I grew up in Pennsylvania, but there’s a lot I don’t know about the commonwealth.  (I do know that it’s a commonwealth rather than a state.)  My parents weren’t educated—neither one finished high school—so I didn’t have a lot to go on at home.  I recently learned that it is the second largest energy producing state in this somewhat tenuous union.  Texas is, of course, first.  I suspect this is because the Keystone State is old.  Not because it was one of the original thirteen colonies (which it was), but because the Appalachians around here are ancient and abundant in coal, oil, and natural gas.  And speaking of natural gas, the state houses of congress are dominated by Republicans.  The state motto should probably be “Burn, baby, burn.”  Given the number of Republicans, it is also one of the most corrupt states.

Even in the rural parts where I grew up, it was clear that energy was a huge part of our history.  The petroleum industry began in Pennsylvania.  Col. Edwin Drake’s well at Titusville is still producing.  The oil fields here are shallow (speaking of the GOP), however, and the interest shifted to Texas where, well, everything’s bigger.  Growing up, refineries were a familiar sight.  One of my vivid childhood memories is witnessing a refinery fire.  I was too young to really understand.  My brothers and I were outside playing when it started to snow in the summer.  It wasn’t really snow, it was hot ashes falling from the sky from a refinery fire about five miles away.  We later drove out to see the huge vats melted like wax, charred and rusted under what had been an industrial paint facade.  Petroleum companies are like that.

My second hometown of Rouseville lived under constant threat of a refinery fire.  The small town of about 800 was completely dominated by a Pennzoil refinery that took up much of the valley.  We trembled whenever the refinery sirens went off.  My life may have been shortened by breathing in all those toxic fumes.  Big petroleum comes with massive costs.  We know that alternative sources of energy are available, but we have very rich people who stand to lose some of their vast fortunes if we move away from fossil fuels.  There’s much about Pennsylvania that I don’t know.  I’ve lived here longer than in any other state.  And I, for one, would like to see this fascinating commonwealth work for the betterment of the world it inhabits instead of rewarding the bad behavior of the wealthy.


I don’t carry many keys.  Working at home has that distinct advantage, and combination/electronic locks of various kinds are becoming pretty standard.  I do wonder about the impact this has on the keyring industry, though.  Not a fan of bulky rings of keys and fobs in my pocket I tend to stick to novelty keyrings for entertainment purposes only.  A few years back, before we’d considered moving to Pennsylvania, we picked one up that was shaped like, well, the Keystone State.  Laid out like a tiny, very large scale map, it lists the big cities and some tourist sites.  Since you seldom hear people say, “I’m going to Pennsylvania for vacation” you might well wonder about the latter.  The reason that we bought this novelty was one of the places listed: Oil City.

Currently around the 82nd most populous city in the commonwealth, Oil City isn’t a place most folks would look for.  It is near the birthplace of the oil industry, thus its name, but it doesn’t seem to have the tourist draw to merit a keyring fob.  I grew up very near Oil City, and I attended Oil City High School.  It’s a pleasant enough town, although it has been ravaged by big box stores that left its downtown the haunt of ghost store fronts.  Many of the big boxes then left because the area has been economically depressed for decades.  It’s an example of the kind of victims that capitalism tends to leave behind.  The fob on which this “map” is printed is plastic, likely a byproduct of petroleum.  That industry had its start in this area and when larger oil fields were found elsewhere it simply moved on.

The keyring had been stuffed into a box within a box, well forgotten before we moved to Pennsylvania.  While going through some things the other day, it surfaced once again.  I had a key needing a ring, so it was put to use in its native state.  Often I ponder how oil has played into my life.  Pennzoil still had a headquarters in the area, and refineries dotted the river valleys, but larger fields with bigger payoffs lay to the south.  My gypsy-like family didn’t settle in the region because of oil.  Not part of the petroleum industry, we simply lived in its shadow.  I haven’t visited the area for a few years now, at least not to appreciate the life of a town that helped initiate the modern world, but then was quickly forgotten.  Even keyrings can tell a story.

From Above

You can see a lot from 35,000 feet.  Alan Parsons Project’s “Eye in the Sky” comes back to me, although I’d never make so bold as to associate myself with Horus.  As I’m preparing for my return flight, I wonder what I might see.  Not much, I expect, since all the window seats were taken and I’ll be sitting in the middle section.  I like to see where I’m going.  On the way over, for example, about three hours into the flight, we were over the Grand Banks.  I’d just finished Brian Fagan’s Fishing, and the Grand Banks were on my mind.  The last land I saw was Cape Cod, although from the monitor I knew we’d passed near Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.   In other words, there was nothing but the north Atlantic beneath us.  We were hundreds of miles from land.  Then I saw it.

Was that an oil platform all the way out here?  I didn’t have enough time to wake my napping phone for a picture, but there was clearly a large platform and a nearby tanker.  Later I checked and, sure enough, Hibernia, the world’s largest oil platform is smack-dab in the middle of the Grand Banks.  A number of thoughts occurred.  We’d been flying for hours, and a platform this far out would make a great setting for a horror story.  (Okay, so my thoughts move in predictable directions sometimes.)  Another thought was this: why are we so dependent on petroleum that we’re all the way out here drilling for a polluting, non-renewable resource?  Is it not for profit margin alone?  This was an epiphany for me.

I still carry a little cautious hope around in a hidden pocket that there might be some places left for humanity to explore, but not exploit.  Fagan mentioned in his book that we’d trawled much of the ocean floor.  Although I admiring the engineering that could plant a platform in the stormy Atlantic, I still can’t help but feel a little bit let down that we’ve driven yet another stake into the unexplored world.  We really know so little about the oceans (apart from the fact that many creatures that live there can be eaten and otherwise exploited).  Our lack of scientific knowledge is addressed by great wells drilled down to draw out pollutants to grease the wheels of capitalism.  Yes, I was using fossil fuel in flying.  I’d be happy with solar-powered planes, if they existed (they’re above the clouds much of the time, so it would seem worth dreaming about).  In the meantime, however, the earth just keeps getting smaller and smaller.  Even from 35,000 feet.

Oil Heritage

I love optical illusions. Apart from the sheer fun of ambiguity, such illusions are really all about perspective. Shifting perspective can be one of the most powerful ways of changing a person’s life. One of my more stalwart perspectives is that those who originate something deserve recognition. If that something is important, they may even deserve acclaim. And sometimes that thing may turn bad, in which case the discoverer may end up being notorious. Originality, the subject of bestsellers and media gurus, is sometimes the result of thinking differently than other people do. It can be cultivated and grown. Sometimes it’s simply fortuitous.

Every time I visit my own place of origins in western Pennsylvania, I think of the oil industry. It’s pretty hard not to around here. “Pumping jacks” still operate in some back yards, and petroleum tanks suddenly appear along beautiful rustic roads. The presence of fossil fuels isn’t as evident as it was when I was a child, for all the big refineries have closed down. Many of them have been dismantled. Still, I can’t drive by the site where a refinery fire glowed beyond the next hill from my childhood home and not wonder about it. Seeing those huge oil tanks melted and crumpled as if they’d been made of wax is an image that doesn’t get easily erased. Today, that’s all gone. Still, the oil industry itself was originally from this region. The auto industry—although increasingly electric—would’ve never started without the obvious boost that petroleum production gave transportation.

In the light, or perhaps dark, of Hurricane Harvey we’re set to see increasing gas prices. They will impact the economy in other ways, and energy giants will continue to degrade the environment in the quest for cheap and abundant crude. I’m not sure if that makes the discovery of oil in this region worthy of acclaim or notoriety. It does seem, from my perspective, that since big oil is so lucrative, a lifeline ought to exist for the struggling communities in my childhood home. Empty storefronts were rare here in my youth. Now they are almost as common as shops that remain open. I know; if people can’t move on, then maybe there’s a reason the economy is sagging. There are ghost towns in this area, and there may be more in the future. I just wonder how all this will looks from another perspective. Will it all be an illusion once electricity makes the past superfluous?

The Unliving

Western Pennsylvania, from which I hail, has few claims to fame. One, still largely forgotten, is that it was the birthplace of the petroleum industry. Remains of the early exploitation of the fossil fuel still lie scattered carelessly in the woods. Another claim to fame is that the region was the adopted home of George Romero and served as the setting for his groundbreaking film, Night of the Living Dead. Unintentionally, Romero created what continues to shamble on in the form of the modern zombie. Although the movie doesn’t call the living dead “zombies,” it established the trope of their endless hunger for human flesh and their rabid bite. So it was with sadness that I read of Romero’s death a couple of days ago. Although he wasn’t from Pittsburgh, he established the city as zombie central. It’s nice that he gave something back.

Zombies have, due to their protean nature, become a fixture among the monster constellations. They represent the worst of what people can be—selfish and brainless, without empathy, their own cravings being the only matters of importance to them. Sounds kind of like the Republican Party. The rest of the world calls them monsters. Night of the Living Dead shocked audiences of the late 1960s with its graphic portrayal of cannibalism and thoughtless destruction. Interestingly, the choice of a strong African American lead for the movie was, according to interviews with Romero, simply a matter of his being the best actor, not an intentional racial statement. (That too reminded me of western Pennsylvania; there were racial tensions where I grew up, but many of us befriended those who were “different” without any clue that it should matter at all.) Duane Jones carried off the role of Ben with conviction and energy. He died young but he never became a zombie.

To make an impact intention need not be present. While Romero denied for the rest of his life that the movie was “about” the Vietnam War, and that his choice of a black lead was a racial statement, both of these factors became facts about the film. Concepts, in other words, like zombies, may rise from the dead. Beyond the shock and gore, the movie made a powerful, if unintentional, statement. It helped to define Romero’s future career. A success in a difficult industry may indeed decide one’s fate. George Romero would go on to make many other monster movies. Western Pennsylvania would become a zombie haven. You never know what you might find scattered about in those forgotten woods of your childhood home.

Peak Oil

Having no control over where we’re born, people nevertheless often feel a connection with their native region. My family had no roots in western Pennsylvania, and the consensus on why we ended up here focuses around jobs. My grandparents settled here because of a job. While working here on a job my father, from the south, met my mother. My brothers and I all consider ourselves Pennsylvanians. One of the places we liked to visit as children was Drake Well. We knew that the oil industry began in western Pennsylvania, and we knew that famous people like George Washington had traveled through the region during the various wars of the nation’s early years. The towns where I grew up are not exactly affluent, and one of them seems in danger of becoming a ghost town. Drake Well, however, the birthplace of commercial oil, still draws visitors from the region and from around the country. On a recent visit to the site, I was interested to see how religion interplayed with petroleum in Victorian Era western Pennsylvania.


Among the displays was one showing the various means used to find oil. In the days before geological surveys, finding something hidden underground required more than just technical knowledge. More precisely, it often utilized different forms of technology—some scientific, some not. Dowsing was popular, and spirits were consulted. Access to the supernatural world was not uncommon. The oil industry really took off during the same era that spiritualism began to become popular. Religion and science co-existed in a way that is difficult to imagine today. Indeed, Drake Well was established in 1859, the same year Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. The means used to reach the oil were, however, unabashedly scientific and technical. Nitroglycerin fatalities were just another fact of life.

Looking over the triumphal displays about fracking, it became clear that in the realm of petroleum production the spirit has made way for a technology with unknown consequences. The museum at Drake Well is pretty straightforward that other energy forms pose a threat to an industry that was, and currently remains, massive. We have technologies that can utilize cleaner forms of energy, but powerful oil interests have maintained the focus on more and more invasive ways to keep things going the way they are, pulling in more profits while the limited supply lasts. We know petroleum will run out. We’ve deeply integrated it into our way of life and instead of looking ahead to the next step, we’ve been reaching back to pad our fat pockets. Gone are the dowsers and spiritualists and in have charged the corporate executives. And in western Pennsylvania, the towns where the industry began struggle to stay alive as thinking that allowed for spirits has acquiesced to that which has loyalty to Mammon alone.

Are You Being Served?

Weary from a long day at work, I stepped off the bus last night to find the street to my house barricaded. That’s seldom a good sign. From the looks of the sludgy stains along the street, it was pretty clear that we were dealing with a water-main break. Sure enough, at home, no water. As I pondered making supper, washing dishes, and brushing my teeth—all that I usually have time for before going to bed—I wondered how I’d do any of them without water. As humans do, I managed. This morning I awoke to find the faucets still empty and considered the prospect of going to work with no shower, when a natural kind of grumpiness settled over me. We expect water. We take it for granted. For much of the world, however, lack of clean water is one of the largest problems faced. Showing up for work in a modern city with dirty hair hardly seems like a major issue when children are dying of diseases due to lack of potable water. Water is a justice issue.

Some experts have been positing that the next great war (as if there’s anything such as a great war) will not be over oil, but water. Politics aside, we know that western involvement in Middle Eastern conflicts comes down to petroleum. They have what we want. Better make some friends. But water is even more basic than oil. Scientists have discovered many odd creatures in extreme environments on this planet, and all share this quality: life can’t go on without water. Even the amazing tardigrade, able to survive a decade without water, will eventually die without it. People can barely make it a day or two. We have the technology to make clean water possible for many. Instead we wonder what’s taking them so long with the repairs this time, and my gosh, it’s time to go to work and I can’t even brush my teeth. It’s a sliding scale of fairness. The ethics of economy.

I can’t put it off any longer. I’m going to need to head for the bus stop and await my fate. I live less than fifty miles from the ocean. All oceans are interconnected, covering a full three-fourths of our planet. With water we can’t drink. We emit our gases and melt our ice caps—some of the largest natural reservoirs of fresh water on the planet—thinking only of the joyous prospect of an overflowing bank account. What will we do, however, when we awake in the morning to find the water still off? Will we think of our fellow humans dying at this very moment for lack of life’s most basic necessity? Will we rush out to petition our leaders to ensure that safe water is provided to those without? Will we even remember this tomorrow? I know that like your average other guy I’ll find myself grumbling over the fact that I don’t have coffee, and it will seem that my petty world is suffering its own little apocalypse. And justice hasn’t been served.

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Photo credit: Tiago Fioreze, Wiki Commons

Global Warning

“Sticks and stones,” the childhood wisdom goes, “may break my bones, but words will never harm me.” We were taught that little mantra as a response to being teased by bullies. But words can and do hurt. They can even be lethal. Although I’ve come to realize that specific words are inherently neither good nor bad, I’m still a little shy around some of them. The website known, euphemistically, as “IFL Science!” contains an f-bomb that sometimes makes me wary—what’s wrong with just regularly loving science? In any case, perhaps this adverbial use of the most versatile swear word is intended to make the website a bit of racy fun. The posts are often very good. So it was that I recently read a story about “Friends of Science.” This group, it seems, is paying good money to convince the scientifically illiterate that global warming is natural, caused by the sun and not emissions, and so we should just chill. IFL Science! points out that the group, however, receives money from petroleum companies. Sticks and stones.


On my way to work this week, I noticed how many of the ads in ebullient, affluent Midtown Manhattan reflect dark shows and movies. It’s summertime, when we expect bright colors and sunny weather. Has it, perhaps, been too sunny? The best selling non-fiction book over the past few weeks has been on economic inequality and how it will lead to a good, old-fashioned primate crash. Going ape-crap on the bullies. Our species doesn’t tolerate radical unfairness for long. Those who suck money from under the ground may not fracking care about the rest of us, but they sure pull in the big money. Big enough to buy the truth. Our emissions, they seem to say, don’t stink. And that weird weather you’ve been noticing for the past decade or so? That’s normal. Words will never harm me.

Global warming is a reality.

Oligarchy comes in many forms, the most insidious of which is the benign overlord. The implied subtext is “if I am smart enough to make all this money, I must surely be smart enough to decide what’s best for everyone.” Call it the gold standard of hypocrisy. In an increasingly secular society where the rewards of heaven devolve to what we can grab on earth, this might even be called a kind of theology. We all know that public policy and federal laws can be purchased, if we call it lobbying. Or election fund donations. The truth it seems, is up for sale. Call it Friends of Science—the name says it all. And if we’re tempted to add our own epithets, it might pay to ask what harm can words really do?

After the Gold Rush

The morning I flew to Chicago for the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting, the headlines in the morning paper were about the rocket attacks in Tel Aviv. Ironically, the in-flight magazine cover on United, I noticed as I fastened by seat belt securely low across my waist, read “Three Perfect Days in Tel Aviv.” The irony wasn’t so much funny as it was sad. The situation in the Middle East is hopelessly entangled, but it all comes down to our obsession with dividing people into groups. Religious, ethnic, social: somehow we are not like them. We’re better, superior in some way. It matters not that proving superiority is a purely subjective enterprise. After all, we just know it. When history places one persecuted group in a position of persecuting another group, well, I’m afraid we all know what happens.

The problems in the Middle East are largely biblical and predominantly petroleum-based. Even those who tend to read the Bible figuratively can see a land claim based on an Abraham who probably never existed as strangely literal. Especially when there’s oil in them thar wells. Isolationism served the United States well until it was discovered that they had more black gold than even Texas does. Establishing a foothold in the region was not such a subtle policy; the x-ray vision of politicians funded by heavy industry saw beneath the sandy soil to the real deity that lay beneath. Dig a well, hit a gusher, and, like the Bible says, “he anointeth my head with oil, my cup runneth over.” Good news for modern capitalists. But some people will have to die.

As I sat in the lobby of a posh hotel, waiting for an appointment, I heard a fragment of a conversation as a couple of scholars rushed by. They were discussing the aftermath of the rocket attacks on Tel Aviv. One suggested to the other, in the context of how many Palestinians might die in retaliation, “well, if they can keep the numbers down…” and then they were gone. My mind jumped to The Prisoner. “I am not a number, I am a free man!” crashed in my head with the way that the dead in the Middle East are piled up as “the numbers.” I’m sure it was only intended as a convenient turn of phrase. Outside the hotel lobby the striking workers from the Hyatt labor disputes were protesting in a cold, crisp Chicago morning. They were soon cleared away. My fear, Number Six, is that you are wrong. We are all numbers, even the best of us.

Gas Bubbles

Human brains display a strong preference for patterns. Looking out my office window at the repeating series of windows that make up much of Manhattan, there is a pleasing sense of symmetry. We seek meaning in patterns—this is likely what gave rise to the idea of prophecy; a pattern repeated in nature seems to bear divine significance. Now, I don’t claim to be the best analyst of patterns, but like all humans I look for them and try to make sense of them. With headlines declaring that gasoline prices are on the rise again, set to hit record highs in April, I think, like an elephant that doesn’t forget, over the past several election years and wonder if anyone else has noticed a pattern. When a GOP incumbent is in office, gas prices seem to go down in an election year. When a Democrat is in office, they tend to skyrocket in election years. This is not based on market analysis, but by the sharp pain in my backside that is caused by a starving wallet combined with repeated kicks by the petroleum industry.

Even as far back as high school I remember that alternative-energy cars were being designed. Keep in mind that this was over thirty years ago. When we asked why people couldn’t buy them, our teacher informed us that oil companies buy up patents for competing technologies. Television told us that such energy efficient cars were the stuff of science fiction. With Toyota often leading the way, we have seen, however, that electric-powered cars can perform on the highways as well as city streets. They don’t line the pockets so thickly for the big oil barons, so we’re lead to believe they’re wimpy and underperforming—not manly vehicles at all. To me it sounds like a lot of gas.

I’m not sure how America came to be under the ponderous thumb of the oil industry, but the finger-pointing and downright criminal activity of such companies as Enron and BP should be telling us something. It may be mere coincidence, but the past several Republican presidents have been very friendly with big oil. I remember when Clinton ran against Bush Senior that prices of gas dropped so low that a ten could fill the tank on our little Toyota. Here we are with a Dem in the House and prices are set to soar. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced, but I don’t recall seeing many oil barons standing in the breadlines—not even after Enron imploded. No doubt we will be told it’s just the ebb and flow of the market, nothing more. No matter what the excuse may be, I have an idea which way the flow is going, and it has a pipeline from Americans’ bank accounts right into that internal combustion engine that is fueled by creatures long dead. Death and oil, by whatever means, go together.

Take me home, country roads

Denying Truth, For Profit

Sometimes I’m questioned about why I bother with creationism. Everyone who’s intelligent knows it is religious ideology masquerading as science and people will eventually figure it out. But will there be time? An editorial in yesterday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger pulls the curtain back on creationism’s incestuous cousin, climate-change denial. As the editorial notes, key documents of the Heartland Institute—one of the major propagators of climate change as “just a theory”—have been leaked and show that they have learned their lesson from creationist tactics. They want “debate the question” instilled in science classes in lieu of facts. And much of their money comes from big oil. It is the hope of such institutes that an American public already woefully pathetic at understanding science will be led to believe “just a theory” equals “likely not true.” The data are stacked completely against them and the entire rest of the developed world knows that.

While the issue may seem less religious than creationism—which is based on getting Genesis 1 in the classroom as science, no matter what you call it—it has deep roots in that same insidious cocktail of politics, religion, and dirty money. Biblical literalists tend to believe the world is about to end. The belief has been around for at least two millennia. It is a damning and damaging belief that declares the world was made for raping because it is about to end. This deranged thinking is fueled, literally, by unrestrained economic interests. Sometimes the groups can’t see beyond the Bible to realize that they too are being screwed. Science is objective, and it is science that has been challenged by various religious and political groups since the 1920s. Today, when there is far too much information for anyone to stay on top of it all, and in an American society deeply distrustful of higher education, I smell an explosive amount of methane in the air.

Climate change is real. The “theory” is so well supported by evidence as to be fact. Is anyone really surprised that supporters of the Heartland Institute have also backed Newt Gingrich’s campaign? We have placed ourselves in a very dangerous position as the last remaining “superpower.” I tried to read a book on environmental issues that Routledge published, but was so scared after the first three pages that I had to put it down. What is the lesson here, class? Is it not that money is the root of evil? And that, my dear literalists, is biblical.

The future of human economic evolution

Don’t Let Them Frack You

One of the consequences of having been born into a post-industrial society is the sense that others have managed to set the parameters even before I became aware of them. In the summer of 2010 I learned about the Deepwater Horizon accident. Prior to that, I had no idea that semi-submersible, deep-water drilling was even possible, let alone already happily lining billionaires’ pockets. I felt violated. This is my planet too. That same year, while attending a FIRST robotics competition in Trenton, the high school kids were greeted after the event by a lone protestor wearing a sandwich board warning of the dangers of fracking. In New Jersey it is very easy to find people protesting. Sometimes their nemeses are purely delusional. “What’s fracking?” I asked one of the kids (all of whom are arguably smarter than me). He didn’t know. I looked it up once I got home, and once again had the feeling that somebody was messing up my planet without me knowing.

Sure, human habitation has a tremendous impact on the environment. It is part of the curse of consciousness. Nevertheless, at some level we must know that our actions threaten not only other species, but also our own existence as well. A story on CNN about fracking, back in my own oil-industry state of Pennsylvania, demonstrates the dangers all too clearly. I grew up in the shadow of a petroleum refinery—Pennsylvania is where the oil industry began. Unfortunately it also has a history of poisoning its own environment. The CNN story highlights the dilemma of Dimock, a tiny town with water contamination caused by fracking. Not even a hundred miles away to the south lies Centralia, still slowly asphyxiating from its fifty-year old mine fire. Our lust for fossil fuels—and more importantly, the wealth they bring—has bankrupted our sense of responsibility to our planet and to each other.

I am certain free-market entrepreneurs would characterize what I sense to be injustice as mere complaining. But there comes a point at which we have to ask if the extra energy is worth the cost. Maybe we could do with a little less. I know that’s blasphemy in capitalist ears, but it is a truth whose scars scrawl across the landscape of this nation. Just about 150 miles southwest of Dimock lies Three Mile Island, a testament to our love of power. Over on the western edge of the state sits the ghost town called Pithole. An oil boom town, it ran out of steam when deeper pools were discovered elsewhere. When I stand in its deserted streets, returned to nature after the many decades of neglect, I realize that it is a silent symbol of human ambitions. We should not give up on our earth, lest it give up on us. It is not too late. Yet.

Borrowed from the National Fuel Accountability Coalition

A Sense of Place

Franklin, Pennsylvania. The place I was born seems to participate in what is sometimes labeled “sacred geography.” No one really knows why people imbue certain places with a sense of particular significance, but we all do. Whether it is world-famous tourist sites or our humble hometowns, there are places for us that possess an emotional resonance that other places lack. By the time I was an adult I was eager to get away from my hometown, to stretch myself and see if there was more to this world than these ancient green hills were willing to disclose. But still I return. When something brings my town into prominence, it somehow still impacts me. In the second season of the X-Files Mulder and Scully came to Franklin. Of course, the episode was not filmed here, just set here. But that was enough. My small hometown had been validated. It is part of my personal sacred geography.

I recently learned about WestPA Magazine. While it still has a way to go before becoming mainstream, it needles into that sense of belonging that refuses to let me go. Reading about the grandeur that once settled over this town feels like reading my own biography at times. Last night, for example, I learned that one of the first steps of female equality—a small step, but we all must begin to walk somewhere—took place here. One of the inheritors of the oil wealth that originally put this region on the map was Charles Joseph Sibley Miller. He hosted two presidents on his yacht, partnered with John Astor and William Vanderbilt on a business venture, and had his car personally delivered by Louis Cheverolet. Although largely overlooked by history, Miller purchased a hot air balloon in which he took his wife, Mary Prentice Miller, for a ride, making her the first known woman aeronaut in history. One small lift for a woman, one giant lift for womankind.

There seems to be no scientific basis for sacred geography. It is simply something that we sense. I left my home region, the birthplace of the oil industry, a site of some importance in the Revolutionary War, to pursue a more tenuous, if abstract career track. And still I come back and find myself amazed. I suspect our sense of sacred geography evolved along with our penchant for territorialism, our desire for private property, and our need to find sanctuary of some kind. I can stake no claims for the accomplishments of those who settled this region, but for me it will always be a touch-point for sacred geography. When I make my occasional returns, it feels as though I might still belong.



What do God and great pools of gooey, flammable, decomposed ancient biomass have in common? Quite a lot apparently. A picture in this morning’s paper of a Caribbean Petroleum Corp. storage facility explosion took me back to my childhood. I was born in the same place as the oil industry, although I think it was in different hospitals. Northwestern Pennsylvania is where the industrial use of oil was discovered (ancients had learned that the stuff was extremely flammable and used it for cruel weapons, but never figured how to grease an axle with it). One day my brothers and I were playing outside and noticed flames jetting up from an adjacent hillside. We saw giant ashes, some nearly the size of dinner plates, floating down on a summer day and it seemed like a strange gray snow was falling. A funny smell was in the air. That night on the news we learned that a local oil refinery had exploded and when we went to the site to gawk, it was amazing to see colossal storage tanks melted like so many ten-ton candles. It is an image I’ll never forget.

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

Lord Balfour envisions chariots of fire

My wife’s favorite historian is Barbara Tuchman. We’ve read most of her books. Bible and Sword, however, was especially eye-opening for me. This book describes, step-by-step, how the British Empire forged its alliance with Israel. Tuchman is a meticulous historian, noting minute details that add understanding to the overall picture. One of the key motivating factors that led Lord Arthur James Balfour in his support of a homeland for the Jewish Diaspora was his belief that a physical Israel was required before the Second Coming of Christ could take place. This is a sentiment that has been shared by some recent, very highly ranking American politicians.

Enter Col. Edwin Drake. Drake was the first person to have the idea of drilling for oil. Several local prospectors scampered through the hills of Pennsylvania looking for oil streams where petroleum could be skimmed off the water and refined into kerosene. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum was much easier to collect and didn’t involve peg-legs spearing great white whales — oh wait, wrong story. As an alternative to whale oil, petroleum made a market impact and soon other uses were descried. There was an oil boom near Titusville, Pennsylvania when Drake hit oil, and soon the industry that give birth to Quaker State, Pennzoil, and Enron was up and running. As uses for petroleum multiplied demand shot through the roof. Drake died in poverty and the industry he helped found rolled ever forward.

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

Col. Edwin Drake envisioning a drink

After the Second World War, vast oil beds were discovered in the Middle East. Israel was declared a nation, and world-wide demand for petroleum was astronomical. Not all nations of the former Ottoman Empire welcomed the sudden interest in their natural resources or the presence of an allied nation in their midst. Although the roots go deeper and are much more complex, the scenario was set for a crisis that has lasted for my entire life and shows no signs of slowing down.

So what does God have to do with a complex mix of hydrocarbons and other organic compounds? The unbelievable wealth generated by petroleum products has been under-girded with a religious gullibility and deeply held faith that Jesus needs some help in returning. As long as we’re waiting, we might as well get filthy rich. Politicians with connections to Big Oil and the Big Guy have it all figured out. Take all that you can and wait for the God who has blessed you so richly to come home. I still remember that refinery explosion, and some childhood memories have become paradigms and parables that have as many applications as petroleum itself. When the oil beds run dry, what will grease the axles of Kingdom Come?

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god

Mechanical worshiper bowing down to a subterranean god