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View from the Summit
by Catherine Cunningham : Editor, Terrain.org

Farming Energy

Growing up on our farm provided a hands-on laboratory for learning. Discoveries about energy were an integral part of the experience. There were many forms of fossil energy found on our farm, including fuel oil, propane, gasoline, and diesel fuel.

We used fuel oil to heat our house. The oil was contained in a massive tank in the basement storage room. This is where we kept the canned peaches, cherries, and pickles, the chokecherry jelly, spare jars, pop, monsters, and spiders. It was safe from the monsters during daylight hours and by the time I reached my tenth birthday. But it was never fully safe from spiders. Therefore, I mostly hated this room, except for the cherries and the pop. Occasionally, I was tasked with cleaning the room and re-inventorying the canned goods. Be assured that I was a wreck with fear, fully clad in shoes, socks, long johns, pants, long sleeves, and I was dowsed, head to toe in Deep Woods Off. I even had to clean behind the dreaded tank-and if you were a spider with big drippy fangs and fuzzy legs, where do you think you would hide? So, when I think about fuel oil, I mostly think about spiders.

The propane tank was a much friendlier place. It provided fuel for our grain drying bins. On our farm, we needed drying bins for when the corn or soybeans were harvested wet. If the grain remains too wet it gets moldy and loses its nutritional value, making it less valuable when it comes time to sell. The propane tank was my makeshift horse since I was "too young" for the real thing. Of course, I was completely obsessed with horses-drawing them, reading books and magazines about them, longing for them whenever we would drive past the many horses grazing in nearby pastures. Some nights, I wished on the stars that I could be a horse. If that wish were granted, I vowed to be the best horse ever, friendly, responsive, and obedient. The wish was never granted, I always awoke as a little girl.

Whitey—the propane-tank horse—was matte white and barrel-chested. About 14 hands at the spine, she was a little long in the body, like a dachshund…or a hot dog. She sported an iron mane (which looked a little like a suitcase handle) and a bobbed, iron tail. On so many sunny summer days, I would mount up to her smooth, cool back, give a good kick and be off on an adventure-exploring fields, rounding up herd of cattle or wild mustangs. Sometimes our dog Spike would accompany us, eventually becoming distracted by a rabbit in an abandoned auger nearby. Spike would spend hours barking at the rabbit, first on one end, then running around to the other end to see if it was still there and resume barking. Whitey and I enjoyed the company.

One day our family finally did get a real horse. "Spotty" was white with black spots and barrel-chested. She stood about 14 hands at the withers and was not at all long-bodied like a dachshund. She was thick through the neck and rotund in the gut, and not nearly as well-mannered as Whitey. Her favorite thing was to eat and she would do whatever necessary to satisfy that obsession. Occasionally, she would bite at me because she didn't like to be bridled. I once had a bloody bite mark on my left shoulder blade that was the size of a dime. Other times she would try to rub me off her back by squeezing against the fence or under the Whitney Apple tree. I was happy to find out that she liked to hang out with Whitey. They became fast friends, as Whitey didn't consume much of the foliage around her concrete foundation. As a result, the grass was lush and tall which meant Spotty was in heaven and I was safe from being scraped off her back. Whitey remained cool and smooth, and Spike kept on barking at the rabbits.

Distant cousins to Whitey were the twin gas pumps in our yard. These pumps were the authentic kind with working gallon and cost meters (still set to their original 10 or 15 cents per gallon), chrome crank-reset, an electric pump, and a check-valved, trigger-operated nozzle. The left tank was for gassing up the lawnmower, cars, and pickups and the right tank was for fueling the grain truck, the haystack movers, and anything John Deere green.

Adjacent to the pumps and buried under the lawn were the underground storage tanks (which have since been removed because of EPA requirements and the concern over groundwater pollution). Out of the lawn sprung two sturdy pipes with hinged metal covers. These served both as obstacles for the lawnmower and as point where the tanks were refilled every couple weeks by Ronnie, the Gas-man.

The arrival of the Gas-man was nearly tantamount to that of Santa Claus as he unfailingly brought out the plastic ice cream bucket filled with suckers. They were the kind with the two cord ends embedded into the candy part with a couple inches of loop for the handle. They were wrapped in clear plastic with "Mobile" stamped in navy blue across the side. Each of us kids was allowed one sucker per visit. Over the years I tried every color but decided that the flavor of red was the best. To this day I cull everything but the red Dots, the red Sour Patch Kids, the red Lifesavers, the red gummy bears, and the red Gatorade.

Gassing up the car from the pump was a great highlight of those good ole days. This task was classified as a family chore equivalent to doing the dishes. Occasionally, when I was quick enough (and far enough away from one of my brothers to not get punched in the arm for being quicker than him), I would stake my claim. This chore was a bazillion times better than kitchen patrol and each of us coveted it. It was driving!

The person responsible for the chore had to drive the car, all by him- or herself, all the way from the garage in the front of the house to the pumps at the rear of the house, and then back to the front. Round trip, it must have been at least 60 yards! The stipulation for anyone assigned to this chore was that a careful record be logged as to the number of miles on the odometer and the number of gallons pumped. We also had to calculate the miles per gallon at each filling. Here I learned to appreciate the higher fuel efficiency of the cars versus the pickups. I learned that the trick to conserve fuel when driving was to pretend there was an egg between my foot and the accelerator-and ideally, never use the brake-that would lead to gradual speed increases and plenty of coasting.

These experiences all took place in the mid-1970s, about the time of the energy crisis. I recall my parents' discussions about the speed limit change to 55 mph. I remember all of us pitching in to save money and to curb our energy use by taping plastic to the windows in the winter and keeping the heat at no more than 68 degrees. In the summer my mother was extremely vigilant about opening the windows overnight but closing the window and pulling the drapes while the house was still cool from the morning. We also dried most of the laundry on the clothesline and we diligently turned out the lights when the room was not occupied.

I remember one of my coloring book characters was "the Glut," a slovenly, wasteful, green glob that taught lessons of conservation. Though the Glut has gone the way of the monsters in the basement storage room, those days on the farm taught me firsthand the values of conserving energy. It's something I intend to pass along.


Catherine Cunningham is an environmental specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy's Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency responsible for marketing hydroelectricity produced at large dams throughout the West. She is also a planning commissioner for her mountain town.
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