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Whether industry or artistry, drilling remakes Texas’ landscape

Last year, Amy Youngs, an art professor at Ohio State University, posted online a photo she shot from a commercial jet flying over Central Texas.

“Saw these strange new human-made landscapes on my flight from Sacramento to Houston,” she wrote in the caption. “Not farming, not subdivisions, but many miles of rectangular patches etched out of the earth, some with pools next to them, all with roads to them. I doubt that people see these when driving on major roads – I never have – but they were very visible from a plane. Welcome to your new landscape!”

The patches are gas wells drilled by subsidiaries of ExxonMobil over the past decade, according to the state Railroad Commission, which regulates energy development. Next to water, gas drilling is the chief environmental story in Texas right now. How this form of development is improving our energy security or polluting our water has occupied a lot of ink and a lot of policy talk. It’s also, as Youngs astutely observes, remaking the landscape.

Walter Prescott Webb, in his magisterial book, “The Great Plains,” identified the six-shooter, barbed wire and the windmill as innovations that found special popularity in Texas because of the particular circumstances of the region — a need for a fast-loading weapon for the mounted ranger; the problem of cattle trampling farms in a land without trees; the challenge of finding energy to pull up water from underground. (Barbed wire, especially, remade the landscape in ways that echo Youngs’ caption — “many miles of rectangular patches etched out of the earth.”)

To that list we might now add oil derricks and fracking rigs, innovations that found traction (the former at Spindletop, the latter in the Fort Worth area, thanks to Texas businessman George Mitchell) in the particular subterranean makeup of Texas, designed to satisfy an insatiable American appetite for energy.

The Great Plains, Webb concluded, is a “land of survival where nature has most stubbornly resisted the efforts of man.” Youngs’ picture suggests that it’s increasingly nature itself, and not mankind, that finds itself holding on for survival as yet another kind of natural resource extraction helps prop up the Texas economy.

As the son of an art historian, one who has endured his fair share of forced marches through museums (ask me some time for tips on how to squeeze the most of a museum if you get there just before closing time), I see Youngs’ image as the latest in a long line of artists grappling with the relationship between industry and landscape.

A few years ago, I witnessed townspeople from the hamlet of Clifton, northwest of Waco, argue before the Public Utility Commission that a proposed electric transmission line, meant to carry wind energy from West Texas to the populous central part of the state, would hamper the town’s ability to attract artists and inspire art. Clifton thinks of itself as an artists colony, and the conventional wisdom seemed to be that artists wanted to be around pretty landscapes, devoid of modern eyesores like hulking transmission lines.

As if to accentuate their artsy-ness, the townspeople showed up wearing red bandannas around their necks.

“We have worked very hard to use natural Hill Country beauty to develop our internationally recognized art community,” Fred Volcansek, the mayor of Clifton, told the commissioners. If a line were built, Volcansek wondered aloud, “Why would these artists come?”

Mike Irvin, a landscape artist who lives in the Clifton area, told the commissioners that the transmission lines would disrupt “the reference points” needed for landscape painting. “We’ll have to look in another direction or go elsewhere,” he said.

The commissioners, none of them famed as arts aficionados, were stone-faced.

“You have a fair number of lines converging on your city, yet you already have an artists community,” then-Chairman Barry Smitherman said as he pored over a map of existing lines through Clifton.

He and his fellow commissioners ultimately favored the empirical over the romantic as they made their decision, ruling against Clifton.

Despite the protestations of the Clifton townsfolk, European and American artists have long considered the infiltration of industrial development into the countryside an opportunity for art. Some of the most famous pieces of art imply progress, others environmental and economic ills.

In his 1855 painting “The Lackawanna Valley,” for example, the American painter George Inness includes a distant train chugging through rural Pennsylvania as a boy watches in the foreground, one populated by tree stumps. (The painting was commissioned by a railroad company. Perhaps the fracking companies should, if they have not already, pay an artist to do a heroic photo series on their rigs. Oil companies were known to do this in the 1950s and 1960s, part of the golden age of American industrial progress.)

Inness’ fellow Hudson River School painter Jasper Cropsey had a similarly ambivalent take in “Starrucca Viaduct,” an 1865 painting of a famous railroad bridge cutting through — yet still dwarfed by — Pennsylvania wilderness.

Then there’s “Bathers at Asnieres,” the Frenchman Georges Seurat’s 1884 painting. In the foreground, a happy enough scene of riverside bathing; in the background, near-phantasmagorical factories belching up smoke.

Typically, these artists, as with Youngs more than a century later, are tapping into complicated feelings about industry and progress.

In the 1930s, Diego Rivera (in Detroit) and Thomas Hart Benton (in Indiana) famously painted murals that both celebrate and bemoan industrial progress, with panels focusing on individuals as stand-ins for the common man.

It was that very affection of artist toward worker that the disenchanted Lenny Angrush disdains in a 1960s scene in Jonathan Lethem’s recent novel “Dissident Gardens.”

“The entire fershlugginer diversion represented by the WPA years, when the left fell utterly into Comrade Roosevelt’s grip, and every formerly sharp-eyed urbanist went chasing after some oil-rigging cowboy with charcoal and a sketch pad, or shoved a reel recorder under the nose of some illiterate sharecropper clutching a one-string guitar,” Lenny sneers at a folk singer. “The party seeking solidarity with the folk.”

Last year, the industrial landscape photographer Edward Burtynsky, in the movie “Watermark,” took a crack at the relationship between humans, landscape and water — the chief competitor to energy development like fracking in capturing the attention of Texans. One portion of the movie includes pivot irrigation sites in Texas — the circles of green that dot otherwise brown rural landscapes. The revolutionary method, in which equipment rotates around a pivot to water crops with sprinklers, has been praised for growing crops in inhospitable spots and criticized for robbing ancient Panhandle aquifers of water.

“While trying to accommodate the growing needs of an expanding — and very thirsty — civilization, we are reshaping the Earth in colossal ways,” Burtynsky says on his website.

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