Spill Stories: Natural Rivals, by Dorian Rolston

Natural Rivals

By Dorian Rolston

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Spill Stories

Spill Stories is a Terrain.org series that fuses the interactive climate justice story maps of the Climate Alliance Mapping Project with the creative writing of students and faculty at the University of Arizona to bring oil and gas pipeline spill data to life.
Each week Terrain.org will publish new writing coupled with a map. This is the sixth publication in the Spill Stories series.


It’s Friday, and it feels like the weather’s finally turned in Tucson. I’ve already missed my deadline—by a week. It’s not that I’ve been avoiding this assignment exactly, but I’ve had other stuff going on, March being the month of madness that it is (though I don’t at all follow the basketball, I do hear guys at the dog park groaning about Duke, etc., which I suppose is how I must be spending my time, living a kind of vicarious madness). And in truth, I’m unsure how to proceed on the subject of environmental spills.

My first instinct as an essayist was to do the essayist thing: look up the word. But spill doesn’t yield much of interest in that etymological regard, being apparently of unknown origin save the relatively recent Old English spillian for “kill, destroy, waste, shed (blood).” Puts a new spin, I suppose, on the proverbial spilt milk.

As an essayist, and by no stretch an environmentalist, my only agenda is to convince you that I’m, well, just like you, just like anyone else, creatures of this earth, loving the feeling of warm grass beneath our toes. But Whitman, consummate everyman that he was, said it best: And a child said, What is the grass? fetching it to me with full hands. What’s left for me, then, for us? To make our consumer confessions (I did just use my gas stove, after stopping by the auto shop on the way home), and curse the days we’ve spent without giving it a second thought?

Here’s, maybe, a second thought. Just so happens that the president of my alma mater is coming through town tonight, to talk about the future of Princeton, or, as the orange-and-white creamsicle invitation put it, “Priorities for Princeton’s Future.” I was going to go to this, but it was all the way up in Phoenix, and then my car had a leaky tire and there was this huge crowd at Discount Tire on Speedway and in the end I was never going to make it. Instead, I stayed home with the interactive map of spills I’m supposed to write about, and—highly recommended as a kind of game you can play on your own—plugged places I’ve lived into the search bar, starting with “Princeton.” Lo and behold, like the invitation all over again: one little orange dot in the sea of white.

What had apparently happened in Tiger Town was about five years ago to the date, on March 20, 2013, at approximately 8:45 a.m., a road construction crew on Ewing Street struck an unmarked gas main with their milling machine, which then ignited, burning for several hours. I’m really curious about how this ends, since it wasn’t firefighters who put the fire out, according to the report, but the gas company itself, finally getting around to shutting off the gas.

During the interim, though, this burning milling machine, which for those of you who don’t know (I didn’t until I Googled it) looks like a squat crane with a nubby arm, burned about a good QB’s Hail Mary pass from campus. It made me think of the Tigers’ perhaps most hallowed tradition, the Bonfire, which happens every year that Princeton wins the Big Three—that is, beats Harvard and Yale, our natural rivals. The last time this happened was also in 2013. According to tradition, the freshmen would’ve gathered wood and stacked it, higher and higher, to raise this towering pyre in the center of Canon Green, right at the entrance to campus. Because the job is so involved, however, requiring that the megafire be topped Christmas-star like with an effigy of either John Harvard or the Yale Bulldog, a local construction crew is often recruited in the effort. I wonder now if some of these guys knew those on the Ewing crew, and how different the two blazes really are.

Are they not both, in a way, our torches of triumph?

I’m not sure the comparison is a perfect fit; even so, if there’s something ridiculous about a football rivalry between the so-called Big Three, with a combined endowment—I actually plugged this in, took a while—of $82,782,392,000 in fiscal year 2016, there’s something at least equally absurd about our seeming rivalry with nature. That is, in the end there’s a big fire that just makes a fool of everyone, and no one really wins. If I sound suddenly sanctimonious, I haven’t forgotten how I, too, stood there, in 2013, hot cocoa in hand, another face aglow, before the huge orange flame waving like a flag. But now the data helps me see myself this way—not just once in an orange bonfire, but all the time, everywhere.

Indeed, a few miles up the road on the map is another orange dot, smaller this time so therefore less costly (the first was an $800,000 cleanup job, and this only a quarter of that). This time, the only fatality was not a milling machine but a backhoe. Zooming out a little farther now… there’s an oil spill, greasing up the Delaware Canal, where the rowing team used to practice. And a little farther still… the map of New Jersey gets suddenly blotchy, with dozens of dots, both oil and gas, some about the size of a child’s thumb. And clicked out yet again…the dots, spreading, looking like a rash—chicken pox, perhaps. And again and then again… dots and more dots, something more insidious, more intractable, a bad infection.

And finally, the whole country.. .only none of it’s visible, so spilled is it with dots it might as well be spangled.

That’s a cheap shot. Again, I’m no environmentalist, and most certainly no scientist, so I couldn’t tell you what any of this data actually means. (I’ll leave that to my friend Remy Franklin, who pitched his staggering climate justice mapping project to this mere scribbler.) But I can tell you how it looks from here, how that Whitman line might be cut short in future readings: And a child said, What is the grass?

I was on vacation in Savannah recently, pretending to work, when I learned that my host’s boyfriend happens to be in the Industry. He lays pipe for a living; I mentioned this spill story I was writing. What did she think about the latest update on the Man vs. Nature score? Her answer, if tipped a bit (understandably) on the side of false balance, nonetheless revealed something of what it’s like to play for the Man. That her boyfriend’s work environment is, among other things, often quite dangerous, and made all the more so by protesters, with whom he deals by way of index card—on strict orders, reading off the company’s official line.


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Dorian RolstonDorian Rolston is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where he’s incoming nonfiction editor for Sonora Review. Find other work of his at Essay Daily, DIAGRAM, and elsewhere.
Header photo of the 2006 bonfire at Princeton University by John Jameson, courtesy Princeton University Office of Communications.

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