The great plains of the western United States are still a beautiful carpet of spring greens and summer yellows, at least where the voracious energy companies haven’t destroyed them yet. Thinking about the Lakota Sioux’s successful Last Stand against the oil pipe line in North Dakota to protest the despoliation of their water, the submergence of their timber and hunting grounds by the US Army Corps of Engineers for Lake Oahe, and the taking of their sovereign land by a treaty-violating American Government, my mind resonates with the evocative sounds of the blues as I envision the partly raped ground. In December, 2016, in the waning days of the Obama Administration, the US Army Corps of Engineers relented in its determination to run the pipeline under Indian land. The Standing Rock Indians and their environmentalists spoke of their joy, but voiced their concern that the white man and his corporations cared little for the sacredness of all land. What the incoming Trump Administration supports by the energy corporations and what Wall Street will do remains to be seen, but it won’t be good for land.
Recalling the trains rolling across Nebraska in 2016 on September 11 (9/11, the monumental day that America was attacked in 2001) carrying Wyoming’s Powder River Basin coal, I hummed the John Coltrane rendition of “These Are Some of My Favorite Things.” Looking at the coal convoy, I remembered what eastern Wyoming looked like 40 years ago when the scraping away of the gently undulating grasslands had barely begun. I lived in the Wyoming then. Estimating the amount of coal that passed us by on Ground Zero Day when the World Trade Center was destroyed, I wondered what huge patches of black and barren landscape the Wyoming Powder River Basin had become. Was it a hollowed-out wasteland resembling the devastated hole of the World Trade Center? Later, pulling up images from the internet, I saw that it was vast black hole, not filled with human carcasses, but nonetheless a horrendous wound to the earth. I wanted to cry to the sounds Coltrane made playing his melodious but rifting jazz. Meiguo, beautiful land, the Chinese call America, but it isn’t. It is a land exploited for its profit potential by an uncaring set of white invaders. The sacredness is in dollars, not in spirit.
Powder River Basin Coal Fields 1975
Powder River Basin Coal Fields 2016
Paralleling US route 30 from Grand Island to Oglala, the railroad tracks of the BNSF stretched across Nebraska less than 20 feet from the highway. Twelve trains sets of over 100 aluminum rotary gondolas transporting Wyoming’s soft coal headed east. Each gondola is over 50’:long, 10+’wide, and 12’ high. Each open hopper car holds 100 to 125 tons of coal for a total amount of 13,225 tons of coal per train. In the three hours and 210 miles we were on the highway, a grand total of 158,700 tons in 12 convoys passed us. The coal was en route to: Illinois, Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, all to provide fuel for midwestern and eastern power plants.
The clackity-clack of the gondolas separated by their steel-knuckled couplers, interspersed with the hollow whistles when the trains neared a crossing, the whish of cars and trucks the passing on the road every now and then, and the rattle of the gusts of wind lifting intermittently our vehicle’s roof top carrier, played in my mind the melody, “These are a few some of my favorite things” that Coltrane croaked and dragged slowly out of his saxophone, notes beautiful and painful at the same time. “Dah-da-dah, dah da dah, da–de-dada-da-do, waahh, waahh, woo.”
BNSF Coal Train in Nebraska
Power Plants supplied by BNSF trains from Wyoming
I love trains and the long convoys that slide across vast landscape. The corn processing facilities beside the tracks from Gothenburg to Kearney and beyond are punctuation points of reflective silver colored cones, tubes, peaked roof warehouses, and ramps. I am awed by the big blue sky wisped with clouds. I love the occasional buttes and rock pinnacles that punctuate the grasslands. The culture, spirituality of Sioux (Lakota) Indian tribes, and their great stoic, elegant and brave leaders: Sitting Bull, Red Cloud, Black Elk, and Crazy Horse, who once roamed these plains, attract me. The Manifest Destiny of pioneers, striking out to find a new life across the Oregon Trail that follows nearby the new superhighways and the train tracks, is a story of perseverance and courage.
The slaughter of the buffalo and the massacres of the Ogallala, Mineconju, and Hunkpapa old men, women, and children, starting in places like Blue Water Creek (Harney’s Massacre), near Lake McConaughy, Nebraska, in 1855 and ending with Wounded Knee, South Dakota in December 1890 are a terrible stain on US history. The environmental damage of the enormous Powder River Basin, Wyoming, supplying 40% of American coal, the multitude of railroad trains burning diesel fuel for thousands of miles across the US emitting pollutants, and the coal-fired power plants, often located in urban minority and low income neighborhoods, emitting health destroying particulates of heavy metals, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and climate-changing carbon dioxide, are killing my country, my countrymen, and the planet.
Buttes in Scottsbluff National Monument
Spotted Elk Dead at Wounded Knee
The problems of the coal trains and coal-fired power plants can be solved. Use of solar and wind energy, restriction on particulates in the air, and closure of coal-fired utility plants promoted by an activist Environmental Protection Agency would help America slow climate change; however a country dedicated to maximizing profits for its energy companies and utility monopolies will try prevent it. The servants of crass corporate capitalism are dead set against big profit-reducing changes as the naming of Scott Pruitt, Oklahoma’s Attorney General, an avowed opponent of the EPA to lead the agency by the incoming Trump Administration testifies. The reconstruction of much of the sacred grassland is probably impossible. The survival of the planet as viable to support human life even with to its warming is possible, but much that was once land will become water. The only humans to continue to live reasonable lives may be only those rich enough to provide themselves with the materials to exist in a hot place surrounded by dead seas.
How does one reconcile the contradictions? The United States is an electrified country with a capitalist driving force. The power plants light up our cities, give life to our appliances, and drive the digital information world. The need is insatiable. American are addicted to electricity and have been getting fixes since 1882, eight years before Wounded Knee, when Thomas Edison’s coal-burning Pearl Street Electric Power Station first supplied electricity to Lower Manhattan and Wall Street. New York City’s greatest testament to the beauty, sensational, visually magnetic, and mind blowing power of electric addiction was and still is Times Square. From the beginning its electronic signs were advertisements for the entertainment and consumer-driven life financed and managed by Wall Street. Today every American city is ablaze. Its businesses and houses are lighted, directed, and controlled by electricity. The grandest holy temple of our electronic god is Las Vegas, Nevada. Las Vegas emerged from an isolated train stop to an electronic fantasyland of immense size and digital animation. I track its history, astounded that this place was simultaneously founded on another addiction, gambling. What Times Square and Las Vegas are evolved from, and will warp into, are endlessly fascinating to me. I am an electronic junkie who likes the art it bestows.
Times Square in 1953, painting by R. Nagele
Las Vegas Boulevard, Las Vegas, Nevada, 2016
You can’t kick the habit completely, and I don’t think anyone can. Electricity has provided us with too many benefits, but everyone should be aware of its negative effects. Minimally the aesthetic of electric power distribution damages our apprehension of the landscape from the ugly power lines crisscrossing the land and city, and to the hopelessly horrid piles of coal next to the utility plants whose enormous vent stacks belch smoke into the sky. They are the eyesores people no longer see, since they have been with us for over a century. I admit that the utility plants have a brutal beauty. The forms are geometric concatenations of towers, ladders, lines, and rectilinear forms horizontal and vertical that fascinate. The Brunner Island Power Plant hidden along an isolated stretch of the Susquehanna River south of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, surprised me with its visual power. Artists like Charles Sheeler and Charles Demuth used the romance of these industrial forms to great effect.
Electric Landscape in California
Brunner Island Power Plant on the Susquehanna
In the jazz age appeared several important American artists, who found cultural innovation and meaning in the industrial world. Charles Demuth was a Pennsylvania-born artist who had his studio in Lancaster. He painted industrial forms he saw in the state, like his image of 1920, End of the Parade, Coatesville, Pennsylvania. His semi-abstracted style fit with the forms he depicted. Photographer, painter, and print maker Charles Sheeler made a stunning silver point gelatin photographic print in 1927 of the River Rouge Plant of the Ford Motor Company. America was flexing its industrial and aesthetic prowess. Today these industrial types are disappearing as America de-industrializes and utility and refinery complexes are only places where these forms are still used. In the 1920s and ‘30s no one, except perhaps an Indian whose land was taken in the 17th and 18th centuries and an anti-modernist, was aggrieved at the reality of industrialization and its generation of a new abstracted form of art. Today the applauding sentiment is confined to the museum, poster, and postcard.
Demuth, 1920, Parade End , Coatesville
Sheeler, 1927, River Rouge Plant, Ford Motor Co.
The rusting hulks of lost industry have only served to embitter the blue collar workers laid off by this great shift, who have flexed their political clout into the election of a populist who says he can bring back jobs, but won’t be able to do it because control of the whole system in the hands of global corporate capitalists. Look at who owns the whole of the electronic network and the energy that powers it. The Wyoming coalfields are owned by corporations like Peabody Coal, Arch Coal, and Kiewit Corporation. Most have international interests. These energy producers are making enormous profit off the largest source of soft coal in the world. They aren’t about to stop mining. The coal is carried to the power plants by BNSF railroad, a duopoly controlling half of all western rail transportation, owned by Berkshire Hathaway. The coal is delivered to utility plants owned by corporation like DNR, Dynergy, and PPL (Pennsylvania Power & Light), corporations whose investors include Wall Street financiers and capital asset managers such as Goldman Sachs, Blackstone Group, and Vanguard, that in turn are owned by other capital controlling groups and high wealth investors.
The utility companies have sorry histories with relationships to criminally convicted Enron, bankrupted Lehman Brothers, and fines for non-compliance with court-ordered pollution measures. The utility plants were under pressure to halt burning coal by the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency). At the Will County, Powerton, and Baldwin Plants in Illinois, owned by NGR and Dynergy, the corporations closed some of the coal burning units of multiple unit facilities. Closures occur with a concomitant layoff of workers. Job loss at Baldwin was estimated to be 122 positions. Some units remain open. No doubt that an eviscerated EPA will not close, but perhaps allow reopening of the closed power generating units. The generated electricity is then transferred in some cases to other corporations. In Illinois, Dynergy sells its power to MISO (Midcontinent Independent System Operator). PPL operates its own system serving 10 million customers in UK and the US because PPL owns the English Utility Company. I would venture a guess that all the coal mining, coal transporting, coal utility users, and coal-fired electricity suppliers are interlocked by mutual investors and members of their boards of directors. This system serves them. They are the shareholders; most Americans and most of the world’s populations aren’t. We get what they give us at the price they determine often in collusion with the governments that say they serve us. We are the sheep. They are the shepherds. The fenced fields are opened and closed by gatekeepers bought off by the shepherds. It makes me angry.
Unless there is a revolution, the situation will not change. We know a communist revolution will not change it. Communism replaces one set of masters for another. The revolution must be individual. It must begin with awareness, knowledge, and opportunity. Awareness is diminishing because the elite committed to profit at any cost controls media and technology. The individual must his or her own path to awareness. Turn off commercial TV. Make your own video. Speak your own truth. Knowledge is available. The Internet provides a portal, but only one of many. There are still books. Opportunity can be found. The technology of wind and solar allow a person to be come a power plant owner and a mini-utility for others’ empowerment. Personal power will have to be forced from hands of and laws of use from the utilities. There are other opportunities, too. All that is needed is imagination.
All of this requires group activity, courage, and creativity. Don’t look to contemporary art or established cultural sources to show the way. The cool observation of the earth’s demise of present day conceptual art, and individualistic ego focused art has neither the anger nor the power to change the current situation. The art world sold out long ago the capitalist world of money. Most dramatic arts at least those displayed on television are locked down by corporate sponsorship. Music, since the demise of record labels, maybe the only place where the call to significant change can be heard. Look to for groups that can harness a new energy, viewpoint, and innovative message. Just as John Coltrane didn’t play his jazz alone, his quartet, sextet, and band provided the support for his revolutionary sound. Be creative in any way you can. Take what’s old and turn it upside down. “Some of My Favorite Things” could bring this cold removed uncaring global capitalist world crashing down. A new reality could arise. It won’t be a walk in the park, but it will be worth it. A new hankering for honking will hammer the ham-fisted honkies.
John Coltrane and the Thelonious Monk Quartet