The Road Taken

July 28, 2011

by Lilace

Lots of people consider this place paradise. And by people, I also mean corporations.

Last Halloween, October 2011, my husband, son, daughter, and I moved from the town of Mansfield, Pennsylvania (pop. 3,400), to the village of Whitneyville (pop. <100). As much as we liked the walkability of town life, we wanted a few acres for the kids (and chickens—they aren’t allowed in town) to run free, and a large, sunny garden plot.

At least that’s what I wanted. My husband was reluctant but eventually persuaded when we found our house.

Actually it isn’t ours, except as far as the bank is concerned. It will always be the Whitney House, built in 1865 at the end of the Civil War by Capt. Nelson Whitney. The village that grew up around it lies on a small plateau nearly the highest spot around (1804 ft.) and is halfway between Mansfield (home of the University) and Wellsboro (county seat of Tioga and gateway to the Pennsylvania Grand Canyon).

The house is on Orebed Road. Or Ore Bed Road—depends on the road sign. According to a personal account of Robert A. Jennings’s memories of the village (a typed copy from 1966 was included with the historic house photos and other newspaper clippings collected by former owners), this road was the stage route and “called Ore Bed Road because there was an ore bed at the top of the hill out of Mansfield”—low grade iron ore, the kind used to make red paint for barns and covered bridges. At first I thought it referred to coal, which was mined heavily in this region, but that was the mistake of an outsider and I was quickly set straight.

My husband calls that hill climbing out of Mansfield (or racing back down to it) “Two Mile Hill,” as do the other cyclists. We only moved to Mansfield in 2005, but know a lot of the back roads because the bike riding is so enjoyable—rolling two lane roads among hills, farms, lakes, and rivers. Not only do we routinely see sheep, cows, alpacas, goats, and chickens, but we have spied deer, bears, bobcats, osprey, and bald eagles.

Another clipping that records the histories of several area villages suggests that Ore Bed Road was called “the Post road.” When reading these clippings, I cross-reference with Mr. Jennings’s hand-drawn map of the village circa 1890 that marks our road as the “mail route.” Born one mile east of Whitneyville in 1882 when the mail was carried by stagecoach, I figure he knew.

Now the road has another name. In previous weeks small, campaign-style lawn signs have sprung up among summer weeds at corners and intersections. Some have the company name and a number listed, and others have handwritten labels of “Pipeline Rd.” with a number scrawled afterwards.  Sometimes there are several numbers, with directional arrows. We are #7. Like Ore Bed Road, the new label is linked to a resource below ground, but this time it is natural gas rather than iron or coal. Lucky number seven. Yeah, we’ll see.

Once I had decided that we needed to move out of town, I pushed my husband, Jimmy, by pointing out that already 80% of the land in Tioga County had been leased to natural gas companies. “It’s now or never,” I told him. He thought he’d be happy with “never” but I kept pushing. Back then there were lots of companies vying for leases: East Resources, Fortuna, Chesapeake, and Talisman. Or maybe one of those bought one of the others. They kept changing hands, so it was hard to keep tabs on who was who and what their track records were. East was the biggie, but was bought by Shell Oil Company, here called Shell Appalachia.

In the notorious national housing slump, it seemed like Mansfield was the only place where house and land prices were rising and the market was tight. What was going on here? Even our real estate agent was baffled since it seemed like all the gas workers coming in from Texas and Oklahoma were renting. The boom was good for us when it came to selling our house in town; not so good for finding a place close enough to continue our one-car lifestyle.

As we looked, and argued over things like whether town or well water would be a better bet considering the environmental risks of the gas drilling, the one thing Jimmy and I agreed on was that we wanted whatever small acreage we purchased to come with the OGMs. That’s oil-gas-mineral rights, and many properties were listed saying “owner retains OGMs” or with two prices, one without and one much higher with OGMs included. It was a crazy time to house hunt, and I often thought of what the Home Garden Network (HGTV) could do with a show focused on this market. After much researching and discussions with different lawyers, not to mention viewing the films Split Estate and Gasland, we decided we would not lease.

At this point, any reader would be forgiven for wondering why we were looking to buy here at all, rather than pull up stakes and head for greener, undrilled, pastures. Oh, we talked about it. A lot. Especially since the state budget was grim and the University where Jimmy teaches full-time, and I teach or freelance part-time, was threatening to retrench. (That’s the term for laying off tenured faculty.) We weighed the beauty, community, and low cost of living against starting new somewhere in a bad job market. And we kept circling back to the fact that, with the escalating demand for energy resources, no pastures are guaranteed. After all, do you know what resources lie beneath your house or town? We felt we needed to acknowledge that we use natural gas ourselves. Just because we make enough money (at least for now) to afford some land and a view, doesn’t mean we can wish the noise and traffic—and maybe the polluted air and water—on other people.

So we took a leap of faith and bought 6.9 unleased acres on a knoll with a beautiful house, the bricks of which were forged nearby, their rosy red color possibly from the local iron. My garden is exploding (the first tomatoes ripened yesterday), six laying hens are eating bugs and growing into working members of the homestead, and my kids are outside playing with sticks and swinging from trees. It’s a good life. One worth fighting for.

This blog is a collaboration between Jimmy and me, to explore the facts and feelings associated with living over the Marcellus Shale, to analyze the rhetoric surrounding the natural gas exploration and drilling, to document the changes here on the ground and perhaps beneath the ground, so those who hear the general accounts from the New York Times, Vanity Fair, CNN (my favorite), BBC, and NPR—often the worst case scenarios—can compare them to a specific example. Join us as we struggle with the questions of how best to live locally in this place and time.

We want folks everywhere to be aware of the issues associated with natural gas extraction. But we also want to stand up for this place, the way of life, all the different people and opinions that make it—still—such a wonderful spot to live. I mean, is your place perfect? Is any?

We will be posting approximately once a week, so subscribe and know that your in box won’t be bombarded. We welcome civil feedback from all, especially questions from those outside the Marcellus Shale and stories from those directly affected here and elsewhere. Please, let’s avoid name-calling and any language our seven-year-old shouldn’t read. You can post here or email us at