On New Year's Eve, December 31st, 2023, a World War II bomb rolled onto a Santa Cruz beach not far from where I live in California. The Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office bomb squad was called in. The team determined that the bomb was inert, probably a practice bomb, but the munition was too giant for their team to remove. So Travis Air Force Base specialists came to remove the old, barnacle-crusted munition. We don't think of California as a place where WWII bombs show up, but military waste connects every place on today's planet.
When a year starts off like that, it couldn't be more fitting to mark the official launch of my new book project, Wastiary. I contributed a creative piece on "Bomb Ecologies," zones of our planet shaped by high levels of military waste such as the munitions left behind by air warfare. In these places, bombs become embedded in social and ecological systems, shaping how we live and die.
The bomb found on that Santa Cruz beach had been in the deep for sixty years. Millions of pounds of old munitions lie off-shore of the United States, from Alaska to Hawaii and New Jersey to the Gulf of Mexico. They were dumped there by the American military from the 1940s up to the 1970s when the practice was finally banned. Most are unused bombs discarded by military personnel after they weren't needed in their intended battlefields. Some are bombs confiscated from the other side. Landmines, large bombs the size of dumpsters, and even chemical weapons. Now they pose threats to shipping lanes, threaten oil and gas lines, raise the risk of toxic leaks, and, when the surf gets high enough and the ocean storms pull deep enough, they find their way to shore.
In California, our coasts are being pounded by unseasonably strong storms, one right after another. These storms are an effect of climate change. Big storms signal the way that our planet is changing and are evidence of how everything on our planet is connected. Storms rummage around in the deep, dragging currents this way and that, and show how war has made even parts of the ocean a bomb ecology.
Wastiary is a collection of 35 short creative entries on different kinds of waste. The collection is edited by Michel Hennessy Picard, Albert Brenchat-Aguilar, Timothy Carroll, Jane Gilbert, and Nicola Miller. Each entry is illustrated with a collage of scraps (waste) from discarded magazines and advertisements. The collages are, frankly, my favorite part, and I am grateful to Nina Mathijsen for creating them. Mathijsen also wrote a brief piece on "Strips of Paper" as repurposed waste. Like a bestiary, the entries are alphabetical: A for Architecture of Ruins, B for Bomb Ecologies, C for Capitalism (plastic), D for Data Waste, etc.
In my section, I included a mixed-media piece from my fieldwork in Laos. I embroidered a blurred photograph of artillery shells stored in a farmer's shed alongside their garlic and grain. The farmer harvested abandoned bombs from their fields and repurposed them for domestic uses like demolition. Dirty, the bombs were difficult to see in the unlit shed. My white embroidery traces their outline easily and trails off, unknotted. For many in Laos, white thread is a ritual item in basi blessing ceremonies. I did fieldwork with a bomb team that had a good luck ritual of tying their old basi threads around a defused bomb kept by the front door of their office. I thought about this wish for safety while I made this piece.
Waste is a fascinating topic of study because it marks the things we throw away, the things we fear, and the foundations upon which we build the new.
Wastiary is available to purchase from UCL press here and is also available as a free downloadable pdf.
If you're in London, the Institute of Advanced Studies will host an official Book Launch Party on January 11th, 2024 at 6 pm in the Wilkins Building. To accompany the creative entries of the Wastiary, the event will feature flash presentations by some of the contributors. I wish I could attend. Go, and then tell me about it!