By RICHARD HAGUE
Once I built a motorbike using a two or three horsepower Briggs & Stratton engine salvaged from an old lawn mower. That engine, putt-putting through a muffler the size of half a corn cob, conveyed me at 20 miles per hour on the level and, if I had a long enough run, almost halfway up the steep switch-backed hill that led to our isolated ridge-top neighborhood in Steubenville, just below an abandoned strip mine. That it cost seven cents to fill the literally pint-sized gas tank will tell you how long ago this was.
Those mechanical horsepower surprised me. I had never steered a vehicle that fast before; this was prior to my getting even a temporary driver’s license. The exhilaration of being able to motor relatively quickly far from home and get back within a reasonable time came close to permanently switching on that fundamental American wanderlust (or obsession with movement) that fuels so many classic American stories from Huck Finn to Moby-Dick, from The Great Gatsby to The Grapes of Wrath to On The Road. At the same time, I was both amazed and puzzled by the idea of “horsepower.” I think I must have imagined a couple of stallions attached to the rickety little 20-inch bike frame a friend and I had jury-rigged into a motor vehicle. I must have imagined how powerful they were, even if not very fast. I must have wondered about how such muscle, blood, and bone of horse could be transformed into that hot metal device bolted to an angle-iron platform just behind the bike seat and that burned my butt during my rides.
Thinking about it so many years later, I must conclude that this desire to harness power and to use it in the pursuit of, in this case, speed, was part of the very atmosphere of a place like Steubenville. Down over the hill from my neighborhood, along the Ohio River, an almost continuous line of steel mills, coke plants, and terminals for huge barges loaded with coal, stretched from Pittsburgh to the north and east to Wheeling to the south. Great elemental forces—water, oxygen, fire—were put to work for profit and production everywhere. Every can of beans sold by the A & P, every pound of hamburger bought from Junedale’s Meat Market, every dress purchased from Denmark’s, every church building—and there were dozens and dozens of them in the town of my youth—every grade school and high school football team and every Fourth of July parade was financed, directly or indirectly, by a brute mastery of nature on a scale dwarfing the human.
The idea of power was incarnated most dramatically in the Steubenville of the 1950s and early ’60s in two ways: steel mills and football. Within five miles, there were three huge steel factories; in my late teens I labored in the Brick Department in the Open Hearth division of Wheeling Steel in Steubenville—very briefly, I might add—and for two summers I worked around the Steubenville plant and around and in Weirton Steel, just across the river in West Virginia, as a railroader. When I climbed onto one of the huge locomotives that ran to Conway, Pennsylvania, out of Weirton Junction, I was aboard a tandem or trio of what were, outside of the space program’s monster rockets that were soon to muscle a few humans to the moon, or the insanely fast planes people like Chuck Yeager piloted, among the most powerful vehicles on the planet. I experienced unequaled exhilaration during the rides on a summer’s night from Weirton to Conway on one of the huge ore trains (you were paid by the total tonnage of the engines on your train; the bigger the total weight, the fatter your paycheck: as in football linemen, and the infamous Secretary of Agriculture Earl Butz’s notions of farming, Big Is Better). That exhiliration has even yet to be completely displaced by the pain of my awareness of the environmental desolation I was abetting at the time. The deep moan of the diesels, the wind whipping past my face as I hung head-out from the fireman’s box at 50 miles an hour after roaring through a tunnel, the sudden brilliance of downtown Pittsburgh, the macho swagger of the engineers and brakemen and conductors—all of these things taught me early and deep lessons about the violent beauty of machines, and about who owns what, and who’s running things.
Steubenville was then and remains today one of the most powerful high school football towns in America. Steubenville Big Red’s schedule regularly features outstanding teams from all around the country, and they stand, as of this writing, 20th on the all-time wins list in America since 1900. And it now happens, even as I am writing this, that the Big Red football team is national news. Almost a full three-page article tops the Monday Sports Section of The New York Times today. It is about the alleged rape of a Weirton, West Virginia, high school girl by two 16-year-old stars of the Big Red football team. It is an acrid, town-dividing event, but what strikes me about the power—and the inevitable abuse of power it involves—is the comment made to a reporter by Reno Saccoccia, Stebenville High School head football coach (and a former schoolmate of mine back in the ’60s). Pressed by a reporter who is repeatedly asking why many boys on the team who allegedly witnessed and even made videos of the event were not suspended, Saccocia is quoted as saying, “You made me mad now.” Minutes later, the story continues, “Nearly nose to nose with a reporter, he growled: ‘You’re gonna get yours. And if you don’t get yours somebody close to you will.’”
The implication of this statement, and the heated bravado with which it is spoken to a national news reporter, is exactly what illicit empowerment to the extreme leads to. In the case of the railroad, and its interconnectedness with coal, steel, coke, and incredible wealth, the power of those engines I rode was complicit (as I was) in the rape of the upper Ohio Valley’s natural beauty and natural wholesomeness; it is a practice that has been going on in thousands of locales not only in Appalachia but worldwide since the Industrial Age began. And regardless of how it all works out in the courts, this rape of a young girl from Weirton, formerly one of the the largest company towns in West Virginia, follows the pattern. To paraphrase Wendell Berry, we cannot treat each other any differently than we treat the earth.
In synchrony with this power and gigantism, the play around schools everywhere in Steubenville was competitive, relentless, and compulsory. There was a league of grade-school football teams representing the Catholic parishes; even by fifth or sixth grade we knew the best players on the St. Anthony team (the Italian kids) or the St. Stanislaus team (the Polish kids) and we spent a lot of time and energy worrying about meeting them on the field Saturday morning. At least I did; at the height of my football career in eighth grade, playing for the Fighting Irish of St. Peter School, I was a 5’4’’ 103 lb. tight end, and liable to concussive hits by linebackers and safeties in my slant routes over the middle.
Still, I participated, and tasted the rush of adrenalin that accompanies hard sport, and I have to say that even as I was wary of it, in ways I loved it, as much as I loved the locomotive rides a few years later. And when I look back at the marvels I encountered (outside of nature, to which I gave my all, like a young “glad animal” Wordsworth), there is a pattern in them that I have come to recognize only as I set these memories in order. Two examples will make it clear.
In my impressionable years, a huge retired steamboat, The Sprague, tied off in Steubenville. By every report, it was the most powerful ever built, its engine generating 2,079 horsepower. It holds the all-time record for the largest tow, consisting of 60 barges of coal, 67,807 tons of it, covering 6.5 acres as it traveled up the river. To visualize this, imagine five football fields of coal being moved by a single machine. I encountered the boat in its old age, being towed to Pittsburgh. It was tied off, as I remember, within walking distance of my grandparents’ house at the foot of Logan Street. I also remember, during a tour, standing in its pilot house maybe 30 feet above the river, and looking upstream to the Fort Steuben bridge that linked my part of Ohio to the West Virginia Panhandle and beyond. That dizzying height above the water may well have created some sort of Olympian mood in me for a moment—dangerous, hubristic, but fortunately for me, fleeting. There was no critical thinking about The Sprague; it clearly fit into the culture of power and the vast expenditure of fossil fuel that burned at the heart of industrial America. People came to it as they would to any prodigy, not so much frightened as fascinated and amazed.
Another industrial behemoth of my youth was the GEM of Egypt, one of two gargantuan strip-mining shovels built by the Bucyrus Erie Company. It is captured in a 1977 documentary entitled “In Memory of the Land and People” by Robert Gates. Scenes from the film include the GEM at work in my native eastern Ohio, where it moves across the landscape like a slow-motion bomb, destroying what the strip-mining company called “overburden” and what we call “forest,” “meadow,” “topsoil.” Other sequences record the grief and anger of the inhabitants of the Little Egypt Valley that the machine is despoiling.
At first a seemingly beautiful name, reminiscent of the Japanese destroyers that married martial violence and delicate natural beauty around the time of World War I (“Crescent Moon,” “Evening Cloud,” “Snowy Wind,” “Mountain Echo”), the “GEM” actually comes from “Giant Excavating Machine.” What seems at first a faintly redemptive, glittery light touch in its naming is actually a sledge-hammerly prosaic description, devoid of the slightest delicacy or nuance—like the machine itself.
So aptly monikered, this monster could scoop up 130 cubic yards of earth or rock or coal at a time. When a handful of students and I built the Purcell Marian Neighborhood Garden behind our urban school in 2006, we had nine cubic yards of soil delivered, and it took a full-sized dump truck to do it. To get some perspective: the GEM could tear up enough land with each scoop to fill almost 15 of those same trucks, and it worked continuously, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for 21 years, mechanically altering what even the last Ice Age had left untouched in unglaciated Appalachian Ohio.
Sometime during my college years, the coal company that operated the GEM, together with the local government, could wield so much power that they closed down I-70, the interstate highway through the middle of eastern Ohio’s coal country. An earthen dam was built several feet thick across all four lanes, detouring traffic, so that the days-long process of moving the “land leviathan” could be accomplished and it could return to stripping the former farms and forests for thousands of acres on the other side of the road. Once again, we all saw who was in charge, who the literal movers and shakers were. Some of my earliest and most formative experiences were thus of heedless power and rampant bigness, the gigantism that loomed over the American enterprise as the Industrial Revolution reached its self- and earth-destructive zenith.
Many years have passed since then. My ecological and political views have taken much more definite shape, and my gawky, adolescent wonder at such mammoths as The Sprague and The GEM of Egypt has fully faded, replaced by a darker realization of what they were and what they meant. Growing beyond the cultural issues that celebrated mechanical power and extractive industries, I have slowed down, lived smaller and, I hope, less damagingly in my efforts to engage with the world.
And so I have come to think of each of my annual fruit and vegetable gardens as essays in atonement. I have known sin, have been complicit in it, and I must do my penance. I hasten to clarify—would we all have such wonderful penance. I love gardening, I love being outdoors, I love the wind and sun in my face, I love hearing the Baltimore Oriole in the top of the walnut tree. I love the refreshing weariness physical labor makes. But I work knowing that I will never repay my debt, never erase my carbon footprint; I will never undo the damage caused by my labor among diesel engines and steel mills and coal mines and scrap yards and spewing smokestacks. I work knowing that my use has exceeded and will contine to exceed all my making up. That we are all complicit in this is an unacknowledged national outrage, at least as reprehensible as the growing rift between the haves and the have nots, or the various monetary hoodwinks that have disappeared so much middle-class wealth. Our idolizing of the giant and the fuel-gobbling and the corporate is clearly something in the neighborhood of what used to be called “sin,” and is already resulting in what Wendell Berry calls the inevitable “ruins and punishments” (think climate change, think obesity and diabetes, think the increasingly addictive technologizing of everyday life) we suffer when we violate nature’s laws.
Because of all this, and because of an innate desire to make and grow things, whether poems, essays, or tomatoes, I began to build Erie Gardens four years ago, a one-man urban farming operation. It has become one of my most earnest occupations, mixed with one of my greatest joys. I hesitantly and humbly think of it as a farm for a single reason: from the beginning, I have made animals part of the ecology of Erie Gardens; eight chickens currently provide a significant amount of fertility in the form of their composted manure. This is not enough, however, for I grow three rotations each year in the gardens. For example, I will follow spring radishes and lettuces and beets and onions with summer beans and tomatoes and peppers, and follow them with cooler weather crops like snap peas and fennel and broccoli and cabbage and garlic and onions, adding compost each time, of course. Despite the high requirements of fertility for such growing, over the four years I have used less than 15 pounds of organic fertilizer, a couple of gallons of seaweed emulsion, half a bottle of fish emulsion, maybe three dozen 40 pound bags of a commercial garden soil containing a low concentration of organic fertilizer, and probably a couple of cubic yards of leaf mold from a pile at the back of the lot. I have also applied four cubic yards of mushroom compost to my raised beds, all of it bought within a mile of here, as well as several yards of compost from the chicken manure and bedding, and the usual rich detritus of a working garden.
My sons Patrick and Brendan participate in argricuture as well, though at the other end from me. Patrick is a chef and Brendan a cook and bartender; both are aware of the necessity for good ingredients, whether they be the material of a dinner or, in Brendan’s case sometimes, a mulled drink featuring local herbs and fruit. I grow several varieties of hops as well; a former student and friend, Colin Ryan, brews a batch of beer with it and brings it to our annual Winter Solstice party. A dream we have all entertained now and then over these years is that I would be the grower for a restaurant my sons would open. But as I have aged (matured, I like to say, as of a decent wine), I have realized that one manpower will not be enough to provide for a restaurant, and I do not want Erie Gardens to get bigger—I want to keep my operation at the proper scale. Out of curiosity, and a need to somehow underscore the impossibility of my being able to provide a restaurant with anything near all it needs, I have been led to this experiment: to try to ballpark a figure for one manpower. What fraction of a horsepower do I generate when doing garden work? How sustainable is it?
I’m using turning the soil as one of many common kinds of work a big garden requires. (I am aware of the no-till movement in gardening and farming, and have chosen to be retro about this, just as I was when I bought, a few years into the computer age, a 1936 VanderCook printing press, totally manually operated. My friends said, “They have electronic printers now, you know.” )
Spading the garden requires me to drive a 3.5 pound shovel into the soil to a depth of at least six to eight inches, then to lift this slice, turn it, break it up with the blade of the shovel, and repeat this until the whole bed has been turned. This is fragrant work, the smell of the fresh earth deep on the cool spring or autumn air, and it is quite rhythmic, a mantra of labor. I have measured the weight of both the shovel and a shovel full of dirt to be, on average, 10 pounds, and the number of digs, lifts, turns, break-ups and digs again in an hour (allowing for frequent brief rests) being in the neighborhood of 100, conservatively. I move each shovelful about two feet. Decades ago, I learned from my father that hurry is not necessary, and though I have often gone against this knowledge, I acknowledge it more and more by necessity as my strength decreases. Still, by some fundamental calculations involving the equation Power=Work/Time (and with the help of Mike Frankenoff, the physics teacher at my former school), I find I develop in this activity about 1/100th horsepower. Moreover, I can maintain this force for several hours over the period of a day, over the period of a week for something approaching or exceeding 20 hours. Over the more than 200 days of the growing and clean-up and planting seasons here in Cincinnati, again allowing for frequent days off or rests, this adds up to a thousand hours of work. This is almost all work which adds no extra carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, uses no petro-chemical-based fertilizers, and requires only travel and transport by foot, mainly. I find then, that a really significant amount of work, over a period of time, can be generated by the regular application of solar energy through the body of a 65-year-old man. 1400 square feet of raised beds averaging 10 inches deep. Approaching a thousand dollars’ worth of organic fruit and vegetables every year. Chickens to enjoy and feed and from which to gather spectacularly nourishing big eggs.
Caught up in the frenzy for new gizmos and gadgets, standing in the sharp, inhuman shadows of machines, I think we underestimate and underutilize ourselves. We patronize gyms and spin on stationary bikes—to go where? To produce what? “Health” cannot be the answer, for health is a much larger consideration than our own bodies. Why don’t we hitch all those spinning wheels to a generator, and replace some of the fossil fuel power necessary to run the gym—its lights, furnace, air-conditioning, communications devices, special gauges, and equipment—with the energy of the bodies the gym pretends to serve? Every body extends out into the larger world; I am not only I; I am also connected to Not Me. The health of a single body is utterly dependent on the health of the larger body it occupies, and that body is what we call “Nature.” As the kind father of Eleanor Arroway in the film “Contact” counsels her when she is impatiently tuning her short wave radio, “Small moves, Ellie, small moves.” Coming as it does from the story of a hugely advanced technology, and featuring some of the largest, most powerful astronomical equipment on the planet, and furthermore involving a Brobdingnagian “machine” built to specifications from an alien civilization, this passage expresses a sweet irony: to regain healthy, balanced contact with our own world, let alone any other, we may need to turn from gigantism and a ruthless increase of power to, once again, “small moves.”
One one-hundredth of a horsepower: I like the smallness of this number. I like its human scale. I like its underwhelming comfort, its possibility of accomplishment. And I like the fact, demonstrable everywhere it’s done, that one manpower, over a lifetime, can accomplish a startling amount of work. My late friend Joe Enzweiler’s beautful dry stone wall, several hundred feet long and three feet high, encloses his brother’s two-acre homestead in Northern Kentucky. All done by hand. Thousands and thousands, perhaps even millions, of foot-pounds of work. And it is not only remarkable, but beautiful. (“I always wanted to build something visible from the space shuttle,” Joe once joked.) We demean manual labor at our own peril: if I live to be 100, I already know what I’ll answer to the reporters when they ask, “To what do you attribute your long life?” I’ll say, without hesitation, “Getting filthy dirty for a couple of hundred days each year.”
“Eleanor” comes from the Greek and means “sun ray” or “shining light,” reminding us of the ultimate source of power. And “Arroway” reminds us of time’s direction: no going back. If we do not tune ourselves properly to nature and do it on a more proper scale than The Sprague or GEM of Egypt, if we glorify a culture of power and speed and force in which there are, as in Steubenville, losers everywhere and many of the so-called winners in trouble, we will suffer even more ruins and punishments. Literally, though you would’t know it for all the fracking frenzy, in the long run the human race is running out of gas, coming to the end of the fossil-fuel road. We have one world, which we have already deeply used up; what we have left is what there is. There’s nothing more.
Small moves, everybody: small moves.
Richard Hague is author of 15 collections, most recently Where Drunk Men Go (Dos Madres Press, 2015) and Learning How: Stories, Yarns & Tales (Bottom Dog Press, 2011). His During The Recent Extinctions: New & Selected Poems 1984-2012 (Dos Madres Press) received The Weatherford Award in Poetry in 2012. He has work recently appearing or forthcoming in Big Brick Review, Appalachian Heritage, Still: The Journal, Birmingham Poetry Review, and in Quarried: Thirty Years of Pine Mt. Sand & Gravel (Dos Madres Press, 2015), which he edited. He is writer-in-residence at Thomas More College in Northern Kentucky.