July 24, 2013
The first spring we lived in the Whitney House, I heard a noise in the field to our west that drove me nuts because I couldn’t figure out whether I was hearing a bird or a frog. I only heard the eeent in the evenings, right around the time the peepers cranked up, meaning dusk. I’d listen and listen, trying to make the noise with my nose and mouth and transcribe it in letters. I asked friends who knew more about the local fauna than I did what it might be. Some suggested a type of frog; others shrugged. Even though I looked for it, I never saw what made the noise.
The second spring, nothing.
The third spring, I heard the eeent in a field on the east side of the house. I paid more attention this time around, noting that the eeents started right as the peepers wound down and the birds had settled in the for the evening. Each night I heard eeent, I wrote down the times: 7:15 p.m. 7:37 p.m. 7: 49 p.m. I asked some local friends (again!) if they knew what it was, but no one did. I searched the net and our field guides. No luck.
Then one Sunday night after a couple of beers, I decided I was going to track the source of that eeent, no matter how long it took. I sat on a downed willow branch on the east side of the yard facing the field around 7:50 p.m., listening to the peepers and songbirds settle for the night and watching the trees turn from green to gray. I waited, sure that the maker of the eeents would take the night off, but determined to sit there until complete darkness fell.
Eeent. I looked at my watch. Eeent. 8:03 p.m. . . . Eeent. I stood up and began walking straight toward the sound, trying to make my way as silently as possible through the briars, small trees, and piles of brush that separate our property from the field. Eeent. After walking a log and crawling through some briars, I popped into the edge of the field, just in time to see a bird take off near a rotting stump about 4’ high. A bird! I exulted. At least now I know it’s a bird!
Sure that I had spooked it for the rest of the night, I walked over to where I saw it take flight. Moments later, I heard eeent about 50 yards further up the hill. I looked at the ground where I saw it before, hoping to see something that might help me identify it. Maybe a nest. Anything.
I saw nothing.
I stood and turned to zero in on the bird’s position when I heard a weird twitter circling the field. I turned again, trying to follow the sound, wondering if it was the same bird. Staring up at the nearly dark sky, I saw a darker shape against the sky flash across my line of sight, like Batman zipping across the Gotham night sky. Then I saw a small bird land fifteen or so feet away. I froze. Eeent. Damn! I thought. I read about these birds in A Sand County Almanac. What did Leopold call them?
It was too dark to see the bird well. I noticed it was about the size of my fist, and when it turned away from me, I lost it completely in the not-yet-green grass. Until it launched. I stood there for twenty or thirty minutes, listening to eeents, seeing the launch, and hearing the twittery call circling the field and transforming into the water-trickling-through-rocks sound that preceded the bird tumbling out of the sky. While the bird didn’t land that close again, I began to feel the rhythm of its ritual and got better at predicting where I would see it silhouetted against the sky.
Once I had bothered the bird enough, I walked back to the house and pulled out my copy of A Sand County Almanac. Under Leopold’s section called “Sky Dance,” I read once again about the American woodcock’s mating ritual, the very thing I witnessed. Leopold called the eeent a peent, and he said that, though he enjoyed hunting woodcock, he never shot many because he couldn’t imagine his Wisconsin farm without the sky dance. I picked up a bird book and looked up the American woodcock. It’s a small brown bird with a long bill that relies on camouflage for protection. (One of my students told me that, if you can spot them, it’s possible to gig woodcocks like you would a frog. Camouflage is the bird’s defense. He also says they’re delicious.)
I returned to the field several nights after that to watch the sky dance. Every time I stepped out the back door around dusk, I now heard the twitter that accompanied woodcock’s flight. I noted how the weather affected the dance—clouds meant no dance—and noticed one moon-bright night when Lilace and I returned home after seeing Kris Kristofferson that the woodcock still peented away at 11:00 p.m. This little bird connected me to this place in unexpected ways, snapping me out of my human world and reminding me that creatures live by rhythms and rituals different from my own. My experience watching and listening to this bird has given me a history with this place that I did not have when I moved here. Now, I feel closer to the land, more connected, the same way wading the creek, getting into a yellow-jackets’ nest, catching brown and rainbow trout, and eating turnip greens and shelly beans grown in the garden made me closer to my grandparents’ land in NC. These experiences give me a sense of community, a rich context in which to live my life.
So, how does a place like this become a “zone,” ripe for drilling? One way is when legislation gets written that takes the three-dimensional world we and the woodcock live in and turns it into two dimensions. Such an act of language abstracts a place.
Take Act 13. Act 13 states that unconventional wells must be sited 500’ from houses or water wells, unless given permission otherwise by the land owner, and that well pads must be sited 300’ from residential buildings. Like other bills, Act 13 spends much ink defining terms, stating clearances and environmental expectations, explaining the permitting and other bureaucratic processes, and so on. What the bill does not say is that Jimmy Guignard watched the sky dance of an American woodcock in April 2012, he learned something, and he created a memory which connects him to that place in ways that should be respected. He has a richer history here now.
As measured with my trusty 100’ steel Stanley tape, I watched the woodcock 271’ from my back door. Potentially, that means the woodcock had a whopping 29’ buffer between himself and the edge of a well pad. To the person siting a well in an office down the road, they see numbers enshrined in language that they apply to a map which then becomes a well pad. The dimensions on a page transfer to dimensions on the land. Since I live here, I see wildlife trying to make its way in the world the same way I am and my kids will—as best it knows how. The memories are written into the landscape. Those are two different ways of knowing. The former is abstract—the gas companies can transfer ACT 13 dimensions to any piece of land anywhere. The latter is not—though I may see woodcocks elsewhere, I cannot transfer my experience in the Whitney House to another piece of land as easily. For starters, the mystery won’t be involved.
One could argue that building the pad and drilling is not abstract at all, and they’d be right. I’ve pushed down trees with a bulldozer, and there’s nothing abstract about it. But the issue I’m trying to hone in on has to do with our attitudes before we unload one dozer. Act 13 tells us to look at the land as a zone marked by numbers. It’s abstract and inclines us to focus on only one thing—extracting gas. In contrast, my experience tells the story of me seeing the land and its inhabitants as players alongside my own attempt to create a meaningful life. It’s holistic, one that stresses community.
We all have experiences of places, like my experience in the field next to our house, that give those places meaning to us. And we have all experienced the distress that accompanies something changing a place that holds those meanings for us, especially if whatever is built or drilled shows little or no regard for our history with a place. These feelings run deep. To this day, my aunt in North Carolina refuses to go to a grocery store built ten years ago on the flank of Grandfather Mountain because “they tore up part of the mountain.” Mind you, it’s a small part of a big mountain, but I get where she’s coming from. (They also destroyed a rather poorly-built, but lovely, trail straight up the side of that big mountain.) I’d like to figure out how to inject more awareness into bills like ACT 13 so that they more deeply take into account the places or communities they disrupt.
I don’t expect bills like ACT 13 to include my experiences. That’s impossible. But I do think such bills and the people who enact them need to recognize more carefully that they aren’t working on a blank slate. It’s easy to inflict damage on places we see in the abstract, as containing only one thing we need, like natural gas. Leopold writes, “It is inconceivable to me that an ethical relationship to land can exist without love, respect, and admiration for land. . . . Perhaps the most serious obstacle impeding the evolution of a land ethic is the fact that our educational and economic system is headed away from, rather than toward, an intense consciousness of land.” Act 13’s dimensions encompass all kinds of daily dramas, big and small, but the language flattens out the details of those dramas, the consciousness of them. Though I don’t know how to to do this, we need more bills written with Leopold in mind. He took what was seen as a worthless piece of Wisconsin farm land and made it come to life in deeds and words. He took a zone and made it a community. “As a land-user thinketh,” he wrote, “so is he.” Peent.
One Saturday, my six-year-old daughter woke up and crawled into bed with me. Enjoying not getting up at 5 a.m., I ignored her until she said “Daddy, my throat hurts, my head hurts, and my tummy hurts.” I rolled over thinking, Shit. What’s wrong?
“Does your throat hurt inside or outside?”
“OK, let me feel under your jaw.” She lay there quietly as I felt the glands under her jawbone. They seemed a little swollen, the way mine feel when I get sick. Neither of my kids get sick very often, so I figured my daughter wasn’t faking. “OK, honey, thanks. You can go get dressed now.”
“I’m going to put on a turtleneck for my throat,” she said, and walked out of the room. She did not ask to watch TV. Hmmmmmm.
I rolled over, weighing whether I should go back to sleep. Wretching from my daughter’s bedroom answered for me. I jumped up, my daughter meeting me at the doorway.
“That’s ok, baby. Go to the bathroom.” She turned around, trotted into the bathroom, puked a couple more times, and then walked past me while I cleaned up her room. She finished dressing. “You feel better?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said. “Can I watch cartoons?”
I’m no doctor, at least not the medical kind, and I couldn’t help but wonder if her illness was somehow connected to gas drilling. A few years ago, I would have wondered what disastrous bug was upon us, like when she spent a long night trooping in and out of the bathroom with a stomach bug. Should we call the doctor? She kicked the bug in 24 hours. I kicked it in five days. That event was BNG—Before Natural Gas. Now, I see my kids’ health ANG—After Natural Gas. That changes things.
I’m sure my reaction will seem hysterical to some people, a term we usually save for women who question things we don’t want to hear (see Rachel Carson). This place seems cleaner, less dusty and brittle, than it has in a couple of years, partly due to the cleansing power of winter’s snow and partly due to the slow down in drilling activity. Even though I don’t believe the industry has affected my kids’ health (at least, not yet), I’m amazed at the power of this impulse within me every time one of my kids complains now of an upset tummy or a headache. In the U.S., we have a terrible record of protecting our kids from environmental toxins. Researchers determine the toxicity of chemicals based on adults, not kids, and we now know that kids are more susceptible to toxic crap than adults. And few tests are done on fetal effects or whether toxins cross the placenta. That’s further complicated by the fact that kids develop physically over many years. For instance, our brains stop developing in our early twenties. Anything that affects development early affects development later. It’s like starting up a long hill on a bike in too big a gear and out of breath—you won’t fully recover. You’ll be a long way behind everyone else.
I’m amazed at the power of a culture that values the rational so damn highly. I’m a guy. I’m expected to be rational, to control my emotions. Back when I climbed a lot, my climbing partners appreciated the fact that I didn’t get flustered when shit turned bad. I could keep my act together, like when Lilace and I got caught in a lightning storm at Lovers Leap too far off the ground to get down safely with one rope. I led a pitch in the rain, belayed her as she climbed up to and then past me to the top. I untied and yelled at her to pull up the rope and run for it while I finished the climb. The climbing was easy, but the lightning and the rain made it nerve-wracking. When I popped onto the top, I saw she had left me a coiled rope. Badass, especially since she was seven months pregnant with our son. She doesn’t freak either.
Lilace doesn’t freak about the kids’ health as much as I do. I walked downstairs and told her about our daughter’s puke episode. She looked up from her book, “She probably picked up another strain of the crap that’s going around.” Back to reading.
I know some of my fears are rational. I know that environmental causes of illness exist. There are too many books out there, too much research, for anyone rational to believe otherwise. I see my kids’ health through the terms of these books. I see their health through the experience of watching my eight-year-old cousin die of childhood brain stem glioma (benign) when I was around fourteen. (My eleven-year-old brother would not go into my aunt’s house for a long time after Sarah died there.) To my great comfort, my family has a history of living long lives, especially the women. My Aunt Mary is 102. My great-grandmother died at 98, my Dad’s Dad at 93, my Dad’s Mom at 92, my Mom’s Mom at 91 (and she had diabetes). I see my kids’ health through that lens, too, and I want my kids to get the same chance as Aunt Mary, Nana, Papa, and Nanny.
A few weeks ago, I read “The Lorax” to my daughter’s class at school. As happens every time I read that story, I breathed deeply through the first few pages, trying to control the hitch in my voice as fifteen wide-eyed kindergartners listened, entranced by the story. (Guys don’t cry, right? Especially not in front of kids. It ain’t rational.) I fought my default question of “What are we doing to y’all?” by focusing on the way Seuss changes the background colors over the arc of the story from yellows and greens to grays and blacks, moving from playful to somber, hope to despair, finally landing on hope: Unless. About the time the Whisper-ma-Phone slupped down, I found my groove, trading comments with the kids (one little guy in glasses said, “I really like your beard”) and marveling at how “Thneed” sounds so whiny, like the gas industry when someone proposes regulations they don’t like. I finished, my daughter gave me a hug, and the kids clapped and thanked me in that sing-song chirp of five- and six-year-olds. I left the class abuzz, charged on the energy of kids in the hall laughing about stories they had heard earlier as they got into lines to go wash up for lunch.
Seuss was brilliant enough to put his fears of dirty air and water and destroyed forests in a story that ends hopefully. Plant the seed! Water it! Grow that truffula tree!
We value kids. This I know. We show it in different ways, from hugs to elaborate birthday parties to praising their efforts at building or drawing or writing to steering them away from maguro at the sushi bar. Somehow, we need to translate these daily acts of valuing to a larger context, like when the camera close-up of a racing cyclist zooms out to encompass the entire race. But even that macro shot may not be large enough, though we have taken the long view before when we stopped using DDT, PCBs, and lead-based paint. We need more of those seeds.
But how rational is it to plant seeds in a National Sacrifice Zone? This is the question I ask myself.
June 4, 2012
May marks the opening of the Mansfield Growers Market, which will run every Friday through September. We’re in zone 5b so fresh produce of any kind is a reason to rejoice at the end of a winter that lasts basically half the year. Though this winter—especially March—was unnervingly warm, the crowds showed up for the first market as eager as in past years. April had brought enough frosts and freezes that the asparagus got temporarily zapped, and we had none for opening day. But spinach, turnips, lettuce, ramps, and rhubarb were the fresh goodies awaiting folks, along with the local lamb, chicken, pork, beef, rabbit, milk, cheese, maple syrup, baked goods, and crafts that are always in season.
Blue, white, and green tents sprang up on the lawn of St. James Episcopal Church like mushrooms after rain, and bright colored yarns, handmade aprons, hanging flower baskets, and banners decorated the block. Friends greeted friends, University students mingled with professors (some of them farmers in their “spare” time), and it didn’t matter if you knew the person standing next to you at the booth, you spoke to them. This was why we started the market in 2009, not just for good food but to grow community. And it’s worked magic.
In fact, you’d never guess we were in an industrial sacrifice zone.
Well, maybe you would if you were talking to Diane about what to plant in your garden and the local musician took a break. Then you’d become aware of the traffic just off your right shoulder, the grunts of brakes trying to stop huge residual waste and dump trucks because the light a block away at Main Street turned red. And if you tried to cross the street without walking that block to the light, well, I wouldn’t recommend that. Park behind the church, maybe in the bank’s lot. They don’t mind.
You would remember quickly, however, when you were driving back to your home, or friend’s house, or campground. The well pads and freshwater pits leveling hills and ruining topsoil (there goes the farmland) are hard to miss, though they are surrounded by beautiful country.
There is a refrain in the national song and dance about natural gas that it will lead to energy independence. All this while it’s being exported to the highest bidder, which is the way all business works. Why should this be any different? And the big player here in Tioga County is Shell Oil. I mean, they’re a Dutch Company, though they call this branch of their operations “Shell Appalachia.” Not that being from elsewhere makes them bad. I for one thank God that we in Tioga aren’t in the hands of Chesapeake Energy, an American Company.
But this sense that the natural gas play (how I love language!) is not just good for the country but our salvation leads to the attitude that some places need to suck it up and take one for the team. Stop whining. In fact, Penn State geosciences professor Terry Engelder, who gave the first estimate in 2008 of how much gas could be recovered from the Marcellus Shale, calls for Pennsylvanians to make a “necessary sacrifice” so Americans can continue living a lifestyle made possible only by huge amounts of fossil fuels.
So when a gas well blows up in Canton, a town about twenty-five miles away from Mansfield, or people nearby get fresh water delivered to them since their water well has been contaminated, it’s not news. It’s necessary sacrifice occurring in a national sacrifice zone. Says Amy Mall of Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC):
Pennsylvania has become a national sacrifice zone for natural gas development. It has seen more than its share of drinking water contamination, houses exploding, and destroyed landscapes and communities.
Last fall I took my seven-year-old son out for pizza before we saw a movie. I don’t remember what movie it was, but I remember the conversation I overheard in the restaurant.
Nearby an older man looked up from his dinner with a big smile when a young fella—maybe late twenties, early thirties—came over to say hello. The young man had on an industry shirt—I don’t remember which company. By their conversation it was clear they’d known each other a long time. I imagine the older man might have watched the young guy grow up. Then the older man asked him about work and how could he find out when they’d be drilling on his parcel? When would the royalty checks start coming? The young guy described the web site and how to find out the information. Then they got to talking about how many wells they’d drilled this year, which is nothing, the young guy said, compared to how many are planned for this area.
Every time I hear a version of this the number or ratio is a little different, but it’s always horrifying. What was startling to me is that neither of these men, who’d clearly lived here longer than I had, who had roots here, these men were not horrified in the least.
The older man shook his head a little and said something like, “That’s hard to imagine.”
“Yeah,” the younger guy agreed, “in five or ten years we won’t recognize this place. But I’ll have made my money and moved away by then.”
And they laughed.
Even the older guy laughed who was at a very different stage in his life, one where he probably wasn’t moving anywhere, was probably looking for the money to help with retirement or to hold onto the farm. The young guy likely had a wife, maybe kids, and this was his big break. But as I stared hard at the red and white plastic tablecloth I couldn’t stop thinking about how easily he was ready to sacrifice this place. In his mind, it was already gone. And apparently all the people with it.
It hit me then. When people say “sacrifice zones” they are thinking of space on a map, the way explorers from Europe viewed the new world. This is the frontier of natural gas. But like the new world, this frontier is inhabited. And even though, unlike with the Native Americans, our homes, our faces, look like those of the explorers, we are invisible. That younger man had merely changed his allegiance, aligning himself with the powerful in a bid for security and identity.
I don’t tell this story to point fingers at these two men, who I bet wouldn’t hesitate to help me get my car out of a ditch. They illustrate a larger problem. It’s not a problem language can fix, but there is a way in which choosing and rejecting terms is both empowering and makes the invisible visible. So I submit to you that this is not a national sacrifice zone. We are a national sacrifice community.
Yet on the local level, the view shifts. When I look around the market green on Fridays, I see people enjoying where they live and taking pride in what our small town and the surrounding area has to offer. On days like this I am hyper aware of the many ways our quality of life is exceptional—good local food of a wide variety, public schools with reasonable class sizes, multiple state parks within a half hour that do not charge admission, a University with humanities programs that provide community concerts, lectures, readings, and art exhibits. Oh, and a bike shop, yoga studio, and brewery that match any you’ll find in metropolitan areas.
I just want to say, loud and clear, to everyone out there in the nation who maybe has heard of the debate over fracking or the natural gas rush going on elsewhere—this is the kind of place being sacrificed for more years of an unsustainable dream and the myth of energy independence. See us. Speak up. Because if it can happen to Pennsylvanians, like it’s been happening to folks in Wyoming and Texas before us, then it can happen to your community next.