Soaring, Farming, Upgrading the Oil Sands, and the Failure of Modern Society

Well, that was a very interesting and emotion- and thought-provoking afternoon.

I’ve just come back from a quiet time in the Alberta countryside . . .

The beginning is the fact that my seventeen year old neighbour is a flying fanatic.  For the past while he’s been ripping through his certification as a solo sail-plane pilot with the Edmonton Soaring Club  at the lovely, grass-covered Chipman Airport just north of the town of Chipman, Alberta,  population 284 reportedly supporting seven churches (I could only find four).

So, after yet another visit to the Art Gallery of Alberta, we headed East on the Yellowhead through Elk Island National Park and clouds of smoke from the raging out-of-control Boreal Forest Fires threatening La Crete and other Northern Alberta communities.  Visibility was frighteningly short and I feared that flights out of Chipman would be cancelled for the day.

A short while after spotting a pair of bison in the Park, we turned north on the newly (almost) paved Highway 834.  A short distance south of Chipman we were stopped by a jolly flagman with an absolutely epic belly who chatted through the window of the truck ahead of us.  After about ten minutes I realized that the epic belly was actually on a flagwoman.  Ooops!

So, on North in a convoy to Highway 15 and then east to the other side of Chipman and a short drive north on Range Road 185 to the Airport on Township Road 550.  We arrived just in time to see our 17 year old neighbour  land solo and then see his fifteen year old sister take off as a passenger on the next flight.  Despite the hopelessly reduced visibility, the cheerful members of the soaring club and my neighbour were taking turns flying short circuits around the field at about 1000 feet.  At one point everyone started asking “Where’s so-and-so?  Did he land and go to the hanger?”  Finally someone in the Control Trailer got on the radio and called the missing pilot.

“I’m at 4300 feet about two and a half miles southwest of the field” came back the answer, followed by a scramble on the ground to work out which direction that was.  We soon found him, a bright silver speck against a bright silver sun in a bright silver sky.  He came back to earth what seemed like half an hour later.

What a joyous, relaxed afternoon it was watching the bright yellow retired cropduster tow the gleaming white gliders into the sky and then see them all drift gracefully back to earth, only to do it all again.

About seven p.m. we pulled back across Highway 15 to take a quick drive through Chipman to count the churches — still only four made themselves apparent — and then East into the sinking sun and Boreal Forest smoke toward Lamont and Fort Saskatchewan, the site of the original fur trade fort in the Edmonton area.  I found it fascinating to look to my left and try to decide if the faintly darker silver band on the horizon was a ridge paralleling the highway or a cloud bank visible through the smoke.  As we passed Lamont it became clear that it had been a ridge all along, and now we were set to climb over it.

Farmland, all the way.  Fields of canola in surreal yellow flower and alfalfa in various stages of harvest.  The only breaks from farmland had been Elk Island Park’s native aspen forests and the rustically technological twine and bailing wire Chipman Airport.  Even as the old crop duster belched its way into the sky, this had been a bucolic idyll. But, a change was coming . . .

As we approached Fort Saskatchewan from the North East, we paralleled not only the North Saskatchewan River, but the bitumen refineries of Upgrader Alley.  Not since driving through Coatzacoalcos, Mexico at midnight have I beheld such an overwhelming image of the human modification of Nature.  Here were endless towering fuming fossil fuel factories stretched along the banks of one of the great rivers of the world, a river that had witnessed little in the way of humanity, let alone human industry, until about two centuries ago.  Here were great steel fractioning vessels rooted to the clay that had been exposed by stripping the topsoil from some of the best agricultural land in North America. On the other side of the highway, to my left, the farmland still stretched to the horizon.  But here was a nerve centre of the extraction of the sticky  riches of the Alberta Oil Sands.  I suppose I should have been horrified, and then driven on with shaking, hypocritical (I was driving, wasn’t I?) head.

But my actual reaction is an embarrasment to my left-wing, environmentalist, artsy-fartsy, pretensions:

I was exhilarated!

I was blown away by this monumental expression of human industry!  I felt a strangely Randian thrill at the unfathomably huge fields of a poisoness plant made food by the human hand, by the vast barns filled with descendants of the Eurasian Aurochs, made tame (and food) by the human hand, by the incomprehensibley complex metropolis of Better Living Through Chemistry on the banks of the North Saskatchewan.  I found the fountain and the flower garden spelling out “DOW” to be remarkably attractive.  These were no dark Satanic mills!  I did not look on these works, be I mighty or not, and despair!  I rejoiced with the heart of Hugh Ferriss!  Here was the glorious, indominatable soul of Humanity made manifest in Its own works.

A few minutes later we came into Fort Saskatchewan and the architecture along the highway was all North-American-polystyrene-lego-inhuman-garbage-and-parking-lot.

We got KFC/Taco Bell at the drive through and ate while we drove.

And here was the pitiful, stupid, lazy soul of humanity.

What am I to do with today’s experience?

Here is a young man, no older than Icarus at his death, rising into the sky on wings Daedlus could have made, and gracefully returning to earth, over and over, with a huge grin on his face and the respect of men three times his age.

Here is the agricultural legacy of hundreds of generations of farmers and herders whose names will never be known, who have provided the fundamental basis of our human society today through their experimentation over millenia.

Here is the inconcievable grandure and power that has grown from the Industrial Revolution, power which has made possible the parkland which lines the North Saskatchewan River Valley virtually uninterupted from Devon to Fort Saskatchewan and beyond, parkland that a century ago was  denuded of forest, filled with coal mines, lumber yards, brick yards and countless other unregulated industries.    We drove between the forested river bank and a soccer game just to the west of Upgrader Alley when we lost our way for a bit.  Fort Saskatchewan uses sheep to mow the grass in its parks, for goodness sake!

And then, here is a “restaurant” built of various combinations of three substances serving a “menu” of various combinations of three substances.  This is what seemed the only true ugliness of the day:  that horrid contemporary strip mall architecture and the matching cuisine in its restaurants and the matching products in its retail outlets.

I try to imagine what beauty, what glory, what joy could be produced if all that energy, all the legacy of our shared past were turned toward actually making beautiful, glorious and joyful things instead of toward another order of cheese fries, another bean burrito, another warm paper cup of flat “diet” Pepsi, another “Zinger” with regular mayonaise “because we’re out of the hot and spicy mayonaise”.  What would our world be like if no one had imagined the “drive thru”, if children still looked forward to the Voyager Restaurant at the Esso on the Trans-Canada because the hamburgers were really, really good and you got to sit down in an air-conditioned place with a table because no one had even thought of eating while driving in a hot car — What if?

Believe me, I have no illusions about the benignity of the extraction of the Oil Sands or of the fossil fuel industry in general.  And please also believe me that I don’t think that the world was a better place in the 30s or the 40s or the 50s or even in the 60s when I was I child.  But I do know with great certainty that, even in the depths of World War II, the dreams of the future and even the dreams of what the present could be were better in the past than they are today, and all of those dreams included airplanes, agriculture, fossil fuels and, yes, nuclear power.  And none of those dreams involved stultifying architecture, cheese fries, or women’s shoes that looked like pigs’ trotters.

My disappointment on good days, horror on bad days, is not with what underlies our modern society — fossil fuels and oil sands and factory farms —  but with what our modern society overwhelmingly chooses to produce: ugliness.

I’m going to go back to Chipman soon to look for the other three churches.  But I heard today that the gas station/corner store, the Chipman Market, which I noticed as I drove by, had closed.  A tragedy.  It’s a magnificent piece of small town architecture.  I think it might be a new construction rather than something historic.  It’s made of bricks, not stucco-covered styrofoam.  If it’s still closed when I return, I’ll be reciting some Shelley beside it’s darkened gas pumps.

Then I’ll flick my blue mantle and hope to find some new pastures and fresh woods and maybe a decent bit of architecture.

And maybe I’ll get a ride in a glider!

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2 comments on “Soaring, Farming, Upgrading the Oil Sands, and the Failure of Modern Society

  1. […] predictions of the other side might not be a little over-wrought.  I’ve also written about the sense of wonder I’ve felt when driving along “Upgrader Alley” northeast of Edmonton.  I see it […]

  2. […] things done under the midnight sun by the men who moil for oil, and while I’m no enemy of the hope of better living through technology, I have no illusions that hydroelectric megaprojects are a fine, clean, green power line to a happy […]

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