July 14, 2015
Back in town after a long trip out west with Lilace and the kids (which was awesome). I have been trying to catch up on work and other stuff when I saw that Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone has appeared at the TAMU Press website. You can check it out here. You can also pre-order on Amazon or from your local bookseller. My go to place for books: From My Shelf Books & Gifts in Wellsboro, PA.
On the way back, we drove through the “Energy Capitol of the Nation”: Gillette, Wyoming. I’m scribbling a blog post about that. I have another post cooking up about my ASLE presentation and a few in the works from guest bloggers. More soon!
One Saturday, my six-year-old daughter woke up and crawled into bed with me. Enjoying not getting up at 5 a.m., I ignored her until she said “Daddy, my throat hurts, my head hurts, and my tummy hurts.” I rolled over thinking, Shit. What’s wrong?
“Does your throat hurt inside or outside?”
“OK, let me feel under your jaw.” She lay there quietly as I felt the glands under her jawbone. They seemed a little swollen, the way mine feel when I get sick. Neither of my kids get sick very often, so I figured my daughter wasn’t faking. “OK, honey, thanks. You can go get dressed now.”
“I’m going to put on a turtleneck for my throat,” she said, and walked out of the room. She did not ask to watch TV. Hmmmmmm.
I rolled over, weighing whether I should go back to sleep. Wretching from my daughter’s bedroom answered for me. I jumped up, my daughter meeting me at the doorway.
“That’s ok, baby. Go to the bathroom.” She turned around, trotted into the bathroom, puked a couple more times, and then walked past me while I cleaned up her room. She finished dressing. “You feel better?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Can I watch cartoons?”
I’m no doctor, at least not the medical kind, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her illness was somehow connected to gas drilling. A few years ago, I would have wondered what disastrous bug was upon us, like when she spent a long night trooping in and out of the bathroom with a stomach bug. Should we call the doctor? She kicked the bug in 24 hours. I kicked it in five days. That event was BNG—Before Natural Gas. Now, I see my kids’ health ANG—After Natural Gas. That changes things.
I’m sure my reaction will seem hysterical to some people, a term we usually save for women who question things we don’t want to hear (see Rachel Carson). This place seems cleaner, less dusty and brittle, than it has in a couple of years, partly due to the cleansing power of winter’s snow and partly due to the slow down in drilling activity. Even though I don’t believe the industry has affected my kids’ health (at least, not yet), I’m amazed at the power of this impulse within me every time one of my kids complains now of an upset tummy or a headache. In the U.S., we have a terrible record of protecting our kids from environmental toxins. Researchers determine the toxicity of chemicals based on adults, not kids, and we now know that kids are more susceptible to toxic crap than adults. And few tests are done on fetal effects or whether toxins cross the placenta. That’s further complicated by the fact that kids develop physically over many years. For instance, our brains stop developing in our early twenties. Anything that affects development early affects development later. It’s like starting up a long hill on a bike in too big a gear and out of breath—you won’t fully recover. You’ll be a long way behind everyone else.
I’m amazed at the power of a culture that values the rational so damn highly. I’m a guy. I’m expected to be rational, to control my emotions. Back when I climbed a lot, my climbing partners appreciated the fact that I didn’t get flustered when shit turned bad. I could keep my act together, like when Lilace and I got caught in a lightning storm at Lovers Leap too far off the ground to get down safely with one rope. I led a pitch in the rain, belayed her as she climbed up to and then past me to the top. I untied and yelled at her to pull up the rope and run for it while I finished the climb. The climbing was easy, but the lightning and the rain made it nerve-wracking. When I popped onto the top, I saw she had left me a coiled rope. Badass, especially since she was seven months pregnant with our son. She doesn’t freak either.
Lilace doesn’t freak about the kids’ health as much as I do. I walked downstairs and told her about our daughter’s puke episode. She looked up from her book, “She probably picked up another strain of the crap that’s going around.” Back to reading.
I know some of my fears are rational. I know that environmental causes of illness exist. There are too many books out there, too much research, for anyone rational to believe otherwise. I see my kids’ health through the terms of these books. I see their health through the experience of watching my eight-year-old cousin die of childhood brain stem glioma (benign) when I was around fourteen. (My eleven-year-old brother would not go into my aunt’s house for a long time after Sarah died there.) To my great comfort, my family has a history of living long lives, especially the women. My Aunt Mary is 102. My great-grandmother died at 98, my Dad’s Dad at 93, my Dad’s Mom at 92, my Mom’s Mom at 91 (and she had diabetes). I see my kids’ health through that lens, too, and I want my kids to get the same chance as Aunt Mary, Nana, Papa, and Nanny.
A few weeks ago, I read “The Lorax” to my daughter’s class at school. As happens every time I read that story, I breathed deeply through the first few pages, trying to control the hitch in my voice as fifteen wide-eyed kindergartners listened, entranced by the story. (Guys don’t cry, right? Especially not in front of kids. It ain’t rational.) I fought my default question of “What are we doing to y’all?” by focusing on the way Seuss changes the background colors over the arc of the story from yellows and greens to grays and blacks, moving from playful to somber, hope to despair, finally landing on hope: Unless. About the time the Whisper-ma-Phone slupped down, I found my groove, trading comments with the kids (one little guy in glasses said, “I really like your beard”) and marveling at how “Thneed” sounds so whiny, like the gas industry when someone proposes regulations they don’t like. I finished, my daughter gave me a hug, and the kids clapped and thanked me in that sing-song chirp of five- and six-year-olds. I left the class abuzz, charged on the energy of kids in the hall laughing about stories they had heard earlier as they got into lines to go wash up for lunch.
Seuss was brilliant enough to put his fears of dirty air and water and destroyed forests in a story that ends hopefully. Plant the seed! Water it! Grow that truffula tree!
We value kids. This I know. We show it in different ways, from hugs to elaborate birthday parties to praising their efforts at building or drawing or writing to steering them away from maguro at the sushi bar. Somehow, we need to translate these daily acts of valuing to a larger context, like when the camera close-up of a racing cyclist zooms out to encompass the entire race. But even that macro shot may not be large enough, though we have taken the long view before when we stopped using DDT, PCBs, and lead-based paint. We need more of those seeds.
But how rational is it to plant seeds in a National Sacrifice Zone? This is the question I ask myself.
January 30, 2013
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.
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.”
“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.
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.
January 12, 2013
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.
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.
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.
September 19, 2012
Back in Aught Nine, I attended a lot of public meetings about the technology of fracking and the development of the gas industry in this region. Most of these meetings painted a rosy picture of the industry, and given that most of these meetings were sponsored by the industry in some way, this is not surprising. (A notable exception was the informational meeting I attended in Waverly, NY. That meeting provided a more balanced picture.) One phrase that came up over and over referred to the size of the well pads: “less than five acres.” The phrase was used in ways that always made it sound like five acres was small, the implication being “you’ll barely know we are here.” I wondered at the time: How many wells are we talking about here? Are they including roads in that figure? Other support infrastructure? I doubted it, and here’s why.
I ride my bike all over this area. I’ve ridden most of the roads in a thirty mile radius around Whitneyville multiple times, and I often pedal fifty or more miles away. I’ve “mapped” a lot of gas activity this way, and I’ve noticed a cumulative effect of these “five acre” pads. They may only be five acres, about four football fields, but there’s a lot of them. And that doesn’t include all the other stuff that goes along with them, like the pipeline.
So, I got an idea. On a solo ride from my house to Tioga State Forest near Asaph, I cataloged the number of gas industry disturbances I could see, ranging from pipelines to well pads to industry support. Here’s what I came up with in a 35 mile ride, 10 miles of which I rode twice (out and back). The route I followed look like a scraggly lollipop if you trace it on a map.
- Entrance to pipeline construction west of Scouten Hill Rd.
- Pipeline construction under Scouten Hill Rd.
- Well pad east of Scouten Hill Rd after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
- Well pad and compressor station west of Scouten Hill Rd. after crossing Hills Creek Lake Rd.
- Pipeline construction east of Hills Creek Rd.
- Pipeline construction under Reese Hill Rd.
- Former water truck parking area south of Reese Hill Rd.
- Pipeline construction under Ikes Rd.
- Well pad south of Ikes Rd.
- Gas compressor station north of Muck Rd.
- Frack sand facility at railroad station on Muck Rd.
- Gas industry building north of Muck Rd. (off Highway 287).
At this point, I’m ten miles into the ride, and I’m about to climb Baldwin Run Rd. into the Asaph section of Tioga State Forest. For the next fifteen miles, the industry disappears, except for the well pad entrance south of Baldwin Run Rd. (Or Bennet Rd. Different maps give me different names.) Then I start home, passing the sites in reverse. I recall seeing the orange-and-gray boxes sprouting wires signifying seismic testing out that way in the past, though I’m not positive it was in the forest proper. It may have been only on the Rail Trail. But I’ve seen those boxes—another kind of mapping—everywhere.
The reality of those industrial sites puts “only five acres” into a new perspective for me. But this is one way the industry played down their impacts at the outset of their development. I could have steered my bike in any direction from my house and counted a similar number. The cumulative number adds up. Quickly. Since 2007, over forty-four hundred Marcellus wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania. That’s roughly 22,000 acres, or 83,600 football fields, cut into the forests and fields. Who knows what the number would look like if we included the pipeline and all the other stuff that keeps the industry up and running.
Of course, some will say: so what? Twenty-two thousand acres is around three percent of Tioga County’s 727,680 acres. It’s around fourteen percent of Tioga State Forest’s 160,000 acres. That’s a dot on the map. So, one could argue that the industry hasn’t had all that big of an impact. But it depends on how we define impacts, of course, and that we include other factors, like traffic and water use. But lately, I wonder most about the impact that it has on the maps in our minds.
Case in point. Two years ago, I reconnoitered some trails near Asaph for my mountain bike class. I saw what I needed to see and decided to ride some extra miles, descending the Green Monster to Left Straight Run Trail, descending Straight Run Road, and then climbing back up Asaph Road to my car. It was Friday, the woods were quiet, except for the occasional jungle call of pileated woodpeckers, and I soaked up that vibe. But as I descended the Green Monster to Left Straight, a beautiful trail with multiple creek crossings, I noticed pink surveyor ribbon tied to branches or blackberries every twenty or thirty feet. The further I descended, the more I saw, even after I hit Left Straight. I kept looking at each one, trying to read its portents like a psychic reads tea leaves. I worried that the trail, one of my favorites, was about to become part of a pipeline. I cursed the thought that public land my taxes pay for might be in the early stages of privatization for profit. (I loathe that practice.) My bike bounced underneath me as I focused on the dingbats of pink ribbon against the rolling page of browns and greens. I thought about the future of the trail instead of what future the trail might hold for me, a mountain biker not paying attention. At the first creek crossing, I hit a rock and crashed heavily on my right side. My shin thwacked a submerged rock, pain drilling sharply though the shock of cold October water flooding my lycra. I staggered to my feet, grunting and cursing, limped out of the water, wondering if I could make it back to the car. (Of course, I checked my bike, the universal sign that the mountain biker is not gonna die.) Eventually, I pedaled slowly down the trail, walking all creek crossings, cranked back to the car, and drove home. (When my daughter saw my leg, blood streaked down my shin into my sock, a creek mapped in red, she said: “I don’t like that” and marched into the house.)
I still have no idea what those ribbons meant, but that’s beside the point. The ribbons took me to a place I didn’t want to go on an otherwise blissful Friday alone in the woods on my bike with the woodpeckers, blackberries, and ferns. What this tells me is that I can’t escape the industry, that almost everything I experience holds the potential to be shaped by the industry in some way. It’s a lesson I’ve known for some time—industry is always with us—but I’ve never had the lesson articulated so well before. As one of my friends once said about me, I’m big but I’m slow.
And since I can see signs of gas development everywhere and project it where it isn’t, I wonder if my soul gets calloused to the industry the same way my butt gets calloused to a bike saddle in spring when I start logging big miles. What I mean is, as I get calloused to the industry or the saddle, what are the effects of my new tolerance? Regarding the bike, that tolerance is good for my legs and lungs and mind. Regarding the industry, I’m not so sure.
More on mapping gas soon.
December 9, 2011
Typos can be revealing. A couple days ago a friend and I—she happens to also be my priest—were putting the finishing touches on a grant application, for which the funds will be used to renovate a church building to include a separate rental apartment. One of our points is that affordable housing is desperately needed here because of how the influx of gas workers has caused rents to soar and availability to plummet. We were frantically typing away at different sections (any of you who have written grant apps have guessed that it was due the next day), and later when I put the pieces together and was proofing I noticed she’d written “the distraction of natural gas,” instead of “extraction.” I laughed. Then I stopped to think.
The monster now had a name. I don’t mean to be melodramatic or cute, but naming things is important for reasons other than conquering or claiming. Terry Tempest Williams, a Mormon nature writer, once said that if we didn’t know the names of trees then they’d all just be “trees” and we’d never realize when some species—elms, for instance—were disappearing. She was talking to a bunch of us artsy writers, some who claimed natural history or the science side of things was a hindrance or unnecessary to our task.
I’ve also learned from psychology and counselors I’ve known that naming the thing I fear and making it clearer to see does not make it more powerful, rather it gives me the ability to isolate it, take aim, and gain whatever level of control or power is possible under the circumstances. I had been lumping the psychological effects of natural gas under one label—anxiety. I assumed my stress was all from my worries over what will happen.
Yet even when I’m not actively worrying I am less present in what I am doing and where I am than before Marcellus Shale reared its ominous head. And then I forget things, lose things, miss appointments, and speed by the turn I take every day going home. So I run late, snap at my family, growl at the dogs. Bad mama.
The other day Jimmy and I were in the car heading to his first appointment with an orthopedist since his bike wreck a little more than a week earlier. He was found by strangers blacked out in the middle of the dirt road he rides home, and couldn’t remember anything about what happened. I felt sure he’d been avoiding a gas truck barreling down the road (it was just past the turn off for a well pad), or maybe a deer. Hours later in the ER, having been diagnosed with a concussion (duh), broken collarbone and maybe some broken ribs (turns out three), his memory suddenly returned. “I hit a hole,” he said, his eyes widening as he watched the scene in his head. “Wasn’t paying attention, just hurrying downhill, didn’t have my hands wrapped around the grips. They bounced off and underneath the handlebars. I don’t remember anything after that. Damn rookie mistake.” My first response was to tease him that he couldn’t get a blog post out of that. It’d have been much better if he’d had a hit and run from a residual waste truck.
But in the car he said to me, “No wonder I had a bike crash this semester. I’ve been so distracted.” We’d been talking about how busy we are, how we hate to rush and it feels like that’s all we’re doing. Sure there’re issues at work that contribute, but on top of all the normal aspects of the world that’s too much with us, there’s the dozens of emails, warnings, and queries concerning the natural gas boom here. Which to read? Which to act on immediately? Which are overreactions by others? A friend calls us one morning to say he has information from a watershed meeting about something the PA DEP is considering that could result in brine being spread on roadways. Can we help get the word out? Today? The open comment period (that was never advertised) is almost over. Jimmy’s last post touched on the pressure that comes with committing to stay informed and vigilant
The monster doesn’t take a day off; nevertheless we cannot be fulltime defenders, tossing aside the daily tasks of life (although the dishes can wait a day or two if necessary) for an indefinite amount of time. Say the decade or more that our area is due to be under siege. And it’s these daily tasks that are as important as what we might consider our more “serious pursuits,” according to nature writer, activist, and Buddhist philosopher Gary Snyder.
So on the twilight of the Thanksgiving holiday and the advent of, well, advent, I want to pause and do what my priest and friend advised in a Thanksgiving service years ago when I happened to have post-partum blues. She asked us all to take our anxieties and turn them into statements of thanks. It made me realize that I can choose what to focus on. Like that monster—the distraction of natural gas—which I can turn toward and away from, not giving all my moments to it. The practice of gratitude also energizes me much more than stewing over what I can do nothing about in that moment, ultimately making me a better defender of this place.
My List of Thanks
- For the strangers who found my husband before he was run over, and called an ambulance and then me
- For early morning layers of pink through aspen branches beyond my kitchen window
- For the farmers and food-crafters in the area who help me put healthy, humanely raised food on my table and plates
- For the dirty plates in my sink, and the fact that I have more clean ones in the cabinet
- For our friend who hates public speaking but went to several township meetings to educate officials on the dangers of using waste brine on the roadways
- For my husband who wanted down time and now has it
- For my children who are visibly growing up as they take care of Daddy
- For the old fruit trees in the back acres that call the deer in to glean what’s fallen
- For the suede shapes amongst gray trunks and fallen leaves, subtly monitoring our dogs
- For the remaining places for the deer (and us) to wander
- For the flavor of the 23 pound local turkey Jimmy smoked for nine hours, and the friends that stopped by to share a beer and pass the time with the one-armed cook
- For the smell of my daughter’s hair
- For my son’s infectious laugh
- For the Saturday morning art program my kids love (during which I write)
- For the small town I live in, and the people who jump to our side when the shit hits the fan (or my husband hits the dirt)
- For all the moments. They are exquisite.
October 20, 2011
It’s been a long time since I’ve posted. See, I’ve fallen in love again and let other things slide. You remember how it is.
Me, I seem to fall hardest in autumn. I met Jimmy in September 1997, when I was 29 and knew in the first couple weeks it was forever. Last fall when my real estate agent brought me to the Whitney House for the first time, I was just as smitten. Jimmy and I bought it and were moved in by Halloween.
And this autumn, I have fallen more deeply in love with Pennsylvania. It’s not just that where we live now I have a sweeping view of hay fields and a small old cemetery against the distant hills (out front), and meadows of goldenrod and flaming sumac with winding paths mowed throughout (in back). There’s the chickens too, of course. I could watch the chickens chase each other and the puppy in circles all day. No, it’s because I started getting out of my own yard and exploring what is just around the corner.
Hills Creek State Park is a few miles away. I was accustomed to thinking of the 407 acres in terms of my children—it has a great playground and in summer the lake and sandy beach are free. Since there’s no edge to drop off, I preferred it to the town pool while the kids were too young to swim. But recently I’ve discovered what a great playground it is for me. In a fit of determination, I registered for the annual Step Outdoors Tryathlon held at Hills Creek, thereby forcing myself to start training and get off my, er, front porch.
This Tryathlon (they spell it “try” to encourage first-timers like me) combined a 3 mile run, 2 mile paddle, and 9 mile bike ride on dirt roads. So I started riding the bike route among forests and farms, and fast walking the lakeside trail. The trail is mostly in mixed conifer and deciduous woods, with moist forest floors, gnarled roots, and seasonal creeks. Kingfishers rattled above and the prehistoric squawk of a heron made me peer through the branches to see it fly gracefully over the glassy water. I would be transported into an ancient place with a timeless sense of peace. I confess it amazed me how much more restorative it felt than walking my nice country road.
It did have a panoramic view of a drill rig on neighboring property, so close it seemed to rise out of the lake spillway. But it’s down now. And for a while a huge long swath adjacent to the park was cut open, stopping traffic and reminding me as I watched them lay the pipeline, of tendonitis surgery on my wrist. But that area is now covered, reseeded, and except for the gap in the trees where it runs through woods is not ugly or traffic-stopping anymore. Things change. It’s the lesson of the seasons, especially autumn with the leaves flaunting their transformations.
This year as Jimmy went away for his big race, the kids and I participated in an event closer to home. Wanting to get them in on the fun, and hoping they were old enough to enjoy it, I signed us up for the Ives Run Trail Challenge. It’s a 4 mile course in nearby Ives Run Recreation Area surrounded by State Game Lands. Our seven-year-old son partnered up with an adult friend who wanted to introduce him to trail running, and I walked with our four-year-old daughter.
They both were the youngest participants, had a great time, and showed themselves what they could do. Our family turned a new leaf, one Jimmy and I have anticipated since having kids—they can now walk far enough and long enough for us to explore outdoors in the ways we love, leaving parking lots and trail heads far behind. This is why we chose to live in a place like Tioga County, where the sylvan aspects of Pennsylvania still predominate. The woods, lakes, streams, and accompanying wildlife are treasures worth more to us than any signing bonus or royalty check.
Intimately entwined with our state’s history of extractive industry (logging, tanneries, coal mining), is its history of state parks and recreation lands. Joseph T. Rothrock, the first Commissioner of Forestry in the early 1900’s, was a medical doctor as well as forester and developed camps in forest reserves for tuberculosis victims and others with respiratory illnesses. Later in the 1950’s, the new head of the Department of Forests and Waters (departments always morph and change names) set a goal of having every Pennsylvania resident no more than 25 miles from a state park. Though Maurice Goddard fell short of his goal, Pennsylvania now has one of the largest state park systems in the nation. And today the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and Tioga County Partnership for Community Health sponsor events in these public lands such as triathlons, trail runs, and other outings to improve the quality of life for Pennsylvanians and visitors.
Recently, Governor Corbett has talked of privatizing the state parks, taking a core part of our common wealth—one residents have supported with bond referendums and avidly utilized for over a century—and stripping it of protections meant to guard the long-term benefits of mental and physical health for state residents, as well as the value to wildlife. I don’t share some people’s faith in a free market; I feel sure that putting state parks in the for-profit sector will quickly degrade the resource, as economic values trump all others.
Corbett also quickly repealed former Gov. Rendell’s policy to limit gas drilling impact in state parks. Corbett says the policy was redundant; supporters say it allowed the state to manage (not ban) the drilling impact on tourism and recreation. An article in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette outlines the situation:
Pennsylvania has 117 state parks, 61 of them in the two-thirds of the state lying above the Marcellus Shale, a 380 million-year-old formation that might contain more than 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
The mineral rights — including Marcellus gas deposits — under 85 percent of that park acreage are privately owned. Courts have ruled that the so-called “mineral estate” rights are superior to surface rights in Pennsylvania, and that the owners of underground mineral rights must be given reasonable access to develop those holdings, even when they lie under parks or other publicly owned land.
So even without privatizing state parks, Pennsylvanians must struggle with what the Marcellus Shale rush will mean to our public lands heritage. We must all be flexible as well as vigilant during the shifting season of this Marcellus Shale autumn. And when I get anxious about the changes, I head for the woods and wildlands that so many people have worked to conserve and protect. Ironically, in these stressful early years of the gas boom, we need the peace of deep forests and the negative ions produced by clear running streams more than ever as places to recharge.
September 3, 2011
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.
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.
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.