“Eeyew” in the Baltic

  • Posted: October 4, 2017
  • Category: Blog
  • 1 Comment

I just returned to the sun drenched foothills of the Rocky Mountains from a colder and darker slice of the world, the Baltic. I took a cruise to see Scandinavia, the Adorables preferred vision of a future America. It was also an opportunity to see the Baltic Republics, tiny countries that appear and disappear with the changing appetites of the Great Powers. And finally, it gave me a rare opportunity to walk on Russian soil, though a westernized part of that land always set apart and isolated from the heartland that is Holy Mother Russia.

Traveling around Europe is something people my age seem to find attractive. I guess it is on our collective bucket list. Perhaps we are just in search of something beyond grandchildren for our Facebook wall. Going by cruise liner is a good way to see Europe by day, while dining and sleeping in the comfort of an American hotel each night. Venturing out into the port city is to be exposed to all the latest camera gear, even though I-Phones are everywhere. It is hard to take a “selfie” with a Nikon D7200 fitted with an AF-S NIKKOR f/2.8E lens.

While we may be a bit hazy about what it is we’re looking at, we take really good pictures of it. Vantage points of the “sights” can often be mistaken for the entrances to hot inner city restaurants. Just like trendy downtown eateries there are long lines of people patiently waiting, not to eat, but to take their own picture of a famous (?) sight. Standing aside, watching the people rather than the ubiquitous nineteenth century architecture, I overheard one lady who was causing a real jam up on a well-sited overlook. She was fussing, taking repeated shots of an old Lutheran church in downtown Helinski . Her words made me smile, “I don’t know what it is, but I’m going to get a good picture of it.”

Spending nearly three weeks in the company of a large group of strangers takes me out of my normal routines, the ruts that protect me from embarrassing myself too badly. But that time with unedited masses serves to underline and emphasize a great sense of alienation that hangs heavy upon me. As my time in retirement passes, I truly feel like a stranger in a strange land, a Deplorable among the Adorables.

One incident in particular left me feeling particularly estranged from my countrymen. We were on a bus, that workhorse of the cruising population, driving from the pier into St. Petersburg on our way to tour the Hermitage. Across the bay from the Hermitage, over where the real people of St. Petersburg live and work was a truly cool looking skyscraper, surrounded by construction cranes. This breathtaking aerodynamic spike of a building soaring high into the Russian sky immediately drew our eyes and admiring comments from my fellow tourists on the bus. Finally one of the bolder souls in our group interrupted the guide’s spiel, asking what this building might be.

The guide replied that it was the new headquarters of Gazprom, a Russian company. A brief puzzled silence followed. Seeing the questioning look of the man asking the question, the guide explained that Gazprom was “an oil and gas company”. A lady behind me on the bus greeted this explanation with a loud and drawn out “eeyew”. For a moment I was back in grade school with a frog in my dirty fingers showing my prize to one of the girls on the playground. The sound, the tone, the thought behind it was exactly the same.

A braver man than I would have said something, but the body language of the people around me was clear enough. In such places, I can never forget that I am among the Adorables, a sheep in wolf’s clothing as it were. There appeared to be near universal agreement among our passengers with her sentiment, conveyed by an assortment of nods and grunted assents. This was a bus full of Americans driving into a Russian city. Each of us had driven from our home to an airport, flown thousands of miles to Europe and then sailed for a few thousand miles in the comfort provided by a 50,000 ton ship, a journey simply a fantastic dream without oil and gas. But the thought of the people providing that oil and gas evokes a response from us like that of little girls confronted by wiggling worms. It came as no surprise.

Of course we all genuflect before the looming monolith of Global Warming or Climate Change or whatever term is in fashion at the time. The fact that our ship has been sailing the shallow depths of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea does not intrude on our settled dogma. Even Science allows that both places were comfortable dry land containing large populations within eras known to human history. The climate will change with or without human help, just as it always has. The humility to accept that is a good start for the responsible stewardship necessary to deal with it.

I must confess that the Deplorable in me found much to smile at in my time in the far North. I will always remember the entrance to Copenhagen’s harbor. Copenhagen’s harbor is a spectacularly beautiful setting and our ship’s departure was blessed with that rarity in the Baltic – sunshine. As a bonus for me, Copenhagen’s harbor will always be associated in my mind with one of those old white males for whom I have an unfashionable admiration, Horatio Nelson.

Copenhagen was the scene for one of the many iconic moments in his colorful life. In 1801 during the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy sought to pressure the Danes into allowing them the use of the ships of the Danish Navy in the fight against Napoleon. As was often the case in British foreign policy, a British fleet was sent to Copenhagen to influence the Dane’s deliberations on the subject. In the course of events negotiations did not go well and the British fleet decided chastisement was in order. British ships began to fire upon the Danish forts guarding the harbor. Nine years after this incident, our national anthem was written outside Baltimore by Francis Scott Key commemorating a very similar situation.

Nelson, as was his nature, had taken his squadron in close and was engaged in a hot action. In our mind’s eye we can see the stately ships, ships of the line mounting 74 guns or more, tacking in succession across the frontage of the harbor fort, clouds of smoke billowing from the cannon of their broadsides. After a time, the British admiral commanding the fleet thought better of his decision and signaled to disengage. It may be that he was a timid soul, or perhaps simply a practical and prudent officer, as naval attacks on well-built land fortifications were almost always a bad idea. The British admiral, one Sir Hyde Parker by name, signaled Nelson to cease action and withdraw before Nelson’s ships could be sunk or damaged.

Nelson’s signal officer, Lt. Foley, drew Nelson’s attention to the admiral’s signal flag ordering withdrawal. It so happened that Nelson had lost an both eye and an arm earlier in his country’s service. Standing on the quarterdeck of his flagship, Nelson reputedly used his only arm to raise his telescope to his missing eye, looked toward his admiral’s signal flags and replied to Lt. Foley, “I really do not see the signal”. You can’t help but admire the chutzpah of the man. Nelson continued his attack. In any case, the forts surrendered to him shortly thereafter and Nelson’s reputation grew accordingly. Nelson met a tragic death at Trafalgar four years later and wasn’t at Fort McHenry, else there might not be a Star Spangled Banner.

Today, Copenhagen’s harbor, once smoke filled and echoing to the cannon fire of Danish and British guns is guarded, not by fortresses, but by a line of windmills. The watchers on the deck of our ship oohed and aahed at the sight of white windmill blades flashing in slow motion rotation. To be sure, they were a picturesque sight, white towers lit by the rarity of Baltic sunshine against the ocean blue with the horizon’s white clouds framing the scene. Though my Morlock’s mind could not help but note that the windmills were small in size, few in number and with more than one’s blades stilled by mechanical malfunction. Perhaps the windmills provided 10, perhaps even 20, megawatts of electrical power for a city using thousands of megawatts. But as we learn anew every day, PR creates a reality far more powerful than the one we actually live in.

But it was the informational billboards, prideful boasts lining the pier and vaunting the Danish commitment to renewable energy, which both amused and depressed me. The picture on top of these informational billboards was of an eagle in flight while below was an artistic shot of windmills in early dawn. Is there any more iconic picture available for “feel good” environmental awareness than an eagle in flight? Is there any more iconic picture available for “feel good” environmental awareness than lines of photogenic windmills? Once more our collective noses are rubbed into how environmentally aware peoples are pointing the way to a sustainable and responsible civilization.

There is a fly in the ointment however, not often spoken of in the polite company frequented by the Adorables. For some reason, birds, most especially eagles and other raptors, love to fly among the rotating blades of the windmills. Unfortunately they sometimes get into a fender bender. The Department of US Fish & Wildlife estimates that the Altamont Wind Farm in California kills an estimated 116 Golden Eagles annually. The Audubon Society estimates that windmills kill 140,000 to 328,000 (a curiously exact number) birds of all kinds in the USA every year. Imagine if an oil and gas company killed 116 Golden Eagles every year? Imagine if an oil and gas company killed 116 Golden Eagles every year in California? “Eeyew!!” does not even begin to express our feelings.

The construction of every windmill that makes Adorable hearts go atwitter requires something else, an unseen and hidden infrastructure. Every windmill, besides the unfortunate fact of its lethal effect on eagles and other birds, requires a gas turbine behind it to provide electrical power during those times when the wind blows too hard or simply slows to a breeze. That gas turbine behind the windmill needs many things to do its job. It requires a parallel electrical infrastructure of transformers, switchgear and power lines. It needs a natural gas pipeline, natural gas processing plants, “fracked” natural gas wells, etc. “Eeyew”!

“Eeyew”! How do you fight “eeyew”? How do you even argue with “eeyew”? I spent my life as an engineer working, at least so I thought at the time, to make the world a better place, building things that helped people. Things that allowed people to stay warm in winter, cool in summer. Things that allowed them to feed their families, to live lives free from worry about famine or deprivation. But what I did makes most all of those same people go “eeyew”, or maybe “ick” or “ugh”, or at best indifferent.

Looking at my career, there is little room for complaining. Sometimes I found it politic to mumble or dissemble about what I did for a living, but I was paid well, more than well. I worked with people that I was and am proud to know, people of integrity, honesty and virtue. I earned a place among those good people, an accomplishment that warms my heart even now.

Perhaps it is my vanity, my ego, which was and is offended. It may surprise Adorables, but even Deplorables have feelings. We all want to feel that we are appreciated, that what we do is worthwhile. It surprises even me, the introverted engineer, but a little love goes a long way. In over forty years of working to make people’s lives better, I don’t recall anything on television, in a newspaper or magazine that said nice things about I was doing. But there were many many bits attacking my work, shaming my work, saying “eeyew”.

Perhaps this is only to be expected. We don’t celebrate those who pick up our garbage or clean our offices either. But there is a difference between indifference and hostility. What does it mean for a nation when its ruling elites forget how they came to be a ruling elite?

Why did we in the West only begin to care about the Middle East in the early 20th Century after ten centuries of benign neglect or outright indifference? Does anyone wonder why human slavery, a commonplace since the dawn of history, became a concern of the enlightened only with the advent of coal fired steam power? Do they wonder how this planet can support over 7 billion souls with less hunger and better health than ever before in human history? Do all those snow birds making their way down South in land whales making 5 mpg ever wonder how there can exist cities in the desert or the fetid swamp?

On a more personal level, how much of the locally sourced organic artisanal kale and free-range chicken that my fellow passengers on that bus seek out was delivered to the restaurant in a Tesla Model S? Or back to a time of peril for us as a nation, why was it that the merchant marine suffered the highest casualty rate in WWII? And why was it that most of those sinking ships carrying Merchant Marine sailors to their deaths were oil tankers? Why did the Japanese feel forced into attacking Pearl Harbor? Why did the German Army try so hard to take Stalingrad? “Eeyew” indeed.

“Eeyew” is not about logic. It comes from a deeper wellspring than the conscious mind and its logic. “Eeyew” comes from our emotions. It is fed from the wellsprings of our spirit. Perhaps my clearest sight of “eeyew” came in Tallinn. Tallinn is the capital of Estonia, the furthest north of the tiny Baltic Republics.

We took one of those “interesting” tours for which I have an inordinate fondness. But in my defense, “interesting tours” are usually small tours, allowing for more intimacy. One can only sit in so many traffic jams in city centers listening to a guide talk about the architecture of the Victorian Era buildings around us. Instead on this “interesting” tour, we went to a monument erected by the Soviet Army outside the city, commemorating the sacrifices of the Red Army in WWII. But as we left the monument, the guide veered onto a conversation about religion and faith in Estonia. In his words, Estonians are not a religious people, rejecting Christianity.

Instead Estonians seek to spend time in the forests, communing with the trees. Shades of the Old Testament, Asherah Poles have returned!! Of course our group listened to him with eager interest, many of our number nodding our heads in understanding and agreement. It is a foundational truth of the Adorables that we Americans can only redeem our souls by returning to Nature.

As our tour group basked in the light and warmth thrown off by the representative of a more advanced culture than our own, I again felt the dead weight of my strangeness. In one of life’s ironies of which the guide was probably unaware, Estonia has a mixed relationship with its trees. Estonia is a very cold country and needs lots of heat for people to live there. In times past, trees provided the fuel to warm Estonia’s people during those long winters.

But today Estonia has a large and well-developed oil shale industry. A very large part of Estonia’s electrical power and heating is provided by oil derived from the open pit mining of oil shale. By any measure one chooses, as far as sheer nasty impact on their trees and general environment, open pit oil shale production is in a class by itself. But without oil shale, I image Estonians would need to cut wood, with a correspondingly negative impact on the trees ability to offer communion with humans.

One can hardly dispute the observation that the West, at least our ruling elites, is retreating from its Judeo-Christian heritage. But emptiness, particularly in the human heart, must be filled. Aristotle was probably simply repeating an observation already old in his own time when he said, “Nature abhors a vacuum”.

It is perhaps an irony appreciated by God Himself that Christianity provided the cradle allowing the nurture and growth of science and engineering capable of unlocking God’s Creation for the good of mankind. But then the very beneficiaries of that great good done by science and engineering choose to abandon Christianity because they judge God to be neither logical nor Scientific. As Aristotle pointed out, when something is expelled, something else must rush into its place, like air into a vacuum. As we abandon our Christian heritage and beliefs, we once more return to our roots, acting out ancient fertility rites in the forests in unconscious imitation of our distant ancestors. In our hearts, we know, just as our ancestors knew, we need protection from a natural environment. Nature has always been hostile to our survival.

One Response to ““Eeyew” in the Baltic”

  1. jeffrey Esbenshade says:

    We leave for Europe next week as a deplorable I wiil try and sell Trumps plan

    why we need NATO members to pay more. US cannot be the worlds policemen

    with our money and young lives.

    Gasprom is not only a Russian oil& gas company but if states like the Baltics and Ukraine do not do Moscows wishes, the Russians turn the gas pipe off to those states!Their best trick is when its 20 below zero.

    The first offshore US windmills started this summer on Block Island RodeIsland
    locals think their electric bills will be cut 50% because they had been burning
    oil.No report on number of seagulls lost at sea if we ever get a report!

    You might have missed this numberTelsa missed it production of cars in the 3rd qt.
    Maybe Mr Elon Musk will learn you cannot make things in California.

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