The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

A Druid’s Perspective on Fracking, Part I: Why We Should Care June 12, 2016

As my blog readers are aware, a year ago, I returned back to my beloved Appalachian mountains in Western Pennsylvania after living in other parts of the country for most of my adult life. Now let me be clear–this is home for me, and in returning, I knew I was entering an area with some severe environmental challenges.  And regardless of what is happening here with regards to fracking, acid mine runoff, logging, strip mining, mountaintop removal, or anything else, there is something about being in your home ecosystem, near family, and near where your ancestors are buried.  However, I did not return to the same Pennsylvania that I left.  In the time I’ve been gone, a massive shift has occurred on our landscape here because of natural gas exploration–both conventional gas drilling and deep injection well (fracking) drilling–which is destructive to our lands, waterways, and health. Since returning last year, I’ve been working to understand why fracking is happening, what is actually happening to the land energetically, and what we can do about it.

 

Since I haven’t seen many other druids or earth-centered folks writing about this topic who are actually living near these kinds of situations, I think its an important one to cover on this blog. I plan on doing this in a three part series (not all necessarily back to back; these posts are hard to write)–this first post will tackle why fracking isn’t just a problem for people living in areas of fracking, but it is everybody’s problem from an environmental, social, health, and spiritual perspective. The second will take a deeper look into the energetics of fracking and what we can do about it as land healers and energy workers, and the final post will report some good news from two groups who have been actively fighting fracking and oil pipelines. I may have another post in there as well–we’ll see how it goes, but that’s the current plant.  I know these are tough topics, but I think much good can come of these posts, and our discussion, about what to do.

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Wells as of 2012, map with my modifications

Fracking as a “far away” problem…

When I lived far away, in Michigan, I had heard about fracking, everybody has. I had felt bad about it, but we were dealing with pipelines of our own there and some other issues, and fracking seemed like a “far away” problem.  I think this is how a lot of people feel about it if they aren’t living in the immediacy of it. When it appears to be a far away problem, you can be mentally invested, and say “wow, that sucks” and do what you can (in our case, our grove over fracking arranged through the Warrior’s Call group).
What I’d like to suggest today, however, is that it is a close-up problem that matters to all of us. Through this exploration, I’ll show the ethical, social, environmental, and spiritual implications of fracking and why each of us should be seriously concerned about this issue.

 

Reason #1: No land is immune to energy (or other) exploitation. Resources abound in our great planet, and resources are getting more and more scarce. It is likely that you live in an area that has some resources and is under some kind of duress: mines, mountaintop removal, factory, industrial agricultural runoff, tar sands, pipelines, nuclear power plants, the list goes on and on. And in fact, gas drilling of many kinds (including fracking) is quite common. I’m sure each of my readers can share a story of something happening nearby, something that is worrisome or destructive. It might be that fracking is one of the more egregious of these practices, but by no means the only one.

 

From a spiritual, ethical, or community standpoint–I argue that the fine details aren’t actually as important as the bigger picture implications: someone is trying to extract some resource from the land for a profit, and usually doing it in a manner that is harmful to all life around that extraction and taking shortcuts for higher profits.

 

I believe we have a lot to learn from fracking, as a case study, for all ways in which the earth is damaged and desecrated. In the coming weeks, I’ll share a case study of two communities who used a variety of tools to fight back against fracking and oil pipelines–and win. Just like the abolitionist movements, and many other social movements across the history of time, we need to be better equipped to stand up to companies who want to pillage our land’s resources, pollute our rivers, or whatever else. In other words, we should care about fracking because this can teach us a lot about how to protect our lands everywhere and everywhere is under potential threat from these, and other similar practices.

 

And the alternative is that as one practice becomes acceptable and tolerated, other destructive processes can follow. Suddenly it’s ok to do all kinds of destructive things, and we need to hold firm and say, no, it is very much not ok.

 

Screenshot of Alleghney National forest (from Google Maps)

Screenshot of Allegheny National forest (from Google Maps)

Reason #2: Public lands, lands that we collectively own, are at the most risk and need our protection. In the USA (and I hope readers from other places will comment and share about what is happening in their countries) a lot of fracking is happening on public lands. Those are lands that belong to each of us, that are there for the good of all, to preserve and protect–not for the good and profit of energy companies.

 

If you want to see some of this firsthand, follow this link, which takes you to GeoCommunicator, a map service of the US Department of the Interior and Bureau of Land Management. This shows you all of the “energy” exploration, pipelines, wells, and more that are located on public lands. A second case in point not so far from me is the Allegheny National Forest, which is being extremely threatened by this exploration (here’s a one overview of drilling on public lands  and here is a second article about the Allegheny National Forest).  The Allegheny National Forest is, as the name suggests, a national forest, set aside for preservation and beauty.  That was, until fracking.

 

Public lands have a long history of exploitation. Our present model of public lands makes no sense to me.  It combines ethics of conservation for individuals (don’t touch it, leave no trace, don’t interact with it, stay on the paths) with plenty of opportunity for exploitation for companies and corporations (logging,  fracking, bottling water, and other activities are OK).  For example, I’m not supposed to pick any wild blueberries, but logging companies can come in and log 15,000 acres sustainably on those same lands.  The gas and fracking wells here strip the land all around the well, making roads, bringing in heavy machinery, which requires clear cutting, and then maintain the wells by spraying all around the wells with chemicals every few weeks.   The wells themselves, of course, are subject to spillage.  When you get within 20 feet of a well, with it’s toxic and keep away signs, the well really stinks.  I have seen this firsthand both with traditional gas wells as well as fracking wells.  Traditional gas wells are smaller, but still have this kind of cutting and spraying.  Fracking wells are much larger, and take up a lot of space for roads, clearings, etc.

 

One older version of a public lands model used the framework of the commons. A commons, at least in Western heritage, developed in several places, including in feudal England. A commons may have been owned collectively or by one person, but each person had “rights” with regards to the common–most often these included grazing rights, foraging rights (for food, firewood), fishing rights, and so on.  But today, we might re-envision the idea of a commons as a place where all of us (including plants and animals) have rights, and those rights include the right to life and the right to spend time there. If these are common lands, owned by the public–that is, you and me–than it seems that personal profits, like through fracking, are simply unacceptable.  We all have a stake in these public lands and their long-term preservation for ourselves, for the land’s inhabitants, and for future generations of all life.

 

Reason #3: Fracking has severe implications for health of people and lands far and wide. On the broadest sense, the issue of fracking matters because, in permaculture design terms, it is an ethical issue spanning both people care and earth care. Obviously, the most immediate issues are the health challenges for those humans, plans, animals, birds, insects, etc who live immediately around the wells, and those humans who work at the wells. This has all kinds of implications: we know fracking chemicals are radioactive, we know they are linked to severe health effects, and they have tremendous impact on the land (air pollution, water pollution, earthquakes, and more). We also know that not nearly enough research has been done exploring these implications and connections due to a host of factors, many of which span from unknown and propriety chemical mixes in fracking water.
And yet, despite the lack of lots of research, the health issues (human, environmental) are are well known, and severe. They are also common sense–dumping billions of tons of chemicals, poisons, and radioactive wastewater into any ecosystem is a sure way to make that ecosystem sickly. A lot of people think that these issues are only connected to local ecosystems, but that’s not the case–see my next few points.

 

Reason #4: Water Flows. The ethical and health challenges are not limited to where the fracking happens.  Water flows, and water cycles. How far, for example, will those fracking chemicals travel from waterways here in Western PA and other parts?  Nearly all of our rivers here flow into the Ohio River, which flows into the Mississippi, which flows into the Gulf of Mexico. The other hot spots of fracking include North Daktoa (also traveling into the Mississippi by way of the Missouri), Oklahoma and Texas (much of which is flowing into the Red River, also flowing into the Mississippi).  This means, at multiple points, the waterways are being tainted, eventually ending up in the ocean. Of course, if you are in California, they just dump it right into the ocean or put it on crops (see below). But even if the trillions of tons of wastewater is injected deep in the ground, as it continues to be, there is growing concern that it is very likely not to stay there. Currently, over 30 trillion tons of fracking wastewater sits now beneath our lands, in our aquifers, they may remain poisoned for hundreds of years.

 

I don’t have to tell you, dear readers, that water is sacred, that water is life.  When we poison those waters, what are we left with?

 

Reason #5: Your Food is Possibly being Grown with Fracking Wastewater

How many fruits, vegetables, or nuts have you eaten from California lately?  How many have been labeled organic?  A number of recent articles has uncovered that due to the drought in California, and the increasing challenges oil companies have in disposing their hazardous fracking wastewater, they have instead sold it to farmers to irrigate their crops–including some certified organic farmers.   So in addition to poisoning the waterways, we are also poisoning the soil.  This whole thing terrifies me–we still don’t know what is in the fracking wastewater (see #7, below), and I can’t imagine that any cleaning process really has the ability to clean it fully.

 

Reason #6: Fracking, Mental Health, Spirituality, and Spending Time in Nature. As many have noted, mental health is in a crisis in developed nations, certainly in the USA. A growing number of people have argued that at least a portion of the mental health crisis has to do with the stress in living in a crumbling world and learning to accept that reality. Even if you aren’t explicitly reading or thinking about it, a lot of us know, intuitively, that something is very wrong and that stress manifests mentally in a variety of ways.

 

Close up of park trails - look at all those wells!

Close up of park trails – look at all those wells on public land!

This is part of why returning to nature, and seeking spiritual connection with nature, is so important.  In the words of the bumper sticker on my car: “trees are the answer.” Scientists, who often “discover” truths that those following earth-based spiritual paths already know–and nature certainly heals. You may have recently come across the articles about “nature” as the prescription to the mental health woes plaguing so many people in industrialized settings.  Of course, we druids and earth-based spiritual folks already know this–this is why we spend so much time in nature–it is good for the spirit, the mind, the body, and the heart.

 

But what happens if we can no longer go seek solace in nature? What happens  when you head to public lands, which is where many of us go, and instead, find gas and fracking wells there? I’ve experienced this firsthand so often (and for reasons why, I refer you to the first graphic I posted with this blog). To me, the saddest thing at present is that it’s nearly impossible to enjoy local natural areas without being near gas wells–it seems impossible to have an “escape” from all of it.  You know, where you can go, hike a bit, relax, let the mind settle, and just regain some peace and balance from this insane world being only among the trees.  In my current reality, I go for a walk, and ever 10 or so minutes, I come across another stinky well.  I had this happen to me just last week at a local park, and literally every time I enter most of the parks around here. For a direct example, you can see a full PDF of the map of the park I recently visited at this link; I’ve also included a screenshot above.   If you look at the map, you’ll notice the prominent “Gas Wells.” I’ll note that these are not deep injection wells here, but older gas wells. Other parks do have deep injection wells in the area that I’ve come across. If nature is a place of relaxation and solace, that is simply impossible if our forests are covered in gas wells (and gas roads, and underground gas lines, ec). Nearly all the parks in my area are full of them.  I’ll write more about this issue and its connection to spiritual life in an my second post.

 

I think there are serious implications for not only the mental health, but the spiritual life, of people who live in these areas.  Nature is no longer a sacred sanctuary, but a constant reminder of many of the challenges we face in the world.

 

Reason #7: Regulations are Minimal or Non-Existent (and violated)

One of the big challenges is that fracking happened very quickly, science happens slowly, and the regulations that do exist are woefully out of date.  At this point, we still don’t even know what is in most of the fracking wastewater mixes.  We don’t know if it’s safe to dispose of them as they have been (injection wells). What w do know is that government regulators have repeatedly looked the other way; have taken few steps to do anything to protect the land or her people from these real dangers.

 

In PA, one in six fracking sites have violations (or even more, in some states), and the implications of those violations are severe.  As Jeff Inglis writes in Fracking Failures, there is a lack of regulatory practices, and when regulatory practices exist, they are frequently violated.  He writes, “Fracking is an inherently polluting practice…The evidence bears this out. As demonstrated in this report, fracking operators in Pennsylvania regularly violate essential environmental and public health protections. Even key industry players who have pledged to clean up their acts are still breaking the rules and damaging the environment.”

 

As someone who walks a nature-centered path, I believe that it is my sacred responsibility to protect the land, to be a guardian, a healer, and an ambassador. As part of that work, I feel I must not turn a blind eye towards this. If we don’t pay attention, if we don’t ask questions, if we don’t exert pressure–who will?

 

Reason #8: The Opposition to Silence

I started to write on this topic (not sure if it would ever make it into my blog) because of the silence, even from the progressive folks, on the matter.  Of course it’s not something I want to talk about, or want to deal with, but the implications of this aren’t just about me.  They are about all of the land, waterways, and life, everywhere. I’ve written on the issue of silence before, and in this case, the silence is deafening.  People here don’t talk about the wells that are literally outside their backyards, smack dab in the middle of their community garden, all through their farmlands, through their parks, and behind their schools.  Its like we have turned a blind eye to the fact the wells are even present, that they are a non-issue here.  And so, I break the silence.

 

Now I want to be clear–this stuff is everywhere, and there are millions and millions of tons of fracking wastewater.  I also want to note that this is just what has been reported, what we actually know.  The scary thing to me is that there’s a whole bunch of stuff we don’t know: what’s in the wastewater, what are the long-term implications; how long whatever is in it lingers in the soil….if you eat, if you breathe, if you drink water–this is a concern.

 

 

I hope, at this point, that it is clear why paying attention to fracking as a “close up” problem matters, and why we all have a stake in this issue.  I’ll be talking a lot more in my next post in this series about what this, and other kinds of energy exploitation, does to damage human-land connections and the energetic implications of this work.

 

 

The Sound of Silence: Mass Extinction and the Music of the World February 2, 2015

I recently came across an article from The Guardian in 2012 detailing the work of scientist Bernie Krause, who has spent his life recording sounds of nature. Krause’s major finding is simple: the loss of biodiversity, from the depths of the reefs to the rain forests, can be clearly tracked by listening to audio recordings over a 40-year period. He reports that he now hears deafening silence in so many ecosystems that once teemed with life. The article detailed his book, The Great Animal Orchestra. I bought the book, compelled to read more, the cryptic words of Simon and Garfunkle’s Sound of Silence echoing in my ears. This blog post is a bit different than some of my others, in that it is simply a response, a real and human response, to the growing sound of silence upon our landscape.

 

In restless dreams I walked alone
Narrow streets of cobblestone
‘Neath the halo of a street lamp
I turned my collar to the cold and damp
When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light
That split the night
And touched the sound of silence

When I was a child and teen, I embraced dystopian science fiction. Authors like Ursula K. LeGuin, E.M. Forrester, Aldus Huxley, Marge Piercy, Suzette Hagen Elgin, and George Orwell enthralled me and horrified me with their tales of dark futures, where humanity was oppressed and the land stripped bare. But these were just stories, I’d think to myself. And growing up in the late 80’s and early 90’s, they really did seem to be stories–we had plenty of resources, this was America’s heyday, when everything was booming. Of course we were were protecting the land as we grew and prospered, there were no costs to our progress…at least, that’s what we keep being told.  But these tales often made me wonder–what was the cost? And how quickly were we headed to a future, say, like what Marge Piercy describes in Oryx and Crake?  Perhaps faster than I realized.

When I was 14, I witnessed firsthand of the destruction of the ecosystem of my own beloved forest in the name of profit. I remember the deafening roar of the loggers’ machines as they pillaged that forest. I remember the eerie silence in the weeks following their departure, and the devastated landscape they left in their wake. Where a once-vibrant forest stood–and chirped, buzzed, skittered, and slithered–only silence remained.

And in the naked light I saw
Ten thousand people, maybe more
People talking without speaking
People hearing without listening
People writing songs that voices never share
And no one dared
Disturb the sound of silence

The silence of the forest after it has been logged, or the silence of the reef after it has been bleached, is only one kind of silence–there is another, just as tragic, in our own conversations as a culture and as a species. The silence that pervades us is a silence of fact, of truth, and of reality. We hear people talking without saying anything–the nightly news and national media do their best to continually report on nothing of substance, all day and all night long. When they attempt to address an issue of real substance, it is reported is a shallow husk of reality. The narrative we hear from those who speak loudly is that everything is fine and will continue to be fine, that mass extinctions don’t matter, that we can continue to pillage and plunder. Chris Hedges does a brilliant job in identifying these issues in his Empire of Illusion.

When people do hear about the work of scientists like Bernie Krause, they do not listen. They make excuses. They close off their ability to comprehend what is actually being said, or attack the credibility of science or or a scientist’s character in order to protect and preserve that their own internal mythologies. I think about the final comments of the authors of The Limits to Growth when they say that, despite the massive amount of evidence they compiled and presented, they weren’t heard at a regional, national, or international level. They, too, could not have conversations because the conversations were not able to be had. But they could talk and work locally, and that gave them hope. Still, so many others, also silenced.

And the silence is becoming institutionalized. And now, parts of the legislative branch in the USA are working to silence science. North Carolina passed a law in 2012 that effectively bans the use of scientific data in making predictions about sea level rise. Congress just this past year made it illegal for the Pentagon to address climate change and told them to ignore that it was occurring. Our very governments, those that are supposed to protect the people, are instead, protecting their own silence. And its not just our government–we, too, often turn away from the things we don’t want to hear, from the realities we face. We, too, offer silence.

“Fools”, said I, “You do not know
Silence like a cancer grows
Hear my words that I might teach you
Take my arms that I might reach you”
But my words, like silent raindrops fell
And echoed
In the wells of silence

Even as someone who has a Ph.D. in rhetoric and composition, who teaches effective writing as my profession, I am at a loss about how to address the silence, how to engage in conversations that enact real change. I’ve certainly taken my best step at some analysis of the tools we could use to address humanity’s current predicament on my little corner of the web. Still, I don’t know how we can break the silence of a larger system where power and privilege control nearly all dialogue and discussion. I, too, like so many of you, feel silenced.

 

Truthfully, in reading and reflecting upon the research of Bernie Krause and others like him, I am struck by the enormity of the loss of life that is occurring, of the silence that remains behind. I think about the little things I am doing in my life, the things I talk about on this blog, and I know they aren’t enough. But the really truly difficult things, like better options for transportation and housing, are still out of my reach at this point, partially because of lack of resources and partially because of the laws themselves. I make excuses, like I just did, and wonder what the best way to actually move forward is. I question how I can even be part of the system at all. I get upset, and angry, and frustrated with myself for my lack of real response. I engage in internal dialogue with myself….and get tripped up at this point…because I’ve just written two paragraphs that say, I don’t know, and I have nothing more to offer. From the outside, all one would hear is my silence. Meanwhile, the broader echoes reverberate in Bernie Krause’s recordings and the silence grows with each extinction and tree felled.

And the people bowed and prayed
To the neon god they made
And the sign flashed out its warning
In the words that it was forming
And the sign said, “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
And tenement halls”
And whispered in the sounds of silence

All the while, we worship the the neon gods, bowing to them and honoring them with our time, energy, and passion. But the neon gods cannot grow our food; the neon gods cannot provide us with water, or shelter, or warmth. In fact, the neon gods provide us with nothing that we actually need to survive. But they can certainly fill our minds with distractions so that we can’t hear the growing silence. Perhaps its time we turn away from the neon gods long enough to start to listen and to understand, on multiple levels. Perhaps its time to break that silence.