About A Mountain ~ John D’Agata

John D’Agata helps his mother move to Las Vegas and decides to stay awhile when she gets involved with a group of local environmental activists.  The current cause is Yucca Mountain, where plans are being developed to “store” all of the nuclear waste in the country. D’Agata begins to investigate and gives us a series of papers, studies, recommendations, panel inquiries and facts that sometimes knocks the breath out of you and sometimes exasperates you. Mostly though, he never fails to take seriously the fate of our world and all life in it, even as he punctuates his story with an absurdist edge.

In a delivery like a manic savant, with an exponential style that’s very nearly compulsive, D’Agata gets to the heart of things.

A geologist at the University of Arizona at Tucson tells him this about science:

“People have this really weird conception of science…They think that it’s the one reliable source for information that we have. They think that even if their public leaders are not to be trusted, and their newspapers are inaccurate, and cultural and religious morals are treacherously shifting, that science, at the very least, will provide a stable compass.”

Nope. Science is an evolving source of “truth”. What’s true today and what’s the given wisdom, may be in retreat tomorrow. The earth was once flat, remember? All life once rvolved around us, God’s image on earth. Vic Baker continues…

“Science just uses a kind of rhetoric that sounds authoritative. Just like any other form of communication, however, science is susceptible to abuse, inaccuracy, and just bad interpretation.”

Forms of communication are a key component of the story too. Besides finding some container to hold the nuclear waste for 10,000 years or more when buried under the mountain (this is a whole other issue), the scientists realized that there won’t be anyone around that will ‘remember’ what is buried there. You can’t write a warning or an explanation down either. Backed up by statistics, the likelihood of any language surviving in any intelligible way, is almost non-existent. Some form of pictograph may be the best bet. But nothing is certain.

Nothing is certain explains a lot about D’Agata’s investigations, and the monumental task to explore the best way to handle nuclear waste.

One evening D’Agata, working at a suicide hotline, hears of a young boy who jumped off a tall hotel in Las Vegas. He goes on to investigate suicides in general, and the very sensitive topic of suicides in Las Vegas in particular. He circles back to the boy’s suicide eventually, at the end of the book. The connection is a little murky to me, though probably crystal clear to D’Agata.

About A Mountain is an interesting kind of non-fiction, though not my favorite kind of book. Yet he makes of the mountain of facts, almost a lyrical dirge of understated indictment. D’Agata says

I do not think that Yucca Mountain is a solution or a problem. I think that what I believe is that the mountain is where we are, it’s what we now have come to – a place that we have studied more thoroughly at this point than any other parcel of land in the world – and yet it still remains unknown, revealing only the fragility of our capacity to know.


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