November 15, 2014
NOTE: This is part 2 of an essay called “The Redneck Pastoral” I read at the English Association for Pennsylvania State Universities Conference at California University of Pennsylvania this past October. This excerpt comes from chapter 6 of my book manuscript called Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale.
“You ready to go back to the fire, Gabriel?” Eric asked.
“Yeah,” Gabe said. Eric fired up the Ranger, put it in gear, and pressed the accelerator. The engine whined, the tires spun, kicking up snow and ice, and the Ranger moved forward about an inch. Eric slammed it in reverse and tried to back up. Same result. He tried to go forward and backward a few more times. We moved maybe two inches. He stopped and put the engine in neutral. “Well, goddamn it, I think we’re stuck.”
“Let me push,” I said. “Gabe, you stay here. Hold on tight.” I jumped out, waded through two feet of snow to the rear, told Eric to “hit it,” and pushed for all I was worth. Snow and ice bounced off my chest and legs. The Ranger revved, tires spinning. Didn’t budge.
“Eric!” I yelled, competing with the revving engine. He let up on the accelerator. “Let me jump in the bed and rock it while you floor it.” I climbed in the bed, grabbed the roll bar, braced my feet against the sides, and said, “Go!” Eric floored the Ranger again while I yarded from side to side on the roll bar. The Ranger rocked as snow and ice slapped against the sides and underbody. No luck. “Stop, man!” I yelled. “We’re stuck good.” I started laughing. Gabe sat silently in the front seat, hands wrapped around the bar on the dash. Eric stared down at the steering wheel for a moment, shut off the engine, then hopped out of the cab and started clearing snow from under the Ranger with his arms. I jumped out of the bed to help. Gabe hopped out and watched. I said, “Whaddya think, buddy?” He shrugged. Once again, we heard the drill rig’s implacable grinding and roaring.
After a few minutes of digging, we saw we were hosed in two ways. First, Eric had stopped the Ranger in a swale, which meant the snow was deeper here than in the rest of the field and that the snow sat on ice which had frozen in the bottom. The Ranger cut its way down into the ice just like a drill bit cutting into the earth, settling the underbody on packed snow. We were stuck good. I laughed again when I saw the chained tires sunk four inches or so into the ice. It looked like we had four flats. Eric said, “Reckon we should go get Rick’s tractor.” I volunteered to walk with Gabe back to the fire pit and tell Rick. Eric said he’d stay with the Ranger. He grabbed a beer from Rick’s cooler, opened it, took a swallow, set it down in the cab, and commenced to digging again. When Gabe and I looked back from the top of the field, we could see his crouched figure, snow flying, like a dog digging after a groundhog.
As we walked into the woods, I heard the poppoppop of Rick’s tractor headed our way. Since we’d been gone so long, Rick figured that we were stuck. He drove out of the woods toward us, stopped, and idled down the engine. I told him where Eric was, and Gabe and I slogged on to the fire pit. A few minutes later, we walked up on Tom, Sheila, and Francis standing around the fire and filled them in on the night’s shenanigans so far. Gabe grabbed a root beer and a bag of chips. I stood at the fire for a few minutes, until Francis and I decided to walk back down to see if we could help. I made sure Gabe was warm and well supplied with kid beer and food, and that Sheila and Tom would stay with him until I got back. Francis and I set off for what became a comedy of errors.
We were slipping down the hill toward the finger of forest separating the fields and lamenting the booze we weren’t consuming when I noticed three separate sets of lights below us: the Ranger, the tractor, and the drill rig. “Oh, shit,” I said, “Rick got the tractor stuck.” Sure enough, when we walked through the woods to the ditch that bordered the field above the Ranger, Rick stood beside his tractor, cursing. I saw that the rear blade he used for moving snow had caught one side of the ditch as he drove through it, stranding the rear tires an inch or two off the ground. He couldn’t raise the blade any further and the tires couldn’t get traction. He was stuck good. I laughed, and turned to Francis, “This is turning hilarious.”
Things moved from hilarious to absurd. We tried to push the tractor out. Dumb. Eventually, we freed the tractor when Rick detached the blade by pounding the pins out with an anchor shackle. Rick drove down to the Ranger, pulled it out, and got the tractor stuck again. Eric buried the Ranger in another swale trying to get back to the tractor. We dug snow from around it and pushed it out. Then Eric pulled the tractor out. Both pieces of equipment freed, Francis and I jumped on the Ranger, Eric high-tailed it out to Ikes Road, and motored back to the fire pit via dirt roads, arriving about 3 a.m. I must have burned more calories digging in and walking through the snow than I do on a fifty-mile bike ride. Since I hadn’t tasted any beer or bourbon in several hours, I told Gabe we’d be heading home soon. Around the fire, we recounted our heroic deeds to watch $100 bills shooting out of the ground one more time, laughing at the absurdity of it. Gabe and I left the fire around 4:00 a.m.
I thought Gabe might go to sleep on the way home, but he told stories from the fire all the way, each punctuated by his belly laugh. We crept into the house, trying not to wake anyone up. I hustled him off to bed and fell into bed myself, smelling of smoke and thinking that was ridiculous. The Redneck Pastoral. Awesome.
I woke up thinking about coffee and the rig towering above our shenanigans in the field. How the rig represented something huge, an energy and technology revolution, while we, a small group of partiers wallowing in the snow at its base represented what . . . the community? The place? We were apart from the industry, yet also somehow a part of it. In the light of day, the well pad seemed simultaneously too close and too far away, a single rig and a symbol for a vast system. The rig drew us to it with the promise of seeing $100 bills shooting out of the ground, even though it stood impersonal and impenetrable while we tried to free our machines. If it hadn’t been there, we would have stayed around the fire, I would have drunk more bourbon, and Gabe and I would have slept in the Man Hut. The rig gave me a sense that we were being watched, even though we were on private property and doing nothing wrong. We were stuck in the industry the same way we were stuck in the snow, but we couldn’t dig ourselves out. We were having our fun, celebrating a memorable birthday, but that rig left its stamp on the proceedings.
I ground coffee beans and thought about those lovers in Ridley Scott’s Titanic. Our adventure in the field reminded me of the unlikely affair Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet’s characters’ have in the midst of a massive tragedy-in-waiting. They were living their lives when the ship hit the iceberg. At Eric’s party, we were living our lives in the midst of a huge drama playing itself out around us over hundreds of square miles. Perhaps, depending on which way the drill bit pointed, even right below us. We could have been wrestling with stuck machines directly above a drill bore. Or the drill bit could have been chewing its way along under the fire pit. Scott’s lovers’ story takes place against the historical backdrop of a disaster and, while the lovers and the movie goers see their story as central, it’s dwarfed by the larger story of the hubris that sank the ship. Thinking back over the previous night, I saw my life as very small compared to the industry. Thankfully, we wouldn’t hit an actual iceberg, but who knew when something irreversible might happen, like a polluted water well. That night’s craziness a short walk from the well pad drew in stark relief the extent to which my family and I were acting in our daily dramas while the industry chugged around us and beneath us, carrying us into an uncertain future. That’s part of the problem with the industry. We know where they are, but we don’t know where they are going.
November 15, 2014
NOTE: Back in October, I presented an excerpt from Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale at the English Association of Pennsylvania State Universities Conference at California University of Pennsylvania. Now, I’m working to get a copyedit-ready manuscript to Texas A&M Press by December 1. The book is scheduled to appear in fall 2015. Anyway, thought I’d share the excerpt in two parts. This is part one.
About 6 p.m. on January 29, 2011, Gabe and I loaded the Corolla with chips, root beer, a case of Yuengling, a fifth of Maker’s Mark, and warm clothes and headed through a snow storm to the Old Man’s house. It was his sixtieth birthday.
Snow fell thick as I backed out of the garage and steered down the driveway. Fifteen minutes later, we spun up the Old Man’s driveway past the sign that states “Hey, asshole, this ain’t your fucking land. Go away now or you’ll be mistaken for a large, annoying squirrel,” and parked beside his truck.
Gabe and I grabbed our supplies out of the car and slogged through eighteen degree temps and eighteen inches of snow past Eric’s Man Hut to the old logging road that led a quarter mile down toward the sugar shack. We slipped through the woods toward the flicker of the fire on the trees until we heard Eric pontificating about some adventure from his past. We rounded the corner of the sugar shack to Eric’s “Well, look here! Hey, Gabriel! How you doing?”
“Good,” Gabe said. “Happy birthday.”
I put down the Yuengling and showed Gabe where he could put his chips and kid beers in the sugar shack, a ten by ten unfinished room with a big overhang on one side. A couple of old restaurant chairs and scattered newspapers made up the décor. As we headed back outside, I said, “If you get cold, you can come in here, OK?” He nodded, root beer in hand, and led me past the stainless steel vats back to the fire about twenty feet away. Split ash burned brightly in the brick fire pit. On the open side of the pit, three logs stood on end, serving as seats. Split firewood was stacked all around us, some on pallets, some stacked in rows taller than my six foot, three inch frame. Eric, Tom, Sheila, Francis, and Rick, Eric’s neighbor, had stomped the snow down around the fire. Gabe took a seat on a log. I wondered how long he would last in the snow and cold.
Since I hadn’t seen Rick in a few months, I walked over and stuck out my hand. “How ya doin’?”
“Good, good,” he replied. Rick’s a huge guy with a big beard who carries a cooler of Milwaukee’s Best in his Polaris Ranger and a .357 in his back pocket. We chatted a minute before I spied a case of Arrogant Bastard stuck in the snow on the other side of the fire, the Maker’s Mark buried beside it. I picked up the Yuengling and carried it to the pile. Setting it down, I opened the case, pulled out a beer, and asked if anyone needed one. Hearing no takers, I opened the beer, shoved it down in the snow on top of some firewood, and grabbed the bourbon. I opened the bottle, said “Here’s to the Old Man!” and took a pull.
“The Old Man!” the others exclaimed. I passed the bottle to Eric, who took a swallow and passed it around. The bottle circled the fire, only Gabe and Sheila abstaining. When Francis passed it back to me, I capped the bottle and shoved it back into the snow. Then we settled into some beer drinking and bullshitting about bikes and bike races as the temperature and the snow continued to fall.
As we stood around the fire recounting tales of epic rides and giving each other shit, gas workers drilled the Vandergrift 290 5H well about 1500’ away as the crow flies. I knew they were drilling because I had ridden my bike past the well on Ikes Road several times. And Eric kept me updated. This night, the well pad seemed miles away in the dark and cold and the flurry of words around the fire. Almost another world. One flurry: Eric told us how he always goes to Rochester on his birthday and test drives a $180,000 RV just to, as he called it, “tease the salesman.” The conversation drifted away from the RV test drive story like smoke from the fire, then circled back when Eric said, “I love teasing those guys on my birthday. You’ve gotta try it sometime. I love fucking with them.”
The fire burned low. Eric said, “I hope we can find some wood.” The line became one refrain to our circuitous conversation about bike rides, making maple syrup, drinking moonshine, and growing up in Tioga County. Francis piled more wood on the fire. The ash caught quickly and pushed the cold back a little. Finally, the drill rig made an appearance when Rick turned to Gabriel. “Gabe,” he asked, “you want to ride over and see $100 bills shooting out of the ground?” Gabe looked at me. Rick’s 4×4 Ranger sat behind us, the fire glinting off the dull green paint and plexiglass windshield partially covering the cockpit. No doors. Cooler in the bed. Knowing he wanted to ride the Ranger in the snow, not see the gas well, I said, “You want to?” Gabe nodded.
“Let’s go then.” We set down our beers and walked to the Ranger. Rick fired it up and drove us through swirling snow along an old logging road to a field where corn grew in summer. We skirted the field, catching a glimpse of the drill rig lights through the trees, before Rick turned down hill, wove through some trees, dropped through a ditch, and crawled across another field through deep, super-fine snow. Ablaze in lights, the blue and white rig stood about two hundred yards away. Rick stopped the Ranger and killed the engine. The roar of powerful engines filtered through the air toward us. “See, Gabe?” Rick asked. “Hundred dollar bills shooting out of the ground.”
Jutting ninety feet into the air, the rig was impressive. Tank trailers, generators, compressors, and trucks clustered around the rig. An American flag whipped and popped from the pole on top. A grinding roar permeated the night, dulled somewhat by the snow falling and blanketing the ground. As I looked at the rig, Dickens’ Coketown popped into my head. I looked closely for Stephen Blackpool walking the pad, but I couldn’t see him. Rick no doubt saw money “shooting out of the ground.” Who knows what Gabe saw? We sat there another minute looking at the rig, snow swirling between the rig and the Ranger, listening to the bit chew into the earth. I wondered whether the guys working the rig saw us. Rick asked Gabe if he was ready to go back to the fire. “Yeah,” Gabe replied, and off we went, spinning back up the hill to a fire pit that struck me as a scaled-down version of a well pad where we engaged in that age-old ritual of gathering around a source of burning energy, conversing and trying to stay warm.
Eric, Gabe, and I jumped back in the Ranger about 12:30 a.m. Eric eased out of the fire pit’s light, the Ranger’s headlights lighting the tracks from previous forays. He puttered along the tracks, eased across the field into the woods, and dropped down through the drainage ditch into the faint glare of the drill rig, his instincts and experience handling equipment overpowering the booze flowing in his veins. He said, “Look at those $100 bills shooting out of the ground, Gabriel!” Then, as the field flattened, he floored it.
The Ranger bucked and fishtailed through the snow. Gabe laughed at first, until the snow sprayed between the windshield and the hood, hitting him in the face. In protest, he pulled his knit hat down over his face. I laughed and yelled over the engine, “What’s the matter, buddy?” Eric glanced down to see Gabe’s cap pulled down over his face and slowed the Ranger to a stop near where Rick, Gabe, and I had stopped before. “Did that bother you, Gabe?”
“Going fast doesn’t,” Gabe said. “The snow hitting my face does.”
“Ok,” Eric said. “We’ll stop.” He pointed at the rig. “Look at those $100 bills shooting out of the ground.”
We sat there for a minute, and I wondered how Eric felt about the rig, considering some of those bills ended up in his bank account. My guess from conversations we’d had around fire rings and on bike rides was that he was torn. His father had leased his property before he gave the property to his kids, so in some ways Eric had no choice. Eric has a soft spot for nature, and he worries about climate change. He’d watched the gas workers closely when they crossed his property and fought with them to re-route pipeline around a small wetland. He appreciated the lease money and I guessed from the references to $100 bills shooting out of the ground, he looked forward to the royalties. But he also knew that he had lost something in return for the windfall, perhaps mostly peace of mind. I sensed a twinge of bitterness each time he talked about the industry, and I sometimes saw outright rage.
This night, Eric seemed giddy at the promise of the money from the drilling, maybe the only time I’ve seen him in that state of mind, and I didn’t blame him. He’d served in Vietnam, worked his entire life in construction and the trucking industry, and since losing his driving job, he worked seasonally for the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources. Physically, he’s beat up, though he can tolerate more pain than anyone I know.
If anybody deserved a natural gas windfall to ease stress, it was Eric. Yet the promise of gas industry money did not always seem to outweigh the costs. But on this night, nobody gave a shit. We just watched $100 bills shoot out of the ground and repeated stories we had all heard before, and loved.
See next post for part 2.
September 29, 2013
A few weeks ago, philosophy professor Adrianne McEvoy and I were chatting after her Methods of Inquiry class for which I had guest-yammered about the writing expectations in different college disciplines. She’s a new Mom, and she’s thinking about moving to the country so her boy can grow up eating dirt and wrestling bears. Adrianne talks occasionally to me about what it’s like being a country mouse in the midst of the gas industry. At one point during our conversation, Adrianne asked me, “Are the gas industry folks evil or dumb?”
I had to think about that one. After a moment, I said, “Neither, I don’t think. They’ve got to be smart to do what they do. And I don’t think they’re necessarily malicious, though some may be. The problem, as I see it, is that they are trapped in this box of language that they’ve created. They use language in ways that prioritize what they want to happen and that overlooks a lot of other concerns.” Even as I reeled this off, I wondered if it were really clear. That’s one of the problems with using language to talk about language—it’s all we got, and it can be about as clear as frack water sometimes.
Though I have no doubt that some in the industry are “evil” and don’t give a shit about anyone (Aubrey McClendon comes to mind), I think things tend more toward the dumb side. Not dumb in an I’m-not-capable-of-learning way—to handle that technology, you’ve got to be smart in some ways—but dumb in Aldo Leopold’s sense of not knowing or being ignorant. We’re all dumb in some ways (don’t ask me anything about engines or pop culture or hunting), and I think this dumbness grows in part from the stories we tell ourselves about what we value.
Cthulhu knows, it affects me. I learned to rock climb in North Carolina in the late 80s. There are dozens of climbing areas in the US, and the way people go about climbing in each depends on what the locals decide. North Carolina climbers believed in what is called a traditional ethic, which means they believed the best style of climbing was to go from the bottom to the top with no fixed (permanent) protection and no prior knowledge of a route. Called “on-sight climbing,” this approach gave NC a reputation for being a bold and adventurous place to climb, because climbers often faced long leader falls onto sparse protection. A leader fall occurs when a climber, belayed by another, climbs a rock, placing and clipping protection (pro) as he climbs. Since the rope is running up to the climber, instead of down from the top, the climber falls the distance he is above his last pro x 2 (5’ above equals roughly a 10’ fall). It’s a big step for a climber to start leading, because the mental game becomes more intense and more rewarding.
NC climbers I knew talked about the NC style of climbing in reverent tones and heaped praise on climbers who did it well. (“Did you hear about Local Toughguy’s ascent of Pucker Factor? That guy is badass!”) As I was learning to climb, I wanted to be talked about that way, too. I internalized the stories, bulking up my attitude on the right way to climb like my forearms accumulated muscle from hanging onto small holds. I dismissed places with a different approach to climbing as not really climbing. To say I was judgmental at the time would be an understatement.
My buddy, Sean, and I bumbled through a lot of climbs, and we climbed with local climbers, like Woody, JoJo, Mike, Byron, Alex, Scrappy, Burton, Mark, and a host of others who told us more stories. We met rock god Doug Reed, one of the strongest climbers in the US at the time and not afraid to “run it out” (which means climbing hard moves way out from his protection, facing big falls). We heard tales of strong climbers taking serious risks to do first ascents in good NC style. Everything I heard I considered gospel. Over time, Sean and I started taking on some of those risks ourselves, driven by the on-sight, no-falls ethic.
That doesn’t mean I didn’t fall, but they were few and far between. I still remember the first leader fall I took at Stone Mountain. I slipped off some tiny holds and slid 10’ down a rock face. It happened so quickly, I didn’t get scared. Hanging about fifty feet off the ground, I looked down at Sean, who was belaying me. He dangled a couple of feet off the ground. Kicking his feet, he deadpanned, “Hey, man, this shit works. It worked.” I laughed, choking down the adrenalin rush, and finished the route. As I got stronger, I would hang out for 45 minutes on a 60’ climb, climbing up and down, trying to figure out how to unlock a move without falling, that NC ethic driving my choices and behavior. I worked my way slowly and methodically through the climbing grades (difficulty ratings), and I rarely lead climbed a route if I thought I had a chance of falling. The upside is that I would put off doing risky routes until I thought I was ready, which led to some rewarding ascents. Another upside: I never got hurt. The downside is that I didn’t climb nearly as hard as I was physically capable of because of the story I told myself about the way climbing should be, a realization that now haunts this 46-year-old. The stories I heard and told myself held me back.
I realized how powerful the NC ethic was when Lilace and I moved to Reno in 1999 and started hanging out with west coast climbers. Ross, Bill, Dave, Scott, Jennifer, Chris, Jackie, Adrian, Russell, and Liz taught me to think about physical difficulty coupled with safety, not pants-filling NC run-outs. In NC, I believed in the sacredness of the on-sight ethic. In Nevada, I enjoyed pushing myself on harder, safer climbs without worrying about falling, because I heard a different story and practiced climbing differently. None of the people I climbed with out west were into climbing scary routes, they were into difficulty and fun. I had a blast, though I still carried that NC ethic around like a climbing pack loaded down with too much gear. This was driven home one day at Big Chief, a climbing area with fixed protection in the Sierra Nevada. All climbers do there is clip bolts (permanent protection) and climb. In other words, super safe, super fun climbing. We’d been climbing an hour or so when I decided to lead a route I hadn’t led before. As usual, I futzed around at the crux, taking way longer than I should have on a route I knew, that NC ethic rattling around in my head like a loose rock. After I clipped the anchors which marked the end of the climb (no falls! woohoo!), Ross lowered me to the ground. I stood there untying the rope, basking in my post-climb success, when a Swiss climber said to me, “You are strong. You would climb much harder if you climbed faster.” Ouch! But he was right. That NC climbing style born of stories from all those years ago kept me from adjusting the way I climbed to meet the demands of a new climbing area. In other words, it kept me from seeing other possibilities and adopting new behaviors.
I changed as a climber in Reno, going so far as to take practice lead falls at the climbing gym and falling more outside, but I never really overcame those earlier lessons from NC. Doesn’t really matter—I was just climbing rocks—but it illustrates how the lessons we absorb from the language associated with a sport or job or group of people or an extractive industry has a powerful effect on the way we interact with the world. Lilace didn’t carry my baggage, and she kicked ass out west. (I realize now that my NC ethic caused me to raise doubts when I shouldn’t have, like on Mary’s Crack at School Rock. Sorry, honey.)
People working in the natural gas industry live their stories the way I lived the NC climbing stories. The stories keep the industry from seeing other possibilities. The industry dismisses many of the concerns people have about drilling the way I dismissed climbers outside NC who climbed differently from me (until I moved to Reno). The industry doesn’t hear the concerns or see other possibilities, because they are used to doing things a certain way, a way embedded in its stories.
There’s one big difference between the way I let the NC climbing ethic shape me and the way the industry lets what we might call the Oil and Gas Ethic shape them—when I went climbing, I didn’t change the people or the rock. In the scheme of things, my influence was tiny, if not non-existent. I was a pebble sitting at the base of El Capitan. That’s not the case for the gas industry. They are working on El Cap’s scale (and would probably try to frack El Cap if they thought gas was there). The industry changes this place in a huge way, the extent of which we don’t know yet, and they owe it to the people who live here to understand that. The stakes are high for locals, like climbing above your protection into ground fall range, and we all didn’t make the choice to start up that route. The industry is a multi-billion dollar enterprise spread out over thousands of acres that affects people’s lives for good and ill. They need weave those lives and the place more completely into their stories, emphasizing the bad at least as much as the good. Instead of trying to control the story that gets told to the public (see non-disclosure agreements), the industry needs to tell itself (and us) everything, and now. No matter what goofy rules rock climbers follow, they generally don’t screw up land, air, or water. The industry can follow their own rules (which, though not rigorous enough in my view, are not arbitrary) and still screw up. They need to quit suggesting otherwise.
To go back to Adrianne’s question, I don’t think the industry is evil, but it has created a story for itself that makes it dumb. (Red, White, and Bluewashing explores three of these stories.) Since the industry created the stories, it can, and must, change them. It’s necessary for a public who is sacrificing for them (a part the industry tries to leave out). The aggrandizing stories the industry tells itself has led to arrogance and created a host of problems for them. (I describe part of that process here.) Arrogance is just another way of being dumb by thinking you have all the answers and the authority to do what you damn well please. Drilling’s too complex for Dick and Jane storytelling.
Worst of all, the stories the industry tells itself (and us) makes it difficult for us to learn what’s really going on. I always feel like I’m getting only part of the story. Adrianne feels the same way. She told me, “Having a PhD doesn’t make me intelligent. It makes me a bloodhound, and I know how to go research things and look at them closely. What’s worried me about the gas industry is that I can’t find answers.” The industry could stop fouling the waters, so to speak, and provide these answers. But that will require an unflinching look at the stories the industry tells itself (and us) about drilling for gas. If only they would frack those.
July 24, 2013
The first spring we lived in the Whitney House, I heard a noise in the field to our west that drove me nuts because I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing a bird or a frog. I only heard the eeent in the evenings, right around the time the peepers cranked up, meaning dusk. I’d listen and listen, trying to make the noise with my nose and mouth and transcribe it in letters. I asked friends who knew more about the local fauna than I did what it might be. Some suggested a type of frog; others shrugged. Even though I looked for it, I never saw what made the noise.
The second spring, nothing.
The third spring, I heard the eeent in a field on the east side of the house. I paid more attention this time around, noting that the eeents started right as the peepers wound down and the birds had settled in the for the evening. Each night I heard eeent, I wrote down the times: 7:15 p.m. 7:37 p.m. 7: 49 p.m. I asked some local friends (again!) if they knew what it was, but no one did. I searched the net and our field guides. No luck.
Then one Sunday night after a couple of beers, I decided I was going to track the source of that eeent, no matter how long it took. I sat on a downed willow branch on the east side of the yard facing the field around 7:50 p.m., listening to the peepers and songbirds settle for the night and watching the trees turn from green to gray. I waited, sure that the maker of the eeents would take the night off, but determined to sit there until complete darkness fell.
Eeent. I looked at my watch. Eeent. 8:03 p.m. . . . Eeent. I stood up and began walking straight toward the sound, trying to make my way as silently as possible through the briars, small trees, and piles of brush that separate our property from the field. Eeent. After walking a log and crawling through some briars, I popped into the edge of the field, just in time to see a bird take off near a rotting stump about 4’ high. A bird! I exulted. At least now I know it’s a bird!
Sure that I had spooked it for the rest of the night, I walked over to where I saw it take flight. Moments later, I heard eeent about 50 yards further up the hill. I looked at the ground where I saw it before, hoping to see something that might help me identify it. Maybe a nest. Anything.
I saw nothing.
I stood and turned to zero in on the bird’s position when I heard a weird twitter circling the field. I turned again, trying to follow the sound, wondering if it was the same bird. Staring up at the nearly dark sky, I saw a darker shape against the sky flash across my line of sight, like Batman zipping across the Gotham night sky. Then I saw a small bird land fifteen or so feet away. I froze. Eeent. Damn! I thought. I read about these birds in A Sand County Almanac. What did Leopold call them?
It was too dark to see the bird well. I noticed it was about the size of my fist, and when it turned away from me, I lost it completely in the not-yet-green grass. Until it launched. I stood there for twenty or thirty minutes, listening to eeents, seeing the launch, and hearing the twittery call circling the field and transforming into the water-trickling-through-rocks sound that preceded the bird tumbling out of the sky. While the bird didn’t land that close again, I began to feel the rhythm of its ritual and got better at predicting where I would see it silhouetted against the sky.
Once I had bothered the bird enough, I walked back to the house and pulled out my copy of A Sand County Almanac. Under Leopold’s section called “Sky Dance,” I read once again about the American woodcock’s mating ritual, the very thing I witnessed. Leopold called the eeent a peent, and he said that, though he enjoyed hunting woodcock, he never shot many because he couldn’t imagine his Wisconsin farm without the sky dance. I picked up a bird book and looked up the American woodcock. It’s a small brown bird with a long bill that relies on camouflage for protection. (One of my students told me that, if you can spot them, it’s possible to gig woodcocks like you would a frog. Camouflage is the bird’s defense. He also says they’re delicious.)
I returned to the field several nights after that to watch the sky dance. Every time I stepped out the back door around dusk, I now heard the twitter that accompanied woodcock’s flight. I noted how the weather affected the dance—clouds meant no dance—and noticed one moon-bright night when Lilace and I returned home after seeing Kris Kristofferson that the woodcock still peented away at 11:00 p.m. This little bird connected me to this place in unexpected ways, snapping me out of my human world and reminding me that creatures live by rhythms and rituals different from my own. My experience watching and listening to this bird has given me a history with this place that I did not have when I moved here. Now, I feel closer to the land, more connected, the same way wading the creek, getting into a yellow-jackets’ nest, catching brown and rainbow trout, and eating turnip greens and shelly beans grown in the garden made me closer to my grandparents’ land in NC. These experiences give me a sense of community, a rich context in which to live my life.
So, how does a place like this become a “zone,” ripe for drilling? One way is when legislation gets written that takes the three-dimensional world we and the woodcock live in and turns it into two dimensions. Such an act of language abstracts a place.
Take Act 13. Act 13 states that unconventional wells must be sited 500’ from houses or water wells, unless given permission otherwise by the land owner, and that well pads must be sited 300’ from residential buildings. Like other bills, Act 13 spends much ink defining terms, stating clearances and environmental expectations, explaining the permitting and other bureaucratic processes, and so on. What the bill does not say is that Jimmy Guignard watched the sky dance of an American woodcock in April 2012, he learned something, and he created a memory which connects him to that place in ways that should be respected. He has a richer history here now.
As measured with my trusty 100’ steel Stanley tape, I watched the woodcock 271’ from my back door. Potentially, that means the woodcock had a whopping 29’ buffer between himself and the edge of a well pad. To the person siting a well in an office down the road, they see numbers enshrined in language that they apply to a map which then becomes a well pad. The dimensions on a page transfer to dimensions on the land. Since I live here, I see wildlife trying to make its way in the world the same way I am and my kids will—as best it knows how. The memories are written into the landscape. Those are two different ways of knowing. The former is abstract—the gas companies can transfer ACT 13 dimensions to any piece of land anywhere. The latter is not—though I may see woodcocks elsewhere, I cannot transfer my experience in the Whitney House to another piece of land as easily. For starters, the mystery won’t be involved.
One could argue that building the pad and drilling is not abstract at all, and they’d be right. I’ve pushed down trees with a bulldozer, and there’s nothing abstract about it. But the issue I’m trying to hone in on has to do with our attitudes before we unload one dozer. Act 13 tells us to look at the land as a zone marked by numbers. It’s abstract and inclines us to focus on only one thing—extracting gas. In contrast, my experience tells the story of me seeing the land and its inhabitants as players alongside my own attempt to create a meaningful life. It’s holistic, one that stresses community.
We all have experiences of places, like my experience in the field next to our house, that give those places meaning to us. And we have all experienced the distress that accompanies something changing a place that holds those meanings for us, especially if whatever is built or drilled shows little or no regard for our history with a place. These feelings run deep. To this day, my aunt in North Carolina refuses to go to a grocery store built ten years ago on the flank of Grandfather Mountain because “they tore up part of the mountain.” Mind you, it’s a small part of a big mountain, but I get where she’s coming from. (They also destroyed a rather poorly-built, but lovely, trail straight up the side of that big mountain.) I’d like to figure out how to inject more awareness into bills like ACT 13 so that they more deeply take into account the places or communities they disrupt.
I don’t expect bills like ACT 13 to include my experiences. That’s impossible. But I do think such bills and the people who enact them need to recognize more carefully that they aren’t working on a blank slate. It’s easy to inflict damage on places we see in the abstract, as containing only one thing we need, like natural gas. Leopold writes, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relationship to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land. . . . Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.” Act 13’s dimensions encompass all kinds of daily dramas, big and small, but the language flattens out the details of those dramas, the consciousness of them. Though I don’t know how to to do this, we need more bills written with Leopold in mind. He took what was seen as a worthless piece of Wisconsin farm land and made it come to life in deeds and words. He took a zone and made it a community. “As a land-user thinketh,” he wrote, “so is he.” Peent.
Conference Presentation, ASLE 2013: Red, White, and Bluewashing: Visual Rhetoric and Fracking the Marcellus Shale
June 10, 2013
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
June 4, 2012
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.
April 11, 2012
In my previous post, I explored the problem with short-term thinking and the need to think like a rock. I suspect part of the reason we have trouble doing this is the seductive power of power.
My Dad was a truck driver. Over his lifetime, Daddy estimates that he drove around four million miles. His Daddy owned a trucking company. With Papa’s drivers, my Dad began driving from North Carolina to California when he was about fifteen. This was before interstates, and Daddy needed blocks taped to pedals to reach them. (When I said drive, I meant drive.) My brother and I followed in Daddy’s tire tracks, so to speak, when we were around four or five years old and began taking trips with Daddy and other drivers, a practice that continued through college. I still remember the trip I took with Daddy to Florida in my cousin’s red conventional International. (My cousin owned a trucking company, too.) We hauled empty Coke cans to a Coke plant down there, then hauled chip potatoes back to New Jersey. I ate a bag of potato chips made from the potatoes we hauled. But what I remember most was my turn behind the wheel.
Southbound, Daddy drove I-95 deep into Florida. It was around 2:00 a.m. Reflecting the truck’s lights, the white lines receded into the distance, creating the sensation of driving on a treadmill. Few other cars or trucks broke the monotony. Over the roar of the diesel, Daddy asked: “You want to drive this thing?”
“OK. I’ll set the cruise control, stand up, and you can slide in front of me and grab the wheel. See that rivet in the middle of the hood? Keep that on the white line and you’ll know you’re good. And check your mirrors. If the trailer’s outside the lines, you’ll know you’re not in the lane.” He stood up. Because the engine was mounted in front of the cab, we had room to walk around between the driver’s and passenger’s seats and the bunk beds in back, a small, travelling hotel room. I could stand up without bumping my head. I shuffled over to the driver’s seat and, careful not to bump his arm, slid into it and grabbed the wheel. Eyed the rivet and white line. Checked the mirrors. He turned off the cruise control, and I pressed the accelerator. The Cummins roared and the turbo whined as I steered that 65’ truck south. Just like that, I was driving 40,000 pounds of aluminum, steel, and fiberglass down the interstate. After I settled in, I marveled at the power. I felt huge, transformed from a skinny nineteen-year-old into a badass cowboy like Clint Eastwood, riding my horse across the prairie with an itchy trigger foot. I suddenly understood one reason Daddy loved driving so much.
We drove north the next day loaded with potatoes. The truck was heavy now—roughly 80,000 pounds. Steady traffic accompanied us. We switched seats again, and I drove for about two hours, taking great pleasure at flipping on the Jake brake (BLAAAAAPPPPPPP) and pushing cars doing 55 m.p.h. out of the left lane. Slowpokes blocking traffic. (Asinine, I know.) At one point, I checked the driver’s side rear view mirror and noticed a sheriff’s car half in the lane, half in the median. I pulled into the right lane pronto and watched as he raced by, lights flashing. The police car following pulled up beside me, the cop leaned over to the passenger window, shook his finger at me, and then took off in pursuit. Chastised (I had been speeding) and a bit rattled (no CDL), I stayed in the right lane until we pulled off for a piss break. That was the only time I’ve driven a truck other than around my cousin’s shop when I worked there, but that delicious sense of power stays with me to this day.
Fast forward a few years. I worked for a general contractor out of Charlotte as a job superintendent. I didn’t know a damn thing, but I learned fast and listened. One of my jobs was raising a spillway outside York, South Carolina. One day I showed up at the job site, only to find out our grading contractor was short a dozer operator and needed someone to clear trees from the borrow area (the place where we got the dirt to raise the spillway). The sub’s boss, Eddie, had known my Dad for years, and he and I had become drinking buddies. We were talking about the problem, when he asked, “You ever run a dozer?”
“Well, it ain’t hard. I’ll show you.” We walked over to the International TD-15, he gave me instructions (you let off a pedal to accelerate a dozer), and I clattered off across the dam to push down trees. A TD-15 is a big dozer. The blade is about three feet high and around ten feet wide. Once I clackclackclacked across the dam, I turned toward the trees, most of which were between forty and eighty feet tall. In the next couple of hours, I pushed down and cleared away twenty or so trees, cutting the roots on one side with the corner of the blade, backing down between trees in order to push them out toward the newly cleared area (didn’t want a tangle of downed trees), driving straight up onto the tree as far as I could (dared!) until it leaned precipitously, backed off, lowered the blade and drove forward, catching the root ball with the blade and popping the tree out of the ground. Trees that had been growing for thirty, forty, fifty years, bam, felled in minutes. I relished the work, the roar of the diesel (much louder than Daddy’s truck), the clatter of the tracks, the controlling of something much more powerful than me. Although I’ve always preferred bicycles to diesels, I understand the pull machines have on a person. They made me feel powerful in a world bigger than me.
I was in no way a skilled operator. I tried to put a swale on grade with a TD-8 once (a baby dozer), but all I got was laughed at. Eddie, on the other hand, could work magic with a bulldozer. Daddy was the same way in a truck. They were both skilled with their machines the way Lilace is skilled with writing. Their skills are a gift, they made the most of it, and many people benefited.
I suspect there are people as gifted operating tractors, trucks, dozers, track hoes, and drill rigs around here, and I admire them for that. There’s something seductive about the kind of power we see on display in Tioga County, and no matter how much I question the process, I think I understand part of the drive as well. My Dad said once in jest, “Hell, in my twenties, I would have driven a truck for free.” He felt that power in his bones.
We’re weak sauce without our fossil fuels. Compared to many other living things, we’re downright fragile. Soft-bellied. Slow. Fossil fuel power belies that, makes us feel like gods. It’s an illusion, but so seductive.
I wonder if we’ll ever see the power in saying no.
January 9, 2012
I need some help. I’m trying to understand the ebb and flow of people’s attitudes toward natural gas development in north-central PA for some research I’m working on. In my way of thinking, we learn things in two ways—through lived experience and what we learn from words. I would argue that the latter makes up most of what we know, and much of what we’ve learned about natural gas development has come from encounters with various media, that is, words. Your assignment is to help me think about this. Let me elaborate.
In grad school, I read Kenneth Burke’s Definition of Man, a definition I’ve chewed on ever since. Burke defines humans as symbol-using animals, animals who use words (symbols) to create much of our understanding of the world and our place in it. He also raises questions about reality:
“What is our ‘reality’ for today (beyond the paper thin line of our own particular lives) but all this clutter of symbols about the past combined with whatever things we know mainly through maps, magazines, newspapers, and the like about the present?”
Of course, these days Burke would include blogs, list-servs, websites, conversations, etc. I often spend a lot of time at the beginning of my writing courses asking students to think about what Burke means here. Like I said before, words make up a large percentage of our reality. I’m a physical being living in a physical world, yes, but I understand more about my “reality,” who I am and where I live, from what I read.
Let’s think about this in terms of natural gas development. The way I see it, the natural gas industry and the public are arguing about how we should perceive and thus use north-central PA, and the argument is evolving. The industry wants people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a resource. Many locals want people (locally and nationally) to see this area as a place people call home, that is, as more than, or something different from, a resource. (Of course, locals’ desires are complicated. Many locals want what the industry wants. Many want something else. I see locals as categorized loosely into three groups: pro-frack, anti-frack, and sorta-frack.) This “conversation,” if you will, has involved websites, press releases, lobbyists, TV and print advertisements, letters, contracts, phone messages, billboards and signs, news coverage, blogs, art (see here), protests, books (see here and here), bills, policy statements, scientific research, list-servs, public meetings, etc. That’s a lot of words being thrown around. In all the reading I’ve done, it appears that these groups are using words to shape attitudes in ways that point toward PA-as-resource, PA-as-home, or PA-as-something-else.
Think about the times you eat out, read the paper, watch TV, talk with your friends and family, sit in the dentist’s office, walk down town (wherever that is), ride your bike, tend bar, slam some beers at your favorite watering hole, whatever. Got it? Good. Now, what moments, words, phrases, images jump out at you when you think about natural gas? Got that? Awesome. Now, what would you say those moments, words, phrases, or images incline people to think about natural gas development? Put another way, what stands out to you about a) the way the gas industry has used words to shape people’s attitudes toward Marcellus shale development and b) the way locals have used words to shape people’s attitudes toward the Marcellus shale development? I realize this is a huge question, and it’s one I’ve been thinking and writing about for almost three years. The way I see it, there’s a constant give-and-take between all the concerned parties as we argue for and struggle toward our vision of what this place is becoming. We, industry and locals alike, are working toward a competing, but connected, reality, a reality constructed largely by words, but that has very real physical effects. What will north-central PA look like? What does it look like now? How did we get here?
I’m also wondering, as much as it pains me to say this, whether words can really make a difference. I believe that they can, and I believe that they have been. Witness some of the timid but nonetheless steps in the right direction taken by our politicians in asking the gas industry to pay to play here. But when I see stories about places like Cogan Township in Lycoming County, where the Township Supervisor cut down trees to stop Range Resources from using a road, I can’t help but wonder why the industry has such a hard time working with people at times.
What has stood out to you about the way the industry has characterized and continues to charaterize the development of the Marcellus shale and the way that locals have responded and continue to respond? I look forward to hearing from you.