Intersecting webs of our lives Or, The Creature from the Black Lagoon

by Joni Grady
Sunday, January 30, 2012

I’m going to talk about webs of life, at least 4 of them, and a period of time spanning 350 million years. That these webs grew and spread and intersected and finally became so inextricably mixed that I wonder if they can ever be separated, is one of the great ironies of my life.

The first interdependent web that concerns us is the one that existed at least 350 million years ago when the world had erupted with life on land and sea. The climate wasn’t that different from our own though our continents were unrecognizable and proto North America was situated near the equator. There were swamps in what is now West Virginia and Pennsylvania and a shallow sea covered large areas to the west. There were huge palm-like trees and weird creatures living on land, and, like now, jillions of microscopic creatures and plants and algae in the sea, all connected and nourished by the sun and the air. There was so much life that when it died it often got buried in the swamps or the bottom of the ocean without being decomposed by bacteria first. In the oceans this resulted in large masses of organic material being buried under subsequent deposits as shale was formed from mud. This massive organic deposit later became heated and transformed under pressure into oil from the Mississippian period. On land, with less heat and pressure you get coal and the Pennsylvanian period. It was a pretty good system if you want to make fossil fuels and have lots and lots of time to wait. Millions and millions of years. Time for the continents to drift around some more, for species to come and go, for ice ages to pull the water out of the seas, and warm periods to put it back, for mountain ranges to rise and be eroded and rise again, for many more webs of life to be created. And some of that was destined to be buried and transformed into oil and coal, or maybe tar sands and peat, as well. Meanwhile the oil is moving out of its source rock, flowing through permeable formations, getting trapped by impermeable ones, waiting like an imprisoned creature to be set free.

I very much doubt that Colonel Edwin L. Drake thought of it that way, however, when he began looking for oil in the 1850s, many tens of millions of years later. Oil springs, like water springs, were known near Titusville, Pennsylvania, indeed, Native Americans had used oil from seeps for hundreds of years to waterproof clothing and canoes. The Seneca Oil Company was founded on the belief that if you could just get the oil out of the ground instead of waiting for it to rise by itself, you could corner the lamp fuel industry instead of relying on whales which were hard to come by and getting harder all the time. Drake and his crew struck oil at about 69 ft in 1859, leading to the first of many oil “booms” around the world and forming the first node in the interconnected, interdependent web of the oil industry—and many millions of human lives.

Fast forward again to the 1920s and 30s. My parents, John Kellough and Gene Ross grew up miles and cultures apart, but that oil industry web brought them together. Gene grew up in a tiny East Texas town, Kerens, that was the center of cotton farming country. It had a cotton gin, several dry goods stores and groceries, and the usual bunch of churches. In 1923 oil was discovered in the nearby town of Powell. A recent history of the area had this to say about it:

“Soon that field was producing more oil than all the fields in New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, Iowa, Illinois, Colorado, and Kansas combined. It was one of the most remarkable fields in the history of the oil business.

Despite all the euphoria that accompanied the boom, there was also tragedy. Drillers hit a gusher on May 9, 1923. The following day, about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, a new crew reported to work to begin their shift. While changing a control valve on the new well, a spark ignited the derrick floor, turning the area around the well into an inferno. Two crewmen stumbled out of the flames, alive but seriously burned. Both died later that evening. The final death toll was 13. Fueled by a steady flow of oil and gas, the fire burned for 11 days, lifting heavy clouds of smoke into the air. There were other fires in the field, but none as disastrous as this one.

With no controls on production, drillers literally pumped the field dry, and by the late 1920s the boom had ended. The drillers, roustabouts, roughnecks, and other “oilies” moved on to work in the East Texas field that was discovered in 1930. But the Powell boom brought significant economic and social changes to Navarro County.”

One of the changes was the increased number of automobiles being driven in that small town and right then, as a rather willful teenager, Gene joyfully got stuck in the gigantic web that the oil and auto industries were weaving over the country. She fell in love with cars and decided she would somehow get to drive every automobile in Kerens, including at least one black Packard roadster that was owned by a visiting oil man she later ended up working for. She was a very persuasive young girl.

When she was a junior in 1930 my mom refused to leave the University of Texas in Austin to go back home and teach school when the crash destroyed her father’s dry goods business and he had no more money to pay her tuition. Instead she took a job in a sandwich shop on the Drag, working from 6 in the evening til 2 in the morning and trying to stay awake for classes a few hours later. It was so hard that when she heard of a job paying 25 cents an hour for typing 100 hours per month she gladly traded $10/week with meals for $6/week without. She had gone off to college with a new Remington typewriter and a promise from her father that he’d write her once a week if she’d write him back. This was a promise she kept far beyond his death in 1963, adding new names and more sheets of carbon as time went on, creating her own little web of life and love. Which is to say that she could type. And she was able to survive the next year and a half with the additional $10/month her sister could send.

What was this job she so gladly accepted? Sorting and enumerating Pennsylvanian fossils at the Bureau of Economic Geology. That old web from 350 million years ago and the new one from 1859 were about to wrap another strand around her. I always knew it as “The Bureau” and didn’t think too much about it but it’s pretty obvious: you study geology to find oil when you live in Texas. Her boss kept telling her she was stupid so to prove him wrong she began taking geology courses, including micropaleontology (the study of fossil micro-organisms known as foraminifera) and didn’t stop thinking about the earth and the tale of its prehistory written in the rocks for the rest of her life. When she did graduate in 1932, there were of course no jobs out in the real world so as usual in times like that (and these,) she decided to work on a Master’s degree studying the geology of her home Navarro county. A big miscalculation: the hometown folks and particularly her dad did NOT approve of a young woman wandering around the countryside alone wearing boys’ knickerbockers! Still, persuading just about everyone she knew to escort her, she collected a goodly stash of fossils and returned to UT for fall semester. Naturally, however, when a job with Continental Oil came up in San Antonio that December paying $102.50/month instead of her usual $30-40, she leaped at the chance and became further enmeshed in that sticky, sticky web the oil industry weaves. Gene stayed at Continental for a couple of years, learning the geology of West Texas from the information that came in from the oil wells, even being allowed out in the field to collect samples of rock as it came up from the hole. Eventually she was moved to Houston and then took a job with a company that used advanced electrical technology to “see” a little more clearly into the rock formations, a French company known as Schlumberger, where one of her jobs was keeping track of the young men they were trying to recruit as engineers.

Meanwhile my dad, John, was studying in Iowa, with no thought of Texas or oil or fossils. Times were hard there too, of course, but by 1937 he’d finished the work for his Master’s degree in physics and was looking for work. Sure enough, Gene’s boss had been impressed by John’s membership in Sigma Xi and Phi Beta Kappa and hired him in June, even before formal graduation. They met then, of course, but not again until the office pool party in August because John was being trained to interpret the information from the oil wells. Three weeks and a bunch of cheap dates later he proposed, and they were married 75 years ago on December 12, 1937.

And so, by the time I was born in 1941, in Midland, Texas, they had already criss-crossed the country from Texas to Michigan to Wyoming and back to Texas following the search for oil. In Wyoming, where the Schlumberger district office covered all the surrounding states as well, and John was the only engineer, Gene would often drive him to the wells so he could get a little sleep in the back seat.

Things changed a little after the war when my brother and sister came along. We moved every few years, from Florida to Oklahoma to Kansas to Midland again and then to Houston, where it had all started. Gene didn’t drive John to wells any more, of course, but in Midland in the late 40s she renewed her interest in plotting well sites on maps (one of her jobs for Continental Oil.) She had learned that oil workers were constantly getting lost on the featureless plain that is West Texas and for a couple of years her maps were known all over the Permian Basin, printed at the Schlumberger office, posted in cafes, traded amongst the truck drivers.

Our lives revolved around the oil and gas business and Schlumberger. It was a matter of enormous pride to be part of that huge sector of the economy that influenced every aspect of life, from transportation to the power to heat and light homes and the ever-growing list of products from the petro-chemical industry. The explosions and fires and stench and pollution, the inevitable boom-and-bust cycles, seemed the natural price to be paid. The first computer I ever saw, on a field trip in high school, filled a huge room at Esso corporate headquarters (once Standard Oil and now ExxonMobil), and in the 60s, when Gene finally was able to finish the Master’s degree she’d begun in 1932, she got a part-time job there, still looking at the millions of years old foraminifera she had fallen in love with back in college. Our every vacation involved lots of driving and began with ordering “trip-ticks” from Esso with the best route marked in green highlighter. I learned to love maps with their interconnected webs of lines and I learned reluctantly to look at the geology of the countryside when I could be roused from my comic book stash. We saw the USA (though never in a Chevrolet) and Sunday afternoon entertainment was taking a drive–and that’s still my favorite thing to do. You see, I had also become enmeshed in the web, captured by the creature who’d been released from the depths.

There’s a strange thing about webs though: they sometimes inadvertently get mixed up with one woven by a countervailing force. In my freshman year at Rice I began dating a senior who took a summer job in the environmental engineering lab so he could stay in Houston instead of going back to Arkansas. And so began the insidious tug of war that would ultimately result in the state of contradiction we find ourselves in at the moment. For 40 years Les worked against the pollution of our waterways by trying to understand the microorganisms that decompose pollutants. (Ironically enough, the main difference between his bugs and Gene’s forams is the lack of a beautiful shell that can be fossilized.) He didn’t work in air pollution, however, and so didn’t think much about the effect of all the CO2 we and our fellow humans were dumping into the atmosphere. Other people, people in a different segment of the environmental web, were doing that work but of course they were all connected by the goal of a healthy planet. In our daily lives we did what we felt was our part in following the 7th Principle: turning off lights, recycling whatever was easy to do, supporting various environmental groups, helping start the Green Sanctuary movement at the Clemson UU Fellowship, even building two passive solar homes.

When my dad retired from privately held Schlumberger in the early 1970s what did they do with his profit-sharing windfall? They started buying Esso, and BP, and Chevron, and Conoco stock, of course. What happened when they died? I inherited a whole lot of ExxonMobil, and BP, and Chevron, and Conoco stock.

After John died in 2004 and before Gene’s death in 2010. Les gradually became aware of the CO2 issue, probably from colleagues at work and reading in the professional literature. By the time we saw “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 we were receptive to its message and had moved a little closer to the center of the climate change web. When the little known organization named announced its first nationwide action called “Step it up” in 2007, Les decided to organize a rally against CO2 emissions at Clemson University–and we’re still at it thanks to Cathy Strickler and the Climate Action Alliance of the Valley.

The point of all this has been to explain how difficult it is sometimes to follow the three key tasks of this religious community.

First: How do I make sense of my own family’s history when it turns out that what my parents devoted their lives to may be catastrophic for their great- granddaughter’s life and that of many millions of others? I cannot in any way blame them, of course, and yet they were definitely part of the problem, just as we and our comfortable lifestyle are now. Instead I must honor them for their unswerving devotion to understanding the truths of science and passing on a way to make sense of what’s happening in our world today.

Second: How can I argue with the care they gave me even though it was made possible by the very industry that today callously threatens the well-being of children all over the world? It’s a bit like being the daughter of a plantation owner and being raised and waited on by my daddy’s slaves—which is of course how my southern ancestors were brought up. The material gifts I was given I can pass on to the world but I must acknowledge that they were often gained at the expense of others and of the environment and am I therefore culpable as well?

Which brings us at last to justice-seeking and wrestling with all these issues. If I am also culpable how can I cast all those stones I love to throw at Exxon’s Evil Empire? An older law than the EPA’s says “Judge not, lest ye be judged.” We do love to judge those who preach to us—poor Al Gore learned that when he built his big house–even when he invested in green businesses. Martin Luther King has been pilloried for his womanizing. But does that make what they preached against any less terrible? Even our beloved Jefferson, whose name was used for years by our UU district, is now judged not for the freedoms he demanded for us but for using slave labor to maintain his comfortable lifestyle, much as I do with my electrical and mechanical slaves. And mine are slaves that actually change the atmosphere and thus the very climate of the one earth that you and I must inhabit.

Being a Unitarian Universalist is hard work and I for one am often not up to the job. I need to be reminded often of why we do what we do and how we must do it compassionately, with love, forbearance, and tolerance. We must recognize the truth of the 7th Principle, that we are all caught up in many different webs, both from the past and the present, many that support our efforts, some that seek to destroy us—and some that others want to tear apart. Navigating the gossamer threads is like walking a tightrope. Take care. Read the guidebooks. Hold each other’s hands.

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