Coming Home to Earth: What Purse Seines, Pumpjacks, and a Twitter Feed from Space Taught One Worried Citizen about the Beauty of Climate Change in 2016

Summer camp. The Connecticut hills. Cumulous oaks and maples surround the glassy surface of the lake. At a distance the water looks black. Beneath my small hands, paddling forward, cupping down and pulling back, it sparkles, mica specks drifting in the sunlit water. Transparent minnows scatter below me. I can see clear to the bottom: gold and tawny sand, a few thin ribbons of weed teasing the current. I know better than to swim into the water lilies wobbling on their ropey stalks. Who wants to touch down in the slime that anchors them or get an ankle tangled in vines? No, I am going for the distance, pulling arm over arm, legs scissoring, head turning in perfect rhythm with my breath, in love with the beauty of a body in motion—no resistance, the landscape of my childhood a refuge then as now it remains in mind. Earth is a place of joy for me.

The whistle, shrill and precise, breaks my liquid stride.

“Hey, fish!”

Head up, I startle to see how far I’ve come from shore where the other kids are gathering up their towels and sandals and heading back to camp. 

“Hey, fish!” the camp counselor yells. “Get back here!” 

I’m a good kid, a compliant kid, a kid who follows rules. I don’t really know how to be a social animal, but I know rules. I make the turn, feeling the sting of disapproval, and head back into the melee of the kid world of teasing and tickling and joking about “short-sheeting” the counselor’s bed, whatever that means. I’m more at home in the water pretending to be a fish, though I don’t really know anything about being a fish, either. It’s just that I want to be immersed in the beauty of the world, pull myself through it by my own strength, and revel in the sensation of weightlessness.

Robinson Jeffers, one of the great poets celebrating natural beauty, had a thing for fish, too. In “The Purse-Seine” he wrote about the herring fishers off the coast on Monterey, California, who in the 1930s could locate the fish only “in the dark of the moon” because in daylight or moonlight they were “unable to see the phosphorescence of the shoals of fish.” 

The look-out man will see some lakes of milk-color light on the
     sea’s night-purple; he points, and the helmsman
Turns the dark prow, the motorboat circles the gleaming shoal and
     drifts out her seine-net. . . . 

                                                                                            I cannot 
     tell you
How beautiful the scene is, and a little terrible, then, when the
     crowded fish 
Know they are caught, and wildly beat from one wall to the other of
     their closing destiny . . . 

Jeffers jumps from contemplation of fish in the sea to fish drawn up in the net, and then to the cities we urbanized animals have built as if we shared the destiny of the piscine captives: 

 . . . We have geared the machines and locked all together into 
     interdependence; we have built the great cities; now
There is no escape. We have gathered vast populations incapable of
     free survival, insulated 
From the strong earth, each person in himself helpless, on all dependent,
     The circle is closed, and the net
Is being hauled in.

The poem slides from love of beauty down the apocalyptic slope toward a future of “anarchy, the mass-disasters.” He writes, “These things are Progress,” and he continues, “There is no reason for amazement: surely one always knew that cultures decay, and life’s end is death.” 

Robinson Jeffers may have been the first poet to really understand the damage being done to the planet by human industrialization, but I have a problem with Jeffers: he loved herring and hawks, but he hated people. “I would rather be a worm in a wild apple than a son of man,” he later wrote. He jeered, “They’ d shit on the morning star if they could reach.” His “Inhumanist,” written in 1947 in the wake of the World War II terrors, speaks of a man whose imagination is colonized with “suddenly fantastic expressions of death and horror [that] bob-up like jumping-jacks / On all horizons.” He longs for “the cleansing fire” of apocalypse; “the whole human race ought to scrapped . . . ground like fish-meal for soil-food.”  

I learned a thing or two about fish during the summers when our family drove from Connecticut up through the vast spruce forests of Maine to the Canadian Maritime island of Grand Manan in the Bay of Fundy. In those days our car was slung by a winch from the wharf to the ferry’s deck, and the vessel carried us away through rips and currents as land receded in our wake—carried us past the Old Sow whirlpool, past the islands called the Wolves, to dock at North Head, the port dense with trim wooden boats of the island’s fishing fleet. Herring was the dominant fishery in the 1950s, as it had been for a hundred years before that. Villages were dotted with smokehouses where row upon row of herring hung in the rafters over slow-burning fires, the fish dripping with fragrant oil as they transformed from silver to golden to nutty brown, the fish then packed into wooden boxes for shipment to the West Indies or Venezuela—places that did not yet have refrigeration. The smallest herring went to the cannery in Seal Cove to become sardines. Herring was the mainstay of the island.

Unlike the Monterey fishers who chased their prey in the open sea, Grand Mananers used their knowledge of the prodigious Fundy tides and the feeding habits of herring to erect fixed weirs along the coast where herring feed. Built from large stakes driven with a pile driver into the sea bed, topped with birch poles and netting, the weirs are a commercial-scale adaptation of aboriginal brush weirs built at stream and river mouths along the Atlantic coast. As a child motoring out with fishermen to seine a weir, our flat-bottomed working boat rolling with the tidal swell as if the bay were a great breathing organism, I felt the pull of working on the water, the beauty and bounty and risk of hauling one’s subsistence out of the sea’s craftiness. But arriving at the weir, I felt a keener sense of the craft of men who’ d built this twined enclosure in the shape of a heart, a netted fence leading toward shore to divert schools of racing fish into the enclosure. Weirs in the Bay of Fundy look like works of Earth art, a graceful form that gives definition to the open water and changes character with the weather—rippling shadows cast on the water by vertical nets and poles, nets aglow as sun meets them or becoming a gauzy haze when fog rolls in. 

When the seine net rises, the water boils, a slow churn below the surface. The net comes slowly to the surface, winched up from the deep, and the fish, all glitter and contained velocity, thrash against their confinement. At first one sees just a scrim of fish beneath the surface; then the net rises more and dries up so that it holds nothing but fish, a black swirl flashing with white and silver and blue glints, fish scales falling and drifting like spilled stars out over the water. It is hard to understand the beauty of the weir, the joy on the faces of men with fish fever—father and son fishing together for twenty years, the catch pumped into a carrier ship to become sardines for soldiers in Iraq or refugees of the Indonesian tsunami. Everyone pulls for a big harvest, and when it comes, what follows after the exhilaration of labor is satisfaction and rest. 

Herring—“the silver darlings” in Scotland, “the silver of the sea” in Sweden—have been the most important fish in the world. Nearly every culture along the North Atlantic coast fished for them with stone and brush weirs long before the first Europeans arrived. The Irish built fish traps to catch herring as much as eight thousand years ago. Amsterdam in the fourteenth century was “built on herring bones.” The French and British tangled in the 1429 Battle of the Herrings. British wharves in the fifteenth century were covered with barrels of salted herring stacked high like cordwood. By 1884 tiny Grand Manan Island with its twenty-five hundred residents had become the world’s largest supplier of smoked herring; at peak production, islanders packed one million boxes (twenty thousand tons) of locally caught and processed herring for export in that year. 

Herring are the most abundant fish in the seas, their two hundred species of least concern to conservationists. Linnaeus called them “Copiosissimus piscis”—the most prolific fish. Herring travel in seasonal migratory journeys that may cover two thousand miles. They migrate in huge shoals that hold nearly a billion fish, flickering fields of motion that can extend nine miles long and two miles wide—vast clouds of fish racing near the water’s surface, filtering plankton through their gill-rakers, following a schedule and map for which no instrumentation is needed, following what nature writer John Hay called “the Earth’s timeless schedule.” Their journey exists among many other ceaseless flows of migration that characterize the planet: wildebeests, arctic terns, monarch butterflies—and human beings. Even the continents themselves know the experience of drift.

But the herring have changed their collective mind about migrating into the Bay of Fundy. In the 1930s the island had nearly one hundred weirs dotting its coastline; in the past two years, only nine or ten. The smokehouses are all defunct, abandoned, or used for storage of plastic tubing for salmon farms. The sardine cannery has closed. There is still a romance about the weirs for islanders, but the only residents who build them now are those who do it out of love, not for any economic feasibility. It’s not that the herring have been overfished. That happened in the 1960s when new technologies for finding fish in open water boomed and the fishery crashed. But with conservation legislation coming in 1976, the herring rebounded and so did the fishery. Wars and disasters help the fishery by creating demand for sardines, a low-cost and high-nutrient meal-in-a-can. The reason remains unknown why herring have stopped coming to the bay. It may be tied to a dramatic decrease in plankton and changing patterns of water currents in the ocean—phenomena troubling many waters under the influence of global warming. 

Climate change. Global warming. Global weirding. No one is in love with the language we use to describe the complicated and troubling state of the planet. People tend to shrug their shoulders in dismay when the words pop up, as they do now ubiquitously. In a recent lecture in the University of Arizona’s “Earth Transformed” series, climatologist Jonathan Overpeck, a member of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that won the 2007 Nobel Prize for its work on global warming, described the dramatic changes in our understanding of the planet over the past decade and offered evidence-based ground for hope. The Earth has changed—oceans, land, atmosphere—and is changing faster and faster. The scientific community is entirely confident about the reality of global warming, a steady pattern of increase since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution accelerating in the past century. Global sea level is up eight inches over the past century and expected to rise four feet by the end of this century—if we curb emissions. 

If we continue with business as usual—pulling all the fossil fuel out of the ground and releasing carbon into the atmosphere—seas will rise more than thirty feet. Currently, 90 percent of the trapped heat goes into the ocean, where it is stored and keeps us from baking. For how long can the ocean keep up with capturing the excess carbon people are putting into the atmosphere? That too appears an unknown in the complex science of climate change. The North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean are changing fastest. As the seas warm, they expand and the waters rise. Coastal flooding days have more than doubled in the U.S. since the 1980s, the increase caused by human-induced climate change. By the end of the century there will be major transformation of coastlines. We may lose 30 percent of Florida—including Tampa, St. Petersburg, and Miami. With sustained drought, the Southwest will have no sustainable water supply. 

What else lies ahead? Uncertainty, says Overpeck. It depends on how much more greenhouse gas we throw up into the atmosphere. How confident is he of these conclusions? “I’ d bet my house on it,” he says. “Not just my old pickup truck. My new pickup truck. My wife’s Prius.”

But, he says, the beauty of climate change is that we know about the problem in time to act. The question is not if we are leaving the fossil fuel age, but when we will do so, how quickly and how justly we can do so. Our choices are adaptation—meaning we deal with the changes; mitigation—meaning slow or stop the changes; or both. If we do nothing, we guarantee more suffering and loss; more climate refugees and political instability (as we’ve seen in Syria, whose extended conflict is owed in part to the prolonged drought that drove agrarian citizens by the millions off their land and into the cities where they found no means of support); and more grief than makes any sense as a matter of choice. 

Overpeck sees the next decade as one of profound transition, like that from horses to cars or from whale oil to fossil fuel. Electrical vehicles, along with solar and other green solutions, are advancing fast. Fuel made from farmed microalgae is being developed that would take carbon out of the atmosphere, not out of fossil carbon in the Earth. In recent years the building trades in general have declined 17 percent, but the green building trades have grown by 1,700 percent; four-fifths of corporate executive leaders say that the American public expects them to engage in sustainability, and this ethos is driving them to green their buildings. 

At the Paris climate conference in November 2015 nearly two hundred nations pledged to work as a planet to cut emissions and to reconvene to review how they are doing. Climate legislation is moving fast around the globe in rich and poor countries, though of course implementation remains a crucial unknown. In spite of cheap fossil fuels, wind and solar technologies are soaring. China added fifteen gigawatts of solar generated power in 2015, and in the U.S. we’re thinking we can hit nine GW in 2016. (The U.S. and China are also leading the world in dropping coal consumption.) Within a decade electric vehicles will be cheaper than gas ones; China and Europe are moving faster than the U.S. on these innovations, yet 63 percent of Americans believe climate change is real and that something needs to be done about it. 

We can watch fantasy after fantasy of apocalypse in the movie theaters, but the anti-apocalypse is happening right here and right now, and it too is speeding up. 

In March 2016 I made a trip to the Bakken oil fields in North Dakota. I wasn’t searching for a vision of apocalypse, though we all seem to need such stories. From Mayan prophecies to the Book of Revelation, from The Hunger Games to The Walking Dead, from asteroids to nuclear annihilation—people love to terrorize themselves with the story of doom. I don’t mean to minimize the suffering caused by real acts of terror throughout the world, but the fear-mongering in our apocalyptic-chic entertainment has very little to do with reality. As Craig Childs so richly details in Apocalyptic Planet (2016), natural and political history both offer plenty of stories to feed this appetite. 

I went to the Bakken on a book tour for Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Trout’s anthology Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. I spent a week road-tripping with several writers, two of them native North Dakotans, moving from east to west across the great prairie. For them the matter of fracking had become personal as they saw the landscape of their childhood, a golden prairie spreading out like the biggest dinner plate you’ve ever seen, broken by the invasion of pumpjacks that can out-compete the family farm in a hungry minute. Many of us fall in love with the landscape of our childhood, and that love often lasts a lifetime in fueling the passion to protect these places from degradation and destruction. 

North Dakota, I learned, is the least visited state in the nation, the northern Dakota Territory one of the last places to be settled under the Homestead Act of 1862. Locals told me that the state has long suffered from an inferiority complex. The Act required homesteaders to live on their 160-acre allotment for five years “to prove it up.” Immigrants who settled here from Norway and Germany had lived in villages and gone together to work farmland outside those villages. Transplanted onto separate homesteads, they could not help each other. Women went mad, isolated out on the prairie, the wind hammering their walls. Mental health hospitals flourished. This history is honored in O. E. Rølvaag’s saga of the prairie, Giants in the Earth. Debra Marquart told me that when her great-grandmother arrived from Russia and got to their family’s land grant, family legend held that she said, “It’s all Earth and sky.” And that was not a good thing. Both of Marquart’s great-grandmothers died in childbirth.

Fewer than seven hundred thousand people reside in North Dakota, and their lives are Earth-based, whether farming wheat, alfalfa, flax, or sugar beets, digging coal, pumping gas out of the ground, or planting windrows of cottonwoods to hold back the weather. The state is politically and religiously conservative. The agency designated to regulate oil and gas drilling in the state is also charged with promoting the industry. The Bakken boom—by one peak count, the state had eleven thousand pumps bringing up more than a million barrels a day, with thirty thousand new workers converging on small towns to live in temporary “mancamps” or commuting three hours a day to the jobsite—has meant “conflict-free” oil and “energy independence” for the U.S. 

Seen through the lens of wars in the Middle East, these phrases have a salutary ring, but through the lens of climate change they tell a less sanguine story. Who can be independent of the effects of global climate change? Being in conflict with one another about oil is a cause of suffering; but being in conflict with the planet over its capacity to sustain life is an urgent cry for change. We are all interdependently living under the good graces of an atmosphere that supports our kind of life. If we’ d like to keep it that way, our oil gluttony must stop.   

By the time I arrived the fracking boom had gone bust, though not because of government policies to reduce emissions or the growth in energy alternatives or the degradation of community. The boom had gone bust (some locals prefer to think of it as “in a lull”) because the Saudis, in a price war with the Russians, lowered the price of their oil so much that our oil lost value. Halliburton laid off seven thousand workers in the summer of 2015, but a waitress I spoke with saw no glimpse of apocalypse: “This isn’t the first boom and it won’t be the last.” Though the industry has slacked off—production down in February 2016 by thirty-five thousand barrels from the previous year and new drilling nearly halted—the Bakken was still producing more than one million barrels per day. Some locals said the pumpjacks had been put on hold, not decommissioned. I passed hundreds of them still dipping their beaks into Earth, their flares (burning off methane, a by-product of capturing the oil), standing sentry beside them all. On the edges of nowhere, townhomes and apartment developments—“open now!”—stood empty. Most of them had been built near the end of the boom. The mancamps—a row of tiny trailers with room only for a bed and a sink, or a grid of prefab dorms that looked like military barracks—all were empty. Hundreds of graders, dozers, pickups, and dump trucks were parked for the duration. The mancamps are meant to be temporary and can be moved, like a military campaign, men and all, to another site when needed. Still, during my visit the railroad cars ran loaded with light, tight crude morning, noon, and night, black tankers stretching a hundred cars long, a bizarre industrial specter juxtaposed to the tawny, silent prairie. The tracks ran through cut fields where corn or sunflowers had been harvested. Picture that, I told myself: the black train slipping through the yellow sunflower fields. What kind of terrible beauty is that? 

As I waited for my departure flight, conversation among oil field engineers and workers at the Williston airport was punctuated with resigned shrugs.

“You coming back?” 

“No, the company’s not gonna bother with this one anymore. Focusing on Pennsylvania.”

“What are you gonna do?” 

“Back to school. I’m sick of this shit.” 

The Cenex Plaza—a one-stop city of gas pumps, burgers, nachos, Red Bull, fried chicken, fireproof Carhartts, and night-driving glasses—boasts a stack of ball caps at checkout that read “Big Cock Country,” a pat on the back for the guy who’s just put in a ninety-hour week handling toxic chemicals. Also available: Ammo. Fireworks. Beer beer beer.

Marquart’s poem “Frack” describes the oil field crews as “mostly good people, some desperate, some dangerous // the talk is about the rise in crime—robberies, stabbings, domestic disputes.” Next to the Cenex stands a hot pink drive-through joint—Boomtown Babes Espresso, with a sign depicting an oil derrick ejaculating coffee into a mug. During the boom well-paid jobs for strippers and sex-workers abounded. Bucking Buffalo Catering. Wildcat Pizzeria. Black Gold Hotel Suites. Monster Oil Field Service. 24/7 Spill Clean Center. Crazy Cowboy Trucking. Purity Oil Field Services. 

And a bumper sticker reading Mayhem is Everywhere still abounds. This is the culture of a boomtown. On Facebook, a group of workers keeps a tally of the screw-ups, “Bakken Fail of the Day.” Among the fails are pipeline breaks: one oil spill spewed over one million gallons, the largest land-based oil spill ever in the U.S., onto North Dakota farmland. Someone thought that a bubble was slowing the flow through a nine-inch pipeline, so they increased the pressure to blow it out. But the flow had been slow because the pipe had broken when lightning struck a faulty weld. 

I went to the Bakken looking not for data but for stories. They were not difficult to find. I met a wiry, twenty-something guy at our reading in Williston—or was it Minot, a town in the heart of oil country—who had worked as a chemical technician on the drill pads for two years. He sat slouched in the front row, and I confess I mistook him for a disaffiliated slacker. He wore a rumpled army-green jacket and jeans, a brown woolen toque pulled low over his forehead. His long red hair draped out from under the hat onto his chest. That hair, it fell in graceful waves, shiny and cared for. 

I couldn’t figure him out, but I knew he was listening hard to the writers, his eyes intense as a cougar’s. He corrected a detail in the essay I read that mentioned a “skinny boss” of an oil operation: “I’ve never seen a skinny boss,” he noted with intent to establish his authority. And then he came to talk with me after the reading. He’ d worked in the oil fields as a chemical tech—mixing and pouring the chemicals used in the fracking fluid. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylene: volatile organic compounds.
A handful of men worked on a pad to get the drill down through topsoil, sedimentary rock, and aquifers—down to the dolomite, the source rock, where they drilled horizontally to reach the shale. He described a problem with a crappy brass fitting that resulted in a splash. 

I said, “Working with that stuff, you must have splash gear?” 

“Well, it’s not always used.” This is North Dakota. It’s forty below and you’re working outdoors. It was nothing to work ninety hours. He said it got hallucinatory. One night he saw a rocking chair in the road when he was driving home, and he knew he was in trouble. You drink anything to stay awake. His longest week was 148 hours (there are only 168 in week), though some of that was commuting, one to three hours a day. A guy he knew worked sixty-nine hours straight handling explosives. 

One night, the red-haired guy told me, he fell asleep at the wheel and woke up just in time to see a semi stalled in the road in front of him. That’s when he decided to quit and go back to school. But the money was good. 

“How did you handle it?” 

“I’ d been in the Army for two years, so I had the discipline.” 

Some slacker. 

Another guy that night told me he’ d served with the military in Afghanistan before working in the oil fields. A big guy built like a linebacker, he wore a hammer of Thor around his neck. He said he was more afraid in the oilfields than he had been in combat. At least there you knew what was coming for you. Here, anything can happen—explosions, wrecks. 

Since 2006, eighteen million gallons of oil and contaminated water have spilled. Since 2006, seventy-six workers have died in accidents. That’s a death every six weeks—the Bakken fail of the day. And all this work pursued at a paramilitary velocity as if drilling for oil and gas were a Manhattan Project that would save the world. 

We need a better story. 

From March 2015 to March 2016, I followed the Twitter feed of astronaut Scott Kelly, who returned on 1 March from his 340-day stay on the International Space Station, during which he orbited Earth fifteen times a day at five miles per second and snapped photos all along the way. Kelly has a keen sense of the aesthetics of the planet, its design elements in color, form, and pattern: the watercolor strokes of the Bahamas, the green-ribboned glow of an aurora, the sliver of sunlight marking the curvature of Earth at sunset. How many sunrises and sunsets would he see in a day moving at that speed? What is a day to the astronaut in space circling Earth? 

Kelly tweeted greetings to the continents: “Australia. You are beautiful!” Greeted Athens, Barcelona, Manhattan, Japan as he raced by snapping their portraits. Caught a glimpse of the Super Bowl being played in Santa Clara; didn’t last long at that speed. He tweeted more than one thousand photographs during the year. Each tweet marked a small blast of joy and discovery. These pictures were not the pale blue dot made by Voyager 1 in 1990, an image so remote it was hard to love. Kelly’s tweets were the artwork of his journey, representing a kind of learning difficult to measure except in emotion. After watching and listening for months to his disciplined enthusiasm, I began to hear beneath the joy a deep longing for Earth, such as a person might express to a distant beloved.

The science of the journey entailed learning what happens to the human body after prolonged residence in space. Kelly was a perfect research subject for this because he is an identical twin, his brother Mark Kelly also an astronaut. The brothers donated their biometrics to a database, making it possible to compare identical bodies living under extremely different conditions. The brothers stood back to back after Scott returned to Earth—he’ d grown two inches in space, his spine elongating in the absence of gravity. Within two days he readapted, shrinking back to normal height. How heavy his body must have felt as he was lifted out of the landing capsule in Kazakhstan, carried and wrapped in a blanket like a newborn. Still in his spacesuit, he joked about how good the air felt on his face, asked why everyone else was all covered up in hats and scarves. 

What is beautiful about Earth to a man who has been separated from her for so long that his body has lost its proportions? The tweets continued. Air. First rain, standing outdoors in it. First salad on Earth. Apple pie delivered by Jill Biden. Beer. First dinner not out of a plastic pouch. “I missed the color green most during my year in space. Great to see it again on Earth.” 

I’ve been thinking of the metaphors we use to speak of Earth. Mother, we say. And it’s true that Earth has given us our lives and nurtured us and merits our respect. But we grow up, we differentiate from our mothers, we leave home, we move on to worldly concerns—learning to be the social animals (or in some cases the misanthropes) that we are. How about Father Earth? He provides, he is physically strong and emotionally restrained—but to become ourselves we’ve learned that we must “kill the father,” which certainly doesn’t seem right in the context of this essay. These gender-role stereotypes diminish the symbolic stature of Earth, as they do the capacities of men and women. Earth then may be mother, father, daughter, and son to us. Maybe we’ d do better to consider Earth as our beloved, our desire is to be intimate with “them” (the pronoun de jour for speaking of a transgender individual), to protect and honor them. Complicated and anthropocentric. 

Maybe Earth is our mentor. If we need a better story, a story that moves us out of fear and grief and catastrophe-mongering toward an evidence-based reality in which we make smart and just choices about the future, maybe we need to read the stories Earth is telling us as we get to know the planet better. Stories of resilience, inventiveness, innovation. No matter the scale of disturbance—forest fire, flood, earthquake, tsunami, or mass extinction—Earth just gets back to work reinventing itself from the materials at hand. The spirit of our times may be apocalyptic fantasy, but the spirit of Earth’s time scale is ceaseless Creation that leads from one profound, life-sustaining transformation to the next. 

A cautiously hopeful toast, then, to Earth: our Mother, Father, Daughter, Son, Beloved, Mentor, Muse to our Art and Science, and our singularly beautiful Home.

 

Alison Hawthorne Deming's most recent nonfiction book is Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit (Milkweed Editions, 2015). Her new poetry collection, Stairway to Heaven, will be published by Penguin this September. Deming is a Guggenheim fellow and holds the Agnese Nelms Haury Chair of Environment and Social Justice at the University of Arizona.