and cofounder and contributing editor for the weekly Criminal Injustice series at She lives in Missoula, Montana. Follow her on Twitter at @KayJWhitlock.