Sunday, February 27, 2011

Marcellus Shale: Two Takes, Plus....

Marcellus shale, plus the new kind of gas-bearing shale that has been discovered beneath it in places--is this new fact0r in the life of Pennsylvania (and in 30 other states as well) a godsend or a curse? I have been spending a little time trying to find an answer, and will be sharing any insights I gain with readers. Starting now.
Let me begin, then, by talking about Josh Fox's acclaimed (and vilified) documentary film "Gasland". Fox, who owns a house in at Milantown, PA along the upper Delaware River, first became aware of Marcellus shale and the natural gas "rush" when he was offered somewhat above $100,000 to permit the leasing of his 19- plus acres for natural gas exploration. Surprised, he began to investigate the origin of this offer. He was naturally concerned because he had been born in the house he still lives in and has a deep attachment to it, and to his plot of land.
His research was carried out in the newspapers, in courthouses, and in the homes of fellow Pennsylvanians who had signed leases with gas companies earlier. Eventually his exploration led him far afield--to Colorado, Wyoming, Utah, Arkansas, Texas. He made a film of the things he encountered: sick and despondent people, sick and dying animals, ravaged landscapes, homes so damaged they could never be either lived in or resold, flammable water. He also, in the process, interviewed at least two or three very experienced scientists, whose views ought to count for a good deal. Especially since there is no obvious material benefit for them to hold these unpopular views. There is a hypnotized rush for the perceived benefits of the gas in the shale, and it seems that standing in its way might even be dangerous.
Fox returned home to the Delaware Valley, wondering whether everything he had loved was already lost. He concluded that that was up to the film's viewers. And perhaps it is; we surely should make our best effort to save our heritage. The question is whether we are already too deeply caught in a snare to do so.
This film, then, is the take of the victims--at least, the victims to date. I recommend you see "Gasland" and try to relate to its message. Or at least to understand it. The film is available online for sale, and that is how I got it. It can most likely also be rented on or offline, or borrowed through a library or another organization. Corporations don't like it, and have attacked it. It would be strange if they admired it and promoted it.
Now, here is the take of some people on the other side. Many of them have actually obtained jobs through gas exploration and production in the Marcellus shale. I recommend that you watch this, too. These people were featured on "State of Pennsylvania", a public affairs program on public television station WVIA-TV; the segment is called "Marcellus Shale: Where are the Jobs?" Go to, click on "television," and you should be able to find it online. The program participants, for the most part, have their own stories of stress and loss, from which they now seem to have been rescued--at least temporarily and, I hope, for a good long time. Having known nothing myself but economic stress, I don't ever wish against anyone who seems to have gotten a break.
These, then, are the two takes I promised on Marcellus shale and what goes with it. Now for the "Plus", which is my own take. I am a lifelong student of history, which I find challenging and of endless interest. As such, though, I can hardly remember a time when, at a crossroads like this, humans have chosen wisely. We need jobs, and we need power. Developing this power source can give us both--at least for the time being.
But at what cost? How healthy can it be to lace millions of gallons of water with no fewer than 596 chemicals and then inject the chemicalized water into the soil? Can this result in anything other than the poisoning of the soil and the water? Not to mention the sheer loss of water that will never resurface, a loss to a planet where water is an ever-diminishing commodity.
Who will pay for this loss and destruction? Josh Fox's people, first of all. They are poor, they have no way of defending themselves; and to the"average" American--whoever that is--they may come across as "aging hippies", or some other contemptuous and dismissive name.
(We are so full of such things... )
At any rate, having given them dismissive names, we will no longer have to care about what happens to them.
Union workers we can also dismiss; unions are not popular. Bill Kelly of WVIA did not even try to answer the query of the man who called in asking why union workers could not seem to get jobs. It was a sane question, but Kelly could no more answer it in the context of that particular program than the unhappy Gabrielle Giffords could answer Jared Laughner's crazy question to her.
Let us not forget city dwellers in their millions, the New Yorkers and Philadelphians and Baltimoreans, who certainly will not mind having no water and atrociously expensive food. Or will they?
These are some of the certain losers. Who, then, will profit by this natural gas rush? In the long run, I fear, nobody. In the short run, perhaps corporations and their stockholders. But in the last analysis even executives and stockholders must eat and drink. The triumph of fracking may place such activities beyond the reach of most of us. Even, perhaps, executives and stockholders.
What do I think SHOULD be done, in this crisis of jobs and the environment? We should be investing in new technologies and alternate energy, and putting workers to work in these areas. Only to the extent that these efforts do not generate enough energy or jobs should we delve into the Marcellus shale for what we need. And this should be done only with careful planning and control.

Friday, February 18, 2011

A Small Book about a Great City: Pittsburgh

Recently I heard somebody comment on the radio that "we wouldn't like to be like Pittsburgh." I forget the context--I was just too aggravated to listen to the rest. I have only been able to visit the place once, and that was after the steel mills that for decades had made it famous had already shut down. I found it a pleasant, attractive place, with one of the more spectacular settings of any U.S. city. With what part of this did the radio commentator have a problem? I'll never know, I suppose.
Pittsburgh also happens to be one of Pennsylvania's greatest historical sites. Empires clashed here, and shaped the destiny not only of our nation, but of an entire continent.
It was all because of its location. The future city grew up where two great rivers, the Allegheny and the Monongahela, came together to form a still greater one: the Ohio. Anyone who wanted to control access to the territory west and south of here would need to control this spot, today known by residents as The Point.
In the 18th century two great European powers--Great Britain and France-- were waging a series of what amounted to world wars, hoping to attain land, power, and wealth around the globe. The best-known of these wars, and the one that affected Pennsylvania the most, was the last, which ended in 1763. In Europe it was known as the Seven Years' War, and here as the French and Indian War. During it the entire future Commonwealth of Pennsylvania was a battlefield--and no place more than the western region, around Pittsburgh.
Initial European settlements at The Point were military, as both sides battled for control of the vast territories to the west. First the French established Fort Duquesne. After the British drove them out, Fort Pitt succeeded on the site. It was named after William Pitt, Earl of Chatham, who was the British Prime Minister at the time.
The British, of course, won that war; and the United States later had to tussle with its former mother country to win its own access to the west.
Much of this history has almost been forgotten. But not by Len Barcousky and his employer, the "Post-Gazette" newspaper. And it is not surprising that they have long memories. The newspaper and its antecedents have been around Pittsburgh since 1786, Barcousky in its newsrooms for at least 20 years. For both the institution and the man who works for it these are newspaper careers of unusual length. Especially given the way things are going these days.
Now, for the sake of full disclosure, I'd like to say that Len Barcousky and I have been friends for close to forever, and he has been instrumental in helping me accomplish some of my own work. I am about to plug his recently published book on Pittsburgh, but I am not profiting from it in financial terms. All I have is the satisfaction of helping a friend's good work--which is plenty for me.
"Remembering Pittsburgh" is the name of the book, and it is subtitled "An 'Eyewitness' History of the Steel City". It was made possible by the long-lived and farsighted "Post- Gazette", and seems to have originated as a column. Its pieces, which are based largely on stories in the "Post- Gazette" and its rivals, thus are short. and can be read on an individual basis in just a few minutes. (Probably an asset in our fast-moving times.)
"Remembering Pittsburgh" recalls both the great (Washington, Lafayette, Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt), and the famous of their time, such as brilliant singer Jenny Lind and triumphant woman journalist Nellie Bly. (Bly, originally Elizabeth Cochrane of Armstrong County, had set out on a challenge to beat the hero of Jules Verne's "Around the World in 80 Days" at his own fictional game. She did just that. Her own journey was completed in a mere 72 days.)
The book also chronicles fires, explosions, hangings, and other matters of civic interest and concern. And it does not forget to commemorate the founding of the "Post-Gazette" itself.
This is a wonderful introduction to an American--and Pennsylvania-- city it is too easy to sell short. (As the man on the radio did.) If you are in the Pittsburgh area, it is most easily acquired--so I assume--at an office of the "Post-Gazette". If not, you will find it on, although I had a little trouble locating it there. Look it up under "Len Barcousky".

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Pennsylvania the War Zone II

A young Virginia officer named George Washington began to make a reputation during the French and Indian War, and on Pennsylvania soil. His role in the next war, the Revolution, would continue the process of making his name immortal. His reputation, again, was enhanced by events here in Pennsylvania. Losing a major encounter like the Battle of the Brandywine might not seem a great qualification for immortality--but holding the army together and shepherding it through the grueling winter at Valley Forge do qualify for candidacy.
The War of 1812, our second against Britain, may seem to have little to do with Pennsylvania; but appearances are deceiving. For a time the British blockaded Philadelphia because it was so important an American port. And their attempt to gain control of the Great Lakes--thwarted so ably by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry at the Battle of Lake Erie--was part of an overall strategy to cut Americans off from access to the West.
We are about to enter the 150th anniversary commemoration of the American Civil War, during which Confederate forces burned Chambersburg, threatened Harrisburg, the state capital, and clashed with the Union army in the titanic Battle of Gettysburg. The Union, of course, won.
To date, this has been the most recent experience of warfare on Commonwealth land. I hope it remains the last for a very long time. Pennsylvania has played host to too many hosts already.

Pennsylvania the War Zone

I have mentioned Pennsylvania's long history as a war zone before, but for those 0f you not familiar with the story it may be useful to go over it. If all you know of our state is bustling cities, long vistas of farmlands, forests, or --not to forget--ever-encroaching development, what you are about to learn may be quite a surprise.
We shall never know what wars were waged among the Native tribes before the arrival of European settlers, so let's begin with those European settlers. Seeds of war among the new English colonies were sown back in London, when land grants were drawn up and their boundaries overlapped. So there were wars over boundary issues. These included, most conspicuously, the so-called Yankee-Pennamite Wars, fought between Pennsylvania and Connecticut in Pennsylvania's Wyoming Valley in the 18th century and not settled until after the American Revolution. There were other border struggles with Maryland and Virginia.
From 1755 until 1763 British America was involved in a world war, one of a series between Britain and its European and global rival France. This, the last in the series, was known in Europe as the Seven Years' War, but here as the French and Indian War. At stake on this side of the Atlantic was whether the riches of the North American continent would fall to Britain or to France. Some Native tribes sided with the French, some with the British.
All parts of Pennsylvania were involved in the French and Indian War. Attacks against white settlements by Native warriors flared up everywhere. In 1916 Pennsylvania put out a massive two-volume work called "Frontier Forts of Pennsylvania". You can find some chunks of this online, including maps showing a staggering number of forts and fortifications, online. But much of the action swirled around the present location of Pittsburgh, site first of the French Fort Duquesne and later of the British Fort Pitt. This was a vital place, where the Allegheny and Monongahela Rivers came together to form the Ohio. Whoever controlled this site would control the Ohio and Mississippi Valleys, their trade, and presumably their future. At the end of the French and Indian War and its aftermath, the Native uprising known as Pontiac's Rebellion, the language spoken here at "the Point" was English.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Quiet Valley Living History Farm

Were he living now, Shakespeare no doubt would acknowledge this as a winter of practically everybody's discontent. One antidote may be to contemplate the excursions of the coming, hopefully glorious, summer.
How about Quiet Valley Living History Farm, 1000 Turkey Hill Road near Stroudsburg?
This 100-acre tract is owned by a non-profit organization which is dedicated to preserving Pennsylvania's agricultural heritage, especially in its Pennsylvania Dutch/German manifestation. It is a National Historic Heritage Site, and its fourteen buildings cover the time span from the farm's establishment in the 18th century to the early years of the 20th. It ceased being a family farm around the time of World War I.
It began, though, in another time of world war--the French and Indian War, fought on three continents between England and her allies and France and her allies. It is easy to forget, but Pennsylvania was a battleground in that war. The frontier--which in those days meant the entire province--had been ablaze for decades. When the Zepper family established what later became Quiet Valley--that was in the 1760s-- the conflict was in the process of winding down; but it cannot have seemed that way to people living on the far fringes of English settlement. This would have included the Zeppers.
The first house they built, carving it into a hillside, remains--but as a cellar for the storage of winter vegetables. Today's house was built onto it, and in its turn was added to.
Quiet Valley has special events around the year. You can even arrange for a special wintertime group tour--but you have to make reservations, and if you have been getting the full effect of the current winter, perhaps you will not be interested in leaving the house right now.
Summer is the real excursion time at the Farm--to be exact, from the third Saturday in June through Labor Day. Come and learn about the daily life of a family farm, meet animals ranging from draft horses to ducks and chickens-and even including the somewhat exotic salt-and-pepper colored, loud-mouthed guinea fowl.
There are many ways to get involved with Quiet Valley, beyond the occasional visit. You can become a paid member, take on an important volunteer job, even underwrite food for the farm animals.
Quiet Valley has an attractive and informative web site at For further information, phone (570) 992-6161.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Winter Memories of Pennsylvania

Sorry for the delay between the most recent post and this. A number of things came up, as they tend to do in anyone's life.
I write the morning of the great national winter storm of 2011. News from around the country is a little hard for me to pick up--my radio keeps buzzing out, and I use my television solely for watching movies --but we seem so far to be all right, and I hope no one else is worse off than we are.
I also hope I don't come to regret this upbeat assessment of our own status.
Looking from my window, I can see trees coated with clear ice, and a townscape and landscape barely pushing through a deep blanket of white. Once in a while--a GREAT while, at that-- something moves on the street two blocks away. As a rule it flashes an official light--specifically orange-yellow, which seems to have something to do with snow removal.
I am glad to be indoors, with my books and my cat and my pennywhistle and harmonica. But I remember the country winters of my childhood.
I remember one school snow day in the years I spent on the farm. Just one. We were a farming community, and snow days were a luxury we could not afford. Better to ingrain that into the children while we were young.
And ingrained it was.
Even on normal days I had to walk a mile and a half to school and a mile and a half back. This didn't change when there was a foot of snow on the ground. By the time I walked the half-mile-long dirt road, and the blacktopped road down to Normal Square my "arctics" would often be full of snow, and my feet would be wet all day. Along the walk my hands would lose circulation, encased as they were in their mittens, and I thought I could not bear the pain. I was told by someone to take off my mittens, rub my hands in the snow, and put the mittens back on again. To my delight, this restored warmth at once. Someone else told me it was very dangerous to do this; but I kept doing it and no bad results ensued.
Sometimes, even on such wintry days, we got a break going home. Russell, the farmer who was our landlord, not only ran the 165-acre farm, but had a job as a coal miner in nearby Summit Hill to support his expensive farming "habit." Russell didn't get any snow days either; and once in a while, even through what looked like the White Witch's kingdom, we would hear the sound of his rickety old car coming, racket-y, racket-y, racket-y. That meant a ride the rest of the way home.
And it was good to arrive early back in our home, to the warmth generated by our little coal stove and kerosene heater, and the warm glow of the kerosene lamps.