The flat plains of South Dakota suddenly descend into the Missouri river
and after crossing it the horizon changes dramatically until it breaks
into the Badlands. “They should actually be called ‘the
pretty-cool-lands,’” I tell Autumn, who rolls her eyes at me. “You
missed the opportunity to call them Badass-lands,” she responds, walking
away in search of a quieter place to see them. Damn, she’s right as
The Bad-ass-lands aggressive landscape consists of silver formations that cut through the green and blue horizon with the fury of a punk song. From their trails I feel like I’m a particle zoomed into the crevices of an old elephant’s skin.
The hills at the badlands hold the secret to earth’s millions of years of existence. There are yellow, silver, red, and white lines in these mounds, all geological layers lining up from mound to mound confirming earth’s age like the rings of a tree. The presence and absence of water and its lifeforms fossilized forever into strips.
Despite their testimony of unfathomable past times the Badlands also present signs of fragility: when standing among them you can see their cracks and the sediments they shed with each rainfall as a testimony of their disintegration. It’s a pretty little exercise, to compare your own brief existence as a fragment of a second in the life of these rocks. If those geological formations were shown in a fast forwarded video we would see the water flowing and draining and flowing again, the mountains rising and deflating like pimples, and somewhere in the middle I could try to press the “pause” button to see the moment we all stood among them with our mouths open, but probably couldn’t find us as those VHS remote control wheels are really tricky to operate.
We should try to be okay with being minuscule and accept our existence as a blink among mountains. A speck of dust in the next layer. Knowing that I will die is terrifying, but paradoxically there’s a sense of relief in the certainty of those mountain layers, their ability to continue with their million-old formations, and the new creatures that will roam them long after we’re all gone. And that’s how I would’ve liked to feel when I visited.
Here’s the tricky part: Latest reports on global warming assure that our collective irresponsibility will cause irreversible damage to the prairies around this place and these layers. Autumn shares a report from the Audubon society, which claims that in 30 years the ecosystem of the place will irreversibly change. “My nieces and nephews won’t be able to experience this,” She tells me while looking out a viewpoint. In a hundred years or so of industrial progress we have managed to scorch the earth to the point where even the testimony of its existence is in peril. This is one of the worst things we’ve done, almost as bad as adding artificial flavors to coffee. Layers of millions of years of water and fossilized life that will collapse in the geological equivalent of a nano-second because of our irresponsibility? Now that’s what I call truly terrifying death.
A couple of miles down the road, away from the silver edges and in the flat nothingness of the prairie lies the Minuteman museum. During the height of the Cold War the US established several nuclear sites with atomic rockets capable of destroying the entire planet in less than 30 minutes. Russia had a similar arsenal, of course. To me, the idea of mutually assured destruction was not only shocking in its ability to obliterate all life, but in the fact that the decision to end it all was (is) in the hands of a couple of human beings sitting next to a telephone and a couple of buttons.
The site tells stories of how close we got a couple of times to complete annihilation if it weren’t for some operators in submarines who refused to follow orders when correctly guessing their radars may be wrong. I would love to meet the man who made the mistake to play a rehearsal tape in a real control room and almost started Armageddon. “Whoopsie!” He probably said to the disapproving grin of his commanding officer. “You little rascal, you!” he must have reprimanded, with his fists in his waist.
Anyway, these Domino’s pizza guns –ready to be launched in 30 minutes or less and really, really bad, –were called the minutemen. This was also the name given to a civilian militia group that was ready to kill and die in any given moment during the US revolution.
In 1980 two young kids from California, D. Boon and Mike Watt, chose the same name for a punk band that wrote fast, eclectic songs that lasted a minute or so. They seemed set on the idea of destroying the structure of the music business and to tour and perform as organically as possible. The human connection between these two kids and their ability to share their youthful and honest despair makes their music very endearing. While touring in Arizona, D. Boon laid in the back seat to rest from a headache. When the car axle suddenly broke he was thrown off the back window and died instantly. He was 27 years old.
The call to action and possible death of the 19th century revolutionary Minutemen happened with little warning, but the idea and accomplishment of independence carried on as a testimony of their existence. Boon’s life ended in a flash, but the music of the Minutemen carries on as a testimony of his existence. In the badlands, prehistoric water creatures have been extinct for millions of years, but their fossils carry on as testimonies of their existence. It’s a bit scary, just a bit, to think that we’re very possibly approaching an era when death and destruction will have no follow-up, no testimonies.
The US government still has the ability to literally blow away the earth into pieces. Every form of life, every mountain, every punk song ever recorded, every single layer of the badlands, could be gone in an instant. On the upside, this is the only way you’ll ever get the cinnamon flavor out of your grandma’s coffee maker. It’s strange to know, as we learn in this place, that there are federal employees right now whose entire job is to go into an underground control center and sit for hours, waiting to see if today is the day their phone will ring and the day their fingers will push the last buttons on Earth. What a job. Not only it must be hard to balance their stillness with the significance of their jobs, but also I bet the wifi sucks down there.
Similar to the trash we produce daily, all these bombs we humans have built can’t truly be disposed of. They exist now and will continue to exist, their overwhelming power sitting inside a secret bunker like a very scary version of Chekhov’s gun. As our environmental impact produces economic uncertainty, massive migration, and unprecedented famine and despair, will the world tension rise up enough for these handful of employees to get a call and push some buttons? Or will we agonize a bit slower, letting the planet disintegrate by the buttons we are all collectively pushing –the actions of us all, who can’t or won’t take immediate action to repair the damage we’ve created?
Whichever happens, two things are certain: one, the geological VHS video that shows the history of the planet will end abruptly regardless, as in geological times the difference between instant nuclear annihilation and the accelerated consequences of global warming is minimal, and two, nothing will remain as the testimony of the existence of life, except perhaps for a bit of artificial hazelnut flavor in an old coffee maker.
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