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Martin Prechtel on Fossil Fuel: Petroleum is “the living ocean’s memory”

Fossil fuel is fuel made out of fossils — long dead and buried organic organisms, plant and animal. Before it became fuel — oil, coal, natural gas — what was it? Before people started using it for fuel, what purpose did it serve in the cosmos? What was the meaning of its presence? How did humans include it in their mythologies and storytelling — before we started burning it — for heat, light, power?

Some indigenous people think that gold, distributed in veins throughout the Earth, was part of the Earth’s guidance system, a calibrating mechanism. When humans started removing the gold from the Earth, the Earth started behaving differently. Or so the story went. Did early humans know or interpret the substances we call fossil fuels in a similar way? Martin Prechtel seems to have an interpretation of the negative consequences of disturbing those fossil fuels.

Martin Prechtel says that fossil fuel — oil, petroleum — is the “living ocean’s memory of what it was”. The etymology of the word petroleum says the timing is Middle English — from Latin petra (rock) + oleum (oil). Wikipedia describes the timing of Middle English as post-Norman conquest (1066) to late 15th century (pre-Shakespeare). But the historical use of petroleum as a substance goes back at least 4,000 years. The Wikipedia article on petroleum is full of interesting historical uses and related technologies — drilling, distilling, inventions (asphalt, internal combustion engine), etc. Offshore drilling (Wikipedia), which speaks directly to the “ocean’s memory”, started first in fresh water (1890s) and then salt water (1910s).  (While Wikipedia may not be 100% authoritative, I usually find that it’s a useful start for an overview, with lots of useful details and links.)

a Mayan story

Copied below is the last chapter (short) of Prechtel’s book, The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun: Ecstasy and Time. The book is a retelling of a Mayan story that can be understood in at least three ways, each one detailed in the book:
— an individual journey (the second edition of this book, published in 2005, is subtitled: A Mayan Tale of Ecstasy, Time, and Finding one’s True Form, which emphasizes this aspect of the tale) 
— cultural wisdom about human initiation and our reflection of the cosmos
— a description of the fresh water cycle (as experienced in Guatemala, a land squeezed close between mountains and oceans)

I have taken the liberty to reformat the chapter into a sort of prose-poem. The original is written in straight prose.  But because Prechtel writes densely and ornately, I often need multiple readings for the beauty and meaning to sink in, especially when the concepts are new to me. Thinking of petroleum as a natural part of nature, instead of something to fight against or demonize — as in “fossil fuel” — was a new (even though obvious) concept and I needed to read it over and over. Reformatting it has helped me better feel the dynamics of Prechtel’s writing and the meaning of each phrase. (I hope Mr. Prechtel is OK with this reformatting. I like to share his work because so much of the wisdom in his books is not available anywhere else.)


To be clear, I am a radical activist on behalf of air, water, soil, biodiversity, human health, real democracy, and earth’s beauty. In that context, I agree with the movement to end fossil fuel extraction (oil, coal, natural gas, etc.) for burning, especially at the current rate of extraction and plans to expand extraction into new territories for the purpose of over-producing almost everything (without distributing equitably), most of which is not needed for humans to survive or live decently.

But I don’t disavow all human technology. I am searching for the line that we crossed — so that we can stop crossing it. I’m hoping that this meditation — my thoughts inspired by Prechtel’s perspective — will help to identify that line. As an activist on monetary and banking policy, I have no doubt that the lost meaning of money (not to mention the lost science of money, per the late Stephen Zarlenga’s book) is a big part of our confusion.

Thus, a companion Prechtel piece would be his essay on money in his book on grief: The Smell of Rain on Dust: Grief and Praise. The essay, “Money Eats the World”, is a retelling and explanation of a Yurok (California indigenous people) myth — curiously, also about shells, the small abundant kind that were used as money (think wampum). It is in fact 100% true that our distorted money & banking system causes money to “eat” the world — over-using land, water, air, humans and non-humans before we can replenish, restore, and heal. 

Note also that the word that we use to mean “the smell of rain” is petrichor, derived from petra (rock) + ichor (the fluid that flows in the veins of gods). Some other interesting sidebar material is in the Wikipedia article on petrichor. 

Enough with the distractions.
Here’s the chapter about fossil fuel, about the “living ocean’s memory”.

A Revolution of the Watery Soul
pp. 129-31 of 
The Disobedience of the Daughter of the Sun: Ecstasy and Time
by Martin Prechtel, 2001

The Sun is getting hotter,
our icy poles are melting, their shores are pulling back.
The water of the oceans rise
and yet the bigger rivers are all diverted, enslaved and dammed.
Some are sucked dry to water overgrown, polluted cities and domesticated land
and never reach the sea their deltas looking back wondering, 
while other rivers drag toward the ocean exhausted, thick, embittered with poison, 
dreaming of the hills and rain they came from.

If the Earth’s watery soul cannot run toward the sea,
then neither will ours inside our own Earth bodies. 
We will be stranded with a single kind of thinking who thinks its time is the only time 
and doesn’t care how many other times, past or future, it wrecks to keep this time alive.
This is the thinking of the hot Sun.

When lightning cracks the air, 
it dismembers the water in it, making ozone, 
which like the dismembered Daughter of the Sun 
diffuses the Sun’s single-inded glare into a life promoting warmth.

As collective tenants sealed in the ancestral cemeteries of former seas,
old shellfish become petroleum,
which is the living ocean’s memory of what it was,
whose story is told today in the swimming of her fish, the underwater flying of turtles, the gurgling of whales,
the neurosis of crabs, the waiting of coral, the sucking of mussels, 
and the tentacled preparedness of eternally frightened squid.

When we burn the ocean’s oily memory
to fuel our crustacean-like cars that carry us to jobs from where the Ecstatic Soul is banned,
to pay for lives in which we are still never really at home,
then together with the ocean, our memories darken the sky as smoke.
While our futures burn up together, the deep teaching stories of our people
and the oceans of All Time Gathered go hide with the children in a so-called fairy story
or in small things where the power hungry never look.

The smoke of these burning memories kills the air, the ocean and the water, 
taking ozone from the sky,
leaving us without the ecstatic vision,
and alone with unbuffered Hot-Sun-thinking
whose graceless objectivism dams the water of the Earth and the water of our cultural grief,
keeping it from its natural run to the sea and ecstasy.
That thinking consumes its memories and stories like it consumes the world
to avoid hearing the sound of its daughter’s weeping over the sound of its crunching jaws.

Therefore, I say, when we speak stories and understand their depth,
when we speak deep language, keeping it alive,
we keep our memories from being burned, the ocean from being drilled for oil,
with the ecstatic ozone between us and the glare of this Time.

The Ecstatic Soul in people and the route it must be allowed to take toward the Indigenous Soul
is what could keep the ocean from having to come ashore to search for us
and our Watery Souls from freezing into ice.