No grand tour

A new postcard slice as header: still Baku in Azerbaijan (on the Caspian Sea) because I want to maintain a connection, roundabout as it may be, to the current oil spill in the Gulf and the shared global sorrow of that.

(The connection is our love affair with oil. By the end of the 19th century, Baku’s fame as the “Black Gold Capital” had spread throughout the world. Between 1897 and 1907 the largest pipeline — 883 km. — at that time was built from Baku to Batum; Baku had more than 3000 wells by 1900. As I mentioned here, the Nobel brothers were the region’s oil tycoons of the region.)

But Baku in colour this time, and a view of The Boulevard and the “baths” at the sea. (It’s not colour photography as such, but was a tinted photo, creating a charming if somewhat surreal effect.)

This is one of 10 cards of Baku in my grandfather’s postcard collection. (See other postcards from his album here and here.)

The Boulevard and baths at Baku

He served as a conscientious objector during World War I, in a provision the Mennonites had won with the Czarist government for non-combatant roles. He worked on the medical trains, transporting the wounded away from the front lines of Russia’s southern front in the Caucasus region. This service gave him an opportunity to see places he might never have seen otherwise. “Never did I dream that I would travel as much as I have done by now,” he said in one letter to his fiancee, Helena.

It sounds almost poignant to hear him continue:

After this time of rest will come a time of work… and when we have then worked for some ten years and God makes it possible for us, then we will travel abroad. The travel route is as follows: out through one of the harbours on the Black Sea, through the Dardenelles into the Mediterranean Sea, not forgetting about Greece and Italy, into the Atlantic Ocean to see the New World, and then on to England, Holland, Norway, Sweden and Germany, and back home to our peaceful home on the steppes of Russia. Are you satisfied with such a route?

Train station at Baku

Poignant because the Russian Revolution intruded into such dreams and it would be decades before the steppes of Russia could be said to be peaceful again. Under those conditions, the  grand “tour” never happened. Heinrich and Helena were fortunate enough to travel to the New World as refugees, where they settled on a farm in southern Manitoba.

“It seems to me that everything that happens to us is a disconcerting mix of choice and contingency,” Penelope Lively said. So for my grandparents, so for the people and creatures at the Gulf.


Next week — Monday to Wednesday — I’ll be attending RIM (Renewing Identity and Mission), a consultation at Trinity Western University, consisting of some 30 presentations, taking place before the Mennonite Brethren Celebration 2010 event. I’m looking forward to it, and also to sharing bits of it later, here at Borrowing Bones.

Mourning the oil spill

I’ve changed the header image of this blog as a way to reference — and to remember — the Gulf oil spill. It’s a another postcard “slice” from my grandfather’s album, this time of Baku, currently capital and largest city of Azerbaijan, indeed of all the Caucasus, a port city on the Caspian Sea, which he travelled in and out of while serving as medic on the Russian troops trains during World War I. There are 11 scenes of Baku in the more than 80 postcards in his collection.

This one is of “Black City,” the industrial oil belt established in Baku. “The Black City was a cluttered landscape of oil rigs, metal storage tanks, refineries, heavy industrial manufacturing buildings and housing for workers,” says one source. The name came from “the heavy, black pall that hung above it and the smell of oil so thick that its taste lingered in your mouth.” Incidentally, the oil company that first came to prominence in Baku was founded by the Nobel brothers (one of them being Alfred, of Peace Prize fame). The Nobel Brothers Petroleum Company started extracting oil there in 1874 and dominated the European market until the Russian Revolution. Worldwide it was second largest after Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

Black City, near Baku. Postcard about 1914.

I don’t know how much my grandfather, Heinrich Harder, actually got to see of the city. In an August 31, 1914 letter written from Baku he says,

Today we spent most of our day unloading, brought wounded men from Sharekamesh to this place and tomorrow at 8 in the morning, we begin to load again and take off to Derbent and Petrowsk Harbour. Thus it has been now for the last month — load, unload, disinfect, then load again…

On March 3, 1916, in another letter from Baku, he writes,

Today I watched three maneuvering birds, soon up in the air, then swimming on the sea — a beautiful picture! Too bad that inventions like that are used to destroy life and culture.

It was a coded message, it seems, about war planes.

These are just bits of trivia, but they bring me round to the Gulf oil spill, which for many of us seems far away. But we keep being reminded of it, and realize again it’s not a movie, and then it grieves, worries, angers us anew. This morning on CBC Radio I heard two photographers being interviewed about what they were seeing. They couldn’t help describing some of the scenes as beautiful. But it’s the beauty of destruction, like the “birds” on the Caspian Sea, and the reality, much like Baku’s Black City, beyond grim. (Baku, in fact, is still, according to 2008 data, the world’s “dirtiest” city in terms of pollution.)

Of Baku back in its Nobel oil-empire glory days, Fuad Akhundov writes,

At that time, the view of chimneys and pipes was a symbol of progress and mankind’s achievements. No one was concerned about environment and ecology.

It’s sometimes said we have a love affair with oil. Yes, and it’s a sordid one. And now, again, though hardly able to shake our oil dependency (I speak for myself), we mourn the failure, the terrible damage. I go about my daily tasks, and then I’ll remember the gallons of oil shooting from the ocean floor, and the suffering of humans and creatures in the Gulf states. Will today’s attempt, apparently risky, finally plug the spill? It finally occurred to me that I might keep this more deliberately in my prayers. Oh God, may it work!