Sunday, December 07, 2014

"WHO BY FIRE" by Fred Stenson

Fred Stenson and the 18 books he's written so far.

Ten thousand years ago human beings turned from hunting/gathering to agriculture.  They quickly became powerful enough to invade North America and destroy the hunters and gatherers there, though some of those were also farmers.  With metal, horses, special seeds and smallpox, the Euros quickly settled across the high prairie and began to raise their families.  But 200 years ago some of the same people discovered fossil fuel and invented the Industrial Revolution.

In the beginning the high prairie saw only railroads and welcomed them as marketing tools for their bonanza of small grains (in a lucky year).  But fossil fuels were pooled beneath the farmland and soon began to change the terms of ownership.  Since then we’ve gone on to build mighty dams, to mine radioactive ore, and to industrialize the wind, all to assure power for machines, but taking a toll on the land.  

“Who by Fire” by Fred Stenson is a clear, vivid account of two generations of a high prairie rural family whose lives were controlled and sometimes snuffed by high sulphur oil wells that released not just fuel but also a form of hydrogen that was poisonous, corrosive, and explosive.  It turned lungs to wood, ate the iron out of barbed wire and farm machinery, destroyed the stainless steel tubes that were supposed to contain it, and, when uncontained, exploded like a bomb.  You can find all this online or in old newspapers.

The story happened around here and north of here.  Fred Stenson grew up in Southern Alberta so part of the story was lived through by his own family and neighbors.  Still today when I go to Cut Bank or Shelby shopping, I get whiffs of sulphur.  The Great Falls refinery was infamous for its “skunkworks.”  The worst damage was early before people really understood what was going on.  The “industrial” enterprises are so technical that only trained engineers can understand what’s really going on, and that’s the level the core story follows: a physically suffering boy who becomes an emotionally suffering engineer because he doesn’t understand that as much as his body was nearly destroyed, the trauma of ordinary farm folks trying to understand the destructive changes in their existence have also tied his psyche into knots.  Engineers aren’t good at emotional dynamics.

Because this story covers two generations -- one nearly smashed and one slowly crawling back -- it’s not a simple muck-raking novel, though as the characters work their way through the facts we also learn a lot.  It’s doesn’t plunge us into the abyss of despair but leads us along the faithfulness and constant effort of ordinary people to some kind of new balance.  Eventually the machinery that is supposed to remove the stench and danger begins to work better, maybe even well enough to live with, though it’s clear that major corporations have bought out politicians, regulators, even newspapers so citizens are forced into constant vigilance and monitoring.  Thank goodness for the Internet and for the gathering strength of the Indigenous Peoples.

Maybe the Montana High-Line and the foothills/prairie south of Calgary have reached some kind of balance, partly because of inevitable depletion of the resources and partly because of major changes in the world market due to frakking and Middle Eastern chaos.  But up north are the Tar Sands and in the NE corner of Montana is the Bakken formation.  They begin as though they were gold strikes, soon become grinding miserable places that push out the previous quiet lives, and then start to suck up money to control murder, “accidental” deaths, illness, and a growing under-culture with global connections.

“Billy,” whose love of pure physics is made into poetry by a short inter-chapter in which his father shows the little boy how to put a thread on a rod so it creates a bolt that will take a nut, becomes a compulsive gambler and a drunk -- like a lot of other people.  It’s plain that no matter how clever the strategies of ordinary people, when they are up against international corporations, they are basically pulling the lever on a one-armed bandit.  But the universe marches on and the CEO gamblers also sometimes lose.  Given enough time, they cannot win because all natural commodities are finite and the values of the larger culture grow and change.  We didn’t know about the greenhouse effect then.

Fred doesn’t touch the depletion of the next commodity: grain itself.  The prairie topsoil revealed by metal-prowed plows in the first Euro generation has grown now into an industry as powerful and unrelenting as oil-cracking plants with machines to match.  The biological substrate of roots and other biota is thinning as much as the small animal and insect life that once inhabited it.  Educating city slickers about what happens when there is no grain won’t be as easy away from the Ukrainian farmers on the prairie who lost ancestors to Stalin’s economically imposed grain famine. 

A reading in Pincher Creek, Alberta

Billy’s parents fight hard to save their marriage and family and though they take a lot of damage, they manage to hang on.  In fact, Billy and his two sisters remain attached enough to that imperiled old homestead to return to it at retirement age, scarred but feisty.  I particularly enjoyed the chapter in which one of Bill’s “big sisters” decides to wake him up.  She has a smart mouth and clear understanding of what goes on.

Two letters are key to the plot.  One is a sort of gesture towards an impossible love that could be a potential lever to win a major lawsuit.  The other letter, by the same person, becomes the key that unlocks frozen Bill enough for him to accept help.  All through, there are people who wish him well and try to help him in spite of his resistance and the “stink” on him that he can’t seem to crack.  This book will not leave you despairing.

But it will make you wary and it ought to.  It’s meant to.  The writing is clear and apt enough to be understood and appreciated by the people who live in this country, leaning against a hard, cold wind, walking with their dogs, talking in their heads to people who are no longer living.  This is not a book for city dwellers, no matter what Western phenomena they wish to hug.  It’s meant to help locals dig in heels and fight.

Stenson is not alone.  His friend Andrew Nikiforuk, a journalist, is a bit more fiery and political, taking on “The Tar Sands” in his book by that name.  In his newest work, “The Energy of Slaves”, he tries to see beyond our practice of exploitation -- whether it is African people, fossil fuel deposits, or factory farming animals.  Now that the Internet crosses international lines, Canadian books can be ordered online at“Who by Fire” is on Kindle there.  Same for Nikiforuk’s books.  Even for me, but none of mine are on Kindle.

I met Nikiforuk, Richard Manning (a Montana version of this sort of enviro), and Pamela Banting (a poet and professor) who is married to Stenson, at a watershed conference in Waterton Park more than ten years ago.  They were working as hard then as they are now.  They all have focus, endurance.  The Canadians are living in or near Calgary, a three/four hour drive from here.  From Valier I can see Chief Mountain at the edge of Glacier National Park and the contiguous Waterton Park which is on the Canadian side.   We are a community of place and some of us have eloquent voices indeed.  I hope I never have to hug a buffalo but I could hug Fred Stenson.   Leonard Cohen's song of the title.

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