The End of Country is like many other books that have surfaced in the last five or so years on the scarcity of true wilderness and the abuse of natural resources resulting from corporate greed. Seamus McGraw’s story is frightening, even apocalyptic; after all, Nature’s resources are finite. But it needs to be told and, for many residents in Upstate New York like me, its subject is increasingly relevant.
“Hydro-fracking” is the hot topic of the Northeast and, as McGraw so emphatically expresses in his first book, anger, fear and desperation make for an explosive climate (pun intended). Whether America likes it or not, hydraulic fracturing is here to stay. We are a nation desperate to eliminate foreign dependency on fuel and yet refuse to reduce our increasingly burdensome need for energy. New sources are imminent and natural gas is slated to provide.
Rather than preaching the benefits and perils of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, McGraw shows the reader its complexity. Glimpsing into McGraw’s family history and delving into the lives of his neighbors, of landowners in Dimock, of historic oil barons and gas innovators, of geologists, and of academics, the reader pulls from the facts and figures a story about individuals who had the dumb luck to own property on top of a natural gas deposit. The Marcellus Shale brings with its wealth a lot of promises, all overshadowed by greed, reluctance, fear, and distrust. There are many players shaping Pennsylvania’s land as well as the future of American energy. There’s the geologist from Penn State that added fuel to the fire of corporate land leasing. The skeptical quarryman just trying to get by and enjoy the seclusion his wooded home offers – and that the gas companies take away. The teacher who moves to the country to build her dream house and agrees to lease her land, hoping to be on the crest of a movement towards cleaner, environmentally friendly fuel. The dozens, perhaps hundreds, of farmers on the brink of losing their land and to whom gas company money is a god-send, a payout that offers their family and future generations more time. Dozens more whose histories with the land (or lack thereof) shape their ultimate decision let the gas companies in and the drilling commenced. And yet all of them wish they did their homework and wonder if they made a mistake.
McGraw bemoans “the end of country” without passing judgment on those who, directly or indirectly, helped the drilling process along. He shows that most of the time people are struggling to make ends meet and to survive. And this survival story, the conflict between preserving the land and ensuring its conservation as gas companies drill and dig and hack away at it, is the book’s most compelling and powerful narrative. The decision to allow natural gas drilling on one’s land is not as simple as greed or environmental stewardship. There is no dichotomy, no black and white – except when a committee of landowners decides to go head-to-head with the drillers for overstepping their bounds and behaving negligently. The landscape is grey and, like the Pennsylvanian land in which the Marcellus Shale and its pockets of gas rest, there are multiple layers worth exploring. Unfortunately for McGraw and the other landowners with signed gas company leases, the ground is always shifting. Figuratively and literally.
Out of all this rich, colorful, albeit occasionally repetitive narrative, McGraw offers his reader’s one caveat to sum up the experience: make your profit but protect the land. He argues for caution, oversight and control. Allow gas companies to push the land to its limit but don’t let them destroy it as coal miners once did, damaging the land beyond repair. His wish, a soft whispering in the turn of the pages, is for fellow man to rise above corporate greed and recall the workman’s instincts that facilitated survival in a rougher, tougher, simpler time. Yes, this wish is buoyed by banal notions of America’s early pioneers. However, it is also endearing and nostalgic. It’s a wish fulfillment that in an age of $4-a-gallon fuel prices and prolonged foreign conflict is more genuine than trite. Take from the land but don’t forget to give something back – like time, respite and fertility – suggests Ken Ely, one of many landowners for whom McGraw creates a heroic persona.
McGraw’s project, from the very beginning, is educational. Smart decisions need to be made and the environment needs to be safeguarded. The impression is sad but realistic: make the most of a bad situation. Along the lines of that “old saw” in farm neighborhoods of his family’s, McGraw counsels, “It’s not how hard of a punch you can throw, it’s how hard of a punch you can take.”
McGraw wants Americans to take a gut-busting punch. And then get up, wheezing, to labor and toil once more so that there is something to pass on to the next generation. Wholeheartedly, I agree.