New book takes up-close look at American energy

Ben Avon native Tom Haines, now a professor at the University of New Hampshire, set off on a journey to discover the sources of the energy that power our lives. His book “Walking to the Sun” details his travels and observations about an industry that threatens the very society so dependent upon it.

The inspiration for Tom Haines' book, “Walking to the Sun” begins in 2013 when the author observes the process of a natural gas furnace being installed in his New Hampshire home. As he watches the workmen making the connections, he ponders the implications of the fuel flowing through a pipe drilled through his basement wall, that pipe connected to other pipes, on and on to the source, wherever that might be.

His observation motivated him to launch a journey to find that source and to study it, as well as everything in between.

Haines' childhood home was located on a dead-end Ben Avon street overlooking a wooded area with paths leading down to railroad tracks running parallel to the Ohio River, Neville Island just a few hundred yards offshore. At any time of the day or night, he heard the whistles and sirens of the industry located there, smelled the emissions of Union Carbide, Shenango Coke Works, as well as other plants, and he saw the sludge flowing unchecked into the river.

The sights and sounds made a lifelong impression on him.
lengthy stint as a reporter for “The Boston Globe,” he now teaches English at the University of New Hampshire. All the while, he has worked at developing an expert understanding of environmental issues as well as the growing perils facing the planet.

A degree from Dartmouth followed his graduation from Avonworth High School and after a
Haines set forth in 2013 to observe first-hand exactly what was going on with the drilling, the digging, and the fracking, practices that have led to huge profits for big business, but at huge expense to nature's health, which is so vital to human, animal, and plant life. Over the next five years, he traveled to Montana, and to North Dakota's Bakken oil fields -- more active now than when Haines visited four years ago -- and onward to New York, Pennsylvania, Texas, and finally to Nevada and California. Once arriving at these destinations, he walked the plains, the hills, the remains of forests and streams, sometimes trekking 10 to 15 miles or more a day, often in 100-plus degrees of heat. He took notes of conversations with people he met along the way, slept in a one-man tent, usually ignoring the advice of locals who warned of rattlesnakes, mountain lions and wolves.

And he recorded his observations of the land, tucking in his scientific knowledge of the inevitable end, should mindsets, government policies and business practices not change.

But “Walking to the Sun” is not simply a scientific discourse. Haines approaches his descriptions of nature in reverential tones reflective of 19th Century American philosopher-writer Ralph Waldo Emerson, who lived at the rise of the Industrial Revolution that ushered in great advancements for humanity, but, unfortunately, at great cost to humanity.

Explaining why he walked rather than drove, Haines said, “Slowing my pace, exposing myself to occasional risk and physical discomfort, was helping me physically to connect to unfamiliar terrain.”

And he emphasized, “My walks through terrains of fossil fuels and renewable, carbon-free energy delivered me to this simple demand: Care enough to see ourselves as part of the planet.”

His close-up observations led him to admit to a sense of guilt as he walked the Bakken fields of North Dakota. “With each mile I had walked toward an emotional understanding that what was happening in the place supported my insulated life at home in New Hampshire, and I could not avoid the conflict of my own consumption.”

His conclusions are obvious, as should be the solution to the problems he observed.

The threat to the planet: That people dig too fast to claim more oil and feed a system already burning too much.

The solution to the problem: That humans develop renewable, non-carbon sources of energy as quickly as possible.

Not to reveal the upside conclusion of the book, but by the time Haines visits the Southwest desert lands, the title of his book becomes obvious and the author's words convey a suggestion of optimism.

“Walking to the Sun” merits required reading for anyone who cares about the future of the planet. Rick McKibben, author of “The End of Nature” (1989) and “Life on a Shrinking Planet,” published in the Nov. 26, 2018 issue of “The New Yorker” writes, “This book…will help you understand the choices that lie ahead.”

Published by ForeEdge Press of New England, the book is available at Amazon.com, Target, and Barnes and Noble, as well as at other on-line sources. Copies will be placed in the Northgate and Avonworth libraries.