August 31, 2014
I haven’t been here in a while, because I was in the throes of finishing my book for Texas A&M University Press called, tentatively, Pedaling the Sacrifice Zone: Teaching, Writing, and Living above the Marcellus Shale. The manuscript was due July 1, and I’m happy to say I met the deadline.
Because my book is largely about how words and images shape perceptions of the Marcellus, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about books (and other texts) that shaped my own views of living in the frack zone. I won’t have room to include these titles in the book itself, so I thought I’d share them with you. I’ve attempted to break them up into categories (nebulous at best), and each of these books (including some films) shaped my thinking in some way over the past four years. (Note: This list does not include the blogs and academic articles I read.)
- Rick Bass, Oil Notes (Bass was a geologist searching for oil before he became an environmentalist and activist. After reading this book, I understood the attraction of drilling for fossil fuels. A bonus: the guy can write.)
- Robert Bryce, Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence”
- Walter M. Brasch, Fracking Pennsylvania: Flirting with Disaster (Tons of research in this book.)
- Alexandra Fuller, The Legend of Colton H. Bryant (Absolutely awesome writing. Read this book.)
- David Gessner, The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill (This book played a tremendous role in my thinking about my book.)
- Russell Gold, The Boom: How Fracking Ignited the American Energy Revolution and Changed the World (
I’m reading this one. Slowly.Done. Great book.)
- Daniel Goleman, Ecological Intelligence: The Hidden Impacts of What We Buy
- Stephanie C. Hamel, Gas Drilling and the Fracking of a Marriage (Raises some interesting tensions about a married couple with differing views on leasing.)
- Richard Heinberg, Snake Oil: How Fracking’s False Promise of Plenty Imperils Our Future
- James Howard Kunstler, The Long Emergency: Surviving the End of Oil, Climate Change, and Other Converging Catastrophes of the Twenty-First Century
- Lisa Margonelli, Oil on the Brain: Adventures from the Pump to the Pipeline
- Seamus McGraw, The End of Country
- Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet
- Bill McKibben, Oil and Honey: The Education of an Unlikely Activist
- Bill Powers, Cold, Hungry, and in the Dark (Focuses on past production rates and markets.)
- Vikram Rao, Shale Gas: The Promise and the Peril
- Sandra Steingraber, Raising Elijah: Protecting Our Children in an Age of Environmental Crisis (Includes a chapter on fracking.)
- Tom Wilbur, Under the Surface: Fracking, Fortunes, and the Fate of the Marcellus Shale (Wilbur has a good website, too.)
- Gregory Zuckerman, The Frackers: The Outrageous Inside Story of the New Billionaire Wildcatters (Interesting read, though I’d be put in jail if I pulled some of the crap these guys did.)
- Lamar Herrin, Fractures (A bit didactic, though it captures nicely the tensions created among people when gas leasing is involved.)
- Nick Hayes, The Rime of the Modern Mariner (A modern graphic novel version of Coleridge’s famous poem set in an environmental apocalypse, and beautiful to behold.)
- Melissa Miller, Inadvertent Disclosure (A fun, formulaic read about a female lawyer who uncovers a small-town conspiracy to capitalize on the gas boom.)
- Upton Sinclair, Oil! (This was the basis of the film, There Will be Blood. As I read it, I often felt Sinclair was writing about Tioga County in the twenty-first century. Plop an energy boom down in any century and the same shit happens, it seems.)
- Brian Wood, The Massive (A comic book series involving a black ops-soldier-turned-pacifist-leader of an environmental group called Ninth Wave and set in an apocalyptic future. They are aboard the Kapital searching for their sister ship, The Massive. I’m still early to this series, but I’m digging the issues it raises. The colorist, Dave Stewart, has worked on Mike Mignola’s Hellboy.)
- Mathew Henderson, The Lease (Fantastic.)
- Ogaga Ifowodo, The Oil Lamp
- Julia Kasdorf’s poetry on the peopile living above the Marcellus shale. (I don’t think she’s published her natural gas poems yet, but they are fantastic for the way they capture the complexities of living above the Marcellus shale. A privilege for me to read.)
- Lisa Wujnovich, Fieldwork
- Gasland (documentary)
- Gasland II (documentary)
- Promised Land (feature)
- Split Estate (documentary)
- Triple Divide (documentary)
- Kenneth Burke, A Grammar of Motives
- Kenneth Burke, A Rhetoric of Motives
- Kenneth Burke, Language as Symbolic Action: Essays on Life, Literature, and Method
- Sharon Crowley, Toward a Civil Discourse: Rhetoric and Fundamentalism
- Kevin Michael DeLuca, Image Politics: The New Rhetoric of Environmental Activism
- Kim Donehower, Charlotte Hogg, and Eileen E. Schell, Rural Literacies
- David Ehrenfeld, The Arrogance of Humanism (I read this a long time ago, and this book changed everything for me.)
- Terry Gifford, Pastoral
- Don Duggan-Haas, Robert M. Ross, and Warren D. Allmon, The Science Beneath the Surface: A Very Short Guide to the Marcellus Shale (New.)
- Albert O. Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy
- Norman J. Hyne, Nontechnical Guide to Petroleum Geology, Exploration, Drilling, and Production (2nd edition) (Great reference book.)
- Jimmie Killingsworth, Appeals in Modern Rhetoric: An Ordinary-Language Approach
- Jimmie Killingsworth and Jacqueline S. Palmer, Ecospeak: Rhetoric and Environmental Politics in America.
- Naomi Klein, The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism (Another book that changed everything.)
- Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Idea in America
- Robert W. McChesney, The Problem of the Media: U.S. Communication Politics in the 21st Century
- Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway, Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming
- John D. Ramage, Rhetoric: A User’s Guide
- Terre Ryan, This Ecstatic Nation: The American Landscape and the Aesthetics of Patriotism (Super.)
- Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics
November 25, 2012
I finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!: a Novel the other day. The novel’s about the US oil boom in the early 1920s, and it’s a fascinating read. Maybe better than The Jungle, and scary for the way Sinclair’s portrayal of the oil boom sounds like our very own natural gas boom. (A “boom” sounds healthy, doesn’t it?) As I did with Carson’s Silent Spring a while back, I thought I’d share a passage or three. By the way, if you’ve seen There Will Be Blood, you’ve seen a loose translation of the book. The movie is worth watching—more eerie echoes of today—but doesn’t some close to capturing the complexity of Sinclair’s story, which involves mule-driver-turned-oil-baron J. Arnold Ross (aka “Dad”), his Socialist-sympathizing playboy son Bunny, evangelical preacher Eli Watkins, bodice-ripping movie star Vee Tracy, and union-organizer Paul Watkins, to name a few. Their story unfolds primarily in California, but trips to Washington, Canada, and Europe make up part of the plot as well. Sinclair uses the novel to explore and expose the way labor, politics, energy, and social class interact. Things haven’t changed much.
Without further ado, here’s Sinclair:
Once more the valleys and gorges of Guadalupe Grade resounded to the flying echoes of honking horns. This time it was not one car, but a whole fleet of them, a dozen seven-ton trucks, broad and solid, with broad and solid double wheels, and trailers on behind, that carried even more tons. The first load towered high, a big stationary engine, held in place by heavy timbers bolted fast at the sides; that truck went carefully around the curves, you bet! Behind it came the ‘mud-hogs’ and the ‘draw-works’; and then the ‘string’ of drilling tools, hollow tubes of the best steel, that were screwed end to end and went down into the earth a mile or more, if need be. These tubes extended over the end of the trailers, where red flags waved in warning; on the short curves they swept the road, and if you met a car coming in the opposite direction, you had to stop while the other car crept carefully by; if there was not room enough, the other car would have to back to a place where the road was straighter. All this required a continuous clamor of horns; you would have thought some huge flock of prehistoric birds—did the pterodactyls make noises?—had descended upon Guadalupe Pass, and were hopping along, crying ‘Honk! Honk! Honk!’”
After the slow down this past summer, traffic is not this bad now, though it seems to be picking up again. But I remember similar experiences two summers ago when driving or pedaling up the two-mile hill west of Mansfield on Highway 6, cycling on Packard Road and out past Bungy, and in other parts of Tioga County. Sinclair again:
All this summer and fall, Dad and Mr. Roscoe [another oil baron] had been carrying a heavy burden—they were helping to make over the thinking of the American people. A presidential campaign was under way; and the oil men, having made so bold as to select the candidate, now had to finish the job by persuading the voters that he was a great and noble-minded statesman. Also, they had to pay part of the expense, which would come to fifty million dollars, so Bunny learned from the conversations at Paradise [Dad’s oil field] and at the Monastery [Mr. Roscoe’s mansion on the coast]. This was several times as much as would get recorded, since the money went through local and unofficial agencies. It came from the big protected interests, the corporations, the banks—everyone that had anything to get out of the government, or could be squeezed by politicians; the process was known as ‘frying out the fat.’ The oil men, having grabbed the big prize, were naturally a shining mark for all campaign committees, county, state, and national. Dad and Mr. Roscoe received visits from Jake Coffey, and from bosses of the state machine, and listened to hair-raising stories about the dangers of the situation.
It was necessary to persuade the American people that the Democratic administration for the past eight years had been wasteful and corrupt, ignorant and fatuous—and that was easy enough. But it was also necessary to persuade them that an administration by Senator Harding was likely to be better—and that was not so easy. Naturally, the chairmen of campaign committees wanted to make it appear as difficult as possible, for the more money that passed through their hands, the larger the amount that would stick. As the campaign drew to a close, Bunny had the satisfaction of hearing his father swearing outrageously, and wishing he had taken his son’s advice and left the destinies of his country to the soap manufacturer who had put up the millions for General Wood!
The senator from Ohio was a large and stately and solemn-faced person, and conducted what was called by the newspapers a ‘front-porch campaign.’ That is to say, he did not put himself out to travel on trains and meet people, but received deputations of the Hay and Feed Dealers of Duluth, or the Morticians of Ossawotomie. They would sit in camp-chairs upon his lawn, and the statesman would appear and read an imposing discourse, which had been written by a secretary of Vernon Roscoe’s selection, and given out to all the press associations the day before, so that it could be distributed over the wires and published simultaneously on fifty million front pages. That is a colossal propaganda machine, and the men who run it have to lose a lot of sleep. But the majestic candidate lost no sleep, he was always fresh and serene and impassive; he had been that way throughout his career, for the able businessmen who groomed him and paid his way had never failed to tell him what to do.
Bunny now dwelt upon an Olympian height, looking down as a god upon the affairs of pitiful mortals. Dad and Mr. Roscoe let him hear everything—being sure that common sense would win in the end, and he would accept their point of view. They had a philosophy which protected them like a suit of chain-mail against all hesitations and doubts. The affairs of the country had to be run by men who had the money and brains and experience; and since the mass of people had not sense enough to grant the power freely, the mass of people had to be bamboozled. ‘Slogans’ must be invented, and hammered into their heads, by millions, yes, billions of repetitions. It was an art, and experts knew how to do it, and you paid them—but by Jees, the price made you sweat blood!
Those four paragraphs sound so much like now I don’t know where to begin. So, onward! From the conclusion, called “The Honeymoon.”
It was the morning of election day: the culmination of a campaign that had been like a long nightmare to Bunny. Senator LaFollette had been running, with the backing of the Socialists, and the great issue had been the oil steals [based on the Teapot Dome scandal]; the indicted exposers of the crime against the criminals in power. At first the exposers had really made some headway, the people seemed to care. But the enemy was only waiting for the time to strike. In the last three weeks of the campaign he turned loose his reserves, and it was like a vast cloud of hornets, the sky black with a swarm of stinging, burning, poisoning lies!
It was the money of Vernon Roscoe and the oil men, of course: plus the money of the bankers and the power interests and the great protected manufacturers, all those who had something to gain by the purchase of government, or something to lose by failure to purchase. Another fifty million dollar campaign; and in every village and hamlet, in every precinct of every city and town, there was a committee for the distribution of terror. The great central factories where it was manufactured were in Washington and New York, and the product was shipped out wholesale, all over the land, and circulated by every agency—newspapers and leaflets, mass meetings, parades, bands, red fire and torchlights, the radio and the moving picture screen. If LaFollette, the red destroyer were elected, business would be smashed, the workers would be jobless; therefore vote for that strong silent statesman, that great, wise, noble-minded friend of the plain people known as ‘Cautious Cal.’ And now, while Paul Watkins lay gasping out his life, there was a snowstorm of ballots falling over the land, nearly a thousand every second. The will of the plain people was being known.
That’s just three of many passages that echo my experiences with and knowledge of petro-culture now. Though Sinclair was writing about the past (I’m quoting from the Boni edition of 1927), the book reads like he was predicting the future. I can’t decide if it’s depressing that we’re dealing with the same old shit or satisfying that I recognize what’s happening. Maybe both.
In case you were wondering, the first passage came from page 50; the second, pages 364-365; the third, 514.
Update: I’m not surprised (which bothers me) about the news that potential Secretary of State candidate Susan Rice holds investments in TransCanada, the Canadian oil company responsible for the Keystone XL Pipeline. But the timing of the reports–appearing not long after I posted this–echo Sinclair’s story in Oil! much more loudly than I’d like it to.
August 22, 2012
Funny how summer works. I figured I would blog more, but I blogged less. OK, none. Too much beer, too much travelling, too much cycling, too few trucks, I reckon. I kept reading, too, and a couple of books got me to thinking about press coverage of the gas industry and how the industry uses science.
The two books: David Gessner’s The Tarball Chronicles: A Journey Beyond the Oiled Pelican and Into the Heart of the Gulf Oil Spill and Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway’s Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. David’s book (I can call him David because we’ve drunk beer together) tells the story of him searching for the heart of the BP spill in the Gulf. He leaves his wife and child and drives down there with no plan except to dive underneath the surface of national news stories and check the deeps for the untold ones. He pulls it off well, and we get a perspective on the Gulf Spill that sounds in some ways eerily similar to what’s been happening in Tioga and the surrounding counties. This is not to say that we are experiencing what the people in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida are experiencing, but there are connections to be drawn between the influx of industry here and BP’s mitigation shenanigans down there. One thing that grabbed me in The Tarball Chronicles was the way the national press reporting simply did not reflect the reality of the spill. Though David doesn’t spend a ton of words on this, he provides enough to show how the press leaves out stories that might oil feathers. Good stuff. (One day I hope to write a book that mentions beer as many times as his do. For now, I’ll settle for blog posts. . . .)
I read David’s book while I was reading Oreskes and Conway’s Merchants of Doubt. Oreskes and Conway (I haven’t drunk beer with them, though I’d like to—I’d buy) tell the story of how accepted science on tobacco smoke, supersonic transport, the ozone hole, secondhand smoke, global warming, and Rachel Carson has been challenged—and corrupted—by a few hardcore free-market, Cold War-era academics. The authors are historians of science who, given their subject, need to provide plenty of evidence to support their claims. Not surprisingly, Merchants of Doubt is a painstakingly researched book, well-written, and well worth the read (though it’ll probably piss you off).
Oreskes and Conway show us how the Cold War academics distort peer-reviewed and accepted scientific research by exploiting the gaps in the science, even when the scientists performing the research on, say, secondhand smoke, were (and are) in agreement on the dangers. (As Oreskes and Conway show, Big Tobacco knew of the dangers, too, but that didn’t stop them from enlisting the Cold War academics to blow smoke.) Their work traces how these same academics use similar tactics for arguing against regulations on the environmental issues listed above by creating doubt in public where scientists have none. It’s been pretty effective, given that around fifty percent of the American population doesn’t believe in human-caused global warming, though scientists have had the research fairly settled for about, oh, forty years. (Given the current state of the climate, the percentage of believers might be rising like the oceans.)
A word about gaps: Gaps refer to the gray areas of science, that is, the places where scientists may still have questions, like about how dolphins evolved from shrew-like creatures who, as David recounts, “one day take the plunge,” even though the larger process of evolution is considered a fact. When dealing with cigarettes, the Cold War academics decided to focus on things in the environment other than cigarette smoke that may cause cancer. While this may be a legitimate gray area, it does not mean that cigarettes do not cause cancer. That science is settled. People who use science unethically exploit these gaps, and depend upon the audience’s lack of scientific fluency to lead to a lack of action.
These books got me to thinking about the news coverage and the science surrounding natural gas development here in Tioga County. On the news end, this: I don’t think the national news does a good job explaining what’s happening here. Coverage from Ian Urbina at the New York Times and Abrahm Lustgarten at Propublica is pretty good. I do wonder, however, if their work is enough when Daddy asks me during one of our phone conversations if natural gas extraction is really clean. Looks like he’ll find out firsthand when the industry moves to NC. He doesn’t read the Times or Propublica, though he reads the Charlotte Observer (NC’s flagship paper) and watches the mainstream news regularly. Then there’s the lack of coverage of the Stop the Frack Attack Rally Lilace and I attended in DC on July 28. The NRDC said 5000 people showed up, and we heard people like Bill McKibben, Josh Fox, and Calvin Tillman, the mayor of DISH, Texas, speak. (Personally, we thought Doug Shields from Pittsburgh was most effective at energizing people. He played a role in banning fracking in Pittsburgh.) A couple of days prior, The Washington Post mentioned the protest was scheduled, but, after, not a word. In fact, I haven’t been able to find any coverage of the Stop the Frack Rally by the mainstream media.
On the science question, Oreskes and Conway made me wonder whether the gas industry is reversing the Cold War academics’ strategy by assuring us that the science on fracking is thorough and clear, that is, there are no gaps or gray areas. Recall this phrase? “There’s never been one case—documented case—of groundwater contamination in the history of the thousands and thousands of hydraulic fracturing [wells].” This, from Senator James Inhofe, and quoted on the Energy in Depth website. There have been scientific articles questioning that blanket statement, but it depends on how narrowly or broadly you define fracking. Given the attention placed by the industry on the economics of gas development and that fact that many people need a job or lease money, rigorous unbiased science gets pushed to the wayside. As far as I can tell, given the scope of the drilling, there aren’t a tremendous number of scientific articles about the process, period. The industry appears to be relying on two studies, from the Ground Water Protection Council (1984) and the EPA (2004), to show that fracking is safe. Though I can’t find it online, the GWPC study dealt with fracking in coal deposits and the EPA study did not look at the fracturing process itself. That’s not an overwhelming body of evidence. And, fortunately for the gas industry, you can’t have a documented case of pollution from fracking if no one is doing the documenting. But the industry wants us to think that the science is conclusive and shows that they are justified in drilling full speed ahead.
If anything, these books help me think about the need for the study of rhetoric, something I’ve questioned the worth of lately, even though teaching rhetoric is my job. Rhetoric is the study and strategic use of words and images to incline people to think in certain ways, to take certain actions, to adopt particular attitudes. Rhetoric is neither moral nor immoral; it’s the choices we make every time we interact with someone, whether family, friend, boss, or stranger. What makes rhetoric moral is the way we use it, what ends we try to achieve when we make our choices. The way, say, we define fracking. Science can be used rhetorically as well. (Science has a rhetoric of its own, but we don’t have space for that here.) What makes scientific research and rhetoric moral is the way it involves peer review by experts, tests and re-tests, accurate predictions, and so on. This is a long process that involves much work on the part of scientists, and, eventually, they will settle on something as a fact, as reality, like the earth revolving around the sun. Or evolution. Or climate change. The peer review serves to eliminate the biases that scientists may build into their research programs. It’s harder to see just what you want to see when people are looking over your shoulder.
In my view, the gas industry assumes a credibility for their science that isn’t there, because there hasn’t been time to establish an unbiased or objective body of research. This is not to say that I think there is no science behind the industry’s work; in fact, taken by itself, I think the technology is pretty amazing. But the problem with technology is that it’s often divorced from its larger context—in this case, clean air and water and the preservation of communities. David points out in The Tarball Chronicles that BP was mostly concerned with appearances rather than cleaning up their mess. The gas industry here acts much the same, given that they tout economic interests over environmental ones.
September 18, 2011
I recently read an interview with Chesapeake’s CEO Aubrey McClendon where he characterized the people at a protest outside a gas industry conference in Philly as anti-drilling extremists. He said: “Remind me: What value have the protesters outside created? What jobs have they created? You know the answer and so do I. So it’s time that we contrast what we do for a living with what they do for a living. . . . What a glorious vision of the future: It’s cold, it’s dark and we’re all hungry.” Talk about painting with a broad brush. I mark those kinds of comments in my students’ writing all the time.
For the record, I wasn’t at the protest in Philly. I identify with the protesters, though, because I was labeled a “vigilante” by industry lobbyists for training to be a Pine Creek Waterdog. The lobbyists painted with the same broad brush, and amid an outcry, retracted the label. But using the term “vigilante” was motivated in part by the same thing that motivates McClendon’s statement: looking at the world from the perspective of a gas driller.
What fascinates me about McClendon’s comment (other than it sounds a bit hysterical) is the way it shows how important natural gas drilling is for him. The key word is “value.” If you are not creating jobs or working for the gas industry, his comment suggests, then you create nothing of value. It’s a limited definition of value, framed in economic terms, and it suggests that anything else one might do has little or no value. So much for teaching people how to write. So much for raising kids. So much for supporting my community. So much for riding my bike. Damn! I guess I’m not worth much. Thanks, Aubrey. You’ve made my day.
Last I checked we live in a democracy where people are allowed to voice dissenting opinions. (This appears to be changing, but that’s another subject.) Protest itself is valuable—think Civil Rights, Vietnam, women’s voting rights, Wisconsin and Ohio governance, gay marriage, Keystone Pipeline. Protests are driven by values just as much as values drive those who slam the protesters. That’s how we move ahead as a society—by raising issues based on what we value, arguing about them, and reaching a compromise.
Let’s face it, though: no matter what your values are, if you don’t have clean water and air, your values won’t matter. Values are a distinctly human thing. So we could say that everyone is linked by the need to live in a clean environment. I don’t see that as a value as much as a right. But then again, I’m not Aubrey McClendon. My view of the world is shaped by a different kind of work.
That we look at the world in terms of our work is something McClendon and I share. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worth remembering that a way of seeing is also a way of not seeing. McClendon looks at the world from the perspective of a gas industry CEO; I look at the world from the perspective of a college professor trained in rhetoric. We can’t help it. In fact, I’ve been dying to use the term “occupational psychosis” the entire time I’ve been writing (there, I used it), jargon that in my field basically means our work, whatever it is, shapes the way we see the world. That’s the academic in me. But the problem with looking at the world in terms of one’s work occurs when we let those terms hide other issues or possibilities. At best, our work-tinted views are a partial view of the world itself. His use of language (in this quote and elsewhere) seeks to limit possibilities. By making such statements, he tries to turn very real concerns about the here and now into an obsession with the past (the Dark Ages), rather than an interest in the future (progress). His quote creates a sense that, “OMG, without gas, I’ll be like the cavemen trying to start a fire in Night at the Museum. Save me, Aubrey, save me.”
For many, rhetoric is a bad word, the equivalent of bullshit. But actually all language is rhetoric, the good, the bad, and the Aubrey. My discipline teaches people how words can shape attitudes which, in turn, shape behaviors. For better (think Martin Luther King) or worse (think Hitler). My field teaches people that words are powerful, and words can use us just as much as we use them. My field also teaches people that words can be used for seeing multiple possibilities or solutions to any issue. That’s the cool part, because it opens up a world of choices, negotiation, connection, compromise. Because of my work, I’m suspicious of any language that simplifies complex situations like gas drilling. That’s my own occupational psychosis. The more possibilities I see, the higher the likelihood of making decisions that will help me create the world I want to live in. On some level, McClendon understands this when he questions the value the protestors “outside” have created. (“Outside” is another important word carrying literal and metaphorical meanings–you’re either with ‘em or agin’ ‘em.) By framing “value” in such narrow terms, he creates a difficult atmosphere in which to have a conversation about genuine concerns, and it works in the industry’s favor. He knew he would be quoted, and he knew that his words would divide people (insiders and outsiders) that, in a different context, like raising kids or drinking beer, probably identify with each other. My discipline has trained me to recognize that things change over time, and what might work in, say, the California oil boom of the early twentieth century, might not apply now. McClendon doesn’t want things to change (except in ways that ensure his company and industry has unfettered access to land for drilling), because it works well for him and the industry. Other concerns aren’t worth bothering about.
More than anything, I find McClendon’s comment amusing, and I doubt that he fully believes it. He appears to be reacting in part to the growing mistrust of the industry. I think that mistrust is growing because the industry hasn’t done a good job of actually talking with—rather than at—the people who live here. That’s the industry’s fault. People around here are intelligent—they talk to each other, they learn, and they expect (and deserve) respect. Many people want the industry to see this place as more than a resource, and comments like McClendon’s don’t do that because the only value he will acknowledge is economic. In the world his rhetoric creates, the economics of gas constitute the only meaningful value. That probably satisfies many people, but not me. I value many other things besides money. Of course, McClendon has the right to try to create any world he wants, even one driven primarily by economics. But his is not the kind of world I want to live in, so I’m going to join the conversation and offer other possibilities, like the protesters were (and are) doing. The world created by McClendon’s rhetoric is a real world, but it’s only one version. Lilace and I are working to create another version. It’ll be partial, like McClendon’s, but it will align with values that extend beyond economics. Rhetoric enables us to do that.
When I worked construction, I bought a 28 oz. Estwing framing hammer that I loved to use. I’d swing that hammer all day if I could, but it wasn’t always the right tool for the job. Not everything is a nail. Likewise, just because there’s gas under these hills doesn’t mean their only value is as a resource. And there is absolutely no reason why the land cannot be an economic, environmental, public health, and recreational resource at the same time. It takes compromise, creative problem solving, and conversation. McClendon might get a lot further with his work if he’d acknowledge that there’s more to the world than drill, baby, drill. I might have listened to him then.
September 3, 2011
I read a lot. Given my job as an English professor, this is not surprising. I read around fifty books a year (I know, because I keep count), hundreds of student essays, academic journal articles, popular magazine articles, political and cycling blogs, and on and on. For the past couple of years, I’ve read a tremendous amount about the Marcellus Shale, ranging from scientific articles to news reports to blogs and list-servs. Much of my week is dedicated to reading. Withholding reading from me is like withholding beer or bikes—I get twitchy, irritable, and uneasy.
From all this reading, I begin to understand who I am as an individual, who we are as humans, and what sort of world I want to live in. In other words, I begin to understand where I am—my place—in this forest of words we walk in.
I also think of reading in terms of riding my bike. For me, reading is like riding through Tioga State Forest at Asaph. Up, down, right, left, trees, meadows, creek crossings, log crossings, gravel roads, swoopy singletrack, deer, turkeys, grouse, the occasional bobcat or bear or hiker or car. I encounter all sorts of stimuli that tweak the way I ride in that moment and that change me. When I finish a ride, I’m never the same person that started it. Likewise, when I finish a book or essay, I’m not the same. That’s the point.
Over time, I’ve realized that riding a bike is not merely a metaphor for reading, but an act of reading my place. Like any book, there are limitations to what I learn while riding my bike. But pushing the pedals certainly helps me read my place. Let me explain.
This past Saturday, Tom, Josh, and I rode our cyclocross bikes. For those that don’t know, cyclocross, or cross, bikes look like road racing bicycles with the curved bars, but cross bikes have relaxed geometry (which makes them more comfortable and forgiving of mistakes), knobby tires, and a type of brakes that stop you in wet, muddy conditions. Cross bikes are perfect for the sloppy conditions around here, and we spend a lot of time on them in the fall and winter riding the dirt roads and trails that cut through Tioga County.
On this ride, we headed north out of Mansfield up Kellytown Road to Pickle Hill Road toward the Tower Hill Road area. We climbed Painter Run, a five-mile stretch of gravel road through farm houses and hunting camps that gets progressively steeper toward the end, reaching 10% grades just before the stop sign. A right on Tower Hill, and then we plunge down Maple Ridge Road and Warner Road toward Highway 328, losing in minutes the elevation we gained. We turned west on 328 for about two minutes, turned left onto Button Hill Road, and worked our way over toward Mitchell Tree Road and Tower Hill West. Along the way, we passed more farm houses, gas pipeline construction (it occurred to me that I could ride the right-of-way back to my house), and an elderly farmer out on his Farm-All tractor shaping cut hay into rows for bailing. He grinned and wave when he saw us. I waved back.
We were out for three hours of mellow riding, disproving the adage that three cyclists together means an outbreak of racing. We filled our bottles at the spring on Painter Run. On the way back up Mitchell Tree toward Tower Hill West, Tom saw apples hanging out of reach on a tree and we spent a few goofy minutes trying to get one down.
First, Josh lifted his bike above his head and tried to knock the apple out of the tree, but bikes don’t swing well. His bike is light, but not that light. Then Josh and I cupped our hands for Tom’s feet and heaved him up to grab the apple that taunted us. We laughed at the absurdity of three lycra-clad adults thrashing after apples like kids stretching for the cookie jar on the fridge, especially when the apple turned out to be so-so. But that stop started a trend.
As we pedaled up Tower West, a long, gradual climb through fields and forests, we stopped at nearly every apple tree. Some apples had a nice texture but no flavor, others combined nice texture and flavor, others were too tart. Tom tried one so tart it nearly turned him inside out. Josh and I laughed and moved on to the next tree. Josh thought it would be a good idea to do an apple tour on the bikes each year, a mellow ride that involved trying all the apples you saw. “That’s a good idea,” I said. After several more stops, we reached the top of Tower Hill West, decided to bomb down Painter Run, and head back to Mansfield. In the end, we rode about 35 miles, gained and lost about 4100 feet of elevation, and tried apples from ten or so trees. A great way to spend three hours on a Saturday.
Multiply rides likes this one times 150 rides a year (I know, because I keep count) on cross, road, and mountain bikes which means differing terrain and speeds, differing weather depending on the season, and so on. You get the idea. I learn a lot about the place. Over the course of each ride, I pedal thousands of revolutions that adapt to the terrain—pedals resisting going up, spinning easily going down. My breathing deepens when my legs labor under the pressure of pushing up 10 percent grades and slows when I lose the elevation I gained. I read the landscape, choosing when to brake, when to accelerate, when to turn my head to follow five turkeys flying into the trees, where to stop and pluck an apple dangling from a branch, where potholes lurk that might send me or my compadres sliding down the asphalt, where I might spy a scarlet tanager when I fill my water bottles at the spring on Arnot Road. (While Lilace is out riding, a thunderstorm has arrived ahead of schedule. Another kind of lesson.) There’s constant variation on the roads, calling to my mind the choices a good writer makes as she unrolls the words on the page like a ribbon of road or trail, the pace changing as the story builds suspense or plunges toward the climax. On the bike, I read through my eyes and legs and lungs, feet and hands and butt, and I learn about the shapes and contours of the land the way a book teaches me about the contours of living.
Last post, I mentioned that I’m a strong believer in commitment. Both bike riding and books show commitment to things like truth and knowledge. Riding bikes has helped me commit to this place because I know it. I know where the back roads are, where the red efts most likely hang out, when and where I’ll probably see deer, and now where the tartest apples are. Paradoxically, I read the landscape and at the same time I am inscribing my own story on the landscape. That’s what humans inevitably do. And as I ride, I read the changes inscribed in the landscape by the gas industry—the huge swaths of trees and fields cleared for pipelines (many already buried and re-seeded), well pads, holding ponds, compressor stations; orange extension cords snaking along the roads and plugged into yellow boxes for seismic testing; and even the new additions to houses, new cars and trucks, new roofs, new barns, new tractors, and new businesses.
We change, and we change things. But the gas industry doesn’t care about this place the way I do. And they won’t stick around for the end of the story. So I find myself lingering over this page, frustrated as all hell, wanting to tear it out.