The Story of Here Begins

To read the first post in this series, "The Story of Here Begins" click here.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Up Water Tower Hill

The climb to the top of Water Tower Hill, near my house, begins at the bottom of Elmwood Street in the neighborhood loosely known as Sherrelwood Estates. Though, to tell the truth, the words “climb” and “hill” overdo things a bit in this context. It is really just a walk up a steep street, followed by a few more steps on a path that is a little steeper. I like walking there as much as arriving, because I pass by a tangled Fangorn Forest of juniper bushes that conceal a whole village of amber and black foxes. They wander the streets at night, but always look out of place against a backdrop of trash cans and parked cars. Here, in a tiny pocket of accidental wildness, it is possible to convince myself that I am on their turf, not the other way round. If the time of day is right (early morning or late evening), I frequently catch glimpses of them catching glimpses of me.

When I’ve ascended the hill as far as I can, the path levels out on the “summit” and traces the shape of a doughnut around a large, tan, cylindrical water tank. A barbed wire-topped chain link fence (with motion sensors inside) bravely guards the sides of the tank from local graffiti artists, who have to settle for decorating neighborhood traffic signs and privacy fences instead. There is one small tree beside the path on top. It recently put on new growth again after a prolonged illness of unknown origin; loneliness, perhaps.

The huge tank more closely resembles an oil storage facility than the quaint Mayberry image of a proper tower on legs, with the name of the town painted on the side, along with the high school football team mascot, and “Class of (whoever is next in line to graduate)”. That tower belongs in a real community. This one is a foreign object. I’m pretty sure it actually stores water, though there are no visible pipes above ground to offer clues, so that’s just an assumption. It’s one of many assumptions I routinely make about things in my environment—complicated power relays; strange-looking antennas; cameras on top of traffic signal poles; random little non-descript buildings with gray metal doors and no windows. Who knows how these things work, or even what they really do, for that matter? (For all I know—really know—the water tank is actually a UFO exit ramp on a subterranean highway leading all the way to Area 51 in Nevada.)  Apart from a handful of technicians and people who store up esoteric facts for entertainment, very few of us could explain how our highly complex way of life works, much less fix it if it started to fail. It makes me wonder if techno-specialization really is a step up on the evolutionary scale, as most futurists insist, or a dizzy, death-defying experiment in collective tight rope walking without a net. I suspect society is poised to find out which. Shortly.

So, if this isn’t a climb, and it isn’t a hill, and it doesn’t really look like a water tower, what’s the point of naming this essay as I did? Because within the circle I drew on my map at home (with a radius of ten miles; enclosing 314 square miles) this is the closest thing we’ve got to a hill worth climbing—that I know of so far, anyway. Besides, Water Tower Hill has no other name that I can find, so I exercised my first-in-line right to make one up. It will do as well as any other. The knob probably had a better name for much of its brief contact with human beings, back when the Cheyenne were the party in power in these parts. Maybe it was something mystical suggested by the spirits who used to live here, and who might consider returning if we made them the right offer. Or maybe it was simply called, “Where-My-Horse-Went-Lame-That-Time Hill”. Who knows?

Nobody who lives here now, that’s for sure. Now it is just an unremarkable, unnoticed high spot among a bunch of mostly unremarkable, brick houses built when Eisenhower was president. Now it’s where teenagers go to smoke Camels, drink Pabst Blue Ribbon, talk trash about their parents, and make out. It’s a place to throw out a blanket on the Fourth of July and watch the fireworks displays over the city. The hill’s flank does make for some wicked fast sledding in winter. Oh, and it’s a pretty good place for wanderers like me to come and walk in circles around the tank and think about things.

Which is why I’ve climbed it today. That, and to take in the view—a 3-D panoramic picture window onto my world. There are the Fruited Plains to the east, Purple Mountain Majesty in the west, and the bar graph outline of downtown Denver to the south. Sixty miles farther south is legendary Pikes Peak (visible on clear days). North, well, the topography rises gently a few miles out obscuring what would otherwise be a clear shot to Wyoming and then all the way to the North Pole via Canada.

Truth is, this little hill is among the vanguard of the Continental Divide. This is where a blind person walking westward from Kansas would begin to get the idea that something different was about to happen. In many ways, I am that person and have stumbled blindly forward through my life to land here, forced at last to face the fact that something different—very different—is about to happen here. The plodding life we lived on the plains of prosperity all these years is coming to an end. All of us have arrived at a crossroads and a transition in human history of monumental magnitude—arguably the most significant we’ve ever faced. (Die hard “doomers” will object to such dainty descriptive words. They prefer “crash”, “collapse”, “the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it”. I can get there too, when I really start thinking about things. But, those words aren’t the ones evoked by the view from Water Tower Hill. Not just yet, anyway, so for now I’ll stick with less flammable ones.)

I’m in the right place, because this little spot on the planet is the very embodiment of transitions and crossroads. For instance, I am standing exactly between two world-class geographic features: the Great Plains, a vast continental ocean of flat farmland and prairie, and the Rocky Mountains, a range that stretches 3,000 miles from Canada to Mexico, with fifty-two peaks in excess of 14,000 feet in Colorado alone. This is where The American West truly begins, a topographic moment of truth where pioneers once smacked into the enormity of their decision to leave behind the well-behaved woods and farms of Colonial America in search of a new life. A new life awaited them, alright—if it didn’t kill them first.

Also, about three miles from here, I can see the crossroads of two great interstate highways: I-25 and I-70. The former lies south to north like an uncoiled rope, from Las Cruces, New Mexico (just a few miles north of Juarez, now the most dangerous city on earth, they say) past Albuquerque, and “chic” Santa Fe, over Raton Pass, along the western-most edge of the Great Plains through Colorado, all the way to bustling Buffalo, Wyoming, where it joins up with I-90 east of the Bighorn National Forest.  I-70 sprouts from the back streets of Baltimore on the Atlantic coast, ducks south of Pittsburgh, but then threads the needle of Columbus, Indianapolis, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Denver, before petering out in the Utah desert without so much as a lemonade stand present to witness its confluence with I-15.

These highways are like giant concrete wormholes tunneling through space and time, hurling goods and people across vast distances at hyperspeed, with little or no friction (interaction) with the surrounding countryside. And they intersect right here, within the boundaries of my circular, walkable world! What an honor for all who live here, really—to bear witness every day to a surging river of plastic, glass, rubber, and metal, shaped into cars and trucks of every ilk; buses; motor homes; Harley Davidsons and other two-wheelers running in packs; and, above all, eighteen-wheel tractor trailers hauling an unfathomable inventory of stuff from anywhere stuff is made to anywhere stuff is sold. They haul massive and indecipherable machinery-stuff from here to yonder and back again (more things no one understands). The constant noise of these Anthropocene river rapids washes up the sides of my hill, like a tide that only comes in, never goes out again. I hate to even consider the not-so-good-for-you fumes riding in on those waves as well. Let’s just say they are visible in the air on days when Pikes Peak is not.

But, of course, that line of thought leads directly to the Founder of the whole dystopian feast, without which this spot would still be a grassy hill where pronghorn antelope graze, instead of an earthen table top for an ugly water tank; without which I’d be looking at a woven cord of cottonwood trees along the meandering South Platte River, and short grass prairie beyond, instead of a vista only a Captain of Industry could truly appreciate; without which the human world would be still “made by hand”—by (fewer) people who never stopped travelling by foot—theirs or ones belonging to a helpful animal.

In “The Story of Here Begins” I asked myself the question: Setting aside the issues of the wide world for a second, who and what are right here under my nose? Well, from the top of Water Tower Hill, one answer is abundantly clear: My little ten-mile world is filled with cars. Lots and lots and lots—a god king hell of a lot—of cars. A large slice of the blame for a century’s worth of wrong turns can be laid at the feet of this one invention. More than any other single toy in the playroom of technology, it has enabled us to go completely crazy—and to get there in air conditioned comfort and style!

But as potent as this automotive crazy-maker is, it still isn’t the real spike in the punch. No, the enabler has an enabler of its own. I’m talking about Oil. Gasoline. Diesel. Cars have only managed to clog the arteries of my world because we’ve gorged ourselves on cheap, easy oil. We are greased up one side and slicked down the other. It is in everything we depend on for our really swell (non-negotiable) lifestyle. The list of products (including food) that owe their existence to a barrel of crude would go on for pages (and others have compiled it already). For now, let’s restrict our discussion to the oil devoted to moving people and stuff around. Most of what I can see from Water Tower Hill depends in one way or another on the energy stored in this magic carpet. If I could press a button and simultaneously combust all the liquid petroleum products stashed in all the gas tanks, gas stations, gas trucks, and gas cans presently within my sight, the force of the explosion might well alter the orbit of the earth around the sun. (Not really, all you physicists tempted to show me the error in my calculations. It’s hyperbole, to make a point.)

As if to underscore that point further, I look southeast, about four miles away, and have no trouble locating the Suncor Energy oil refinery. It’s a puny little thing compared to the sprawling monster refineries along the Gulf Coast, but, hey, it’s ours. Trains loaded with tanker cars deliver the crude at all hours. Alchemists turn the goo into gas, and then other locomotive drivers  pull in with other, empty, tanker cars and say “Fill ‘er up!” When I come here at night, I can easily spot the gas flares—towers that look like flame throwers pointed at heaven—disposing of unwanted methane by burning it. When the wind is just right (or wrong) I can smell the poisonous sulfur dioxide venting into the atmosphere. Today the sun glints off the incomprehensible tangle of tanks and conduits that looks to me like an unmelodious pipe organ built by extraterrestrials to remind them of home. All this—cars, pollution, noise, and eyesore refineries—so I can sit down, turn a key, and levitate (nearly for free!) to any destination I choose. Never have to walk again! Powerful magic, for sure.

But in this case it is literally black magic. Black gold. Texas Tea. It promised to free us, once and for all, from the straightjacket of physical limits to the good life. But science tells us that nothing is ever created out of thin air. E=mc2  means energy and matter simply rearrange themselves, changing from one to the other and back again, as needed. In other words, there is no such thing as a free magical lunch. You’ve got to pay for your adventures in Godhood. Every so-called advancement comes with a price tag pinned to its sleeve, payable in unintended consequences and hidden traps that grow tighter the higher you reach for more.

Today, I’m looking at one of those price tags—the bloated concrete and steel corpus of Hydrocarbon Man.

There is much more to see from Water Tower Hill, and I’ll be back again. I’m sure the ugliness is not the only thing I’ll find when I walk the land down there as humans were meant to do, one step at a time. Even mistakes as large as ours can be forgiven and put right when we make up our minds to back up and try again. I have the feeling there are people everywhere doing just that—creating sanity and beauty in the most unlikely places. But I’ve had enough for now. I head down the hill again (no sociable foxes today). Ten minutes later I arrive at the gate of New Leaf Gardens, the urban farm oasis belonging to my family.

I look across the half-acre of greenery and marvel at the sheer extravagance of it. There is more “green” contained in sunlight than any other color. And there is more unbridled, unconditional generosity in green things than any other creature on earth. Pick a green bean today, and tomorrow the plant will shower you with five more. Behead a broccoli? No hard feelings; try again in a few days. Eggplants balloon one after another, like deep purple soap bubbles. Tomatoes blush at the thought of loving hands, reaching, softly pressing, pulling them free, so ready to surrender their sweet, tangy flesh to you. (No wonder farmers can be such a lusty bunch!)

I can still hear the faint rush of traffic on nearby highways and streets; a distant police siren; a motorcycle in need of a muffler. I am comforted to think there are plentiful reasons to believe a quieter, less mobile season is upon us. And then the same thought makes me uneasy. How will we adjust? What new arrangements will we make for ourselves in a much smaller, walkable world? I don’t know. But I do know the answers are far more likely to be found in a garden—tucked under a cabbage leaf, or hiding among the cucumbers—than in places humans usually run to when faced with scary change: fear, conflict, crazed competition. For one thing, once peak oil has fully settled in and the hydrocarbon vault is functionally emptied (that is, what’s left is finally unaffordable or inaccessible), the plants—who live quite comfortably on a fixed solar income—can remind us how to stop writing bad checks, balance our energy budget, and live within our means again.

I can hear them now: “Have some dinner. Then we’ll talk.” 


Betsy said...

Thank you for starting this blog. You have a beautiful prose style and a wonderful attitude towards the bounty we can discover in the midst of the train wreck occurring in our civilization.

Alan Ray said...

Betsy, thanks for the encouragement. I'll keep it coming in the hope that every drop helps fill the bucket of our need for thoughtful change.