Once again, this weekend we spent a day driving around the countryside looking for land suitable for us to farm on. We're looking for something reasonably cheap and preferably with a building on the grounds that can at some point be made habitable. We'd like to find something within four hours of the metro D.C. area. Our ongoing search is turning into quite an education, with some hard lessons to be learned, it seems.
Last week, the first property we looked at was land that had been timbered, prior to its purchase by its current owner, in semi-rural Virginia. The land looked like Dresden, Germany, post-firebombing or the slopes of Mt. Saint Helens after the eruption. If there's a distinction between clear-cutting and the kind of harvesting involved in this operation, it's lost on me. The land we visited was littered with stumps, scarred with ruts left by the logging trucks, and covered with brambles and the occasional random tree left standing on its own. To clear it of stumps and underbrush and hence make it farmable would cost $2500 an acre. The work involved in doing this by hand really gave me a new appreciation of how difficult it must have been for the early settlers to clear and farm the lands they settled. It also occurred to me that if we had to clear land in this fashion--without the use of bulldozers, skid loaders, chain saws, etc--we'd probably make much wiser land-use choices in the first place.
But this land wasn't cleared in order to be farmed: It was thoughtlessly logged to supply cheap wood to the pulp and building materials industries. These trees, which were hardly 40 feet tall, were probably "harvested" to become unread junk mail, or particle board for some suburban McMansion---just another input into the high-entropy flux of waste that characterizes post-modern American life. We'd never really seen this type of ugliness first-hand until we decided to look for affordable land in the country. By the time we'd driven around the countryside between Washington, D.C. and Richmond, VA, we'd seen enough of these timbered lots to have a pretty good idea of what much of the rural South and mid-Atlantic must look like, away from the interstates, national parks, and points of historical interest, but still pretty much right in our backyards.
Yesterday, we went to West Virginia to look at some land in Doddridge County. Wary of the environmental hazards endemic to the area we'd be visiting, we first watched Josh Fox's excellent documentrary GasLand, about the relatively novel process of hydraulic fracturing, aka, "fracking." After viewing numerous scenes of tapwater catching afire, farm animals looking like chemo patients, and condensation tanks off-gassing toxic fumes, we considered ourselves prepared for what we thought likely to encounter in West Virginia. What we did experience unsettled us, but not quite in the ways we were expecting.
Driving along Route 50 between Clarksburg and West Union, it seemed like every fifth vehicle on the road was somehow related to the natural gas inustry. On the roads leading to the properties we visited, we saw water trucks, tanker trucks with various hazmat labels, trucks carrying pipes and just about every kind of heavy equipment. We saw yards full of equipment and materials to be used in building roads, laying pads, drilling wells, extracting gas. We saw tank farms and pumping stations; donkey pumps and condensate tanks; drill rigs and endless convoys of water trucks. It was as though someone had taken all of the hardware of an oil refinery--columns and tanks, pipes and valves--and distributed them across an idyllic landscape, deploying them here and there among the pastures and hollows of the countryside. The incongruousness of the whole scene made it that much weirder.
On the first property we visited, the land was full of green grass, beautiful soil, and a clear-flowing stream, as clean and devoid of detritus as any I've seen in the High Sierra. But along the boundaries of the property there was a wellhead with a mess of pipes running to the road and emptying into a condensate tank. Along the road fronting the property, every few minutes a tanker truck would pass, grinding in low gear up the hill to the frack site, somewhere above us but out of view. Accepting all of this as par for the course, we thought the property was perfect for our plans, and pending a clean water test of the well and creek, we'd consider buying it.
Leaving the site, however, we both noticed a peculiar smell now and again. Along the road we'd occasionally catch a whiff of something nasty. Natural gas (methane) on its own doesn't have a smell; this is added by the gas company so it can be detected by consumers in the event of a leak. What we smelled was something I recognized from my childhood, driving up to New York City to visit my grandparents. When we'd pass the oil refineries around Bayonne, New Jersey, a foul, tarry, sickening odor would permeate the car until we'd drive far enough out of range. I'm still not sure what the smell is, though I know it's some kind of hydrocarbon byproduct separating from the petroleum.
While there are many toxic and carcinogenic byproducts of petroluem extraction and refining---aromatic hydrocarbons like toluene, benzene, xylene--what really worries me about fracking is the cocktail of unknown chemicals used in the fracking process. Uknown because Dick Cheney's Energy Policy Act of 2005 provides that energy companies don't have to disclose the chemicals they are pumping into the ground, and hence the ground water, to release the pools of natural gas contained within the Marcellus shale formation. What is know about these chemicals is what comes through in tests of the groundwater which they have contaminated. There's formaldehyde, lead, benzene, and many other substances outlawed by the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974. In some Western states, radioactive substances have even turned up in fracking wastewater. While the energy companies are required to dispose of the contaminated water they create, this often ends up in rivers and creeks. While I'm no geologist or environmental scientist, it stands to reason that as far as groundwater and the water table is concerned, what goes down must come up.
So with all of this in mind, we headed back home. Somewhere along the way, Tasha remarked, "Why does energy extraction always have to be so ugly?" And this got me thinking. Those of us who live in the cities or suburbs hardly ever actually see these energy extraction sites. We just hear what the energy industry wants us to hear--that clean natural gas is domestically produced and can provide a low cost source of energy to meet our needs for the next hundred years. We may know that coal fired power plants are putting a lot of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, even though many of us will never see the nuclear winter moonscapes left behind by mountaintop removal mining. And this is the way that industry wants it. They'll never tell you, say, that the electric wiring and copper plumbing in your house comes to you courtesy of a giant, fenced off hole in the ground full of toxic sludge outside of Bisby, Arizona, that you will probably never see anyway. You're even less likely to see this destruction or hear the plights of the communities destroyed by the extractive industries if they're happening somwhere else entirely, like Peru or Indonesia, but that doesn't make them any less real. And this principle is at work everywhere in America: It's why agribusiness slaughterhouses don't have windows; it's why WalMart won't tell you which factories produced the goods on its shelves. If you cared enough to look in the first place, you'd probably be horrified by what you saw.
For many years, I've known on an intellectual level how destructively and heavily the typical American lives on the planet. And while having this understanding may prompt you to make certain decisions about your lifetyle, there's really nothing like seeing first-hand the consequences of this mode of living. The irony here, of course, is that in moving to the country, we're trying to get off the grid and live lighter on the land, producing more than we consume. Only we're finding that the land where we had hoped to do all this has been long since sacrificed for the comfort of those living in the cities and suburbs (such as ourselves) in much the same way that the global south has been exploited throughout history for the benefit of the north. Maybe what the world needs now is a new kind of eco-tourism: Cruises to see the Great Pacific Garbage Patch; or tours of the arid grazing lands supplanting the rainforests that used to provide a carbon sink and habitat for millions of species now extinct, all to support the demand for fast food hamburgers. Maybe we'd make different choices then if we really saw these places.
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