by Jimmy

I recently attended the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment’s Biennial Conference at the University of Kansas in Lawrence. (First conference I’ve travelled to for which I bought carbon offsets.) While there, I gave a version of my research on how the gas industry uses the images of the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral to appeal to deeply held cultural beliefs, thus simplifying a complex issue. I call it red, white, and bluewashing, and I wrote an earlier post about it in which I focus on language instead of images. This is the image version, and I’m posting it because an audience member requested I do so. My notes mingle with the images from my PowerPoint slides. Long post, lots of pictures. 

Now, imagine you’re sitting in Fraser 119 on the Jayhawk campus. I start to speak. Brilliance ensues:

Have any of you seen Matt Damon’s movie Promised Land? [Few to no hands go up.] It’s about a landsman who goes into a small town much like mine and begins leasing property for future gas drilling. Not a very good movie, I don’t think, but worth watching for the way it portrays how the natural gas industry works to control the message when it comes to gas drilling. I live in Tioga County, Pennsylvania, right above the Marcellus shale. Our county is has the second or third highest number of wells in Pennsylvania, and this presentation focuses partly on how the industry uses certain images to control the message about natural gas. [A woman interrupts to ask where exactly Tioga County is.] That would be helpful to know, wouldn’t it? North-central PA, about fifteen miles south of the New York border. Sorry about that. OK. I want to talk a bit about how the industry works to control the perceptions of natural gas development and the places it occurs, and how this affects people who live above the gas. I’m going to argue that they confuse the issue by oversimplifying it and making it hard to get good information. Today, I’m going to focus on three images the industry uses—the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral—to examine how they shape public perceptions of natural gas development.

Images serve as visual terms or shorthand for a set of values that apply now while drawing on key associations or definitions from the past. These are terms that can apply in many contexts, and often seek to promote a particular message. Images often make something complex seem much simpler. The images discussed in this presentation draw on two deeply-held cultural beliefs in America: nature as a resource and nature as something to preserve. In the end, I hope to show how these terms function to create a particular perception of this place, one that is conducive to gas development.

First, let’s talk about patriotism, as represented by the American flag. Here’s is a photo of Shell Appalachia, about a mile from my house. Notice the American flag flying, even though they are based in the Netherlands. In the middle left of the photo’s background you can see a fresh water pit they built and use to store water for fracking.

shell appalachia flag 2 best

Patriotism means, well, being patriotic or showing devotion to or belief in one’s country. It’s a complex word used in a number of contexts, depending on what we need. It’s hard to criticize “patriots.” Companies flying the American flag may be sincere in their beliefs, but the flag also acts as a shield to blunt questions or ciritcism. We don’t question patriots, especially in time of crises. Here’s a billboard from Chesapeake. Notice the flag prominently displayed in front of the drill rig.

chesapeake billboard 15 business on easter morning 2012

Flags represent nations, not places. In other words, they serve an abstracting function. I don’t fly the Guignard flag in my yard, or the Whitneyville [my town] flag, or the Tioga County flag. I fly the American flag. It marks me as a part of something larger, someone devoted to the idea of a nation. Patriots make sacrifices—think soldiers going to war. Think American citizens during WWI and WWII. Terry Engelder of Penn State has called this place a “sacrifice zone.” Engelder sees this as a “duty.” Quite honestly, Engelder’s statement pisses me off, but I haven’t seen him to tell him that yet. [Yes, I said “pisses” during my presentation. It’s accurate.]

On to the roughneck. “Roughneck” is the term used to describe people who work in oil and gas fields. This guy appears on the Marcellus Shale Coalition’s website. He’s a big, burly guy with an upturned collar, hardhat low over his eyes, and serious expression on his face. He’s clean compared to many photos of roughnecks you see. Roughnecks are associated with hard physical work that is often dangerous. The image appeals to the strand of rugged individualism that runs through our culture, and taps into our belief in personal freedom, physical toughness, self-reliance, minimal government, and free competition. Upton Sinclair’s Oil! portrays the idea of the roughneck well.

From the Marcellus Shale Coalition website

From the Marcellus Shale Coalition website

The image of the roughneck draws on the Turner thesis, the idea that the taming of the American west created a new kind of American identity. The image of the roughneck is a masculine one, representing a man’s world that draws on our cultural strands like taming the frontier, cowboys, and the Wild West. The roughneck above reminds me a lot of this guy.


The image of the roughneck draws on the cultural belief that masculine work counters the “feminization” of men that many of our leaders, like Teddy Roosevelt, associated with cities and desk jobs. Our modern rugged individualists ride Harleys, climb big mountains, and make it big in business, among other things.

Now, the frontier is buried over a mile underground.

Let’s move to the pastoral. The pastoral is associated with farming, rural life, simplicity, peacefulness, and hard but satisfying physical work. The pastoral evokes longing for a simpler life in the garden. Yes, Eden matters here. The pastoral can be represented by this farm, located in the Morris Township in Tioga County. Notice the corn and soybeans between the camera and the barn.

Morris Township farm in Tioga County

Morris Township farm in Tioga County

Tioga County is a pastoral landscape, that is, a middle landscape, caught somewhere between civilization and wilderness. Not New York city, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh, but not the Rockies, the Tetons, or the Sierra Nevada either. And while many people from urban areas may romanticize the place, seeing it a kind of “escape” from the city and work, those actually working the land know that it can be hard to live here, involving long hours, hard work, and little pay.

In the next slide, we introduce what Leo Marx calls “the machine in the garden.” That is, we introduce technology in the form of a drill rig, trucks, storage tanks, etc., into a landscape previously seen as simple and peaceful.

From the Marcellus Shale Coalition website

From the Marcellus Shale Coalition website

It’s worth noting that the industry often frames these rigs with forest or farms to draw on our pastoral impulses while also appealing to our deep-seated desires to use such resources. Things appear harmonious. The press presents similar images, which draw on similar framing but sometimes suggest that the process is not as clean as we might think. Here are examples from the New York Times and Propublica.

From the New York Times

From the New York Times

From Propublica

From Propublica

The two photos suggest that the drilling process might not be as clean as we hope it is. However, I would argue all three images of the drill rigs contribute to what I would call an “industrial pastoral” or a pastoral landscape in which the rural and technology come together in seemingly benign ways. Such images help us reconcile the contrary impulses of preserving nature and using it. Couple this with the idea of the roughnecks working on the rigs—good, masculine work—and we begin to see how such images serve to present a particular view of the industry that ties into deeply held cultural beliefs.

Taken collectively, the images of the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral work by drawing on cultural beliefs, embedded in the American psyche in the nineteenth century and early twentieth century, of using nature and preserving it. The three recurring images draw power from each other, reinforce each other, and derive meaning from each other. These images serve an abstracting function, that is, they tap into cultural beliefs from long ago that still resonate deeply with us and serve to transform a community into a zone that needs taming, similar to the way we saw the west during Manifest Destiny or the desert southwest during the nuclear tests of the 50s (for which the government defined people living there as a “low-use segment of the population”). Once a place is abstracted, it’s easier to industrialize it. The industry recognizes this.

We are more willing to develop a place, perhaps even destroy it, if we see it as a blank space on a map.

Drilling for natural gas a complex process that calls for nuanced conversation about multiple concerns—social, cultural, political, economic, and environmental. By drawing on images like the American flag, the roughneck, and the pastoral, the natural gas industry makes it more difficult for the public to understand fully the stakes of drilling for natural gas. Further, the industry’s use of these images works to persuade people not from this region to view gas development favorably because the images tap into national narratives rather than telling the stories of the people who live in this place. The way we view places is the way we use places. Thank you.

I cut two images from the New York Times and the Wellsboro Gazette, because I don’t have digital copies of them. The NYT ad portrays natural gas in the abstract, while the WG ad, bought by Chesapeake Energy and is titled “This Is Our Home,” suggests that the gas industry has close ties to this place.

Two books super important to this research: Terre Ryan’s This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism and Kevin DeLuca’s Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism.

Thanks to all who attended, asked questions, or made comments (especially the woman who talked about religious imagery in the NYT ad that you can’t see) and to my co-panelists Jimmie Killingsworth (Texas A&M and the dude who envisioned the panel) and Diana Ashe (University of North Carolina, Wilmington). I learned a lot. 

The Yellow-Jackets’ Nest

October 19, 2012

By Jimmy

Doesn’t seem like a big deal on the surface.

When I lived in Mississippi, I found a yellow-jackets’ nest between two pines in our backyard. I showed it to my Dad, who warned me and my brother to stay away from the nest until he could take care of it. That night, I watched from the driveway as he walked over to the nest with the gas can and poured gas down the hole. (Not cool, I know, but this was almost forty years ago.) He walked back, put the gas can up, and we went inside to get ready for bed.

The next day, my brother and I followed Daddy back out to the nest. This trip, he had a shovel, his entrenching tool from the Guard, if I remember correctly, and he dug up the nest. Appearing as a small hole about two inches in diameter, the entrance gave way to a chamber about eighteen inches in diameter when he sunk his shovel in and lifted. Dead yellow-jackets fell to the ground, mixing with the soil. We looked closely at the combs layered in the nest, where we saw varying stages of larval development. Pretty amazing. But what struck me most about the nest was the way a small hole concealed a big one.

We’ve had three yellow-jacket nests in our yard this year, which I reluctantly destroyed, and which took me back to that episode in Mississippi. Digging out one of the nests around our house got me to thinking about another problem with the gas industry phrase, “less than five acres”: what’s on the surface doesn’t reflect what’s underground.

If a yellow-jackets’ nest’s entrance is only two inches across where it enters the ground, yet eighteen inches across underground, then we’re talking about a 900% increase—a pretty big underground disturbance. And that’s just in diameter. I’m not talking about volume. (I haven’t tried to figure that out yet.) When we look at drilling sites, we see something similar occurring. We have a five-acre pad, from which as many as eight wells can be drilled several thousand feet vertically, then turned and drilled horizontally over 5000’. When the drill bit stops spinning, we’re talking about a well that could be two miles across as the crow flies. That’s a hell of a lot bigger disturbance than “less than five acres” implies.

Don’t get too close.

And there’s more. The gas industry wants to maximize profits, so they are going to site wells in such a way that the ends of the horizontal wellbores overlap. Imagine a pad A. Two bores are drilled from pad A. At the end, the bores will be pretty far apart, the same way our fingers, attached at the palm, can be spread apart into a V. That spread leaves a lot of untapped gas. Now they site pad B about two miles from pad A and drill toward it, ending B’s horizontal bore somewhere between A’s two horizontal bores. To get an idea of the overlap I’m talking about, form that V again with your right index and middle fingers. Now, extend your left index finger from the opposite direction and slide it into the open end of the V until your fingernails line up. Ta-da. More gas to access. (Mind your Freudian readings. This is a family blog.) Now imagine those bores slightly overlapping all over the Marcellus Shale. That’s a tad more disturbance than “five acres.” We just can’t see it. As one of my colleagues said, “They don’t have to sweep the mess under the rug. It’s already under the rug.”

Then there’s the volume of rock disturbed by the fracking itself, which occurs in the horizontal part of the wellbore. A geology colleague told me that, roughly speaking, one could assume about fifty feet of fracturing out from the wellbore in all directions. We’re talking a horizontal cylinder of disturbance 5000’ long and 100’ in diameter. Multiply that by six or eight wellbores, and we’re talking a lot of fractured rock. And that’s just for one well. Makes yellow-jackets look almost lazy.

It’s true that all this fracturing happens thousands of feet underground. The theory is that it won’t be a big deal. It’s also true that what’s underground is connected to the surface (Marcia Bjornerud shows this beautifully), and that’s where we live. In a transparent world, the industry would provide us with a map (rough is fine) that details the extent of their disturbances underground and admit that they are causing a big disturbance. Would there have been more of an uproar about development, much earlier, if we had a better sense of the underground footprint of the industry? That’s the map I want to see, anyway.

People can argue: “But we do know how far they reach. You just gave us the lengths of the bores.” That’s true, and we can get an idea from the number of wells drilled, the number projected to be drilled, and other information we’ve received. It’s also true that we can’t actually look at the extent of the fracturing underground except as representations, as a map. But we care about what we can see. Humans are shallow. Wells, however, are not. The damage may never be as clear as the grass killed around the entrance to a yellow-jackets’ nest filled with gasoline. But there’s damage nonetheless, and lots of it. Some of it won’t affect us, some of it will. Who, where, and how much is anybody’s guess.

The way this information is presented to us strikes me as a problem of imagination. We need imagination for what we can’t see. We already have a talent for “externalizing” costs, that is, figuring out ways to make other people (we can’t see) or the environment (usually, somewhere else) pay some of the costs of our impacts. If we can’t imagine the scope of the damage easily, then we will have a hard time imagining the costs, both monetary and otherwise. Imagination doesn’t grow out of nothing, but reflects our world as much as it shapes it by enabling us to see new or different possibilities. If we had real information, we wouldn’t need to work so hard to imagine what might occur. That’s why we don’t see maps limning the bores drilled from the pads, and do hear about disturbances of only five acres. It hampers our ability to imagine the scope of the disturbance. It doesn’t mean that we can’t, just not as easily. That favors the industry.

We have a similar problem with cars. If I were in charge, and after I had outlawed weak, fizzy, yellow beer (PBR exempted), I’d lobby for all vehicle exhaust pipes to be moved into the driver’s line of sight. Exhaust pipes should come right out of the middle of the hood, not out from under the back bumper. We should be able to see where the C02 spews from every time we press a gas pedal. (And, yes, I see exhaust of the cars in front of me, but that’s not my exhaust.) My point here is not that we don’t see or understand how we create pollution or don’t feel responsible. It’s just that we do a good job of keeping distance between ourselves and our impacts, and the industry plays into this by choosing which drilling impacts they show us, and how. Lilace recounts one industry worker’s view here. Based on what he knows, he is imagining a future for this place, one that he won’t stick around for. Perhaps Penn State’s Terry Engelder comes closest to providing us with the most honest view of the potential impacts. Claiming that Pennsylvanians are “sacrificing” for the rest of the country suggests a bigger disturbance than “only five acres.” We’re talking serious density, serious disturbance.

The way we see nature is the way we use nature, whether poisoning yellow-jackets, driving our cars, or drilling for gas. We need better maps. And better, braver imaginations.

by Lilace

May marks the opening of the Mansfield Growers Market, which will run every Friday through September. We’re in zone 5b so fresh produce of any kind is a reason to rejoice at the end of a winter that lasts basically half the year. Though this winter—especially March—was unnervingly warm, the crowds showed up for the first market as eager as in past years. April had brought enough frosts and freezes that the asparagus got temporarily zapped, and we had none for opening day. But spinach, turnips, lettuce, ramps, and rhubarb were the fresh goodies awaiting folks, along with the local lamb, chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, milk, cheese, maple syrup, baked goods, and crafts that are always in season.

Blue, white, and green tents sprang up on the lawn of St. James Episcopal Church like mushrooms after rain, and bright colored yarns, handmade aprons, hanging flower baskets, and banners decorated the block. Friends greeted friends, University students mingled with professors (some of them farmers in their “spare” time), and it didn’t matter if you knew the person standing next to you at the booth, you spoke to them. This was why we started the market in 2009, not just for good food but to grow community. And it’s worked magic.

In fact, you’d never guess we were in an industrial sacrifice zone.

Well, maybe you would if you were talking to Diane about what to plant in your garden and the local musician took a break. Then you’d become aware of the traffic just off your right shoulder, the grunts of brakes trying to stop huge residual waste and dump trucks because the light a block away at Main Street turned red. And if you tried to cross the street without walking that block to the light, well, I wouldn’t recommend that. Park behind the church, maybe in the bank’s lot. They don’t mind.

You would remember quickly, however, when you were driving back to your home, or friend’s house, or campground. The well pads and freshwater pits leveling hills and ruining topsoil (there goes the farmland) are hard to miss, though they are surrounded by beautiful country.

There is a refrain in the national song and dance about natural gas that it will lead to energy independence. All this while it’s being exported to the highest bidder, which is the way all business works. Why should this be any different? And the big player here in Tioga County is Shell Oil. I mean, they’re a Dutch Company, though they call this branch of their operations “Shell Appalachia.” Not that being from elsewhere makes them bad. I for one thank God that we in Tioga aren’t in the hands of Chesapeake Energy, an American Company.

But this sense that the natural gas play (how I love language!) is not just good for the country but our salvation leads to the attitude that some places need to suck it up and take one for the team. Stop whining. In fact, Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, who gave the first estimate in 2008 of how much gas could be recovered from the Marcellus Shale, calls for Pennsylvanians to make a “necessary sacrifice” so Americans can continue living a lifestyle made possible only by huge amounts of fossil fuels.

So when a gas well blows up in Canton, a town about twenty-five miles away from Mansfield, or people nearby get fresh water delivered to them since their water well has been contaminated, it’s not news. It’s necessary sacrifice occurring in a national sacrifice zone. Says Amy Mall of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):

Pennsylvania has become a national sacrifice zone for natural gas development. It has seen more than its share of drinking water contamination, houses exploding, and destroyed landscapes and communities.

Last fall I took my seven-year-old son out for pizza before we saw a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I remember the conversation I overheard in the restaurant.

Nearby an older man looked up from his dinner with a big smile when a young fella—maybe late twenties, early thirties—came over to say hello. The young man had on an industry shirt—I don’t remember which company. By their conversation it was clear they’d known each other a long time. I imagine the older man might have watched the young guy grow up. Then the older man asked him about work and how could he find out when they’d be drilling on his parcel? When would the royalty checks start coming? The young guy described the web site and how to find out the information. Then they got to talking about how many wells they’d drilled this year, which is nothing, the young guy said, compared to how many are planned for this area.

Every time I hear a version of this the number or ratio is a little different, but it’s always horrifying. What was startling to me is that neither of these men, who’d clearly lived here longer than I had, who had roots here, these men were not horrified in the least.

The older man shook his head a little and said something like, “That’s hard to imagine.”

“Yeah,” the younger guy agreed, “in five or ten years we won’t recognize this place. But I’ll have made my money and moved away by then.”

And they laughed.

Even the older guy laughed who was at a very different stage in his life, one where he probably wasn’t moving anywhere, was probably looking for the money to help with retirement or to hold onto the farm. The young guy likely had a wife, maybe kids, and this was his big break. But as I stared hard at the red and white plastic tablecloth I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily he was ready to sacrifice this place. In his mind, it was already gone. And apparently all the people with it.

It hit me then. When people say “sacrifice zones” they are thinking of space on a map, the way explorers from Europe viewed the new world. This is the frontier of natural gas. But like the new world, this frontier is inhabited. And even though, unlike with the Native Americans, our homes, our faces, look like those of the explorers, we are invisible. That younger man had merely changed his allegiance, aligning himself with the powerful in a bid for security and identity.

I don’t tell this story to point fingers at these two men, who I bet wouldn’t hesitate to help me get my car out of a ditch. They illustrate a larger problem. It’s not a problem language can fix, but there is a way in which choosing and rejecting terms is both empowering and makes the invisible visible. So I submit to you that this is not a national sacrifice zone. We are a national sacrifice community.

Yet on the local level, the view shifts. When I look around the market green on Fridays, I see people enjoying where they live and taking pride in what our small town and the surrounding area has to offer. On days like this I am hyper aware of the many ways our quality of life is exceptional—good local food of a wide variety, public schools with reasonable class sizes, multiple state parks within a half hour that do not charge admission, a University with humanities programs that provide community concerts, lectures, readings, and art exhibits. Oh, and a bike shop, yoga studio, and brewery that match any you’ll find in metropolitan areas.

I just want to say, loud and clear, to everyone out there in the nation who maybe has heard of the debate over fracking or the natural gas rush going on elsewhere—this is the kind of place being sacrificed for more years of an unsustainable dream and the myth of energy independence. See us. Speak up. Because if it can happen to Pennsylvanians, like it’s been happening to folks in Wyoming and Texas before us, then it can happen to your community next.