Power Hungry


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It’s not easy to get to the National Arboretum in Washington, D.C., without driving. But if you were determined to do so, you’d take the Metro from downtown, then transfer to the B2 bus. There’s no stop at the Arboretum itself, but if you ask the driver whether that bus goes by the institution, as I did, he might pull over anyway and yell back that this is where you have to get off. Either way, you still have to walk about a quarter of a mile down a quiet residential street before you come to the low stone pillars that mark the entrance to the living museum.

If you were determined to make such a trek now, your fuel-saving efforts would be rewarded with Power Plants — a new temporary exhibit that explores flora’s potential to revolutionize our current energy system. Just beyond the National Bonsai & Penjing Museum, a wandering path takes visitors past clusters of 13 species — barley, sunflower, algae, sugar beet, peanut, etc. — whose photosynthetic energy, we’re told, could be used to reduce dependence on oil, coal, and natural gas. A few, like corn, are already used to produce bioenergy. Brazil, one sign reports, has used sugarcane to replace 40 percent of its gasoline consumption with ethanol. Some species of algae, another states, can produce up to 60 percent of their weight in oil.

The National Arboretum is a logical host for such a display. Created in 1927, its 455 acres serve as both a living laboratory for the Agricultural Research Service of the Department of Agriculture and a public space for recreation and education. An exhibit like Power Plants may be particularly important for the latter function. Compared to other institutions that connect the public with the natural world, arboreta can be a tough sell. They lack the exoticism of zoos, the surreal beauty of botanical gardens, the vistas of national parks. How does the Grove of State Trees or National Herb Garden compete with, say, the mighty triceratops on display back at the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History?

Yet instead of injecting an easy sense of relevancy into the noble but staid institution, Power Plants, for all its educational value, fails as a museum-going experience. The display’s designers are not to blame; the plants and their potential instead lack the drama an exhibit needs to engage the public. We’re given facts data on the benefits of bioenergy, descriptions of the methods of producing it, and explanations of its distinct forms. But facts alone are not enough to draw us in.

“The story’s the thing,” Freeman Tilden writes in his landmark 1957 work Interpreting Our Heritage. Tilden cited the “story” as one of six principles vital to forging a successful connection between natural and man-made wonders, and the public that seeks them out. “All the good intentions are unavailing unless the interpreter understands that form is the essence,” Tidlen writes, “and that pedagogical miscellany is a bore to the man on holiday.” This is particularly acute at the Arboretum, where the algae and corn do not aid but instead suffer from the less didactic and significantly more awesome great trees that surround them.

For the environmentally-minded, there’s a feeling that enjoying, or at least appreciating, an exhibit like Power Plants is a kind of moral obligation. This feeling is compounded by the fact that the less sustainable sources of energy are so much more compelling to see.

In her new book Inventing Niagara, Ginger Strand chronicles centuries of looking at and using the water that flows over the land between Canada and the U.S.; the Falls are, in fact, “turned up” for tourists: Their natural flow is about 200,000 cubic feet per second; water diverted for hydroelectric power reduces the flow to 50,000 cubic feet, but it’s raised to 100,000 cubic feet from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., April 1 to September 15.

Last year I visited Pioneer Tunnel in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region. Once a functioning mine, today visitors can ride down into its chilly, dark depths. There, tour guides told stories of mining’s dangers, and at one point turned off the lights to demonstrate just how deep inside the Earth we were.

Risky energy compels. I worked at a nuclear power plant one summer, every few hours monitoring the number of fish in the water the plant pulled from a river to cool its reactors, and how many of them were dead (surprisingly, very few). There wasn’t much to see, but I always wandered the plant between samples, awed to simply know that atomic processes were going on behind doors I didn’t have clearance to open.

Perhaps the most irreconcilably appealing energy exhibits can be found in a small town in northwestern Pennsylvania called Oil City. Exactly 150 years ago, with experimentation proving petroleum’s value as lamp oil, a group of investors sent a railroad man named Edwin Drake to the area to find a commercially-viable method for collecting petroleum. Drake struggled for more than a year to develop a means of capturing the underground oil underground until, with the help of a salt well driller, he tapped a fissure 69 feet on August 27, 1859. Petroleum bubbled to the surface and the world’s first commercial oil boom was on.

Prospectors quickly invaded the region around Drake’s well as drills replaced farmland and forest. In 1864, a reporter for Harper’s visited the area, writing: “These flats for miles are covered with black derricks, some silent and some bearing the unceasing pump, which with a steady ‘clip-clip,’ raises the odorous, oily wealth from the secret caverns below. Everything you see is black.”

An infectious pro-oil spirit infuses the area. At the Drake Well Museum, watching the optimistically-titled Born in Freedom: The Story of Colonel Drake with Vincent Price as the intrepid pioneer, one can’t help but sympathize with Drake as locals mock what seems to be a worthless endeavor, and then rejoice when, after losing the investors’ support, Drake’s perseverance is repaid with an upwelling of oil. A few miles north of Oil City is McClintock Well #1. It still produces a trickle of oil — nothing substantial, but enough to maintain its place as the oldest continuously operated oil well in the world: an American triumph in the larger oil-producing world.

This is an uncomfortable reaction. Preferring oil, coal, water, and nuclear energy to plants (or wind or the sun, for that matter) feels a little like the experience of sympathizing with Norman Bates in Psycho. But maybe that’s understandable. The above energy sources are all forms of power, yet only the former group would be considered powerful. And though we’re addicted to power, we’re just as addicted to the powerful, to those narratives and experiences that try our ability to control and harness nature: Three Mile Island; coal mining accidents; tightrope walks across and barrel rides over Niagara; fortunes made and just as quickly lost in oil.

Maybe our slow, laboring separation from those early forms of power, however, signifies a separation as well from the idea that nature is something to be controlled or harnessed. These forms of energy are appealing because, per Tilden, they have a story. But a story includes an ending, and in that way Power Plants may be just a bit ahead of itself. With time, a new narrative may emerge — one grounded not in tension with nature, but in living alongside it.

Indeed, not far from the Drake Well Museum is Pithole; now a state park, it was a boom town that busted faster than any other. Changing from farmland to a town of 15,000 in only a few months in 1865, it collapsed just as quickly when the wells dried up. Today, a few stone cellars are the only sign of what once was. There’s a small visitors’ center and picnic pavilion on the site. It is otherwise a quiet meadow of knee-high grasses and a scattering of trees. The oil is gone, but the plants remain, as they always do. • 26 July 2008