January 12, 2013
On a recent cold and sunny day, I pedaled the Mocha Stout, my singlespeed, up Ore Bed Rd., out for a casual spin. As I pedaled up a climb, I spied a shiny Miller Lite can in the ditch beside the road. Unlike most beer cans I pass, this one looked like it had been tossed there about a minute ago, the can crisp and clean, glinting in the sunshine. I thought: Who was the bastard that threw that out? Then I thought: I am a bastard who has flung beer cans from cars—well, trucks—in the past. So I’m guilty, too. (Now that I’ve matured enough to drive without drinking, I don’t fling cans anymore. Southern habits die hard.) But I’ve noticed that the older I get, the less tolerant I am of beer cans on the side of the road. I’ve always despised all other sorts of litter—I carry twice as much trash out of the woods as I carry in. My buddies and I used to drag garbage bags through Grindstaff Caves in Tennessee in order to clean out the trash. We usually brought out twice as many beer cans as we took in. All empty, of course.
I pedaled on up the hill, thinking about beer cans, staring at the gravel road in front of me, dodging potholes and wondering: why do I see beer cans and not the roads? Why do beer cans strike me as out of place, unnatural, while roads meld into the landscape? Both are unnatural, that is, both were put there by people with some sort of purpose in mind, be it tossing the evidence or traveling from point A to point beer store. What’s interesting to me here is the way that I don’t question the presence of the road, don’t see it for the disturbance that it is, yet an empty beer can strikes me as litter now that I’m not the one tossing it out. I see beer cans as pollution, but not the road. Both beer can and road change the landscape; both can be removed. Both alter the way we see a place. What gives?
(I encountered a similar phenomenon when I worked construction: smokers don’t see cigarette butts as trash. While a job superintendent, I was mystified by guys who would pick up every speck of trash, every single nail when we cleaned up a job site—except cigarette butts. The roads are my butts, I reckon.)
Not surprisingly, for me, this is partly a language issue. We see signs that say “No Littering” and “No Dumping” planted by the roads, which turns our attention toward the litter alongside the swath of asphalt or concrete or gravel that cuts through the mountains or across the plains. Road signs direct our attention differently: “55 mph”; “Bridge Ices Before Road”; “School Zone”; “Ore Bed Rd”; “Charleston Township”; “Lane Ends Merge Left”; “Pipeline Rd 7.” Such signs are designed to help us move, heading toward our destinations while avoiding all the other people heading toward theirs. Road signs don’t say “No Driving” or “No Road Building.,” though some do say “Stop.” Although roads change the landscape much more than beer cans, roads are seen as acceptable, necessary, as a price we pay for living in this car-centric world. We aestheticize them in ads and abstract them in maps. Taken together, these signs create what I call the rhetoric of the road: Go somewhere. The medium of the road is its message.
I appreciate roads for the way they get me to and from wherever I am going and enable me to ride my bike all over the countryside witnessing all kinds of cool things while physically experiencing the landscape itself. But there’s something wrong when a beer can on the side of the road bothers me more than the road itself. It’s as if the road has become an aesthetic part of the landscape—not something to carry the machine into the garden, but a part of the garden itself. Like Gandalf the Grey, I believe in the importance of the little things, but my tendency to lose sight of the road while staring at a beer can disturbs me. It’s too comfortable.
The problem here is that, as we get more familiar with something, more comfortable with it, we begin to see it as a given or a sort of truth. Research has shown that people who hear a false statement repeated enough times begin to believe it. I believe there’s a similar process at work in physical experiences. When I teach mountain biking, I have to ratchet my ride expectations waaaay down. A ride that may take me 70 minutes will take my class 150 minutes. A trail that seems like a sidewalk to me will appear full of hazards to my students. Part of the issue is that I see only what I need to see to keep my bike on the trail while my students see a confusion of trees, roots, rocks, hills, creeks, and mud, most of which will not affect them unless they pedal off the trail. Which they are more likely to do than I am. The reason I see what I see is because I’m comfortable. We see beer cans beside the road only so often, but we see the road all the time.
Of course comfort can bite us. I crashed my bike in November 2011, breaking my collar bone, three ribs, and knocking myself unconscious. I blame the crash on being distracted by the gas industry, work, and other shit that goes along with living a busy life. But I’ve realized now that I wouldn’t have been comfortable enough to let my attention wander so far away on a route I didn’t know well. I was looking at the road, but not seeing it. If bikes have a cruise control, I was on it and thinking about stuff other than what was in front of me. Bike, meet pothole. Jimmy, slam road. Being comfortable holds consequences.
I resist the urge to get comfortable with, to become acclimated to, the damage that occurs around me from drilling for gas. Like with roads, this is difficult. The comfort doesn’t come from being satisfied with the process or the politics of drilling. If anything, I’m getting more pissed. (Case in point: William Bennett advocating for opening more state and federal land to drilling. I missed the tale in Bennett’s book about the virtue of giving public land to private companies.) I’ve seen the industry of drilling every day now for several years, and while I still get angry, I’m becoming comfortable with it. I see a pad go in, a flurry of activity to drill and frack it, and then it becomes a few Christmas trees among a graded field, ready for the deer to reclaim. Flooding Tioga and the surrounding counties with the stuff of gas drilling is undoubtedly part of the industry’s rhetoric—bombard the community, the landscape, with drill rigs and trucks until we get used to them. Until we get comfortable. Until the industry’s presence becomes a kind of truth. We’re like the proverbial frogs in the gradually heating pot of water. A myth, I know, but there’s wisdom in it.
Not long ago, I imagined a drill pad going in between our house and the house east of here. The lot between the houses is roughly ten acres, well pads require “only” five—why not? I could hear the clatter of the dozer carving out the pad; the rattle of dump trucks hauling in gravel and other materials; the beep of the semis backing the various rig structures into place; the thrum of the cranes as they lifted the rig; the grind of the drill bit as it bored through the aquifer toward the Marcellus; the roar of the frack. I could see the tank trailers parked around the pad, like beer cans scattered around a campfire. I imagined what I might do to track the progress and make myself a pain-in-the-ass, like recording the hoopla via a 24-hour well pad cam. I imagined what it would be like to sleep through the drilling and whether my kids would be able to do it. I imagined the arguments Lilace and I would have—yelled over the frackin’ fracking noise—about whether to stay at a friend’s or what a brilliant move it was buying this house the country.
That has to be what the industry wants—people imagining pads on undeveloped land. I’m a guy who almost never imagines building anything in any sort of undeveloped place. (A small cabin in the piñon pine forest on the west side of Owens River Gorge near Bishop, California, would be cool. All that sweet rock climbing right there. . . .) I always prefer the trees or the dunes or whatever nature builds. That I can imagine a well pad going in freaks me out. It means I’m getting more comfortable than I want to be, a comfort bred from nothing more than familiarity.
August 12, 2011
. . . signs from God, signs of the times, signs of things to come. I look for them, inwardly and outwardly, but am also cautious about jumping to interpret everything as a sign. Normally, I have no trouble trusting my instincts. But living in Marcellus Shale-land, I feel like my radar has become jammed. I love this place, and the stakes are unbearably high.
Trying to find a house outside Mansfield with a few unleased acres was so difficult (see my first post), I felt confident that if Jimmy and I did, that it’d be a sign to move. That I was pursuing the right direction for our family by looking for a small homestead here on the Allegheny Plateau. Then we found a place just a few miles out of town on top of Pickle Hill. We even knew several neighbors and their kids. The small rancher (white, single story with basement) was not flashy, but the details inside were nice and it had been flawlessly maintained. There was a huge barn, 7 grassy acres, and a view of valley farms off the back porch—the drill pad below was tucked far enough down not to mar our view. Our plan was to downsize in house (we had a ridiculously big old house in town) and upsize in property. We negotiated a price, signed a contract, and were ready to move last summer. All signs said “go.”
Then our buyer lost his buyer, and we couldn’t close by the date in the contract. The sellers couldn’t wait and, probably having realized what a “goldmine” they had (the lawyer’s words when he heard it was unleased and oil-gas-mineral rights were included), quickly found another buyer for a higher price. Wait—was this a sign?
We continued to show our house in town, and in late August got an offer from folks who could close and move right away. We started our search again, now looking outside the school district. I noticed right away that a property near Wellsboro I’d seen months before was significantly reduced, and this time it stated that the land was unleased and came with OGMs. The house was too formal for my taste (I lean toward log cabins), but the size, location, and land matched our needs.
That first visit, I knew it was the one. The grand brick house that seemed intimidating in internet photos, was really warm and homey. And the 7 acres had a mix of lawn, meadow, woods, and many large old trees (as our son had requested). Jimmy came to see it that evening and agreed.
Anyone who’s bought and/or sold a house knows how stressful it is. And moving during the school year when Jimmy was teaching and our son had already started first grade, was not ideal. The beautiful September day that we solidified the offer with our buyers, the University where Jimmy works started notifying professors who were to be retrenched (laid off). Even though Jimmy had achieved tenure and promotion that summer, he was still low in seniority in the English department. No one was safe. We heard from several friends that they’d been notified—some were not surprised, some were stunned. While we breathed a sigh of relief when his job was safe (at least for one more year), it was hard to know if this was a sign to continue on course or abort our plans. We went ahead, not wanting to make knee-jerk decisions out of fear. Really, it didn’t matter what house we were in—if Jimmy lost his job we’d be moving.
Regardless of the anxiety we were feeling, the excitement of the new house, new land, enveloped us. I previously mentioned that Jimmy hadn’t felt the same need to get out of town that I did. Yet he told me that the day he brought over a load by himself and spent a few hours working in the big chair in our bedroom’s bay window he felt the peacefulness of the place move over him. “I don’t think I’ll go into my office on campus as often,” he said. The changes I’d hoped for were already happening.
We moved in on Halloween weekend and raised our son’s Jolly Roger pirate flag because it was the only one we could run up our new flagpole. All through the fall and winter, while I unpacked, organized, and painted, we felt how well this house worked for us. It was less drafty, had office space for Jimmy and me, an art/project space for the kids, and a bigger kitchen so the kids could hang out with me while I cooked, baked, and canned. It was smaller than our old house, and we gave up a downstairs guest room with attached bath. Here we had 1.5 bathrooms instead of two, but the main bathroom was huge, since it’d been a small bedroom once (the house was built before indoor plumbing). Our daughter gave up her room when we had guests, but that wasn’t a big deal since the kids slept in the same room.
I felt smug that we were off the main highways but could get to Route 6 quickly without using dirt roads. Winter driving was easy, our son’s bus ride not very long (he gets picked up at the end of our driveway), and the drilling activity around us wasn’t visible from our house. The trucks didn’t travel Orebed Road much at all. Leaving the traffic of town behind was bliss.
Even when Jimmy’s mother visited for the first time in spring, the place worked its magic. We were concerned that she wouldn’t be as comfortable here since she’d be upstairs sharing space with all of us. With 2 little kids, mornings are chaotic and loud, and our daughter has appointed herself every guest’s alarm clock. Gramma had enjoyed walking around the corner to the wonderful coffee shop in Mansfield. But I shouldn’t have worried. Gramma hung out on our porch watching the kids play, knitting, and looking across the local cemetery to the hills. She fell in love with the place too.
I got comfortable. I got complacent. I stuck my head in the sand.
Then one July day when I was upstairs reading to my daughter, and my son was outside, the dog started barking and I heard a large pick-up truck come up our driveway. Before I could get outside, a big man in a neon chartreuse t-shirt had left the passenger seat and was shouting a greeting, while trying to figure out which door to head for. Jimmy was at work. I told my daughter to stay inside and walked out to the porch, letting the barking dog come too.
This man was polite, his body language was non-threatening, and his Texas drawl was pleasant. He explained that Shell would soon be doing 3-D seismic testing in our area, and since we had not leased we were being granted the “courtesy” of being informed—and would I please sign the paper giving them permission to “enter” our property.
I shouldn’t have been caught off guard, but I was. And I didn’t want to deal with this right then, so told a lie of rather large proportions: I shrugged helplessly and said, “My husband makes all those kinds of decisions.” (You can stop laughing, Jimmy.) This allowed me to ask questions, to hear the man’s explanation, and to hold onto the form for my husband to sign. I did verify that the property boundaries he had marked on their map were correct, and identified where our well and septic are. In hopes of keeping impromptu visits down, I gave him my husband’s cell phone number (sorry, Babe).
In my next post I’ll go into the details of seismic testing: what it accomplishes, how it affects landowners, and maybe some less obvious details. But the effect this perfectly nice man’s visit had on me is my focus here. The whole day I was anxious and uncharacteristically paranoid. I did not like the idea of men I didn’t know approaching the house. What if I’d been napping or in the shower? What if both kids had been playing outside near the driveway? I realized that as we’d talked, I’d known where my daughter was but not the driver (whom I assumed hadn’t left the truck) or my son (playing on the other side of the house). It all made me twitchy, and I had to acknowledge that I’d started naively hoping we’d be left alone.
I’ve woken from my reverie, and am on high alert. We’ve started this blog and the accompanying facebook page and by diving into the stream of contradicting information, I’m hoping I can bring my radar back online. But even if I can’t read the signs any better than before (like Jimmy says, we’ still learning), I can put up a few of my own.
August 5, 2011
So goes the song from the Five Man Electrical Band from 1971. Tesla revived the song in 1990, and it seems to me to be as relevant today as it was in 1971 and 1990. Signs. They’re everywhere. We read them all the time. Signs prompted this blog, itself another “sign.”
Signs serve a practical purpose. They help us get to where we want to go, whether in a car or at the doctor’s office or at the brew pub. When I walk into Yorkholo, the local brewpub, I read the chalkboard: Bungy Blonde, Panama Red, Summer Love, Coal Miner IPA. I place my order and get my beer. (I’m partial to IPAs, though Summer Love is hard to pass up.) The sign announcing the beer selection saves me time, saves the wait staff time, and keeps things moving along. Signs protect (“Deer Crossing,” “Yield,” “Don’t Walk”), and they inform (“Mansfield Growers Market Today 3-6 pm,” “Oswald Cycle Works,” “Mansfield Borough”). Those uses are good, and necessary.
Obviously, the Pipeline Road signs serve a practical purpose as well, namely, telling gas workers where they need to go to access what site. The signs might serve other purposes, like to guide emergency responders. What interests me about the signs is their meaning beyond the practical. For starters, the signs suggest that the industry doesn’t need to learn the names of roads around here (though the workers drive around enough to know them all). Calling Orebed Road “Pipeline Rd. 7” suggests that the industry doesn’t care to learn the lay of the land, even though the industry is changing it as I write this. Such names also make it easier to think about Tioga and the surrounding counties as a resource rather than a place inhabited by people with stories.
Orebed Road (Ore Bed !?) and the county it snakes through have a history, a part of which involves extractive industries. First, there came logging, then tanneries, then coal mining. Some of that history is still with us, in the form of abandoned towns like Landrus and acid mine drainage-polluted rivers like the Tioga. The county’s history also involves many other things besides extracting resources: births, deaths, marriages, feuds, abundance, floods, droughts, farming, hunting, manufacturing, etc. By re-naming the roads using the language of the gas industry, those social and cultural histories are pushed into the background. The signs focus only on the pursuit of gas.
It’s similar to the signal we’d send if we started to call the “Whitney House” we bought last fall the “Guignard House.” Nobody would know what house we were talking about, and when they figured it out, they would probably think we were being presumptuous. Built in 1865, there’s a history in this house that we can’t ignore, and it causes us to think about all the changes we make. It’s our house, but it’s also a house that holds stories from long ago, as do many of the old houses around here. And we are as much caretakers of the stories as we are of the house and the land.
Another meaning that comes from the Pipeline Road signs stems from the authority assumed when one names something. Lilace and I named our kids (we conceived them, literally and metaphorically, after all), an act that gives us authority over them (or so we try to tell them). Humans name all kinds of things. Linnaean classification sets the standard for naming, enabling us to systematically name plants and animals. In turn the act of naming, whether scientific (“homo sapiens”) or proper (“James”) or colloquial (“dude”), asserts authority over the thing being named. Naming helps us to understand what something is and how we relate to it. My kids call me “Daddy,” a name that gives them authority over me (more than I want, sometimes), and it means that I have responsibility for them. My fellow cyclists sometimes call me “Tanker,” because a friend noticed, after a Wednesday night bike ride that I had to skip, the pitchers of beer didn’t disappear as fast. “We need the Tanker,” he delared. “Tanker” fits me, too—I’m slow, and I hold a lot of beer. But those names don’t apply to all fathers or cyclists. Nor are multiple names necessarily a bad thing. My nicknames are acquired through familiarity, and one doesn’t take the place of another. And my friends don’t call me “Tanker” all the time, only when the context applies.
In re-naming the roads, the gas industry is stamping, consciously or not, their authority on the county. Of course, the gas industry is not exactly re-naming the roads, but adding a name to the existing ones. But instead of showing familiarity with local knowledge of this place the way that “Tanker” suggests knowledge of my talent for drinking beer, the Pipeline Road signs imply that those roads are only about extracting the gas. There’s little in the names that indicate familiarity with the place, except for the obvious—natural gas is under here. It’s similar to the way Alaska’s Denali (“the high one”) was renamed Mt. McKinley for a president that never went there, and Nepal’s Jomolungma (“Holy Mother”) became Mt. Everest for British Surveyor Sir George Everest, already dead. It’s like me calling my daughter “Child #2” instead of her name. She becomes known for two qualities, her age and birth order, instead of being known for a name that gives her room to be a complex person.
I don’t think the gas industry re-named the roads with the intent of appearing to ignore the place’s history. They are trying to get a job done, and I’m sure that for many the Pipeline Road signs are a sign (!) of progress. Like Lilace said in her earlier post, the signs are relatively small, the size of campaign signs. One of my cycling buddies said he never noticed them until I mentioned them during one of our bike rides, and now he sees them everywhere. And they are everywhere, like campaign signs during election season, though they represent a different kind of campaign.
You remember the refrain from “Signs,” right? “Sign, sign, everywhere a sign / Blockin’ out the scenery, breakin’ my mind / Do this, don’t do that, can’t you read the sign?” While my mind ain’t broke, the scenery sure is changin’ with the influx of the gas industry. The signs are everywhere.
I’m still learning how to read them.