I lived in southwestern Maine in the late ’40s. We had a well near the house. One summer it went dry. Dad said it was because it was dug down only to a ledge. So we carted glass, gallon cider jugs to fill at the spring that was just down the road, swam in the lake, having taken a bar of soap that floated with us, and used the three-holer that was still part of the carriage shed nearby.
Our plight didn’t make the news, but when the Pine Tree State’s forests started to burn, wiping out a nearby town, and kept burning all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, now that was something. My dad was a volunteer firefighter by virtue of being an able-boded male living in the town. Mom took my brother and me to watch Dad on the fire line. I had never seen a western-style forest fire when all the trees burn, and I never have since, even though I was a summer firefighter once myself in the Connecticut state forests. I can still picture the lingering flames in that blackened, smoky scene, so unlike the pleasure of climbing the welcoming, sticky limbs of these same trees. I still have the ax he used that summer. It sure was great when the well-drilling guys got our water flowing again.
That experience of using up all of something has stayed with me as I have encountered other instances when Americans have used up almost all of something. Whaling is a good example for New England, because our ancestors kept harpooning whales for their oil until there were hardly any left, expanding their voyages into both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, an international industry.
The next chapter in the story is familiar, from how we first extracted coal and oil on land in the United States, then from the sea bottom and even the frozen North, as part of what has become a new international industry, supporting the Industrial Revolution with all this ancient sunlight.
I first saw wells that produced oil, rather than water, not long after that drought summer, when Dad took us two boys on a cross-country summer auto trip from Maine to California, 10 days on the road, all two lanes west of Pennsylvania, the derricks rising and falling around the clock as we drove by. My job in the back seat was to keep an eye out the rear window to be sure the tent poles didn’t slide off the roof rack.
Fossil fuel harvesting used to be a western occupation for New Englanders for whom everything west of the Hudson River is at least the beginning of things West. Nowadays, the technology has gone way beyond drilling a hole in the ground and capturing what comes out. The latest method is something called fracking, which is certainly clever from a engineering perspective, but is also way more expensive and destructive of our Earth than a traditional coal mine or land-based oil well could ever be.
Considering how much havoc this fracking is causing all the way east to New York state and how vigorously our scientists have condemned it, it’s time to remember all the ways we use oil other than to burn in our homes and vehicles. Current sunlight can do a lot, but it may be beyond even our most inventive engineers to turn it into all the products that the useful plastic revolution has created and still protect our planet.
We already have a successor to fossil fuels in our growing solar industry. It’s time we halt the extraction and burning of fossil fuels before the wells run day.
When my grandchildren — Jonny, Thomas, Connie and James — tell their grandkids about what they remember from their childhoods, I want them to be stories of adventure, growth and accomplishment in which people all around the globe pulled back from the brink of global climate change disaster and began a new era of reverence for Mother Earth and apple pie.
John Harwood of Newbury is a retired community journalist and a patriot.