I remember from my childhood in the 1950's that the dad of the smartest kid in my class worked for what was then known as Standard Oil of California. Paul talked a lot about his dad during show and tell, what it was like to work at the stinking refineries in Richmond and, even more wonderfully, about the clubs to which his dad and the other top employees belonged.
I suppose I was drawn to Paul’s stories at first because my dad was a loner. He worked at a law firm whose clubby aspects were tied up with Old Money in San Francisco and on the Peninsula and as we were not Old Money, we weren’t really part of the tribe. A corporate outsider, I grew up longing for that social world that I could not have, even as my father lambasted its shallow values. Sometimes not having is more powerful than having. I never developed my father’s paradoxical scorn for “paternalism.” Even as a feminist, I love to see a man rule justly and use his strength and majesty for the good of others.
Thus it is not hard for me today to have some fond memories of the vanished corporate world of the 1950's. I know it had its ruthless moments, for members of my extended family were involved in some of those, but it also had a splendid connectivity. A man (and it was almost always a man in those days) would go to work for a corporation and expect to be there for his entire working life. He gave the corporation his loyalty and his skill and the corporation, in turn, took care of him: advancements, placements, medical care, vacations and retirement. An old rule was still in play: if you took care of the men, you took care of the whole society. Men generated wealth which cared for women. Women would extend that love and care to children, and as the children blossomed, so did the tribe blossom, deepening our wisdom and our skill, extending our species memory by yet another generation, layer upon layer, the strata of the human story as beautiful and intricate as the walls of the Grand Canyon.
A lot got in the way of that story, but for now I want simply to honor it. The company took care of the men. The men took care of the women, and the women took care of the children. As Joni Mitchell once sang, “Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve lost ‘till it’s gone. . .”
The well known environmental writer Rick Bass started out as an oil geologist. His first book Oil Notes takes readers on a quest my school friend Paul would have liked. The quest consists of three parts: a grail, a princess and the river of the Fisher King. The river of the Fisher King was, of course, the oil itself, which is not a river beneath the earth at all, but more like the puddles and pools by which the Fisher King in fact sat. As anyone who has read the Parsifal legend knows, the young knight Parsifal arrived at the castle of the Fisher King, a place of sacred beauty and riches, a place where Parsifal was given a glimpse of the Holy Grail, the chalice of wine which Jesus blessed at the last supper and from which, at least according to some variants of the legend, Joseph of Arimathea caught Jesus’ blood as it dripped from the wound in his side. Even surrounded by all this, the Fisher King lived in agony, for a perpetual wound festered in his groin which only the correct question from a pure young knight could cure. The wound was the outward and visible sign of the loss of generativity; the Fisher King was sterile just as the oil beneath the earth is sterile. Both very powerful, but incapable of giving life.
That is the first part of Bass’ grail legend. The second part is the princess. She is easy to spot. Don't be misled by the title. Oil Notes is a love story. It was written as Rick courted his wife Elizabeth, whose line drawings appear beside Rick’s words. Love makes the quest for oil bearing rock come to life as only being in love can do, when every dawn is the first in creation and the flashes of sunlight upon a pond become the stars that dance within a lover’s eyes, when oil is transformed into the mysteries of time itself and the geologist walks the strangeness of the Cretaceous.
Which leads to the third part, the part that I, as reader, entering the story saw so clearly. Somehow in the course of being in love and chasing oil, Rick Bass discovered the Holy Grail. He is not an oil geologist today. He and Elizabeth left the Southern Oil Fields and went north to Montana’s Yaak Valley which, if you’ve read Bass, you will recognize as the place that gave him his enduring voice, compass and ground. It was in finding the Grail that Bass succeeded where Parsifal failed.
Parsifal failed in his quest because he did not ask the Fisher King the question that would heal him. The question was a simple “How are you?” Not the how are you that we utter as we rush past one another, expecting the answer “fine” and becoming stupidly alarmed if the person says anything else, not the evasions of polite society which is more concerned for its own comportment than for the feelings of others. Parsifal’s “How are you?” was to be an expression of genuine concern for the sick king, the courage to face that the world was sick, that power ailed, that the king was no longer generative, that the fish in his stagnant pool were dying, that there was an oil spill in the adjacent kingdom.
But Rick did ask the question somewhere, at least in the mind of this reader, as he drove for miles and miles across the alligator barking south, and he asked it of the earth. And to this reader the earth, in pain from the driller’s bit and sick from the poison that poured forth when men opened her wells, said, “I am not well.” In the saying "I am not well," Earth became Grail, our holy vessel, that which really did absorb the blood of the Christ, which really did transform the blood of the Christ into wine and his body into wheat that makes bread and gives life. And our young man was then set free from his knight errancy in an an automobile to meet the ninemile wolves and the extraordinary Brown Dog of the Yaak and to become one of the most eloquent voices of the earth. Such is the legendary power of Big Oil.
I realize that I’ve gone a long way from elementary school and my friend Paul and his father who worked for Standard Oil of California, but perhaps not as far away as you might think. Just as oil provided the quest that became the backdrop of Rick and Elizabeth’s love story, so in Paul’s father’s world, oil became the quest that brought together a community of men who became a corporate body. All the clubs and the field trips and the things the Oilmen’s tribe did together were about community. Indeed, one of the most enduring dream groups that my mentor Jeremy Taylor ever founded was among a group of young middle managers at Chevron. The group has endured for over thirty years. It has endured transfers and promotions and continues to meet once a year at some fabulous destination from South Africa to the Swiss Alps to the Savoy in London where one of the men’s daughters made her operatic debut. To form a dream group is to acknowledge that being a corporation is about more than a paycheck or a leverage or whatever they say today. A corporation, a corpus, is also a body, is also about life, both inner and outer. A corporation is a tribe. A corporation is about people.
The money is merely the medium, but somehow we confused the medium with the meaning. Today everything is about money. And that, says the earth, says the Brown Dog of the Yaak, says God, is a dangerous love indeed.
To be continued. . .