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.

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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.

Washington Irving

WashingtonIrvingLess known now than he was in his own lifetime, Washington Irving is an odd literary character. Many writers, at least of tomes we now have our children read in school, were not necessarily stars in their time. Some were obscure, their genius only becoming clear when they were safely dead. Washington Irving, however, rocketed to fame fairly early in his life and became what Brian Jay Jones refers to as an icon. He was one of the most famous men in America in his lifetime. Although he was never properly a novelist, he pretty much earned his career by writing. Today he is best remembered for “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle,” two tales from his Sketchbook. Those of us who work in Gotham may not realize that Irving gave New York City its famous nickname. He also coined the sobriquet “knickerbocker” that still describes New Yorkers and their basketball franchise.

Washington Irving: The Definitive Biography of America’s First Bestselling Author, by Jones, is a revealing look at the author. Irving was raised in a strict, religious family with a father known to many simply as “the Deacon.” As Jones makes clear, Irving did not accept the harsh religion of his father, moving on to become skeptical of religion itself. Like his attempt to make writing a profession, in his religious outlook Irving was ahead of his time. Having been raised with a deity who had no respect for humanity, it is no wonder that a mere mortal might turn his back on the divine.

This was during the flowering of the age of reason. Like his younger contemporary Edgar Allan Poe, Irving knew early losses yet did not call out for a supernatural deliverance. Although evangelical sentiment has never been far from the surface in America, it would not bubble through to anything like modern proportions until Irving had been dead for about sixty years. Indeed, he died the same year that Darwin’s Origin of Species was published. Jones does not go into detail concerning Irving’s religious affiliations during life, but he had his funeral among the Episcopalians, and found his final resting place in the cemetery at Sleepy Hollow. Today his legacy in that regard lives on. With a difference, however—in the most recent movie and television versions, religion has been injected in an obvious way into what Irving wrote as a merely secular tale.

Writing the Cosmos

EvermoreOn occasion those with great wealth try to give something back to society. One such gift takes the form of libraries. The J. P. Morgan Library on Madison Avenue in New York is a touch pricey for those who live in humbler domiciles, but the Edgar Allan Poe display proved too immense a draw to ignore. Standing inches away from manuscripts written in Poe’s fine hand was a kind of communion. It wasn’t too difficult to believe he might have somehow been there. In Baltimore last month I didn’t have the opportunity to revisit his grave, but I picked up a book by one of his modern cousins, Harry Lee Poe. This Poe has theological training and an interest in seeing that his famous cousin isn’t theologically shortchanged. Evermore: Edgar Allan Poe and the Mystery of the Universe is a rare look at Poe and religion. Treatments of the theology of writers are hardly rare, but since Poe wasn’t openly religious, he was typecast a little too readily into the putatively godless camp of those of us with a taste for the macabre.

Evermore may not convince everyone that Poe was a profound religious thinker, but Harry Lee Poe marshals substantial evidence from both Poe’s published writings and letters that he was often caught in that crux between science and religion. Indeed, there is no evidence that Poe was an atheist. He wrote on what were considered lowbrow topics because those were the kinds of pieces that would sell. Since Poe was perhaps the first American to attempt to make a living solely by his pen, he had to pay attention to what people wanted to read. Evermore, while not a biography in the usual sense, does point out that Poe wrote across genres and that his life, while often tragic, had many spells of happiness and some contentment. Poe was a victim of character assassination after his death by a second-tier clergyman, Rufus Griswold. Much of the book is spent dispelling myths.

Perhaps above all, Edgar Allan Poe had a clear mind that could keep imagination alive in the religion and science debate that was to explode shortly after his death with Darwin’s Origin of Species. For Poe, the universe was a story being crafted by God. Creativity was essential to beauty, a concept that haunted Poe. A writer must be introspective, and this will often leave him or her open to criticism by those who prefer simpler answers. Great beauty can be found in complexity, however, and the practice of ratiocination requires a healthy dose of imagination to help make sense of a world that often seems to make no sense any other way. And standing here, my face inches from a handwritten copy of “The Bells,” I can almost hear them ringing.

Legislating Reality

The follies that plague humankind come in an almost cyclical form. As old Ecclesiastes wrote, “there is nothing new under the sun.” I just finished D. Graham Burnett’s Trying Leviathan: The Nineteen-Century New York Court Case That Put the Whale on Trial and Challenged the Order of Nature. Other than the fact that the subtitle accounts for a good portion of the book, this account shows just how little we’ve progressed. At the heart of the book is Maurice v. Judd, a New York case of 1818 in which a whale merchant contested an assessor’s fee on “fish oil” by claiming a whale was not a fish. In “trial of the century” style, star witnesses were called in, bringing science to the docket. It was known, even in these pre-Origin of Species days, that a whale was a mammal, but what soon became clear as Burnett laid out the facts of the case was that the Bible held sway. Genesis divides the classes of nature into beasts, birds, and fish. This simplistic taxonomy was held by many in the nineteenth century to be a sacred statement of fact. If whales lived in the water, they were fish. The fact that they nurse their young, who are born live, and that they share the skeletal template of land creatures and have warm blood, and breathe through lungs, simply did not matter. If Genesis says fish, fish it is.

My mind immediately jumped ahead just over a century to the Scopes Trial. Once again, science was bent over the knee of Genesis and poised for a paddlin’. And the challenges still have not stopped. Call it Intelligent Design, or Answers in Genesis—anything but mythology—and it will keep coming back for more. Already, in 1818, lawyers were arguing that science could be decided in the courtroom. Facts only muddy the issue. If Genesis weren’t enough, Jonah’s “great fish” was called a “whale” in the Gospels, so, QED. There is no debating Bible science. Just to prove the case, we’ll bring it to trial so that twelve people with no science training can decide the issue based on rhetoric. Disciples of dogma. No surprise that the jury found the whale to be a fish. There’s no stopping a true believer.

My wife gave me this book because of my enormous fondness for Moby Dick. In both books the discussion of killing and butchering whales bothers me immensely, but I know that Melville is running after a beast of a metaphor and that whale-boat skimming across the surface of the ocean has lanced a far greater prey than a white whale. The creationists, however, fail to see the beauty of mythic images. Anyone who’s even watched a court drama on television knows that the truth is not what courts seek. Courts seek to convince a jury, whether a person is guilty or not. No matter if it’s a while whale or a white bronco involved. Truth is much more subtle and fragile. Truth can be discerned by facts. But the Bible is a heavy book, and when dropped from a great enough height, can fracture even the laws of nature. Like Ahab, the creationists are never truly gone forever.