Seeing the Future- in a Sense
Updated: Apr 10, 2019
Seeing the Future- A commentary on Rivers, Industry and Art- by Brian Keeler
Clairvoyance, prescience, precognition, intuition and other acts of getting a glimpse of possible scenarios are intriguing and make us crane our necks or attune our attention. Well, a recent experience while delivering a group of my paintings to a town in northwestern Pennsylvania proved to be somewhat of an eye opener of a more mundane variety of seeing the likely outcome of a certain course of action.
I am referring to an industrial invasion ramp-up in my hometown of Wyalusing, PA that has been on my mind very much in recent weeks since learning of it. I am referring to this planned humongous LNG plant to be constructed on the Susquehanna River plane just downstream from town.
I’ve lived a good part of my life in this town where I grew up and even now still own the family property there, an 1860 Italianate house, which I rent and still have an art studio there in an adjacent building as well. However, even though spending so many years in Pennsylvania I have only traveled across US route 6 on one other occasion and that was perhaps 30 years ago. Route 6 was one of the first intercontinental highways that went all the way across the US from Cape Cod to Sacramento- much like other and more famous routes- like the Route 66 of song. So on this trip it was almost like a new experience. The wilderness and remoteness, or at least the feeling of such is one of the main aspects of my impression of this drive. Even compared to rural Bradford County, PA this area of the northern part of the state seemed almost Adirondack like. There were not even many pastures or that many dairy farms, just lots of beautiful mountains, valleys and streams with occasional picturesque towns similar to Wyalusing and Towanda.
Then it happened, after a few hours of driving one comes on to the town of Warren, PA where I am currently having an exhibit of my work at the Crary Gallery. The Allegheny River flows west and south through here and along its northern bank an oil refinery stretches for a good two miles on the waterfront. It completely dominates the town with the gargantuan towers, smoke stacks, storage tanks and all aspects of this industry. The town proper of Warren, its historic central business district is mostly west of the refinery with a few views of the river where one could at least entertain the river without the plant. However the town does spread behind the plant for all of the length as well. Besides the visual predominance of the refinery there is the ever-present smell of oil lingering in the air, sort of like being in an old garage that smells of oil changes and gasoline.
My immediate impression was to see a connection and corollary between Warren and Wyalusing. Warren is substantially larger, with about 15,000 residents, and Wyalusing's population always hovering around 700 for many decades. But both being northern Pennsylvania river towns is the commonality. However one has this industry that has been part of the town since the 19thcentury. The other is considering a future to emulate its larger counterpart. I am asserting this goal of emulation here, however I believe that none who are promoting this LNG in Wyalusing have ever been to Warren or have they considered the comparisons. It appears that the vision for the residents of Wyalusing has not extended much beyond the supposed financial gain- they are seeing dollar signs and not much else.
To my way of thinking, no one in their right mind would even consider this vision of industrial onslaught as possibility for their community. I don’t think you would even wish this for your worst enemy. The scope of the Wyalusing LNG plant by New Fortress Energy would seem to probably be of similar breadth as the total inclusion for this LNG is 265 acres and also along a beautiful river. For example in a recent article, it was reported that there are plans to build a 500 plus parking lot on the site just for the construction workers. Yes, one town is an oil refinery and the other a natural gas related industry but still the overall impact and effect is similar in many respects. And the one in Warren is virtually part of the town and the Wyalusing one is planned for a site about a mile downstream to the southeast.
Warren, PA is however a beautiful old 19th century town with many stately old mansions still preserved including the spectacular Second-Empire style, mansard-roofed court house. The town has a well-preserved business district, a radio station, newspaper, a performing arts center and some fine restaurants too. I met the former publisher of the paper at my opening, Kevin Mead and was interviewed on the local radio station by the genial host Mark Silvis as well. There is a strong sense of pride and community evident from my brief meeting with people there. For example I dined after my opening reception with the gallery staff and with the new director of a community college that is just being planned. The Crary Art Gallery, a museum really, is very active with a great board of directors.
However, I am assuming this company town has had the oil refinery as so much a part of its fabric for so long that it would be difficult to imagine it without. Still, when talking about the refinery to my artist counterparts in Warren there was a moan of dismay when referring to the plant. Warren, PA is not the only town of that area that is fossil fuel dominated as nearby Bradford, PA is of a similar situation. Driving past either town, the vision of the oil refineries is the singular lasting impression.
As I have spent many enjoyable hours in my kayak on the Susquehanna River doing plein air painting or for the simple love of nature with friends, so it is difficult to imagine the artists of Warren venturing out to do the same with the plant dominating the water front there. The irony of the planned Wyalusing plant was that one of the justifications for the LNG was by a chamber of Commerce member who stated the increased tax revenues would allow the school district to hire a new art teacher, as they’ve had to cut back on art and music due to budget constraints (supposedly). I say supposedly because it was brought to my attention that the cutting of faculty was not related to budget. Anyway, a fair question would be to ask, will the artists or musicians from Wyalusing of future generations be likely to put their talents to use extolling the visual and spiritual benefits of a gargantuan industry on the shores of the river? Well maybe, but the songs of Pete Seeger, like his, "Sailing Down This Golden River” come to mind as examples of a more beneficial use of art. Or would any other environmentally attuned singer, painter or activists put their talents behind a corporate giant that was endangering the very beauty of the land they inhabit? Probably not. Can we imagine John Muir, Henry David Thoreau or Rachel Carson endorsing this project?
I’ve been availed of a view of the proponents of this endeavor to industrialize the Susquehanna Valley and some parts of it are not pretty, in fact they are darn right venal. Well to be fair, some seem to be decent and friendly folks with a congenial outreach to convince locals of the efficacy and benefits of their industry. On the flip side however is an undercurrent, if not outright animosity to any opposition to their dollar dedicated incentives. I was warned of this by a friend and artist from Lennox, PA who put up a brave fight over in Susquehanna County, PA to thwart the powers that be. She warned of the level of corruption by the politicians and the animosity from locals who were convinced to join with their corporate exploiters. Well, I’ve learned of the attitude through rebuttals to my letters in the local paper. One fellow for instance, believes that since I do not own property or pay taxes in the exact town where the LNG is planned (Browntown, PA) that I have no right to object. His cavalier response was of equal parts mean spirited, ignorant and dangerous. Does he really believe what is saying? If so, what is he doing all the way over in Wyalusing throwing his weight around and shooting his mouth off? This kind of attitude of his is dangerous because this is the very kind of petty and narrow vision that promotes lack of civic involvement. Furthermore it is the direct cause of disasters like the rail debacle in Canada a few years back with the explosion that leveled buildings and killed dozens. If this fellow’s logic where to be applied more widely, the people of Harrisburg, PA would not even be able to voice their opinion about TMI because it is a few miles south of their city. Another equally false rebuttal asserted that New York State was being held hostage by a small group of radical “fractivists” who were holding up progress. One would think that the editor of the paper would realize that the travail to stop fracking in New York was a long road with many hearings and discussions in Albany and across the state and it was the result of due process and by legal means. Moreover the moratorium on fracking was voted in by a majority of the voters and not the result of some radical splinter group. To see such patent untruths being promulgated in the local press is even more annoying that cavalier remarks by social media pundits.
The proponents of natural gas, like this fellow and others like to point out that those in NY State are benefiting and using natural gas. The implication is that residents of New York may be sanctimonious are have a double standard if they are benefiting from natural gas while criticizing it elsewhere. Well this may be somewhat true, but the important point they are missing is that NY State is moving to thwart the pipelines and even to curtail the use of natural gas in the power plants. By comparison Pennsylvania has enabled and encouraged the vast and complex infrastructure of wells, pipelines, rail deliverance and trucking of fracking materials and water on a scale unimaginable ten years ago. All these aspects of fossil fuels are to my way of thinking retrogressive on a grand scale. Take for example the vast pollution of plastics filling our oceans and clogging our streams not to mention climate change- all directly related to fossil fuels. In a sense it all comes down to a vision of the future and taking real steps to enact a vision.
I am also reminded of the Science Fiction movie by James Cameron of 2009 called Avatar. In this epic film a voracious and militaristic planet motivated by greed for a resource is in the process of exploiting a neighboring beautiful planet and its inhabitants. Sound familiar maybe? It all ends well in Cameron's film with the natives triumphing over the industrial and technological powerhouse. The opposite is occurring in Pennsylvania. Instead of the locals bonding to defeat a crass and cruel oppressor, it is almost as if they’ve sent out emissaries to say, yes, please come and exploit us on a grand scale and we wont even ask for a severance tax- just to sweeten the deal.
When I was a youth of about 10 years I was out hiking just outside of town with two friends, Pat Dunfee and Kevin Kunkle. We were on the hill at the top of Gaylord Street. It lead up to a higher hill where we were stopped by a sight that confounded us as such a structure we all viewed was clearly not anywhere in the area. I remember this well. What we were looking at was something resembling Hoover Dam- a large concrete structure with cubicles and other buildings. I mentioned this “vison” to them many years later and neither remembered it. I however, somehow recalled it and often thought of it. We were looking east of town to what was later to the sight of the huge abatoire or meat packing plant now operated by Cargil. In retrospect this could be construed as a type of premonition or maybe I just dreamed this. I don’t think so. Anyway, this fits in with the title of this essay and this idea of somehow seeing between the cracks of the universe and at the same time allowing for level-headed discourse and clear-eyed vision as well.
I will end with the lyrics of Pete Seeger song that could be applied to memories and visions of the future for the Susquehanna.
Words and music by Pete Seeger
Sailing Down My Golden River
Sailng down my golden river Sun and water all my own Yet I was never alone
Sun and water, old life givers L'll have them where ere I roam And I was not far from home
Sunlight glancing on the water Life and death are all my own Yet I was never alone
Life for all my sons and daughters Golden sparkles in the foam And I was not far from home
Sailing down this winding highway Travelers from near and far And I was never alone
Exploring all the little byways Sighting all the distant stars And I was not far from home
Sailing down my golden river Sun and water all my own Yet I was never alone
Sun and water, old life givers L'll have them where ere I roam And I was not far from home
Yet I was never alone And I was not far from home