Words We Drill By

September 18, 2011

by Jimmy

The Man Himself

I recently read an interview with Chesapeake’s CEO Aubrey McClendon where he characterized the people at a protest outside a gas industry conference in Philly as anti-drilling extremists. He said: “Remind me: What value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created? You know the answer and so do I. So it’s time that we contrast what we do for a living with what they do for a living. . . . What a glorious vision of the future: It’s cold, it’s dark and we’re all hungry.” Talk about painting with a broad brush. I mark those kinds of comments in my students’ writing all the time.

For the record, I wasn’t at the protest in Philly. I identify with the protesters, though, because I was labeled a “vigilante” by industry lobbyists for training to be a Pine Creek Waterdog. The lobbyists painted with the same broad brush, and amid an outcry, retracted the label. But using the term “vigilante” was motivated in part by the same thing that motivates McClendon’s statement: looking at the world from the perspective of a gas driller.

What fascinates me about McClendon’s comment (other than it sounds a bit hysterical) is the way it shows how important natural gas drilling is for him. The key word is “value.” If you are not creating jobs or working for the gas industry, his comment suggests, then you create nothing of value. It’s a limited definition of value, framed in economic terms, and it suggests that anything else one might do has little or no value. So much for teaching people how to write. So much for raising kids. So much for supporting my community. So much for riding my bike. Damn! I guess I’m not worth much. Thanks, Aubrey. You’ve made my day.

Last I checked we live in a democracy where people are allowed to voice dissenting opinions. (This appears to be changing, but that’s another subject.) Protest itself is valuable—think Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s voting rights, Wisconsin and Ohio governance, gay marriage, Keystone Pipeline. Protests are driven by values just as much as values drive those who slam the protesters. That’s how we move ahead as a society—by raising issues based on what we value, arguing about them, and reaching a compromise.

Let’s face it, though: no matter what your values are, if you don’t have clean water and air, your values won’t matter. Values are a distinctly human thing. So we could say that everyone is linked by the need to live in a clean environment. I don’t see that as a value as much as a right. But then again, I’m not Aubrey McClendon. My view of the world is shaped by a different kind of work.

That we look at the world in terms of our work is something McClendon and I share. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth remembering that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. McClendon looks at the world from the perspective of a gas industry CEO; I look at the world from the perspective of a college professor trained in rhetoric. We can’t help it. In fact, I’ve been dying to use the term “occupational psychosis” the entire time I’ve been writing (there, I used it), jargon that in my field basically means our work, whatever it is, shapes the way we see the world. That’s the academic in me. But the problem with looking at the world in terms of one’s work occurs when we let those terms hide other issues or possibilities. At best, our work-tinted views are a partial view of the world itself. His use of language (in this quote and elsewhere) seeks to limit possibilities. By making such statements, he tries to turn very real concerns about the here and now into an obsession with the past (the Dark Ages), rather than an interest in the future (progress). His quote creates a sense that, “OMG, without gas, I’ll be like the cavemen trying to start a fire in Night at the Museum. Save me, Aubrey, save me.”

For many, rhetoric is a bad word, the equivalent of bullshit. But actually all language is rhetoric, the good, the bad, and the Aubrey. My discipline teaches people how words can shape attitudes which, in turn, shape behaviors. For better (think Martin Luther King) or worse (think Hitler). My field teaches people that words are powerful, and words can use us just as much as we use them. My field also teaches people that words can be used for seeing multiple possibilities or solutions to any issue. That’s the cool part, because it opens up a world of choices, negotiation, connection, compromise. Because of my work, I’m suspicious of any language that simplifies complex situations like gas drilling. That’s my own occupational psychosis. The more possibilities I see, the higher the likelihood of making decisions that will help me create the world I want to live in. On some level, McClendon understands this when he questions the value the protestors “outside” have created. (“Outside” is another important word carrying literal and metaphorical meanings–you’re either with ‘em or agin’ ‘em.) By framing “value” in such narrow terms, he creates a difficult atmosphere in which to have a conversation about genuine concerns, and it works in the industry’s favor. He knew he would be quoted, and he knew that his words would divide people (insiders and outsiders) that, in a different context, like raising kids or drinking beer, probably identify with each other. My discipline has trained me to recognize that things change over time, and what might work in, say, the California oil boom of the early twentieth century, might not apply now. McClendon doesn’t want things to change (except in ways that ensure his company and industry has unfettered access to land for drilling), because it works well for him and the industry. Other concerns aren’t worth bothering about.

Signal Hill, California, 1920s

More than anything, I find McClendon’s comment amusing, and I doubt that he fully believes it. He appears to be reacting in part to the growing mistrust of the industry. I think that mistrust is growing because the industry hasn’t done a good job of actually talking with—rather than at—the people who live here. That’s the industry’s fault. People around here are intelligent—they talk to each other, they learn, and they expect (and deserve) respect. Many people want the industry to see this place as more than a resource, and comments like McClendon’s don’t do that because the only value he will acknowledge is economic. In the world his rhetoric creates, the economics of gas constitute the only meaningful value. That probably satisfies many people, but not me. I value many other things besides money. Of course, McClendon has the right to try to create any world he wants, even one driven primarily by economics. But his is not the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m going to join the conversation and offer other possibilities, like the protesters were (and are) doing. The world created by McClendon’s rhetoric is a real world, but it’s only one version. Lilace and I are working to create another version. It’ll be partial, like McClendon’s, but it will align with values that extend beyond economics. Rhetoric enables us to do that.

When I worked construction, I bought a 28 oz. Estwing framing hammer that I loved to use. I’d swing that hammer all day if I could, but it wasn’t always the right tool for the job. Not everything is a nail. Likewise, just because there’s gas under these hills doesn’t mean their only value is as a resource. And there is absolutely no reason why the land cannot be an economic, environmental, public health, and recreational resource at the same time. It takes compromise, creative problem solving, and conversation. McClendon might get a lot further with his work if he’d acknowledge that there’s more to the world than drill, baby, drill. I might have listened to him then.

Tioga Fragmentation

September 9, 2011

By Lilace

A red eft on the rocks on a rainy day. The terrestrial adolescent stage of a red-spotted newt (newts are salamanders). Photo by Jackie Schlitzer.

One of the things that concerns wildlife conservationists is the process of habitat fragmentation—when an organism’s preferred environment is interrupted or discontinuities are introduced. This can happen slowly though geologic processes, or abruptly through human activity. Think of a salamander minding its own moist business on the forest floor. Then, suddenly, where there was once shade and dampness there is only a dirt road. A wide, dry, sunny expanse interrupting its ideal habitat and introducing stress and danger.

Some salamanders will cross and live, some will cross and die, and some salamanders will choose to stay where they are and not cross at all. Thus, habitat fragmentation can cause population fragmentation.

Here in Tioga County we are witnessing the start of some serious habitat fragmentation—and not just for the salamanders. Have you tried crossing Main Street in Mansfield? We two-legged creatures are now risking our lives regularly. And we have a traffic light.

More roads, pipelines, and smaller swaths cut for seismic testing are criss-crossing fields and woodlands everywhere you look. If you’ve talked with someone who works for a company involved with the natural gas industry you’ve heard them say how much more the landscape here will change. How we won’t even recognize it. And I never understand how they can smile when they say that.

Here, then, is where one can see population fragmentation kicking in. I don’t understand him, and he doesn’t understand me. If the gasman is from Texas or Oklahoma, I chalk it up to his lack of love and loyalty for this place. But that’s not always the case.

Let me back up.

Since we’ve been writing this blog, I’ve had some interesting conversations with friends and acquaintances that I wouldn’t have had before. One friend whose advice I ask on many topics and projects, said to me, “We agree on lots of things, and you’ve made your decisions and we [he and his wife] have made ours. So, can you tell me what made you decide not to lease?” It was an honest question, and I can’t say I know exactly what motivated him to ask it, but it occurred to me that I never hear people asking each other this type of question. I never hear that because whatever decision a person’s made, that’s the obvious decision and you just can’t talk to those other people. Or maybe it’s just not worth wasting your time. Or you just don’t want to get into a messy discussion.

Pipeline construction in July off Orebed, er, Pipeline Road 7. It is re-seeded now.

I have been guilty of this without realizing it. By assuming every conversation with someone who has another perspective on drilling will be a debate rather than a discussion, I have often closed myself off from people in my community. Even if only avoiding this topic, it divided me from the people I need to work with, brainstorm with, disagree with, and problem solve with. Population fragmentation.

I was reading GoMarcellusShale.com , which is an online forum for anyone and everyone interested in the issues. It’s done by region and is one of the best clearinghouses I’ve seen of information on the ground from various perspectives. There are questions and concerns about legalities, seismic testing, risk factors, the reputations of different companies, and so on. A lot of discussions are about leases and how to get the best deal and what things to watch out for. There is some serious sharing going on here.

One thread got my attention when I read a commenter say, “I don’t understand why someone wouldn’t lease!” It stunned me that someone honestly wouldn’t know. In the same way my instant reaction to my friend (in my head) was it’s obvious why we didn’t lease. Yet because he was a good friend with whom I agree on so many social and environmental issues, I knew it couldn’t be obvious. So I thought before I spoke.

There are many things I’ve learned in the last year that make me glad we haven’t leased. And one that worries me—rule of capture/forced pooling. But the question was why, with what we knew then, did we choose not to lease, and I think there were some basic things it came down to for Jimmy and me.

We’re pretty content with our simple life. We aren’t the type to dream of getting rich quick. We lived in Reno six years and didn’t even play the slots in the grocery store. And we don’t trust corporations, especially ones that take advantage of people with less experience or education. The two of us certainly don’t have any experience in the gas scene or OGM leasing, so trying to stay on top of things would be stress we didn’t need. And we have studied and taught environmental issues. We see the certain and possible consequences of this gas boom all too clearly.

But perhaps the main reason was property value. There were so many red flags, and the market was starting to show signs of splitting—unleased properties increasing in value and leased ones losing ground. We didn’t like the thought that, down the road if we needed to sell, a lease might be considered a lien against our property, or the gas company could pay off our house and become the primary mortgage holder (it’s happened).  If something should contaminate our water due to drilling around us, we have a better legal standing because we are not benefitting monetarily.

That’s our story. We know folks who were ecstatic to lease, ones who are waiting and hoping for the landman to call, ones who were locked in by their old leases, ones who leased reluctantly because they felt it would give them more control over their fate, ones who never considered it and are sure we’re all doomed to poisoned water and air, ones who’ve moved away or are trying to, ones who don’t own land but are glad to have a job fracking because it pays their bills, and townspeople who resent the traffic and changes they are footing the tax bill for with no compensation. And I’m sure there are other perspectives too.

This is my community, my population. And one of the biggest tolls of the Marcellus Shale boom is how fragmented we’ve become. Not that we all agreed on everything before. Rural people (been heres and come heres) are feisty and independent. But rural people, especially farmers, also know that we are strongest when we help each other. It’s the fastest way to get that truck out of the ditch.

So share your story and concerns by commenting here and/or talking with neighbors. No matter how different our perspectives are on the industrial changes occurring, all of us who live here want the gas companies to do right by the people, land, and wildlife. We all want to drink deeply and breathe easily. That’s enough common ground for us to meet on, don’t you think?

Reading Home

September 3, 2011

by Jimmy

I read a lot. Given my job as an English professor, this is not surprising. I read around fifty books a year (I know, because I keep count), hundreds of student essays, academic journal articles, popular magazine articles, political and cycling blogs, and on and on. For the past couple of years, I’ve read a tremendous amount about the Marcellus Shale, ranging from scientific articles to news reports to blogs and list-servs. Much of my week is dedicated to reading. Withholding reading from me is like withholding beer or bikes—I get twitchy, irritable, and uneasy.

From all this reading, I begin to understand who I am as an individual, who we are as humans, and what sort of world I want to live in. In other words, I begin to understand where I am—my place—in this forest of words we walk in.

I also think of reading in terms of riding my bike. For me, reading is like riding through Tioga State Forest at Asaph. Up, down, right, left, trees, meadows, creek crossings, log crossings, gravel roads, swoopy singletrack, deer, turkeys, grouse, the occasional bobcat or bear or hiker or car. I encounter all sorts of stimuli that tweak the way I ride in that moment and that change me. When I finish a ride, I’m never the same person that started it. Likewise, when I finish a book or essay, I’m not the same. That’s the point.

Tom riding in the woods.

Over time, I’ve realized that riding a bike is not merely a metaphor for reading, but an act of reading my place. Like any book, there are limitations to what I learn while riding my bike. But pushing the pedals certainly helps me read my place. Let me explain.

This past Saturday, Tom, Josh, and I rode our cyclocross bikes. For those that don’t know, cyclocross, or cross, bikes look like road racing bicycles with the curved bars, but cross bikes have relaxed geometry (which makes them more comfortable and forgiving of mistakes), knobby tires, and a type of brakes that stop you in wet, muddy conditions. Cross bikes are perfect for the sloppy conditions around here, and we spend a lot of time on them in the fall and winter riding the dirt roads and trails that cut through Tioga County.

On this ride, we headed north out of Mansfield up Kellytown Road to Pickle Hill Road toward the Tower Hill Road area. We climbed Painter Run, a five-mile stretch of gravel road through farm houses and hunting camps that gets progressively steeper toward the end, reaching 10% grades just before the stop sign. A right on Tower Hill, and then we plunge down Maple Ridge Road and Warner Road toward Highway 328, losing in minutes the elevation we gained. We turned west on 328 for about two minutes, turned left onto Button Hill Road, and worked our way over toward Mitchell Tree Road and Tower Hill West. Along the way, we passed more farm houses, gas pipeline construction (it occurred to me that I could ride the right-of-way back to my house), and an elderly farmer out on his Farm-All tractor shaping cut hay into rows for bailing. He grinned and wave when he saw us. I waved back.

We were out for three hours of mellow riding, disproving the adage that three cyclists together means an outbreak of racing. We filled our bottles at the spring on Painter Run. On the way back up Mitchell Tree toward Tower Hill West, Tom saw apples hanging out of reach on a tree and we spent a few goofy minutes trying to get one down.

We're a little older than this, but you get the idea.

First, Josh lifted his bike above his head and tried to knock the apple out of the tree, but bikes don’t swing well. His bike is light, but not that light. Then Josh and I cupped our hands for Tom’s feet and heaved him up to grab the apple that taunted us. We laughed at the absurdity of three lycra-clad adults thrashing after apples like kids stretching for the cookie jar on the fridge, especially when the apple turned out to be so-so. But that stop started a trend.

As we pedaled up Tower West, a long, gradual climb through fields and forests, we stopped at nearly every apple tree. Some apples had a nice texture but no flavor, others combined nice texture and flavor, others were too tart. Tom tried one so tart it nearly turned him inside out. Josh and I laughed and moved on to the next tree. Josh thought it would be a good idea to do an apple tour on the bikes each year, a mellow ride that involved trying all the apples you saw. “That’s a good idea,” I said. After several more stops, we reached the top of Tower Hill West, decided to bomb down Painter Run, and head back to Mansfield. In the end, we rode about 35 miles, gained and lost about 4100 feet of elevation, and tried apples from ten or so trees. A great way to spend three hours on a Saturday.

Multiply rides likes this one times 150 rides a year (I know, because I keep count) on cross, road, and mountain bikes which means differing terrain and speeds, differing weather depending on the season, and so on. You get the idea. I learn a lot about the place. Over the course of each ride, I pedal thousands of revolutions that adapt to the terrain—pedals resisting going up, spinning easily going down. My breathing deepens when my legs labor under the pressure of pushing up 10 percent grades and slows when I lose the elevation I gained. I read the landscape, choosing when to brake, when to accelerate, when to turn my head to follow five turkeys flying into the trees, where to stop and pluck an apple dangling from a branch, where potholes lurk that might send me or my compadres sliding down the asphalt, where I might spy a scarlet tanager when I fill my water bottles at the spring on Arnot Road. (While Lilace is out riding, a thunderstorm has arrived ahead of schedule. Another kind of lesson.) There’s constant variation on the roads, calling to my mind the choices a good writer makes as she unrolls the words on the page like a ribbon of road or trail, the pace changing as the story builds suspense or plunges toward the climax. On the bike, I read through my eyes and legs and lungs, feet and hands and butt, and I learn about the shapes and contours of the land the way a book teaches me about the contours of living.

Last post, I mentioned that I’m a strong believer in commitment. Both bike riding and books show commitment to things like truth and knowledge. Riding bikes has helped me commit to this place because I know it. I know where the back roads are, where the red efts most likely hang out, when and where I’ll probably see deer, and now where the tartest apples are. Paradoxically, I read the landscape and at the same time I am inscribing my own story on the landscape. That’s what humans inevitably do. And as I ride, I read the changes inscribed in the landscape by the gas industry—the huge swaths of trees and fields cleared for pipelines (many already buried and re-seeded), well pads, holding ponds, compressor stations; orange extension cords snaking along the roads and plugged into yellow boxes for seismic testing; and even the new additions to houses, new cars and trucks, new roofs, new barns, new tractors, and new businesses.

We change, and we change things. But the gas industry doesn’t care about this place the way I do. And they won’t stick around for the end of the story. So I find myself lingering over this page, frustrated as all hell, wanting to tear it out.