by Jimmy

I rolled down our snow-covered drive to Ore Bed Rd. on the Mocha Stout and headed left to meet Tom for a couple of hours of winter cruising. Snowflakes blew northeast as I pedaled through slushy snow, past a Budweiser can, a goat chewing his cud, and a couple of shaggy horses crunching hay. The temps were mid-thirties, and I wished I had remembered my fenders as cold, muddy water and cinders flew onto my feet, legs, ass, and into my face. Wet mid-thirties rides are the coldest: snow melt soaks you, challenging the limits of high-tech clothing to keep you warm. You bake on climbs and freeze on descents, and your fingers freeze while sweat pours from under your helmet. Rides like these are uncomfortable and weirdly fun, and remind me that I’m not nearly as much of a badass as I think I am.

The Mocha Stout.

The Mocha Stout.

Plus, I needed to ask Tom, builder of beautiful bike frames and the local guru of all things bicycular, a question about bikes and drill rigs. I value Tom’s thoughts. Many rides ago, he provided me with an insight into cycling that I’ve come back to repeatedly, the idea that bicycles amplify our experiences of a place or landscape. It seems obvious in hindsight, which is probably why I didn’t figure it out years ago, and I buy it. On a bike, cold feels colder, heat feels hotter, roads feel longer, hills feel steeper, trees, bears, and beer cans appear in more detail, and my body’s limits feel closer. Bikes get me out there and into my body at the same time.

As we coasted down Moore Rd. toward Hollow Rd. with a vague plan to link back roads to Arnot, I asked Tom: “Are drill rigs an extension of the bike?” The question relates to my previous post about getting comfortable with gas (not the bean-induced kind) and understanding the rhetoric of drill rigs, pipelines, and compressor stations. That is, the rhetoric of them as things. We coasted a few yards before Tom answered: “Yeah, I guess, if you think about drill rigs as being like a farm for our mechanized society, to keep it running. I mean, farms supply cyclists with food so they can ride.”

The Drill Rig. Photo: Scott Detrow/Stateimpact Pennsylvania

The Drill Rig. Photo: Scott Detrow/Stateimpact Pennsylvania

“I can see that,” I replied. “I guess what I’m mostly thinking about here is the way that bikes extend human power in the same way that drill rigs do. I mean, I can ride farther than I can walk. I can drive a car farther than I can ride. If we compare riding a bike up Firetower Rd. [a two-mile stretch of gravel road that climbs 1000’], I can ride up it faster than I can walk up it. In a car, I can climb it even faster. Gas helps me do a lot of things I couldn’t do otherwise, or at least not as easily.”

“True,” Tom said. “But riding a bike up Firetower is really hard compared to walking up it. I don’t know about running. A car’s easy.” By then, the bitter wind blowing northeast and amplified by our descent chilled my hatless head (not helmetless!) into a screaming headache. I could no longer talk or think because it felt like a spoke was being driven into my brain. Thankfully, the pain subsided quickly once we started climbing Hollow Rd.

My conversation with Tom also relates to my earlier post on the seductive power of power and perhaps explains why our machines—bicycles and drill rigs—are so damn attractive. Both literally extend us, that is, they amplify and magnify our power or what we can do with two feet and two hands. I rode 3000 miles last year spread out over 200 hours of saddle time. It would take me 1000 hours to walk the same distance. The bike makes it possible for me to cover a mile in about four minutes. Walking, I cover a mile in about twenty minutes. Technologies like bikes and drill rigs extend what we fragile humans can do, which gives us a sense of power out of proportion to our physical capabilities. Instead of building a fire, I turn on the stove to warm that lovely venison stew Lilace made, which means I can do something else, like write this blog post or open a beer. Of course, the deer was killed by another technology that extends power.

One aspect of the rhetoric of bikes and drill rigs appears to be the same as that of the roads: Use me. Make me work for you. That’s one way bikes and drill rigs connect. Each is used in ways that affects us differently, sure, but the connections are becoming clearer to me. There’s a problem that arises when we begin to focus on the differences between the bicycle and the drill rig at the expense of seeing the connections. As long as I consider myself to be a badass for riding my bike to work in single-digit temperatures, I am working actively to distance myself from fossil fuel users and fossil fuel extractors, both of which I am connected to and need to understand. This is not to say that bikes and drill rigs are the same. They aren’t. The way each uses resources creates possibilities and limitations. Part of the reason I ride a bike is because I understand that the way I live has consequences, but I also ride a bike because the bike itself extends my physical power. I like both those feelings.

Focusing on the differences between those technologies at the expense of seeing the connections is a problem. Part of the message I project while riding my bike is a green one, though I also project a message about the possibilities of human power. But my bike could care less about what kind of message I project. The message it projects: Ride me. Ride me to work, for fun, to escape zombies, whatever. Just ride. In that sense, riding my bike is not much different from driving a car. (Of course, our cars project images of us as well, but the cars as things don’t care.) Add a drill rig to the mix and we have three technologies that serve the same basic purpose—magnifying human power. If I had to feed and clothe myself without access to bikes, roads, cars, rifles, or natural gas, I would have to work a lot harder and I would accomplish fewer things. I would also have a smaller footprint. But thanks to these technologies that extend my power, I can do way more than my physical body could ever accomplish on its own and still have time left over for other stuff, like drinking bourbon or roughhousing with my kids.

Kenneth Burke’s work suggests that language performs two basic functions: it brings us together and it divides us. We have to figure out ways to guard against the divisive nature of language, because that’s when we run into problems dealing with our problems. I want to see differences between bikes and drill rigs, and much of the rhetoric we encounter encourages this. When we examine the rhetoric of the industry, the politicians, and the public, we see those functions swing primarily, I would argue, toward the division end of the continuum. (I’ve given examples in other posts.) Instead of seeing how we connect, we see how we don’t. That works in the industry’s favor. As long as we see broken links, we find ways to avoid identifying with others which means that we find ways to overlook the bigger picture—how we are all part of a larger environment that makes demands of us. I’ll never move completely back to the land, give up my bikes or books, but I do need to look closely at how I’m connected to industrial processes I don’t trust fully. I want to feel like I’m conserving resources and making the world a better place for my kids, so I ride my bike, teach students to write, study environmental rhetoric, and think green thoughts. Focusing on the differences instead of the connections leads me to be more comfortable with myself and my actions, a comfort that is misleading because it hides how drill rigs are, in one sense, nothing more than elaborate bikes.

I’m not naïve enough to think I can live with zero impact. I know better. The key is to be mindful of my impacts and to fully account for them. That’s why I eat locally (as much as possible), process chickens, ride my bike to work, keep the heat set at 65 degrees, live in a smaller, more weatherproof house, and mow the damn grass as little as possible. Part of that mindfulness has to come from resisting the urge to get comfortable with my choices, from being bamboozled by my own rhetoric (“You’re a fine moral example, Jimmy, for riding your bike to work when it’s seven degrees to avoid burning gas!”). Perhaps if we saw the connections between bikes and drill rigs more clearly, we’d take things like climate change more seriously, because we might recognize our deep-seated urge to pedal further or drill deeper. But the connections get buried under the surface of the stories we tell ourselves, only popping out here and there, like gas lines, when we look for them.

Somewhere along Mudge Rd., I told Tom about the bound copies of the St. Nicolas Magazine my cousin gave me this past summer. Published in 1887, February’s issue has an article called “Among the Gas-Wells,” written by Samuel W. Hall, and March’s has a rejoinder, “More About Gas-Wells,” written by G. Frederick Knight. When I first skimmed the magazines, what grabbed me were the illustrations  of the rigs (viewable at the links), the pipelines, the flared wells, and how much they resemble drilling today. We’re probably in some ways safer today; in others, not so much.  Even as we work to make drill rigs more efficient, the lack of basic structural change suggests to me that these technologies work and that we are comfortable with them. Bike tech works the same. As Tom said, “Bikes haven’t really changed all that much either.” Those crazy cool frames built of space-age material these days are based on the same old design.

Gabe's technology du jour.

My nine-year-old’s technology du jour.

We need technologies that say something other than “Use me.”

Then I see my son outside with a shovel, digging a tunnel for his sister through the snow piled at the end of the driveway. Of all the things he could choose to do, he decides to pick up the shovel—a tool that extends human power—and dig. Who knows what motivates him to dig, but I do know this: if the shovel didn’t exist, he wouldn’t use it. But he would find something else. We need to think more carefully about the rhetoric of things. They are saying something to us, something seductive. And once we understand that message clearly, we need to make some choices. What technology are we using? How? What are the ramifications? What’s sustainable? Where do I draw the line?

So far, physics is answering them for us.

Advertisements

Beer Cans and Well Pads

January 12, 2013

by Jimmy

How come we see these . . . .

How come we see these . . . .

On a recent cold and sunny day, I pedaled the Mocha Stout, my singlespeed, up Ore Bed Rd., out for a casual spin. As I pedaled up a climb, I spied a shiny Miller Lite can in the ditch beside the road. Unlike most beer cans I pass, this one looked like it had been tossed there about a minute ago, the can crisp and clean, glinting in the sunshine. I thought: Who was the bastard that threw that out? Then I thought: I am a bastard who has flung beer cans from cars—well, trucks—in the past. So I’m guilty, too. (Now that I’ve matured enough to drive without drinking, I don’t fling cans anymore. Southern habits die hard.) But I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of beer cans on the side of the road. I’ve always despised all other sorts of litter—I carry twice as much trash out of the woods as I carry in. My buddies and I used to drag garbage bags through Grindstaff Caves in Tennessee in order to clean out the trash. We usually brought out twice as many beer cans as we took in. All empty, of course.

I pedaled on up the hill, thinking about beer cans, staring at the gravel road in front of me, dodging potholes and wondering: why do I see beer cans and not the roads? Why do beer cans strike me as out of place, unnatural, while roads meld into the landscape? Both are unnatural, that is, both were put there by people with some sort of purpose in mind, be it tossing the evidence or traveling from point A to point beer store. What’s interesting to me here is the way that I don’t question the presence of the road, don’t see it for the disturbance that it is, yet an empty beer can strikes me as litter now that I’m not the one tossing it out. I see beer cans as pollution, but not the road. Both beer can and road change the landscape; both can be removed. Both alter the way we see a place. What gives?

(I encountered a similar phenomenon when I worked construction: smokers don’t see cigarette butts as trash. While a job superintendent, I was mystified by guys who would pick up every speck of trash, every single nail when we cleaned up a job site—except cigarette butts. The roads are my butts, I reckon.)

Not surprisingly, for me, this is partly a language issue. We see signs that say “No Littering” and “No Dumping” planted by the roads, which turns our attention toward the litter alongside the swath of asphalt or concrete or gravel that cuts through the mountains or across the plains. Road signs direct our attention differently: “55 mph”; “Bridge Ices Before Road”; “School Zone”; “Ore Bed Rd”; “Charleston Township”; “Lane Ends Merge Left”; “Pipeline Rd 7.” Such signs are designed to help us move, heading toward our destinations while avoiding all the other people heading toward theirs. Road signs don’t say “No Driving” or “No Road Building.,” though some do say “Stop.”  Although roads change the landscape much more than beer cans, roads are seen as acceptable, necessary, as a price we pay for living in this car-centric world. We aestheticize them in ads and abstract them in maps. Taken together, these signs create what I call the rhetoric of the road: Go somewhere. The medium of the road is its message.

. . . but not these as pollution.

I appreciate roads for the way they get me to and from wherever I am going and enable me to ride my bike all over the countryside witnessing all kinds of cool things while physically experiencing the landscape itself. But there’s something wrong when a beer can on the side of the road bothers me more than the road itself. It’s as if the road has become an aesthetic part of the landscape—not something to carry the machine into the garden, but a part of the garden itself. Like Gandalf the Grey, I believe in the importance of the little things, but my tendency to lose sight of the road while staring at a beer can disturbs me. It’s too comfortable.

The problem here is that, as we get more familiar with something, more comfortable with it, we begin to see it as a given or a sort of truth. Research has shown that people who hear a false statement repeated enough times begin to believe it. I believe there’s a similar process at work in physical experiences. When I teach mountain biking, I have to ratchet my ride expectations waaaay down. A ride that may take me 70 minutes will take my class 150 minutes. A trail that seems like a sidewalk to me will appear full of hazards to my students. Part of the issue is that I see only what I need to see to keep my bike on the trail while my students see a confusion of trees, roots, rocks, hills, creeks, and mud, most of which will not affect them unless they pedal off the trail. Which they are more likely to do than I am. The reason I see what I see is because I’m comfortable. We see beer cans beside the road only so often, but we see the road all the time.

Of course comfort can bite us. I crashed my bike in November 2011, breaking my collar bone, three ribs, and knocking myself unconscious. I blame the crash on being distracted by the gas industry, work, and other shit that goes along with living a busy life. But I’ve realized now that I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to let my attention wander so far away on a route I didn’t know well. I was looking at the road, but not seeing it. If bikes have a cruise control, I was on it and thinking about stuff other than what was in front of me. Bike, meet pothole. Jimmy, slam road. Being comfortable holds consequences.

I resist the urge to get comfortable with, to become acclimated to, the damage that occurs around me from drilling for gas. Like with roads, this is difficult. The comfort doesn’t come from being satisfied with the process or the politics of drilling. If anything, I’m getting more pissed. (Case in point: William Bennett advocating for opening more state and federal land to drilling. I missed the tale in Bennett’s book about the virtue of giving public land to private companies.) I’ve seen the industry of drilling every day now for several years, and while I still get angry, I’m becoming comfortable with it. I see a pad go in, a flurry of activity to drill and frack it, and then it becomes a few Christmas trees among a graded field, ready for the deer to reclaim. Flooding Tioga and the surrounding counties with the stuff of gas drilling is undoubtedly part of the industry’s rhetoric—bombard the community, the landscape, with drill rigs and trucks until we get used to them. Until we get comfortable. Until the industry’s presence becomes a kind of truth. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating pot of water. A myth, I know, but there’s wisdom in it.

I still can't believe I imagined one of these going anywhere.

I still can’t believe I imagined one of these going anywhere.

Not long ago, I imagined a drill pad going in between our house and the house east of here. The lot between the houses is roughly ten acres, well pads require “only” five—why not? I could hear the clatter of the dozer carving out the pad; the rattle of dump trucks hauling in gravel and other materials; the beep of the semis backing the various rig structures into place; the thrum of the cranes as they lifted the rig; the grind of the drill bit as it bored through the aquifer toward the Marcellus; the roar of the frack. I could see the tank trailers parked around the pad, like beer cans scattered around a campfire. I imagined what I might do to track the progress and make myself a pain-in-the-ass, like recording the hoopla via a 24-hour well pad cam. I imagined what it would be like to sleep through the drilling and whether my kids would be able to do it. I imagined the arguments Lilace and I would have—yelled over the frackin’ fracking noise—about whether to stay at a friend’s or what a brilliant move it was buying this house the country.

That has to be what the industry wants—people imagining pads on undeveloped land. I’m a guy who almost never imagines building anything in any sort of undeveloped place. (A small cabin in the piñon pine forest on the west side of Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California, would be cool. All that sweet rock climbing right there. . . .) I always prefer the trees or the dunes or whatever nature builds. That I can imagine a well pad going in freaks me out. It means I’m getting more comfortable than I want to be, a comfort bred from nothing more than familiarity.