Oil and Blood in the Heartland 1: Hope and Despair

Landschlacht, Switzerland, 8 November 2016

King Solomon of Israel (970 – 932 BC) once wrote about life on Earth in his day:

“A generation goes and a generation comes…

All things are full of weariness. 

A man cannot utter it. 

The eye is not satisfied with seeing nor the ear filled with hearing.

What has been is what will be. 

What has been done is what will be done.

There is nothing new under the sun.

Is there a thing of which it is said, “See, this is new.”?

It has been already in the ages before us.

There is no remembrance of former things, nor will there be any remembrance of later things yet to be, among those who come after.”

(Ecclesiastes 1: 4 – 11, Holy Bible, New International Version)

This is especially true in the Information Age.

Every day we see an endless procession of visual images and listen to an endless stream of sounds.

Yet, after all our looking and listening, our eyes and ears are not satisfied.

We still want to see and hear more.

So we take in more of the endless procession of sounds and images.

Enough is never enough.

There is always one more show to watch, one more game to play, one more song to listen to.

We keep texting, webcasting, Facebooking, Twittering and Flickring.

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And it is all futile.

Life is more boring than modern man cares to admit.

Empires rise and fall.

War is followed by peace, then followed again by war.

As Yogi Berra said: “It´s déjà vu all over again.”

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What really changes?

The message or just the methods and speed?

Sickness or just the diagnostics and treatment?




The methods have changed, but the essence remains the same.

What was, is.

What is, will be.

Issues thought long past once again revisit.

The past unresolved meets the present moment, creating tensions for the future.

Again the winds of change blow across a familiar landscape.

Economics struggles against nature and tradition.

To be fair, there are moments of optimism.

“Eight miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, the oil rig Eureka, which has stood there for 40 years, looking like just another artifact of the modern industrial landscape, has beneath the waves a vast and thriving community of sea life – one of the richest marine ecosystems on the planet.

The location of Eureka and other rigs like it in this area, where a cold current sweeps down from Canada, has become a perfect habitat for fish and other sea life settling around the massive concrete pylons.

Momentum is gathering to convert rigs into artificial reefs once the rigs are decommissioned.

Awareness is increasing of the value of rigs as permanent homes for sea life.

But leaving rigs in place is controversial and is seen as benefiting the oil industry.

The Eureka, owned by the Houston oil company Beta Offshore, is one of 27 oil rigs off the California coast.

Several major oil spills have occurred since they were built half a century ago, giving rise to a passionate environmental movement that has long advocated complete removal of the rigs.

An enormous oil spill in 1969 released 100,000 barrels of crude, leaving a slick over 40 miles of coastline and killing thousands of animals.

In 2015, a pipeline sprung a leak that released 3,400 barrels of crude into the ocean, fouling several just-created marine protected areas.

The process of removing a rig and cleaning the site, known as decommissioning, is complicated and expensive, and includes plugging and cementing wells to make them safe.

A total decommissioning means the removal of the entire structure.

In a typical rigs-to-reefs effort, only the top portion is removed, usually to a depth of 80 feet, so that they don´t pose any risk to ship hulls.

The rest of the rig remains in place as a haven for sea life and for recreational diving or fishing.

The potential savings to the oil industry from converting all the rigs off the coast of California to reefs could be more than $1,000,000,000, but under US law oil companies would be required to put at least half the money they save into state coffers to fund conservation programs.”

(Erik Olsen, “Oil rigs gushing with marine life”, New York Times, 7 March 2016)

Reading of nature quietly reclaiming places despoiled by man does give me hope that no matter how man wrecks our planet that over time nature will repair itself.

But mankind acts swifter than nature reacts.

“Among Scots and tourists alike, the bonny banks of Loch Lomond have long been renowned as a relaxing place to enjoy some of the country´s most beautiful scenery.

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The Australian company Scotgold Resources has spent most of the last decade developing a gold mine in the dramatic surroundings of Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park.

Local campaigners are voicing their concerns that the infrastructure and waste created by the operation could damage the national park.”

(The Independent, 25 February 2016)

“The juniper mesas and sunset-red canyons in a corner of southern Utah are so remote that even Republican Governor Gary Herbert says he has probably only seen them from the window of a plane.

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This is a paradise for hikers and campers, a revered retreat where generations of the Original Peoples have hunted, gathered ceremonial herbs and carved their stories onto the sandstone walls.

Today, the land known as Bears Ears – named for twin buttes that jut over the horizon – is a battleground in the fight over how much power Washington exerts over federally controlled Western landscapes.

The President has the power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments on federal lands.

A coalition of native tribes, with support from conservation groups, is pushing for a new monument in these red rock deserts, arguing it would protect 1.9 million acres of culturally significant land from new mining and drilling.

But Utah lawmakers are so angry with federal land policies that in 2012 they passed a law demanding that Washington hand over 31 million acres, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, to the state.

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The federal government – the landlord of 65% of Utah´s land – has not complied, so Utah is considering a $14,000,000 lawsuit to force a transfer.

Conservative lawmakers across the state have lined up to oppose any new monument.

Ranchers, county commissioners, business groups and even some local tribal members object to a monument as a land grab that would add crippling restrictions on animal grazing, oil and gas drilling and road building in a rural county that never saw its share of Utah´s economic growth.

For the coalition of tribes and nature advocates seeking preservation, a new national monument in Bears Ears would preserve a stretch of mountains, mesas and canyons six times the size of Los Angeles.

It could also create a new model for how public lands are managed.

The tribal coalition of Navajos, Zunis, Hopis, Utes and Ute Mountain Utes wants to jointly manage the land with the government.

“You can´t talk about who we are as a people without talking about the land.

The same kind of love that we have for relatives is no different than the love we have for the land.

Our traditional people know and understand these lands as living, breathing beings.” (Eric Descheenie, chairman of the intertribal coalition)

Utah´s Republican representatives in Salt Lake City and Washington overwhelmingly oppose President Obama and are pushing a bill that would conserve some stretches of land while allowing energy development in other parcels.

Environmental groups have largely denounced the plan, saying it would lead to more roads and traffic in the back country and open eastern Utah to tarsands extraction and new oil drilling.

Tribal groups pushing for a monument say they would have a far weaker voice in how the area was managed.

The Navajos have hunted and lived in the Bears Ears region long before Utah was called “Utah”.

People still go there to hunt elk or deer, gather wood for fence posts and herbs for ceremonies.”

(Jack Healy, “Remote Utah landscape becomes conservation battleground”, New York Times, 12 March 2016)

In a previous blog I wrote about how Oklahoma is being forced to put limits on oil and gas wells because the underground disposal of industrial wastes have triggered large earthquakes and how a health outreach initiative in Colorado is trying to dispel the notion that all tap water is harmful and how tourism operators are urging the Australian government to tackle climate change.

I spoke about how poachers have almost eliminated rhino species in Tanzania and how Australian company Mineral Commodities wishes to mine titanium on traditional South African land thus threatening social tradition and destruction of the local environment.

(See RIP Earth of this blog.)

Change challenges.

Economics versus tradition is a theme that never seems to fade.

Of course, there are voices that suggest there are other ways to satisfy our never-sated hunger for energy and profits, but these voices seem as distant from kind receptiveness as Bears Ears is from Salt Lake City…far away thus forgetable.

Yet some light does shine through the fog…

“In Britain, drivers of hydrogen fuel cell cars will soon be able to fill up at a network of stations that generate their fuel on site from renewable energy.

A ITM Power station in Teddington, southwest London, has opened with the capacity to produce hydrogen during periods when wind turbines are producing more power than the grid needs.

The station uses electrolysis to generate hydrogen from tap water.

The electrolyser takes power from the grid and can be switched on and off remotely to help the network remain in balance when there is excess supply of electricity.

Fuel cell cars combine hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, which powers the motor.

The Teddington station, based at the National Physical Laboratory, can claim to provide genuinely zero emission fuel when its electrolyser is running on renewable power.

ITM Power is opening several more hydrogen fuelling stations this year.

Fifteen are already in operation and the government is helping to fund a further 40 by 2020.

The Teddington station is part of the HyFive Project, an EU scheme that is supporting clusters of fuel cell cars and stations in Britain, Denmark and Germany.”

(Ben Webster, “Eco-filling station hopes to fuel rise of green cars”, The Times, 10 May 2016)

A reduction in carbon emissions from the use of fossil fuels is needed.

The average European emits around 12 tonnes of carbon a year into the atmosphere.

Carbon emissions are causing climate change.

But in some places like the US getting folks to reduce their carbon footprint is difficult.

SUVs (sport utility vehicles)(also known as 4 X 4s) are incredibly popular in the US, despite being dangerous both for pedestrians and the environment.

One in four vehicles sold in the US is an SUV.

SUVs are also gaining popularity in Europe.

SUVs are the most polluting form of passenger transport available.

Each gallon of petrol/gas burned emits more than 12 kilograms of CO2 and SUVs are gas guzzlers, doing as little as 13 miles per gallon.

I recall with bittersweet amusement the animated film Over the Hedge where RJ (a raccoon voiced by Bruce Willis) explains to the foraging animals he recently met how the world of humans operates:

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“THAT is an SUV. 

Humans ride around in it, because they are slowly losing their ability to walk.”

(Penny, the mother porcupine, voiced by Catherine O`Hara): Jeepers, it´s so big.

(Lou, the papa porcupine, voiced by Eugene Levy): How many humans fit in there?

(RJ): Usually? One.

The West is a car culture.

We love our cars, despite traffic noise, polluted air, dangerous driving, jam-packed streets and urban chaos.

We breathe in dangerous air pollutants and suffer from eye and throat irritation, cancer and damage to the body´s immune, neurological, reproductive and respiratory systems.

We destroy without compassion or concern our ponds, streams, fields and forests to produce electricity for our homes and to power our transportation.

When I read articles like the ITM Power hydrogen fuel station I feel a spark of optimism, but often I fear the world is heading madly towards becoming an environmental dystopia, as predicted by futurists like Thomas Malthus, Harry Harrison and George Orwell, or as feared in movies like Blade Runner, Elysium, No Blade of Grass, Silent Running, Soylent Green and WALL-E.

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“The world´s first international treaty that bans or phases out fossil fuels is being considered by leaders of developing Pacific island nations after a summit in the Solomon Islands in June.

The leaders of 14 countries agreed to consider a proposed Pacific climate treaty, which will bind signatories to targets for renewable energy and ban new or the expansion of existing coalmines, at the annual leadership summit of the Pacific Islands Development Forum (PIDF).

The treaty proposal was received very positively by the national leaders, who seemed convinced that the treaty is an avenue where the Pacific could again show or build on the moral and political leadership that they showed earlier in their efforts to tackle climate change.

The treaty will bind parties to not approve any new coal or fossil fuel mines and not provide any subsidies for fossil fuel mining or consumption.

The parties will ensure universal access to clean energy by 2030 and will establish a Pacific framework for renewable energy to achieve that goal.

The treaty, to be signed next year, will establish compensation for communities that have suffered climate change-related losses.

The treaty also has provisions on climate-related migration and adaptation.”

(Michael Slezak, “Pacific island nations consider world´s first treaty to ban fossil fuels”, The Guardian, 14 July 2016)

Even my part-time employer seems concerned about the environment…

“Starbucks is to try a fully recyclable cup as part of efforts to cut the amount of waste sent to landfills each year.

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The coffee shop chain will be the first retailer to test the Frugalpac, which, according to its manufacturer, is much easier to recycle.

More than 2.5 billion coffee cups are used in the UK every year, but only one in 400 is recyclable, with the rest sent to landfills or incinerated because they are made from paper laminated with plastic, making them hard to process.

Starbucks, which has 850 shops in the UK, has said that it will test the new cup in some of the shops “to see if the Frugalpac cup meets Starbucks standards for safety and quality.”

(Andrew Ellson, “Starbucks leads the way with fully recyclable coffee cup”, The Times, 22 July 2016)

But old habits and old attitudes die hard…

Let´s take a gander at my home and native land of Canada, a country which seems to be experiencing a love-in from many other countries and much of the media, like The Economist (“Liberty moves north: Canada´s example to the world”, 29 October 2016) or Monocle (“Canada calling: why it´s time to take a fresh look north”, November 2016).

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According to The Economist, Canada is “a citadel of decency, tolerance and good sense” and says “the world owes Canada gratitude for reminding it of what many people are in danger of forgetting: that tolerance and openness are wellsprings of security and prosperity, not threats to them.”

Yet one does not get the sense that Canada is superior when it comes to deciding between profits and the environment.

“Fort McMurray, Alberta (or “Fort Make Money” as some Canadians nicknamed it) was the kind of place where second chances and fat paychecks beckoned.

Aerial view of Fort McMurray with Athabasca River

Those who settled there were trained engineers, refugees from wartorn countries and dreamers from across Canada and beyond, drawn to a dot on the map in northern Alberta, a city carved out of the boreal forest in a region gushing with oil riches.

Even after the price of crude began to collapse in late 2014, erasing thousands of jobs, many residents managed to hang on, tightening their belts while waiting for the good times to return.

Then on 1 May 2016, smoke and ash filled the sky, the first harbingers of a catastrophic wildfire sweeping around the city.

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The entire population of about 88,000 was forced to evacuate, most in a frantic rush.

The blaze consumed whole sections of Fort McMurray, ranking as one of the most devastating fires in Canada´s history.

The fire destroyed over 2,400 homes and buildings, forcing the largest wildfire evacuation in Alberta history.

The inferno continued to spread across northern Alberta and into Saskatchewan, consuming forested areas and impacting the Athabasca oil sands operation 70 km north of Fort McMurray.

A quarter of Canada´s oil production, equal to one million barrels of oil a day, was halted as a result of the fire.

The fire spread across 1.5 million acres before it was declared to be under control on 5 July 2016.

It is estimated that the damage reached about $4 billion, making this the most expensive damge in Canadian history.

The cause of the fire is suspected to be human caused, starting in a remote area 15 km from Fort McMurray.

But even as displaced residents filed insurance claims and picked through piles of donated clothing, many remain adamant about rebuilding the city that gave them a financial lifeline as rare as the source of its prosperity, the largest oil sands reserve in the world.

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Until environmentalists challenged the Keystone XL oil pipeline, the city and the Alberta oil sands reserve were little known outside of Canada and the world´s oil companies.

(More on Keystone to follow…)

Attempts to convert its deposits of tarlike bitumen into fuel go back decades and Fort McMurray´s fortunes have risen and fallen with them.

(New York Times, “A Canadian oil boom town left in ashes”, 8 May 2016 / Wikipedia)

But not enough is said about the oil sands operation in respect to environmental impact or indigeous rights before the wildfire struck.

The Athabaska oil sands are large deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil.

They consist of a mixture of crude bitumen (a semi-solid rock-like form of crude oil), silica sand, clay minerals and water.

The Athabaska deposit is the largest known reservoir of crude bitumen in the world and the largest of three major oil deposits, along with the nearby Peace River and Cold Lake deposits.

Together, these oil sand deposits lie under 141,000  sq. km / 54,000 sq. mi. of boreal forest and peat bogs and contain about 1.7 trillion barrels of bitumen in place, comparable in magnitude to the world´s total proven reserves of conventional petroleum.

Canada´s total proven reserves are the third largest in the world, after Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

The Athabaska oil sands are named after the Athabaska River which cuts through the heart of the deposit.

Traces of the heavy oil are readily observed on the river banks.

The bitumen was used by the indigenous Cree and Dene First Nations to waterproof their canoes.

In the sands there are very large amounts of bitumen covered over by water-laden peat bog, clay and barren sand.

The oil sands themselves are typically 40 – 60 metres / 130 – 200 ft deep, sitting on top of flat limestone rock.

Bitumen is extracted from the oil sands by surface mining and in situ steam-assisted gravity drainage (SAGD).

20% of the Athabaska sands are shallow enough to recover bitumen by surface mining, using the biggest power shovels (100 or more tons) and dump trucks (400 tons) in the world.

After the bitumen is excavated, hot water and caustic soda (NaOH) is added to the sand.

The resulting slurry is piped to the extraction plant where it is agitated and the oil skimmed from the top.

About two tons of oil sands are required to produce one barrel (1/8 of a ton) of oil.

SAGD is an advanced form of steam stimulation in which a pair of horizontal wells are drilled into the oil reservoir, one a few metres above the other.

High pressure steam is continously injected into the upper wellbore to heat the oil and reduce its viscosity, causing the heated oil to drain into the lower wellbore, where it is pumped out to a bitumen recovery facility.

Critics contend that government and industry measures taken to reduce environmental and health risks posed by these large-scale mining operations are inadequate, causing unacceptable damage to the natural environment and human welfare.

Mining destroys the boreal forest, which is clear cut to allow for mining excavation and bitumen extraction to occur.

Since the beginning of the oil sands development in 1967, there have been several leaks into the Athabaska River polluting it with oil and tailing pond water.

In 1997 Suncor admitted that their tailing ponds had been leaking 1,600 cubic metres of toxic water per day.

This water contains naphtenic acid, trace metals such as mercury and other pollutants.

The Athabaska River is the largest freshwater delta in the world, but with Suncor and Syncrude leaking tail ponds, the amount of polluted water will exceed 1 billion cubic metres by 2020.

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Natural toxicants derived from bitumen in northern Alberta pose potential ecological and human health risks to residents living in the area.

Oil sands development contributes arsenic, cadmium, chromium, lead, mercury, nickel and other metal elements toxic at low concentrations to the tributaries and rivers of the Athabaska.

A car filled with fuel from Canada´s oil sands emits 15% more carbon dioxide into the air than average crude oil.

Oil development activities bring an enormous number of people into a fragile ecosystem.

Water is easily polluted because the water table reaches the surface in most areas of muskeg (peat bog).

With the ever-increasing development and extraction of resources, wildlife are recipient to both direct and indirect effects of pollution.

Woodland caribou are particularly sensitive to human activities and as such are pushed away from their preferred habitat during the time of year when their caloric needs are greatest and food is the most scarce.

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Humanity´s effect on the caribou is compounded by road construction and habitat fragmentation that open up the area to deer and wolves.

Wildlife living near the Athabaska River have been greatly impacted due to pollutants entering the water system.

An unknown number of birds die each year.

Particularly visible and hard hit are migrating birds that stop to rest at tailing ponds.

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There have been numerous reports of large flocks of ducks landing in tailing ponds and perishing soon after.

There has also been a large impact on the fish that live and spawn in the area.

As toxins accumulate in the River due to the oil sands, bizarre mutations, tumors and deformed fish species have begun to appear.

First Nations communities that live around the River are becoming increasingly worried about how the animals they eat and their drinking water are being affected.

There is a higher rate of cancer in their communities caused by the contamination of the River and the oil sands as well as uranium mining.

The world´s largest production of uranium is also in this area.

In July 2015, one of the largest leaks in Canada´s history spilled 5,000 cubic metres of emulsion – about 5 million litres of bitumen, sand and wastewater – from a Nexen Energy pipeline at an oil sands facility.

In January 2016, an explosion left one worker dead and another seriously injured.


So, let´s look at another oil boom region: North Dakota.

North Dakota´s big shale oil boom, which in its heyday produced 810,000 barrels a day, was described as being similar to the California gold rush but in North Dakota in the 21st century.

The Bakken Shale Formation boom was so large that it cut the number of US imports of crude oil and petroleum products in half.

The boom created thousands of jobs and generated millions in wealth, but at a cost…

It took a massive toll on the environment.

Since 2006, there has been more than 19 million gallons of oils and chemicals that have been spilled, leaked or misted.

(New York Times, “The downside of the boom”, 22 November 2014.)

Since 2006, at least 74 workers have died in the Bakken oilfields.

On average that means someone dies in the Bakken oilfields every six weeks.

Oil workers were hired on a 20/10 basis: 20 days working / 10 days off, with some working shifts of 69 hours straight.

And there are few incentives for the oil companies to care about their workers.

The US Department of Labor reported that “the current general industry standards inadequately address the unique hazards encountered on oil and gas wells.”

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(Department of Labor´s Occupational Safety and Health Administration  (OSHA) report on oil and gas well drilling and servicing, The Federal Register, 28 December 1983)

There are fewer than 10 OSHA inspection officers for the entirety of both North and South Dakota.

It would take decades for OSHA to inspect every worksite in North Dakota.


On 14 September 2011, at an Oasis Petroleum site in western North Dakota near the town of Williston, an oil well explosion killed 21-year-old derrickman Brendon Wagner and injured three others.

Of the three injured men, one would later die from his injuries, another would have his legs amputated and the third would commit suicide.

OSHA found that the site had been missing many important safety features.

“None of the employees were provided flame retardant clothing…The servicing rig did not have a safety slide.”

(OSHA report, September 2011)

But Oasis was not liable for the damages their oil well caused because the workers had been subcontracted from Carlson Well Service and the “Oasis company supervisor” was contracted from Mitchell´s Oil Field Service.

Meaning that no one working on Oasis´ well that day was actually an Oasis worker.

In an Oasis service contract, dated 21 July 2010, it reads that Carlson had the authority to control and direct the performance and safety of the work and that Oasis was interested only in the results obtained.

Now, the subcontracting of workers is not unique to North Dakota, but what is special to North Dakota is how friendly regulatory authorities are to oil companies operating in the state.

“We have created a friendly business climate in North Dakota.

Taxes and insurance rates are low.

The regulatory environment is very reasonable.

North Dakotans are friendly towards business and will work hard to help their employers be successful.”

(North Dakota Governor Jack Dalrymple, 2012)

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Governor Dalrymple heads up the three-person Industrial Commission which overseas the state´s oil and gas regulations and excises fines for the majority of spills.

One of the biggest oil producers in the state is Continental Resources, which has spilled a greater volume of spillage (1.6 million gallons) than any other operator in North Dakota.

Since 2006, Continental has been fined only $222,000, but has paid only $20,000 as the fines are reduced because the Industrial Commission typically settles for 10% of the assessed penalties.

Lynn Helms of the Commission claimed that this system works well due to the conditions which are attached to the penalties:

The penalised company agrees to cut a cheque, which is unappealable if the same or a repeat violation occurs in a one-to-five-year period after the penalised offence.

“In five years, no companies have had a repeat violation. 

It´s like Prohibition and really changes behavior.”

(Lynn Helms interview, Associated Press, 20 March 2012)

In 2014, Petro Hunt received a 90% discount on a $20,000 fine after an incident where they spilled 3,000 gallons of oil.

Five months later, in an oil spill one mile northwest of Keene, Petro Hunt had another incident where 600 barrels of oil leaked from a well and was not contained on site.

600 barrels of oil = 2,500 gallons of oil

North Dakota´s regulations extend to political campaign financing.

On 21 July 2014, the Center for Public Integrity reported that “the oil sector is the biggest single source of political contributions in the state of North Dakota”.

“When I first ran for office and was visiting with other candidates I always asked, “If you had any money left in the campaign account at the end of the campaign what do you do with it?”.

One of the most fascinating answers I received was: “What´s wrong?  Put it in your checking account.  It´s yours.  That´s income.”.”

Photo Corey Mock

(Utah Democrat Representative Corey Mack)

North Dakota does not have an Ethics Commission.

North Dakota also allows the oil industry to use “indemnification to avoid civil liability”.

A typical service contract, 21 July 2010:

“Contractor agrees to indemnify and hold harmless the Company against all claims without limit and without regard to the cause or causes thereof or the negligence or fault with any party in connection herewith Contractor´s employees on account of bodily injury or death.”

Jobs and money shouldn´t come at the expense of land and lives.

(HBO Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, 10 November 2015 broadcast)

Comfort and convenience, speed and progress, should not mean the sacrifice of lands and lives, the environment or our survival.

"The Blue Marble" photograph of Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 mission. The Arabian peninsula, Africa and Madagascar lie in the upper half of the disc, whereas Antarctica is at the bottom.

Walks of Life: The Apple and the Grape

Landschlacht, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, 6 November 2016

It is true.

I often feel quite critical of this country in which I have resided in these past six years.

I criticize its government and its xenophobic policies.

I criticize its people and their parochial ways.

I criticize its economy with its soulless greed.

But what I cannot find fault with is Switzerland´s natural beauty.

Switzerland is a paradise for hikers, regardless of their ambition or health.

I came to this country because my German wife, the doctor, found better employment opportunities here.

I remain in Switzerland, not only because I remain married, but because I love the landscape, the countryside, the wilderness, of this nation.

I am reminded of the pure joy that this country inspires whenever I look back at photos of walks I have done since I moved here back in 2010.

Three walks I have done remain steadfast in my memory:

Altnau, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, Autumn 2015

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Just down the road from Landschlacht, Altnau is apple country.

The modern town of Altnau was first mentioned in 787 and has always been known for its agriculture.

And though attempts have been made since the 19th century to boost the economy by improving its infrastructure and attempting to attract tourists, Altnau remains 70% farmland, 15% forest and only 13% settlement.

Of the farmland, 47% is used for growing crops and 24% is used for orchards and vineyards.

Altnau has a population just under 2,200 residing in 418 buildings, and of which the people are 95% Swiss German speakers, 50% Protestant / 32% Catholic, 80% post-secondary school educated, 51% male / 49% female, 34% middle aged.

There isn´t much to see or do in Altnau.

You can visit the Reformed Church or the Catholic Church or sit by the harbour and watch the sailboats drift in with the tides.

Other than dairy products or farm / orchard produce, very little seems to have gotten any attention in Altnau.

As for famous folks, Altnau has produced two, both little known outside of Switzerland.

Hans Baumgartner (1911 – 1996) was a Swiss photographer and teacher.

Born in Altnau, Baumgartner taught in Steckborn and Frauenfeld from 1937 to 1962.

Baumgartner was a professional photographer from 1929 onwards.

In a career portfolio of over 120,000 photographs, Baumgartner took photos for famous German language publications (Camera, du, Der Schweizer Spiegel, Die Schweiz, Föhn, Neue Zürcher Zeitung (NZZ) and the Thurgauer Zeitung), focusing often on Canton Thurgau and bringing painter Adolf Dietrich into the spotlight.

Baumgartner also photographed trips he made to Paris, Italy, the Balkans, southern France, North Africa and the Sahara, Croatia, Burgundy, Spain, Portugal, Sweden, Finland, the US, Hungary, Belgium, Asia and North America.

A resident in Altnau since 2007, Mike “Rocky” Rockenfeller is a German professional racing driver, currently driving Audi cars on professional courses like Le Mans.

Mike Rockenfeller in Zandvoort 2011

Rocky was the champion in various races from 2005 to 2013, presently ranking 19th in the world´s fastest driver list.

What drew Rocky to call Altnau home?

Perhaps a reason can be found by walking the Altnauer Apfelweg (the Altnau Apple Path), a 9-km teaching path that shows the walker how apples are cultivated and collected, the different types of apples that Thurgau Canton produces, and puzzles, recipes and jokes connected with apples and pears.

It is both a sensory and an educationial pleasure to follow this path through the streets and alleyways of the town and between row upon row of apple trees majestic and proudly vibrant in the fields outside town.

The wanderer learns that the apple tree is not unique to Thurgau or Switzerland but found worldwide, descended from Turkish ancestors.

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Apple cultivation is not new, for they have been grown for thousands of years in Asia and Europe and brought to the Americas by European colonists.

The apple is so ancient to mankind´s knowledge that it has religious and mythological significance in many cultures, including Norse, Greek and European Christian traditions.

In Norse mythology, the goddess Iounn gave apples to the gods to maintain their eternal youthfulness.

In Greek mythology, Heracles, as part of his Twelve Labours, was required to travel to the Garden of the Hesperides and pick the golden apples off the Tree of Life growing at its centre.

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Eris, the Greek goddess of discord, annoyed that she had not been invited to the wedding of Peleus and Thetis, crashed the party by tossing a golden apple inscribed with the words “For the most beautiful one” and caused three goddesses (Hera, Athena and Aphrodite) to wrestle to claim the title.

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Paris of Troy was appointed to select the recipient.

Hera and Athena bribed him, but Aphrodite cleverly tempted Paris with the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Sparta.

Paris awarded the apple to Aphrodite, stole Helen away from Sparta and thus caused the Trojan War.

In ancient Greece, to throw an apple at someone was to declare your love.

Catching the apple is to show your acceptance of that proferred love.

Also in Greek mythology, Atalanta raced all her suitors to avoid marriage, outrunning them all.

Hippomenes defeated her by cunning, not speed, by throwing three golden apples in her path causing Atalanta to become distracted.

Alexander the Great found dwarf apples in Kazakhstan in 328 BC, which he brought back to Macedonia.

Though the forbidden fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden is not identified, Christian tradition says that it was an apple that Eve shared with Adam, as the Latin words maelum (an apple) and maalum (an evil) were often confused.

The larynx in the human throat has been called Adam´s apple, because the forbidden fruit was said to remain in the throat of Adam.


There are more than 7,500 apple varieties, each with its own unique characteristics and uses.

Apples are cooked, eaten raw or used in the production of juice, vinegar, alcohol, oil and cider.

Apples provide humanity with toffee apples, caramel apples, honeyed Rosh Hashanah apples and dried apple slices.

Apples are said to reduce the risk of cancer, but have also been known to cause allergies or even toxic reactions in some people.

So, the proverb “an apple a day keeps the doctor away” might have some validity.

Worldwide production is over 80 million tonnes, with China accounting for 50% of the total.

Depending on the breed of apple, the apple tree shows its blossoms  sometime in May and is harvested sometime in Autumn before Daylight Savings Time.

Farmers must fight against pests and diseases attacking their orchards, the most common being mildew (grey powder appears on the plants), aphids (bugs that suck out the juice from the fruit causing it to weaken and wither) and scabs (fungus that turns the fruit brown, giving it a cork-like consistency).

As well, the farmer must also be wary of blight bacteria and black spot fungus, moths and maggots, mice and deer.

(Mickey and Bambi enjoy apple tree bark during the winter months.)

Nothing brings me more pleasure than seeing apples heavy on the branch, tempting me to taste their sweet essence.

The Altnauer Apfelweg is actually three paths that intersect with each other, called Lisi, Emma and Fredi.

Lisi the Red, 4 kilometres long, has 14 stations (signposts) that tell the reader about the intense labour required in apple production.

Emma the Green, 3 kilometres long, has 10 stations that speak of the types of apple the region produces.

Fredi the Yellow, 2 kilometres long, is meant to entertain.

All three apple trails done consecutively will take the walker about 4 1/2 hours to complete.

Altnau, despite its relative obscurity, has shops and restaurants and banks.

It can be reached by train (Schaffhausen – St. Gallen line), bus (Postbus Line 923 from Kreuzlingen), car (Highway 13) (parking at the harbour) or boat (in summer, the Bodenseeschiffe company).

The path has its own website (German language only): http://www.apfelweg.ch.

Arbon, Canton Thurgau, Spring 2016

Luftaufnahme arbon.jpg

Arbon, about 20 km east of Altnau and still on the Swiss side of the Lake of Constance, is more interesting for the visitor.

The Altstadt (old quarter) is filled with medieval buildings and narrow streets.

The climate is mild year-round.

The Lake is popular for sailing and wind surfing and freezes in winter once per century.

The winds are warm and bring to Arbon heavy rainfall and electrical storms, but this has never daunted people from coming and settling here since the Stone Age.

Early man lived in stilt houses built upon the swampy shore.

The roaming Romans built fortifications here upon the hills overlooking the Lake, naming the place Arbor Felix (“happy tree”) and attracting the Emperor Gratian (b. 359, d. 383 / ruled 367 to 383) who resided here from 378 to 383.

Gratian Solidus.jpg

Whether it was the beauty of Arbon that influenced Gratian to favour Christianity over traditional Roman religion, history does not say.

In 610, Irish monks settled in Arbon, (among them St. Gallus, the future founder of the monastery of St. Gallen, died in Arbon in 627), naming their small Christian settlement Castrum.

Pfärrenbach Wandmalerei Hl Gallus.jpg

In 720, the Franks built fortifications on the site of present day Arbon Castle, naming the place Pago Arbonese.

Over time, Arbon became part of the territory of the Bishopric of Constance and continued to grow and expand, incorporating the surrounding towns into the parish of Arbon.

Arbon became famous for its linen production and agricultural trade.

In 1255 the town surrounded itself by city walls.

The crumbling fortress was rebuilt in 1334.

Arbon would suffer the ravages of two Great Fires that destroyed much of the old city, in 1390 and 1494, the latter Fire set by the disgruntled sons of a hanged thief.

When Canton Thurgau was conquered by the Swiss Confederation in 1460, the Bishops of Constance retained Arbon, but in the Swabian War of 1499, they lost the territory to the Swiss.

The Reformation reached Arbon in 1525 and by 1537 only a small minority of the population remained Catholic.

It wasn´t until 1712 that Canton Thurgau declared equality for the competing Christian faiths.

In 1798, Arbon was occupied by French troops, along with the rest of Switzerland, until the end of the French Revolution.

In the 19th century, Arbon developed into an economic and manufacturing centre due to the pioneering efforts of industrialist Franz Saurer who moved his foundry from St. Gallen to Arbon in 1863.

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Starting in 1888, the Saurer factory built all kinds of machinery and motors, producing trucks, buses and military vehicles.

At its high point, the factory employed 5,000 workers and Arbon´s population was over 10,000 residents at the turn of the century and was known as the biggest city in Canton Thurgau.

Today the Saurer factory produces only textile machinery.

The Saurer Museum in Arbon is well worth a visit and is extremely interesting for anyone who loves old machinery.

Since the beginning of the 20th century, Arbon has has a large non-Swiss minority.

Tensions between ethnic groups led to riots with many fatalities in 1902.

Today at least 30% of the population are foreign nationals, though 85% of Arboners speak Swiss German.

Many of these foreign nationals are Kosovo Muslims.

10% of the population are Islamic, 40% are Catholics, 32% are Swiss Reformed.

In 1911, Arbon was the site of the International Socialist Congress.

For three decades (the 1920s to the 1950s) the Social Democratic majority held power in the city, leading to the nickname Red Arbon.

Unlike Altnau, Arbon has attracted many notable people who have resided here:

Besides the aforementioned St. Gallus and the Saurer dynasty begun by Franz Saurer (1806 – 1882), Arbon has been the birthplace and/or residence to bishops, writers, philosophers, explorers, politicians, actors, journalists, industrialists and athletes.

Three persons really merit attention…

Alfred Kaiser (1862 – 1930) (also known as Alain el-Mahdi) was a Swiss Sinai Peninsula and Africa explorer.

Max Daetwyler (1886 – 1976) was a Swiss radical pacifist and conscientious objector against both World Wars.

The 11th child of 12 children of an Arbon hotelier, Max, after an apprenticeship in Wattwil, would work as a sommelier in Rome, Paris and London, and later as a hotel manager in Berne.

At age 27, with the call to mobilization in 1914, Max protested against the Great War and was as a result forced to undergo psychiatric internment for his beliefs in the commune of Zumikon.

Upon his release the following year, Max created the Army of Peace (Friedensarmee) to demand an end to hostilities.

On 15 November 1917, he helped organise a protest against the War, rallying the workers of two munitions factories in Zürich to go on strike.

He was again arrested and again interred in a psychiatric clinic.

Released in 1918, he married and raised a daughter and a son and maintained a farm producing chickens, vegetables, flowers and bees, but he never stopped advocating pacifism his entire life and could be found everywhere anti-war demonstrations were held: Geneva, Paris, East Berlin, West Berlin, Moscow, Washington, Havana, Cairo, Jerusalem…

He became known as “the apostle of the white flag” and would use the example set by Gandhi in his advocacy of pacifist change.

Felix Baumgartner, born in Salzburg, Austria, and resident in Arbon, is made of different stuff…

Felix is best known for jumping to Earth from a helium balloon in the stratosphere, setting world records for skydiving height and speed.

Felix was the first person to break the sound barrier without a vehicle, has the world record for the highest parachute jump from a building, was the first person to skydive across the English Channel, has the world record for the lowest BASE jump (from Rio´s Christ the Redeemer statue), was the first person to BASE jump the Millau Viaduct, the Malmö Turning Torso building and the Taipei 101 building.

Viaduc de Millau

Turning Torso

Taipeh 101 (englisch Taipei 101)

And this isn´t the controversial part of his story…

In 2012, Felix was asked in an interview with the Austrian newspaper Kleine Zeitung whether a political career was an option for his future, he responded by saying that the “example of Arnold Schwarzenegger showed that “you can´t move anything in a democracy” and that he would opt for a “moderate dictatorship led by experienced personalities coming from the private sector of the economy“, though he himself “didn´t want to get involved in politics”!

One month after the interview, Felix was convicted of battery after punching a Greek truck driver in the face.

(Donald Trump would love this guy!)

My wife Ute knows that, if left undisturbed, I might remain at home during my leisure time and not experience the natural wonders of the area we are fortunate enough to reside in.

Knowing my passion for hiking, she searches each Sunday´s NZZ (Neue Züricher Zeitung) newspaper for new hiking ideas that we both might enjoy.

She found, and we walked, the Apfelblüten Paradies Weg (the apple blossom paradise trail) that is a circular walk of 13 km distance / 3 1/2 hours’ duration starting and ending in Arbon, through Burkartsuelishaus, Fetzisloh and Wiedehorn, and best enjoyed from mid-April to mid-May.

Though it is not an official path nor a teaching way, this trail offers delight at every turn.

Apple trees covered in white and pink fragrant blossoms with a view above the Lake of Constance (Bodensee) is well worth the effort.

(Check out http://www.thurgau-bodensee.ch/bluescht for more details, in German only.)

Arbon, like Altnau, is accessible by boat, car, Postbus and train.

And Arbon itself is known not only for the Saurer Museum, but as well as for the Bleiche (a prehistoric lakeshore settlement), Arbon Castle and Historical Museum, the ruins of the Roman fortifications and a beautiful harbour setting. (http://www.arbon.ch)

Das Saurer Museum zeigt die Geschichte dieser einst weltbekannten Firma, die schwere Nutzfahrzeuge, ...

Im mittelalterlichen Schloss Arbon befindet sich das grösste lokal- und regionalhistorische Museum im Thurgau

Weinfelden, Canton Thurgau, Switzerland, 29 October 2016

Blick Richtung Ottenberg

I admit it.

I may have pre-judged the place when I wrote about Weinfelden in the past.

(See No-smile zones of this blog.)

I did this for Weinfelden was always associated in my mind with work.

I had worked in Weinfelden for two schools and neither school sent me students I enjoyed.

They cancelled classes and courses without notice.

Work and payment that should have been accomplished weren´t.

And I felt generally those folks I met who served the public, either in restaurants or stores, were unfriendly at best and impolite at worst.

Trust my wife to offer me a different perspective on the place…

For much of 2016, I have spent the majority of my weekends working for Starbucks, so when I injured my shoulder mid-month and was told that manual two-armed work was denied me until the 8th of November, Ute found that she was no longer neglected for three weekends.

Ute spends a lot of time working as a doctor, both in Münsterlingen and in Zürich, and as a result spends a lot of time indoors.

So a sunny day when both of us aren´t working…

Well, this was an opportunity that shouldn´t be wasted, despite my arm in a sling.

Ute turned, once again, to the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper for ideas.

Weinfelden, some 20km from where I reside, lies in the centre of Canton Thurgau.

It is an old town, already existing in 124 AD where the Romans had built a bridge over the Thur River and named the settlement Quivelda (“wine fields”).

Weinfelden is the biggest town in Canton Thurgau, mostly known throughout Switzerland for its hockey team, HC Thurgau, which plays in the Swiss National League B.

Sadly, there seems, at first glance, little reason to linger after the hockey game, for once Bachtobel Castle with its wine press has been visited, sins forgiven in the Catholic or Reformed churches, the Thomas Bornhauser fountain and the Pestalozzi secondary school seen, the hanging bridge over the Thur River crossed and a movie watched at the Liberty Cinema, the temptation to abandon the town and take a train away from the station is strong.

Weinfelden´s claims to fame are its demands for freedom.

In 1798, Paul Reinhart and his committee led Thurgau to thirst for liberty from the domination of the Swiss Confederation.

In 1803, Thurgau became an independent Canton, through the later mediation of Napoleon, with Frauenfeld as its capital.

In 1830, Thomas Bornhauser spoke to a large crowd in Weinfelden, demanding a liberal constitution, a first in Switzerland.

Portraits of both Reinhart and Bornhauser hang in the Rathaus (town hall).

Weinfelden has been home to priests and publishers, composers and politicians, mathematicians and moderators and writers.

Its two most famous sons are:

Heinz Rutishauser (1918 – 1970) was a Swiss mathematician and a pioneer of modern numerical mathematics and computer science, developing the first Swiss computer, the ERMETH, and programming languages like Superplan and ALGOL.

Peter Stamm (b. 1963) is a Swiss writer who grew up in Weinfelden.

Peter studied in Zürich and lived in New York, Paris and Scandinavia.

He has written articles for many magazines and newspapers as well as novels, radio dramas and plays.

He is known for his cool and sparse writing style and several of his works have been translated into English, including Seven Years, Agnes, Unformed Landscape, On a Day like This and In Strange Gardens and Other Stories.

Weinfelden (German for “fields of wine”) has a Weinweg (a wine trail) that leads the hiker from the Bahnhof (train station) in Weinfelden, through town to the Gasthaus zur Rebe (guesthouse / inn of the grape), up to Thurberg and Weinberg (Thur mountain / Wine mountain) and back via the hamlet of Boltshausen to Weinfelden station.

To start upon this path first requires a visit to the Kiosk store at the station where one purchases a CHF20 kit containing a wine glass, two disposible cups, hard bread, a rain poncho, a carry bag, a trail map, and, most importantly, a security code (valid for 8 days only) to a fridge/wine cellar found a 1/3 of the way from the start.

Like Altnau´s Apfelweg, Weinfelden´s Weinweg (www.weinweg-weinfelden.ch) is a teaching trail with signposted stations that educate the hiker as to how wine is produced, how a vineyard is maintained, the many types of wine and what makes Canton Thurgau wine special.

Sommervogel beim herbstlichen Sonnenbad in den Reben. (Bild: aky.)

Ten wine producers of the area are represented: Schlossgut Bachtobel, Weingut Bosch, Broger Weinbau, Büchi Hofgut, Weingut Burkhart, Weingut Familie Forster, Weinbau Markus Held, Rebgut Sunnehalde, Weingut Wolfer and Zahnd Weine.

Dean Martin, that little ol´wine drinker he, would have loved the fridge with 24 bottles of wine just waiting to be sampled.

I am not certain after the half hour spent trying all the wine we could whether our walking improved or worsened, but I do know we found we didn´t care anymore about it!

Grapes hung heavy on their vines, apples shone from tree branches, sheep cavorted and fellow hikers smiled.

For an uncivilised beer swilling barbarian such as myself, there is much to be learned about wine – the fermentation process; a wine´s special characteristics as defined by geography, geology, climate, viticultural methods and plant genetics; the plants other than grapes that wine can be created from; a history as fascinating as that of the apple; its religious significance; its health effects; the professions that viticulture has created; vintages and classifications; the many uses and methods used in the selling, tasting and consumption of wine.

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Switzerland does not usually bring to mind fine wine, and, in fact,the Swiss are more renowned for their consumption of wine rather than its production.

(The Swiss rank #5 for wine consumption per year, drinking over 5 litres of wine per capita on a regular basis.)

Swiss wine is produced from nearly 15,000 hectares of vineyards and mainly produced in the west and south of Switzerland.

Much like their money, the Swiss don´t like to share the wine they produce.

Less than 2% of the over 1.1 million litres of wine produced is exported, and of the wine the Swiss consume more than 2/3 is imported.

And this is somewhat surprising for the tradition of wine and viticulture in Switzerland is very old, dating back to the Celtic and Roman eras.

As early as 150 BC, the Celts in the Valais region offered wine to their dead then drank the wine themselves.

Swiss wines are labelled to show their geographic origins and most viticulture is done in the Vaud, Valais, Neuchatel and Ticino regions.

The two most common grape varieties in Switzerland are the red Pinot noir and the white Chasselas, but more than 90 grape varieties are cultivated in areas of 1 hectare or larger.

Visitors to Canton Thurgau are often surprised that vineyards are found here and they really shouldn´t be, for the mild climate, the slate and moraine soil, the regular rainfall and the mentality of its hard-working inhabitants make Canton Thurgau a fine location for viniculture.

Map of Switzerland, location of Thurgau highlighted

Granted that the vines may be exposed to frost at times and that the climate north of the Alps does not permit vines that ripen late in the year, still one can find many wine cellars, viniculture cooperatives and wine growers in this region.

After all this discussion of apples and wine, you might be thinking that it isn´t necessary to walk the aforementioned trails as I have already shared so much information.

And this would be a shame, for walking these trails lends to the hiker a unique sense of communion with both society as well as nature.

There is something elemental needing to be discovered about seeing how what we eat is actually produced.

There is little sense of the hard work and loving attention required to bring produce from the fields to the supermarket when one has only seen the end products stacked on store shelves.

Roving through orchards and between row upon row of hanging vines makes one marvel at the abundance man convinces Nature to provide.

We are not removed from civilisation or Nature by strolling through farmland, but rather we become part and parcel of both.

And for those who feel they need a reason to walk beyond the physical health benefits, one could consider these walks as tiny adventures of discovery.

The Swiss, for all their greed, have understood that no wealth can buy or equal the benefits of leisure, freedom and independence that a walk in the country or in the wilderness can provide and thus the Swiss have transvered the nation with countless numbers of trails across their beautiful landscape.

Teaching trails like Altnau´s Apfelweg and Weinfelden´s Weinweg provide the fodder for the hiker to ruminate and marvel as he/she walks and ponders on the interconnectiveness of man with nature and the immensity of Time itself.

For not only do farms communicate the ancient stability that cultivation creates civilisation, but as well viewing the changes that the seasons manifest upon nature lends the hiker a sense of the wondrous circle of Life.

Spring with its blossoms and new birth, summer with its toil and warmth, autumn with its harvest and winter with its rest are also reflections of the stages of Life we mere mortals also experience.

And it is this experience that no electronic words can adequately express.

As the winds stir one´s blood and the sun warms one´s soul, any walk away from the roads and the shops and the offices will carry the pedestrian to a new prospect and a great happiness – a harmony between the landscape within and the landscape without.

A trail teaches, whether with or lacking signposts, that Life is a tapestry best savoured slowly and we are all patterns within that tapestry.


Sources: Wikipedia, Thurgau Tourism.Smiley.svg