This time of year, when sudden snows or rains come falling on otherwise dry pavement, oil from parked vehicles drops on the wet surface and turns into brilliant patterns. While running or cycling I’ll sometimes stop to take photos of particularly beautiful patterns. The image above this paragraph is a painting I made from one of these studies. It was featured in a solo show that I produced titled Urban Wilds. In that show, I explored the incursion of nature into urban environments.
There is a bit of wildness in the chemical separation of oil on top of water. The hidden world unleashed.
Certainly, it’s also a sign of pollution in some respect. Millions of gallons of gas and oil flow into our sewage systems and float toward local streams through runoff. The refined products made from petrochemicals spill from vehicle engines and trickle down from gas pumps. We take all this pollution for granted, but groundwater pollution is a real problem. Road salts, insecticides, herbicides, gas and oil all can penetrate important underwater aquifers. We all have a responsibility to limit this flow of chemicals into the world if possible. Never dump raw oil into the ground, or down a street drain.
But the popup nature of these artistic oil displays makes these road surface rainbows from oil an interesting conundrum in my mind. Oil is a natural product of the earth’s long processes. So is coal. Both were buried inside the earth’s crust and converted to the materials we consider “fuels” when formerly living things underwent long chemical processes. What we’re witnessing in these oils slicks is actually the release of millions of years of time.
Except, it can all occur instantaneously as well. This Christmas, when I pulled our tree out of the stand I looked down to find beautiful patterns on the water surface. These were created from a combination of methane and sap floating on the surface of the water. There are always such chemical reactions going on in this world. It happens inside our circulatory systems when our hearts send out blood in red oxygenated arteries and capillaries only to have it return in blue veins.
Our circulatory system distributes vital oxygen and nutrients to our muscles and rids them of waste products as well.
Ideally, the nutrition we take in provides “fuel” for this process. We need lots of water to flush out waste products. Every morning when I step on the scale it provides feedback that my body is about 66.7% water in composition.
We also produce oils and other substances from our bodies. Healthy skin has a relatively moist glow, yet when too many oils emerge from our pores it can lead to all sorts of health and appearance problems. So we bath ourselves to wash off excess oils and other “pollutants” that can adversely affect our skin. Our bodies are just like the surface of a parking lot that needs to be washed clean of oil now and then.
The interesting aspect of all this oil and water confusion is the sensory component. When we find beauty in color, it stimulates regions of that brain help create mood. And when we spread essential oils on our body, those aromas can generate chemical reactions. Some believe that stimulants such as these can be used to promote healthy physical responses.
To take the relationship between physical material and human physiology a step further, there are also many people who believe that rocks and crystals can generate beneficial effects within the body. These alternative healing methods are not necessarily borne out by science or medicine. But it does not stop people from trying to enhance their lives through these methods.
One of the ironies of modern medicine is found in how we treat diseases such as cancer. Having borne witness to the multiple toxic chemotherapy treatments experienced by my late wife, I have seen directly how poison can work within our bodies to combat disease. Yet intensely toxic treatment have their limitations. These include side effects that are in some ways worse than the effects of the disease itself in the short term.
Thus it’s an interesting world in which we live. It’s not all black and white as some would suppose. The oil and natural gas we extract from the earth do so many good things for the human condition. Yet the pollutants we create by using them can have deleterious effects on our health and the environment. It’s very difficult to live a lifestyle with a low carbon footprint. We cyclists and runners love to think of ourselves as environmentally-friendly. Yet the roads on which we run and ride are often made from highly toxic, ash-based asphalt. So is the rubber that fills the tarsnakes over which we run and ride.
And our swimming pools? Basically, these too are chemical immersion experiments. Rife with chlorine that in pure form would kill us in an instance, we swim through clear waters in blissful belief that we’re free from dangers.
This all goes through my mind when I stop to take a photo of the beautiful oil slicks found on parking lots. It’s like viewing the aura of the world in all its confusingly complex nature. We’re all chemical beings. Some of us just run faster than others.