Monday, May 20, 2013

Adventures in Ithaca (and Pennsylvania)

It was fitting to be here, in Iroquoia, in the land of the Haudenosaunee, to attend Cornell University's Summer Institute on Contested Landscapes. This itself is a contested landscape. This is Cayuga land.

Taughannock Falls, Ithaca

I attended the institute to workshop a paper on nineteenth-century Hawaiian history. Other papers discussed contested landscapes, seascapes, epic battles over resources, and quite a few commented on indigenous issues, both in historical and in contemporary perspective. We were historians, anthropologists, geographers, and others.

Each day we workshopped papers in the morning, then hiked/explored in the afternoon. On the first day we visited Treman State Park and Taughannock Falls State Park.

Taughannock Falls, Ithaca

On the hike into Taughannock Falls, I had the pleasure of talking with a young woman studying anthropology at Cornell. Her work examines contemporary conflicts between Euro-Americans and Cayugas in the Cayuga Lake region. She told me that she doesn't want to take a side in favor of one or the other of these two competing groups. Both sides make claims, and both sides use rhetoric, with the intention of persuading the other of the righteousness of their cause. I remember when I was working on the history of Onondaga Lake (my failed potential dissertation project...years ago, before I decided to switch my focus to HawaiĘ»i). In my limited research I found out that both Onondagas and Euro-Americans had used and abused the lake and its resources for centuries. But, when I presented this preliminary evidence and interpretation in front of various upstate audiences, I received a heck of a lot of push back, particularly from members of the Onondaga Nation and their community allies. 

Wandering around Ithaca, and thinking back to my own research on Iroquoia, I was reminded that this landscape was not just contested in the past, but it remains so today. Colonialism never ends. It just gets more entrenched over time.

That night we went out to dinner near Taughannock Falls. We indulged in local Ithacan favorites: burgers (I had a fish burger) and locally-made beer. We went around the table sharing stories of "field work." In the back-and-forth between anthropologists and historians, we realized that anthropologists' field work stories are a lot more exciting and gripping than historians' tales in the archives. (That's fine: I'm happy as a historian and I don't want to change my methodology or discipline!) Meanwhile local Ithacans chowed down four burgers per person per meal in hopes of winning a "free" t-shirt from the restaurant (for a total cost of $20). It appeared to us that Ithaca itself—even this restaurant—could be a site for ethnography. Indeed, stories abounded about us... from the native peoples fighting to reclaim their lands to these new "locals," these burger-eaters.

Genesee Cream Ale: a local favorite in an old-fashioned bottle

The next day, after workshopping papers, I took a tour of Cornell's campus... but I forgot to bring my camera. That evening we ate Lebanese food in College Town. 

The next day we assembled ourselves in minivans and headed south for a day-trip to Pennsylvania, otherwise known as Penn's Woods, a contested/colonial landscape if there ever was one.

When we crossed the Susquehanna River, we immediately parked in a big parking lot. It was completely empty of cars save for three tanker trucks. What was this place?

A huge empty parking lot in Bradford County, PA, just south of the New York border

Turns out, or so we discovered, that these tanker trucks had hooked up to some big spigots at the edge of the empty parking lot. Beyond the parking lot, Susquehanna River water was being sucked into pipes transporting to these spigots. The trucks were filling their tanks with water. Now why would they do that?

  "Fresh Water Only." Words of reassurance? Bradford County, PA

Turns out we were in a contested landscape. Call it Gasland. This is the site of a gas boom, only about five years old now...a boom that is transforming Bradford County seemingly before everyone's eyes. As a New Yorker who has heard a lot about hydraulic fracturing but has never seen it with his own eyes, everything seemed new and strange to me here. And it all began with this big empty parking lot and trucks carrying fresh water along the highway. 

See, fracking involves a lot of water. I mean, a lot of it! The frackers shoot fresh water down into the Marcellus Shale beneath our feet... hundreds, thousands of feet down. They apparently send it down there with a cocktail of chemicals, too. But we don't really know. The gas companies refuse to reveal exactly what's in the cocktail. The water is then retrieved... hopefully... and recycled. These tankers full of fresh water, therefore, are just the very beginning of this process, a process that, we soon learned, touches every corner of this county.

A farmer's path, Bradford County, PA

We turned down onto a dusty lane, onto a farmer's path. We parked behind a brown barn. We pulled up to a mailbox painted with the words: "Crawley* Water Impoundment." [*name changed to protect privacy]

I was initially surprised by this mailbox. Do water impoundments have mailboxes? What kind of mail do they get? Bills? Magazines? Postcards from foreign lands? 

Near to the mailbox was another stick in the ground: a sign announcing the mailing address (really?) of the impoundment. Do impoundments have addresses?

This sign listed the exact latitudinal and longitudinal coordinates of the water impoundment site. It also included a mailing address (there is a mailbox, after all). Earlier in the day we had visited the planning office of Bradford County where we learned that the county was working hard to catalogue the exact street addresses (and geo-coordinates) of all fracking facilities in the county. Why? Because early on in the gas boom there were instances of fires and other emergency situations at fracking sites, but non-local workers hired by the gas companies had no idea where they were and could not accurately explain their locations to 911. This explains the overly detailed sign on this farmer's land, near the water impoundment... near the water impoundment mailbox to be exact.

A water impoundment, Bradford County, PA

Note the impoundment in the photograph above. This used to be a field of wheat, corn, and alfalfa, or so we were told. Now it was a pit, lined with some black plastic-y substance, holding many, many gallons of fresh water. Like the Susquehanna River, the purpose of this "lake" was to feed fresh water into tanker trucks, to be delivered into the hells below us, to frack-up some shale. 

Fake Lake and Dirty Pipe. Bradford County, PA

Before we left the impoundment, we were confronted by the owner of the land. He didn't seem so mad to find us there on his land, although when he arrived he said, "You forgot to invite me to the party." He probably has to deal with this a lot. Outsiders: New Yorkers, Ithacans, Cornellians, liberals, academics, activists. People descend on his land, take photographs, tell stories about what they think fracking is and isn't. 

It was he, the farmer, who told us that this "lake" used to be a field of wheat, corn, and alfalfa. It wasn't profitable, he said. Prices for crops are no good these days. No farmer can realistically hope to pass on agricultural lands to his children... at least not before the gas boom, that is. Another farmer, in a Bradford County Republicans t-shirt, also visited us at the site. They both told us that dairy farming was and is part of Bradford County history and heritage, but that dairy has no future. The government artificially sets the price of milk so low that it hurts the farmer.

I found myself convinced that these farmers knew what they were doing. They had hired lawyers and read their contracts with the gas companies carefully. They had leased their land for only short periods of time (five to ten years). They said that the gas company was treating them very well. Royalties were plentiful. Certainly it seemed to me that leasing out some farm land to have a gas company turn it into a "lake" was not a big deal. It certainly can't be these kinds of changes in the land that get fracking activists all up-in-arms, right? This is just, from the farmer's perspective, a wise use of land. The fake lake and dirty water pipe add value, a value that wasn't so high when this was just one big field of amber waves of grain.

 This is what fracking looks like. At least above ground. Bradford County, PA

We drove on. We drove up. Up some barren road, until we reached a hilltop. From there we had a good view of what's called a "gas pad." The photograph above shows one. Beyond the dandelions and the green grass, before the rolling hills, is the pad: a level concrete surface, lots of weird-looking hookups, some tanks (filled with something?), a nearby "lake" of impounded water, and an access road, with a simple yellow-painted iron barricade blocking all the pesky activists. If this is what fracking looks like, at least above ground, then what are activists so up-in-arms about?

There is a gas pipeline here, below a field of dandelions. Bradford County, PA

I guess this is the problem with fracking. It's all underground. The above-ground aspect of the gas boom looks, just, well, normal. Yes, truck traffic has increased in the county. The roads are wearing down. The county needs to put more money into infrastructure. The state just passed a law mandating that gas companies pay into a pool—a pool of funds to be used for needs just like this: fixing roads and fighting crime. Yes, crime. The county planner told us that crime is up. There are many temporary workers from out-of-state here. The gas boom has brought a sort of lawlessness, not quite like San Francisco in the Gold Rush, but something like it, on a much smaller scale, right here in Penn's Woods.

But besides the trucks and the mysterious worker/criminals, the aesthetics of the county still appear rural to my eyes. That is to say: this is not San Francisco in the 1850s. The gas boom is probably booming most for those in cushy offices in other states, wherever the gas companies are based. Here in Bradford County the dairy farmer might be a tad richer—we heard many stories of newly-painted barns and brand-new SUVs—but this is still a poor county. A young woman, a reporter for a local newspaper, told us that the unemployment rate for young people is sky-high in Bradford. If you don't work on the family farm, and you don't work for the gas companies (and locals, for the most part, aren't getting hired), then you're shit out of luck. On top of that, she said, rents have risen astronomically in the last five years, from $400 a month to a peak of $1,200 a month (although this figure has decreased a bit since then). No wonder crime is a problem. Poverty and crime go hand-in-hand. This is the nature of the contested landscape.

We heard about fabled riches, and heard about crushing poverty, but we saw neither. We met both pro-fracking farmers and anti-fracking farmers. Our conversations continued over dinner at Milky Way Farms, a dairy farm that is surviving the twenty-first-century agricultural collapse in part by running a popular restaurant. Not every farm in Bradford County can open a restaurant, so this is no long-term solution to the county's problems. But is fracking?

Milky Way Farms, Bradford County, PA

After dinner—including a wonderful huckleberry pie made with local berries—we drove off for one last sight: a wind farm.

No one is talking about a "wind boom" here in Bradford County, although there is sure a lot of wind up on these hilltops... here in this corner of the Appalachian Mountains. There is skepticism in the county that wind is the answer—that wind will provide for our domestic energy needs—that wind will pay up better than gas pays up. If a gas company and a wind company both approach a farmer with interest in his or her land, which one will he or she choose to go with? Is the fate of Bradford County in farmers' hands? Or is the fate of the county and its people in the soil—in the land—in the fertility of the agriculture, the county's mainstay for generations? Or is it in the shale—in the gas beneath us?

A wind farm in Bradford County, PA

The next day, back in Ithaca, I pondered over what we had seen and heard in Pennsylvania. How do I feel about fracking now? Have my views changed after visiting Bradford County?

We visited Buttermilk Falls in the afternoon. I took my shoes off and socks off and rolled up my jeans. I waded in the cold water. What a beautiful place. Is it this beauty that makes Ithacans so opposed to fracking? Isn't Bradford County just as beautiful? Or maybe it's not about beauty at all. Maybe it's about the sublime of the hell beneath us: that which we cannot see but which we imagine: that burning cauldon of fracked water full of chemicals down there... a toxic stew just waiting to seep into our water table, to fill our wells and faucets with chemicals and gases. Where do we look to see fracking? Or is it impossible? Is it invisible?

Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca

Buttermilk Falls, Ithaca

That evening we had a lovely dinner on the terrace of the new physical sciences building at Cornell.

View of Cornell University in the evening

After a few drinks a few of us got to cracking jokes about fracking. In some ways it is just too easy to make jokes about something called "fracking," right? On the other hand, this issue is dramatically serious to people on both sides of the border, in Penn's Woods and in Iroquoia. But sometimes people on both sides raise their voices so loudly either in support or in condemnation of the practice that they threaten to drown out everyone else's voices, including their own inner voices—voices of doubt and voices of uncertainty. We academics try our best to remain objective, to hear both sides of the story, but those farmers in Bradford County don't doubt for a second that we "Cornellians" are raging liberals. Whatever that means to them. That one of the farmers had a Bradford County Republicans t-shirt on just confirmed to us what we "Cornellians" already thought about him, too. Whatever "Republicans" means. We are so trapped in our own interpretations of the world that sometimes it can be just so hard to break through, to really hear what the other side is saying. It's just too easy to laugh about Bradford County, to let it become the butt of all our "rural" jokes and "farmer" jokes and "bumpkin" jokes and "hick" jokes. We'd like to imagine that rural farmers are easily swindled by big bad gas companies and their slick and sleazy agents. We'd like to believe that these farmers are putting the promise of money above the well being of their families, as if they couldn't care less about the threats of cancer and other ailments that might come from exposure to fracking chemicals and gasses. 

That night we went to a bar in downtown Ithaca and I got to talking with a "local" about fracking. We were perhaps both too drunk to engage in a serious conversation on the subject, yet we tried our best. He told me that he was from Bradford County. I couldn't believe it. We were there just yesterday, I explained. I told him all about our research and what we were studying—contested landscapes. To that he said, "oh, well I hope you'll just make sure to get both sides of the story." Of course, I replied, we are researchers. We want to hear both sides. We are not here to make any decisions or have hard-and-fast opinions on these issues. "Well, just make sure to hear both sides," he repeated. It turns out, our field trip to his homeland across the New York-Pennsylvania border didn't impress him. He predicted that we were all anti-fracking activists, "like everyone else in Ithaca," he said. Sure, we might have listened to a few conservative farmers tell us about their land for a few hours in Bradford County, but that was one afternoon compared to the years that we spend in our liberal, academic enclaves.

He's got a point.

This man recommended that I watch some films. Films to help me get my head out of the sand. But, the fact is, I only wish I could get my head more into the sand. The "truth" of fracking, if there is any such thing, is below us, in the ground, right? What we most fear is so invisible to us humans up here above the shale. Were I a worm, I would squirm my way down into the fracked gaslands of the shale beneath our feet and report back from there. But instead, all we can see is the social discord that exists above ground: farmers versus gas companies versus academics versus activists. Perhaps maybe fracking isn't below ground, but it is in fact right here among us. This "social fracking," as someone put it. Maybe what we most fear about fracking isn't in the chemical cocktail, but is in the fraying relationships between people—the discord made manifest in our communities.

I just don't know. I don't really know what I think about fracking anymore. I am glad that there is a moratorium in New York State, but I'm also glad for the farmers of Bradford County that no big bad state is stopping them from doing whatever they want to do with their land. Is it possible to be both pro- and anti-fracking? Or is it just completely selfish and unethical of me to support fracking in Penn's Woods, where I am not personally vulnerable, and yet oppose it here in New York State where my family and I live and where we might be fracking's next victims?

Portal. Cornell University, Ithaca

I returned from Ithaca two days ago. I received a ton of helpful feedback on my paper about Hawaiian history. I also learned a lot about Cornell, about Ithaca, about upstate New York, and about Bradford County. I met a lot of wonderful and interesting people. I heard a lot of stories and opinions.

The future is like a portal: a doorway heading out onto a ledge. The sun sets, and when it does the darkness of the night is frightful. I feel like we are just entering into the dark night of fracking. A long dark night—both physical and social—above ground and below ground—that is only commencing. I don't know whether to study it, to lay down my body in front of it, or to simply ignore it. But it is here among us, here for the foreseeable future, for us to wrestle with, in this contested landscape.