Carter Emmart leads Grand Tours of the Universe as Director of Astrovisualizarion at the American Museum of Natural History, but spends much of his private time in one of his favorite places on Earth, Southeast Asia. It’s in Laos that he recently photographed an example of one of the most remarkable boat types in the world. At first glance it looks like yet another dugout canoe, a tree felled to ferry fruits to market or delicately balanced bicyclists across slow and silty rivers. But no, this is a cluster bomb case or jettisoned bomber fuel tank rebirthed in peace.
As Carter writes, “In Luang Prabang, Laos, the Royal City on the Mekong, now a UNESCO World Heritage center, there are many bomb casings and spent fuel tanks which were dropped by planes during the war. Fortunately this place was protected from the bombing, but a huge air field northeast of town (where one flies in) was the center of a lot of activity during the war in the ’60s until ’75, when the Communists finally took over. We saw bomb or fuel tank boats up the Ou River five years ago, but didn’t get a picture.”
How many bombshells and bomber fuel tanks litter this small nation? This understated video posted by Mother Jones magazine, inspired by a heartbreaking new book called “Eternal Harvest,” helps answer that question.
Other travelers to Laos have reported seeing bomb casings and other war hardware repurposed with minimal modification as hut stilts, planters, grain cannisters, small cisterns, mugs, buckets, and other peaceful implements. Carter saw a bomb tail used as a potted plant holder in a Buddhist cave shrine at Mount Phousi, Luang Prabang, Laos. One must admire the resilience and innovativeness of a people who can co-exist with, and even utilize, these mementos of trauma. “Swords into ploughshares” or “bombs into boats,” it’s all the same. War is hell, peace is beauty. And peace is productive.
Pete Seeger might have loved seeing one of these canoes, which symbolically captures so much of his teaching, at the Clearwater Festival. HarborLAB provides the canoe and kayak program to the festival. Perhaps in a future year, HarborLAB will have the means to bring a “bomb boat” over? Or imagine a boat like this plying our nation’s waterways, paddled by people representing different local peace groups?
In the meantime, when someone asks you if you’ve got a “bombproof roll,” you might reply, “Maybe, but can you roll a bomb?”