In the United States of America, a state line is an invisible border, often indicated by a welcome sign or a change in the pavement but usually no difference in the scenery and never by a border post. There may be tremendous distinctions between states in policies or interests, but normally neighboring states don’t appear much different than two hedges in a garden. However, right now the line between New York and Pennsylvania might signify a visible difference between past, present and future.
On the Pennsylvania side of the line it may be possible to spot drilling rigs, large water tanks, pipes extending into the ground, all the paraphernalia necessary to tap the earth for natural gas. In New York such activity is still being debated. New York and Pennsylvania find themselves atop of one of the world’s great sources of natural gas. Pennsylvania, with its long experience with extractive industry, has adopted regulations that allowed drillers to move forward drawing natural gas by hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of the Marcellus Shale formation. For New York, this is a totally new experience.
A new book by Seamus McGraw reviews the history, geological research, business decisions, economic and social pressures that have already turned part of the Keystone State into a rich gasland. Not surprisingly, “The End of Country” is now being widely read in New York. For people previously removed from the explotation of energy resources McGraw’s book is a good introduction, for it is basically a human story; and for anyone either pro or con in the debate over environmental and economic issues, the book (amazingly to some readers) offers a respectful view of all the players in this drama.
“The End of Country” opens in 2007 with Seamus’s mother greeting a “landman” — a young woman, actually — bearing a proposal for exploratory drilling on her farmland in Dimock, PA, about 23 miles due south of Binghamton, in Susquehanna County. Many of the farmers and others around Dimock could be called land-rich but otherwise scrape along and could certainly use the additional income, which could reach into the millions. But one of the first effects of the offers is that long-time friends and neighbors avoid speaking about drilling and money. In addition to the concern about environmental damage from large-scale drilling, McGraw is telling “the story of an endangered species, a kind of American that was fast disappearing, guys who had the hard-earned skills and rough wisdom to make something out of nothing.” One of those guys is Ken Ely, a gruff and wily farmer, quarryman and the owner of the general store and service station where young Seamus used to snatch candy.
To people like Ken, respect for the land means something [other than preservation] entirely. It means understanding in a visceral way that the land can be an ally, it can be an adversary, and sometimes it is both at the same time. But always its fate and yours are linked. And so you push the land as hard as you can, and when you think it’s just about ready to start pushing back, you let it rest. You move to the next quarry, the next stand of hardwoods, the next pasture, and if need be, you nurture it back to health. You seed, you plant, and what you harvest is up to you. Do that, and the land will always come back. That was Ken’s guiding principle.
–from “The End of Country”
Seamus McGraw is a former crime reporter, a winner of the Associated Press Editors Freedom of Information Award. His articles have appeared in Playboy, Spin, the Reader’s Digest and a now-defunct publication called Radar, whose assignment to write about the Marcellus Shale brought him an opportunity to reenergize a writing career that seemed to be going nowhere. “The End of Country” is a personal story about the people of Dimock, including the experience of the author, his mother and sister. The Marcellus shale beneath their property is now ready to be tapped.