January 3, 2016
Photographer Steven Rubin graciously provided eight brilliant photos for Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone. You can see more of his photos in an exhibit called “Fractured State” at the Gmeiner Art and Cultural Center in Wellsboro starting today. His photos will be showing until January 31, when we will be co-hosting a closing reception. Here’s more.
July 30, 2015
PtSZ went to the printer this past Friday. Here’s what readers are saying:
“Pedaling through some of the country’s loveliest–and hardest-used–countryside, the author provides the rare combination of information and wisdom. This is a real act of witness.” — Bill McKibben, author of Deep Economy
“Navigating terrain, cresting hills, glimpsing wildlife at one turn and drilling rigs at another, Jimmy Guignard literally and figuratively cycles the reader through the fraught landscape of his family’s life in the ‘sacrifice zone.’ This is an essential and approachable book for understanding the impact of the natural gas industry on a place as well as on a people. Emphasizing the power of rhetoric as a tool for understanding the industry, Guignard offers an honest and searching account of what it means to live consciously, energetically, and passionately in a place wracked by technological change, uncertainty, and corporate power dynamics.” —Eileen E. Schell, coauthor of Rural Literacies (Studies in Writing and Rhetoric) and coeditor of Reclaiming the Rural: Essays on Literacy, Rhetoric, and Pedagogy
“In Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone, Jimmy Guignard leads us on a nuanced journey through the hard truths and complex narrative frames of Marcellus shale production in rural northeastern America. “Contact! Contact!” Henry Thoreau advised us about our relationship to landscapes. Guignard pedals right up close to the solid earth, the actual world, and where he lives it now sadly smells more and more like cheap gas and high corporate profits.”—John Lane, author of Circling Home
“Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone reads like a mystery novel, replete with fully fleshed out characters who may or may not be guilty of crimes against humanity, a compelling dramatic time line, a hard-boiled, beer-drinking, bike-riding environmental detective, and richly drawn sense of place. So engrossing is the story Guignard tells we almost don’t notice how much we’re learning about fracking, environmental rhetoric, and the coming of age—no, the maturing—of a man who cares deeply about the physical world and what we are doing to it. A lovely mix of scholarship and personal narrative, this book should be required reading for anyone interested in nature writing and the frustrating world of fracking.” —Sheryl St. Germain, author of Navigating Disaster: Sixteen Essays of Love and a Poem of Despair and Swamp Songs: The Making of an Unruly Woman
I’m pretty stoked, to say the least. You can pre-order your copy from your favorite local bookstore anytime. Thanks and more soon!
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!
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.
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.