The Cave of Forgotten Nightmares
Deep beneath a granite mountain in south western Finland a facility is being built with the sole intention of housing nuclear waste, permanently. Its name, Onkalo, means ‘cavern’ or ‘hidden place’. It is a fittingly provocative epithet that reflects the dilema behind the project; how do we convey to those who come after us, many millenia in our future, the danger of what we are leaving buried thousands of feet beneath the surface. Will the site remain undisturbed, a prospect we might well hope for given the extreme toxicity of the cave’s contents and which the Finnish authorities are well aware of – while many countries worldwide house such repositories Finland’s policy on self generated nuclear waste is that it must remain on Finnish soil. Such solutions will remain the case, unless we can find an alternative solution to a disturbingly fallible problem for which we presently have no infallible answers.
We might look to examples left by our ancestors from the distant past for clues to such an answer, artifacts that provide evidence not only of human traits which remain recognisable within ourselves, our imaginative and creative nature for instance, the innate curiousity that drives such a nature, but which also present similar problems in interpretation. The evidence is there, enshrined in and mirrored back to us in such places as the Chauvet cave in southern France, whose 32-36,000 year old paintings did remain undisturbed until discovery. And yet, our own legacy to the deep future will be of a very different nature. If Chauvet cave deserves the name ‘Cave of Forgotten Dreams’, given to it by the film maker Werner Herzog for his 2011 documentary film, by comparison and by the same token Onkalo may well be the ‘Cave of Forgotten Nightmares’.
Within the scope of orthodox history very long time scales are extremely hard for humans to envisage in practical terms. The people who made the paintings in Chauvet cave seem as remote as the purpose behind their artwork. We can appreciate its beauty but have no idea if the same aesthetic value we attach to the images was intrinsic to their realisation. The images have a level of sophistication both as visual realisations of the fauna they portray and as technical translations of visual perception itself to suggest that we are not that dissimilar, in fact, when Picasso emerged from Lascaux cave having seen similar paintings two thirds the age of those at Chauvet he famously declared that ‘we have learned nothing’. If anything our learning, as he implies, reflects the gulf between us, a vacuum of discontinuity. The age in which those images were made belie the fact that we inhabit the same earth as theirs, that theirs was an age of ice, of mega-fauna, of different climate and sea levels. Much of the seaboard and borderlands upon which the feet of those artists might have walked now lie beneath sea and soil. The past is buried, and remains largely undisturbed, not just by human hand, but, by thought and understanding.
The recorded histories we have access to are confined largely to the most recent half of the post-glacial era in which we currently live, a period of 12 thousand years, which might be viably considered ‘our own time’ within which our current state as a modern species has developed. While we have discovered cave paintings that reach back at least twice as far and recovered artifacts from subterranean sites, such as bird bone flutes, which were made over 60 thousand years ago, we are not only blind within but prejudiced by our own ignorance. It is certain that we knew musical sounds even then yet can only speculate, according to our own values and imaginative use of sonic technology within the ‘historical’ time frame, on what the technological, social and cultural contexts were like within which such ‘music’ was made. Beyond that, orthodox ideas of human history give us little to go on, the dating of deposits within which stone tools and human remains have been found revealing a limited understanding of what our ancestry were experiencing. Non-invasive dating methods can reveal much, including the presence of radionuclides within their environment. However, no-one from that time, it seems, gave us any comprehensive clues as to the full range of our capabilities, the effect these had on the subglacial world we lived in. If our ancestors left us signs that we need to be aware of, ‘intended for us’ their far distant descendants to take heed of, they have escaped our attention – we have only our own experiences and memories as a modern variation of the human genus to go on. As a result the orthodox concensus sees present day humans as ‘advanced’, beyond a palaeolithic presence that yet remains a mystery.
Even so, there are those who claim to have knowledge of times that precede ‘our own’ by many millenia, both ‘indigenous’ and contemporary, whose understanding is capable of penetrating and populating the ‘unknown’ era that we otherwise have so little understanding of with a meaningful vision of our past. All too often it is a vision that runs counter to the orthodox view, and, consequently, such knowledge is not valued sufficiently to offer a plausible account, is inevitably viewed with extreme scepticism, drawing hostile criticism if made public and, in the absence of supporting ‘evidence’, is more often than not simply dismissed as speculative fiction. Such is the paradox of a species that relies upon ‘proof’ in establishing the reality of its own past – while we have so little ‘acceptable proof’ to hand we remain divorced from our heritage and ignore the possibility that we may well have missed the historical elephant in our own midst. Just as we also ignore the reality of our own immaturity with respect to the future in how we currently use the technologies we have created we prefer to deny the possibility that a comparable level of technological development had been achieved in the deep past. Precluding such a possibility we look upon our ancestors as an inferior ‘other’, distinct from ourselves. Who is to say that our own descendants might not view us similarly….what ‘evidence’ might we leave to the contrary?
This is the question at the heart of Onkalo.
In his memoir ‘Quicksand’ the Swedish author and playwright Henning Mankel made a very pertinent observation concerning the problem of transmitting a vital message across deep time. While talking of Onkalo and the means by which a warning could be conveyed of ‘what lies beneath’ he pointed out the fact that human language itself is an ephemeral human artifact, intrinsically mutable and self referential, changing in form over relatively short periods of time even while its core meanings remain embedded within it. Meanings too are subject to change. And, in the age of unbridled ‘progress’, we inhabit the wave of change in language at its leading edge, relevant within our current context while virtually blinkered to its wake, assuming rather than ensuring that our ‘meanings’ will survive through time.
Comparatively speaking a mere 700 years seperate us from the time of Geoffrey Chaucer yet Chaucerian english is very different to its contemporary urban counterpart. Even though we can recognise the everyday lives and roles of those Chaucer described, despite their virtual disappearance within contemporary westernised life, his 14th century language requires translation for its context to be fully grasped, hardly a common pursuit or skill considered relevant to our everyday way of life. Yet this is the very skill that Onkalo’s message must rely upon, as a safeguard against misinterpretation and insurance against ignorance of the relevance of the message to those who might encounter it in the far distant future.
That future is around 100 millenia away, the estimated half life of the radioactive isotopes that will be buried within their granite sarcophagus at Onkalo, before the danger subsides enough for the message to become relatively redundant. A symbolism that has greater longevity suggests itself, one that is not as subject to the effects of time upon its readability, but, what symbols do we know of that bridge such a span of time. We struggle with symbols left by our ancestors 10 thousand years ago, such as those carved in stone at Gobekli Tepe temple complex in present day southern Turkey.
The builders of that temple may have had it in mind to convey a vital message to us, and this too is a site that was deliberately covered over centuries after its creation. As yet this remains a speculative unknown, not beyond the realms of possibility, but, subject to the same criterion of time, context and meaning none the less. Can we set an ‘alarm’ that will still function even 10,000 years from now?
Mankel’s concern is informed by a clear appreciation of the need for such an alarm, a warning against entering the realms of almost certain death – he was a committed opponent of nuclear technologies. He wonders in ‘Quicksand’ if Onkalo’s best safeguard for our descendants might not be total obscurity, making the first line of defence invisibility, hiding the site from the future. Such cannot be accomplished without risk – the entrance to and existence of Onkalo, while it could conceivably be ‘forgotten’, could not be guaranteed to remain hidden; the earth moves and all eventualities cannot be accounted for. Given our present understanding of glacial cycles we could reasonably expect 8 or 9 ice ages to occur over the intervening time. And clearly, given the quarter of a million tonnes of nuclear waste already in existence, we have ventured too far down the nuclear highway to turn back, or to ignore the threat it represents.
As the website of the World Nuclear Association states “The main objective in managing and disposing of radioactive (or other) waste is to protect people and the environment. This means isolating or diluting the waste so that the rate or concentration of any radionuclides returned to the biosphere is harmless. To achieve this, practically all wastes are contained and managed – some clearly need deep and permanent burial. From nuclear power generation, none is allowed to cause harmful pollution.” And yet, as the industry itself clearly demonstrates through this statement, the future is vaccinated against such a threat by its very denial of it – ‘diluting the waste’ does not reduce its toxicity as a single particle is enough to propogate cancer, and ‘deep and permanent burial’ equals wilful ignorance, both of the redundancy of nuclear power in the face of viable alternatives and of the reasons it persists. Such wilful ignorance cares little for its own responsibilities. At Onkalo this problem does not escape attention, even while it attempts to bury it as a solution, and this dilema was beautifully exposed in the film ‘Into Eternity’, released in 2010 and made by director Michael Madsen in direct response to Onkalo.
As an image of beauty Chauvet cave is deeply profound, not simply because of its aesthetic or indeed its mystery, but because it appears as a gift from our ancestors, unsullied by projections of fear or intimations of catastrophobia. We tend to overlook the collective loss of habitat and animal life it foreshadows. It could have been intended as a warning of such loss, an attempt to remember forwards what was already being subjected to and experienced as profound change by its artists. Werner Herzog remarked upon the remarkable freshness of the paintings, as if the presence of the artist had been protected along with the paintings themselves. The cave had remained sealed virtually since the images time of making, but, it was the work of nature, not human intention, that made it so. No such beauty belongs to the nuclear legacy. It is a legacy built upon quicksand, a palaeolithic inheritance of the future that we cannot wish to be claimed.