Living in this World

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Hope, fear and change

Dear all,
After being too busy for months, my schedule seems to be easing a little and I'm basking in the possibilities. My most recent adventure has been exploring the delights of red and black currants, both of which have been ripening in our community garden. I wish you your own delights of summer.

Hope, fear and change

We share a cabin with five other families up in the mountains of Pennsylvania, where deposits of natural gas in the underlying shale have recently become profitable to remove. A whole extractive industry has moved in, gas rights have been bought up, and sides have been taken. The gas industry, going for profit, is working hard to position itself as environmentally responsible. Individual landowners in this poor part of the state have benefited financially by selling gas rights, and unemployment in some places has dropped from 10% to 5%. On the other hand, the threat to the environment is real. Big ugly well pads replace forests and fields, the safety of the water supply is in serious questions, roads are being chewed up by big trucks, and more and more safety hazards, like dust and drill tailing disposal, are coming to light.

Local governments, increasingly recognizing the costs, are feeling caught in the middle. There is conflict both at the state level, where a new pro-business governor refuses to tax the gas industry while cutting funds for environmental protection, and at the national level, where this particular method of extraction--hydraulic fracturing--was explicitly exempted from federal clean air and water standards by the former administration.

Many outsiders who have cabins and hunting lodges in these beautiful mountains, and others who have left the city to get away from it all, have been caught up in the controversy. Our little group held off on selling gas rights for years, finally making the move only when it became clear that our land would be affected just the same by our neighbors’ decisions to sell. After long discussion, we decided to give a substantial portion of that money to environmental groups that could provide some leverage against the weight of the gas industry.

So our extended family’s time at the cabin over the long holiday weekend this spring was framed by the Marcellus shale. An enormous concrete well pad has been constructed in the big field that abuts our land--a jarring sight in this quiet place of fields, farmhouses and forests. Some of our weekend group overflowed into a near-by bed and breakfast, with hosts who are deeply involved in fighting the gas industry. And we started the trip with dinner in the next town with folks from a watershed group to whom we had given money.

I was struck by the difference in tone and strategy between the bed and breakfast folks and the people from the watershed group. The former are devastated. They had been deeply immersed in the project of building their little paradise--a lovely organic farm and hospitality center— far away from the evils of modern society, when the gas industry descended upon the area and threatened to destroy everything. He spends all his evenings researching the environmental problems and sending out warning information to everybody he knows. She bends the ears of her guests, worrying about the future. Both are passionately committed to building up enough local grassroots opposition to halt the gas companies, and have little trust in anybody else to help.

The leader of the watershed group was a county commissioner for many years, and knows this area well. An environmentalist to the core, he also understands the pressures on local officials, and the lure of a promise of jobs. His group’s strategy is to get people feeling more connected to the river, finding small grants for water access projects in struggling river towns, holding a “treasured places” photo contest, planning and improving river trails. As they help people notice and remember their love for this place, they are also putting out a measured position on the dangers of unrestricted drilling and the steps that need to be taken to preserve the value of what we have and love. They are ever more widely connected to a variety of groups throughout the 22-county watershed, and are using some of the money we gave them to establish a more formal membership base--with every member a potential advocate for responsible drilling.

The area encompassed by this watershed is the most deeply conservative part of the state, and activists in the more liberal big cities, working on a variety of progressive causes, have despaired for years over their inability to get any traction here to challenge the powers that be. Yet this modest low-key group is slowly and steadily building a network of engaged citizens who care about their communities, have a vision for the future based on what they love, and know that it’s possible to work together for change.
If I had to choose where to throw my lot, there would be no question. While I sympathize with the bed-and-breakfast folks, their tone of loneliness and desperation, their focus on danger and enemies, fear and loss, hold little appeal. I’d choose the ones who draw people in through connection and love. Not only are they more attractive, but I think they’re more likely to get the job done.


The back of the house behind us
rotting away for years
is being repaired.

Braced for noise
crude jokes, shouting
profanity in endless streams
instead I find a hush.

Four men in dreadlocks, overalls
work peacefully together
Help is asked and offered quietly
The elder one is sharing skills perhaps
the younger ones receiving
all in tones of deep respect.

Even the sound of power saws
and hammering
can’t drown out
this hum of reverence.

Some things that have made me hopeful recently:

The Nonviolent Peaceforce, which has been recently endorsed by the President of Finland, and received a $1 million grant from UNICEF for their peacekeeping work in the Sudan (

Leaders in the Kurdish region of Iraq who are building communities for people of different religious and ethnic backgrounds to live together peacefully — even as they contend with threats of violence.

The Philadelphia Water Department, whose master plan for keeping storm water from overwhelming the sewer system depends not on enormous new pipes and holding tanks, but hundreds of small rain-absorbing projects, and higher taxes on impermeable surfaces like parking lots.

Dozens of urban farmers and gardeners--working in immigrant community gardens, urban orchards, backyard CSAs, new rec center greenhouses--who gathered recently in my neighborhood to share challenges, resources and a commitment to food sovereignty.

Check out:, a home for all the parenting
writing I've done over the past 20 years.

Also: START: a way to study and work together with
others to create a better world.