Fracking is a big business, but there are some things money can’t buy. A farmer’s son calculates the rate of inflation for ecological sorrow

General Objective:
The students will learn about the impact of wildlife on agricultural crops through firsthand observation.

Background Information:
The focus of this field experience will be to estimate the impact of wildlife on a standing crop of corn. Recognizing that the damage begins as soon as the crop is planted, the study may begin as soon as the seeds germinate and end as the crop is being harvested. Some background information required for this study follows:

1 acre = 43,560 square feet
Seed distribution = 25,000 seeds per acre
Expected germination = 95%
Average yield of corn = 200 bushels of ear corn/acre
Average value of corn = $2.50 per bushel (*1998 prices*)
Cost to prepare ground, plant, and harvest = $225 per acre (*1998 prices*)

— Gary M. Ferrence, Fundamentals of Environmental Biology, 3rd Edition

On a mid-November day warm for the week before Thanksgiving, a breeze reminiscent of spring, or, perhaps, the last breath before autumn gives way to winter, blows across the brown-dried prairie grasses of the upper fields, the blades rustling, or murmuring, or remembering. I am walking the northern edge of the field, near the rusting highway fence that separates the farm from the bypass, cars hurtling by. Higher up, in the forest capping the farm, trees muffle the highway sounds. The fine ribbon of another bypass shimmers through the sun haze, the rush of those cars, too, carried by the winds. Rushing all around, the grasses whisper an echo of the highways, or, I hope, a counterpoint. Gunshots ring in the distance, too, sporadic, measured— hunters sighting-in rifles for the first day of deer season, a week away.

Knotted and clumped and tethered in the grasses, and through the tree line that separates the farm from the neighboring Christmas tree plantation, orange plastic ribbon flaps in the breeze. It’s everywhere. Survey tape, markers from a gas exploration company, Marcellus crews in the county to measure, prepare, make ready the land for mighty thumper trucks and dynamite charges and other rumblings covered by the term “seismic testing.” They have been here, have walked the farm along the same route I walk, and not long ago. At the highest point of the farm, I find slats of rough pine, with black numbers Magic-Markered across the top, pounded into the prairie grass, into the farm’s old cornfields, which my father reclaimed a few years ago from the interval of crops into the regular cover of primeval meadow. Tall grasses, wildflowers, pine spikes with black numbers, and, here, too, plastic survey tape driven by wind. The stakes signal where boxes should be placed, devices that will measure the vibrations of the explosions, will create an artificial echoing eye that sees the layers of Devonian deposition from the ancient Acadian Mountains. The explosions will gaze upon long-ago seas, now turned gaseous and valuable. The plastic survey tape traces the waves of that ancient shoreline, is meant (or hoped) to signal something simple: dig here.

The pine spike pulls free easily, straight up from the prairie. I windmill it into the breeze- blown grasses. The pine spike flips end over end then disappears into the dry grasses, gone, futilely gone because there are dozens more, pine spikes and plastic survey tape commanding someone to thump here, dig here, all will be well here. I am surrounded by the gunshots, the wind, the roads, two highways, bypasses around the farm and the town and Appalachia, asphalt rivers for the heavy rigs and thumper trucks and drilling crews and money, maybe, for a while. The wind, still gentle. This last touch of autumn. This coming winter. This period when prairie grasses are dry enough to spark and burn.

Three hundred and seventy-five million years ago, the tectonic plates shifted, and various continents and subcontinents smashed into each other with enough slow-driven force to instigate the Acadian orogeny. This is the birth of a mountain range, the slow-gathered energies of tension squeezing rock together, slinging some up, tunneling others beneath, until a great ridge begins to rise from the flatness. These were once mighty mountains, high and craggy and snow-capped, and rivaling anything the younger Rockies boast. The Rockies are at most only 80 million years old, more or less fresh, and have not yet experienced the hundreds of millions of years of weather and wind that have smoothed out the Appalachians—years during which rock entrapped and overlapped organic matter, which, over time, formed the valuable mineral resources we know as the industrial markers of the region: coal and natural gas and even oil deposits.

The oil has long since played out, and the coal industry has followed its own cycles of boom and always, eventually, bust. In the part of Appalachia where I grew up, southwestern Pennsylvania, the big days of coal ended in the 1970s. A few small companies still run: mostly non-union, small-scale underground operations and various strip mine enterprises that peel back the trees to scrape away the remaining coal.

Now, in my birthplace, attention has turned to the pockets of organic matter trapped in a layer of black shale known as the Marcellus Formation. That shale formed early in the Acadian orogeny, as a byproduct of erosion. Sediments flowed into the massive ocean that lay in the Appalachian Basin, and this proto-shale trapped plankton and other organic matter, which eventually became the gas that has brought prospecting companies and dreams of financial booms to relieve forty years of bust.

Generally speaking, the gas is deep. And getting to it involves technological innovations: deep drilling and sideways drilling and the process called “hydrofracturing.” The gas must be released from the shale before it can enter the well pipes. Drillers pump massive quantities of high-pressure water down the hole, mixed with various chemical blends that fissure the rock. The blends themselves are trade secrets, kept that way by law in Pennsylvania; the lists of chemicals used include things like guar gum and naphthalene and isopropanol and hydrochloric acid. The lists of chemicals don’t include other names, either because they’re not in the mix or because they are, of course, trade secrets. Sometimes things go wrong with the drilling, and there has been no shortage of attention to wells gone bad, and streams that can be set on fire, and the clandestine ways of an industry poised to make a ton of money on a ton of gas.

This is all quite familiar, and not just because the potential economic benefits and potential environmental dangers of fracking are a common discussion around here. Instead of money and environment, however, I am thinking of what Kentucky writer Silas House has to say about the contemporary disaster of surface coal mining:

The big misconception about mountaintop removal is that it’s an environmental issue. Well, of course it is, but more importantly, it’s a cultural issue. So let’s take into account what we already know about the environmental devastation caused by mountaintop removal and not talk about that. Instead, let’s talk about the way it threatens this place we all know and love. I want to look at the way mountaintop removal threatens our storytelling tradition, and our pride. We talk a lot these days about “a sustainable economy.” But what about being a sustainable people, a sustainable culture? Those things are just as important.

I think about how the spoiling of lives happens so often in places considered second-rate, like Appalachia. That our mountains are fracked is certainly related to the kind of cultural power we don’t carry; we never quite catch a break in the national circulation of stereotypes. Hillbillies, we are called, misfits of the mountains.

Yet, as it turns out, the mountains where the Marcellus happens to lie are not mountains at all but instead a “dissected plateau.” Here, the appearance of mountains has been acquired only through the erosion of the Allegheny Plateau, the rivers and streams digging ever downward. We live in an area where relief is produced not by uplift but through degradation. If this isn’t a metaphor, I don’t know what is. All that we have comes from erosion.

I walked through the upper fields of the family farm, at first, in a nostalgic stupor, entranced by November weather that mixed hope and doom. It was warm enough to be spring, and the rustle of wind encouraged the illusion of coming good weather instead of the last twitch of autumn. I found myself thinking about growing up on the farm, about how I long for empty acres to roam now that I live within the borders of a small city two and a half hours to the north.

My trance soon ended, however, anger replacing wonder as I began to notice the scraps of plastic tape strewn about like the worst kind of litter or vandalism. The tape approximated the borders of the property, and I came to realize that the survey primed the farm for seismic testing. Permission had no doubt come from one of the previous owners, who had retained subsurface rights when they sold the farm to the people who sold the farm to my parents. Because of the separation of land ownership and mineral rights, my parents had no say in drilling or mining or exploration. Throughout my childhood, there were two gas wells on the farm, the traditional straight-bore, old-school sort. No need to fracture shale for these, as they just sucked up the gas from relatively shallow deposits, one in the middle of the steepest sledding hill in the lower pasture, the other in the upper fields just around the corner from my father’s hunting stand.

A few summers ago, the owners of the farm’s subsurface rights elected to sink a few more of these traditional gas wells, and for several months, earthmoving trucks scraped out a road built from rock on the property, cleared well-pads, ran heavy equipment, set off explosives, then installed three large green brine tanks atop three new wells in three formerly untouched spaces on the farm. Unable to block the wells, my father fought for the only rights left for a landowner: so-called fair compensation for affected surface. He got free gas for the farmhouse, and in the end, the driller paid him: $34.50 for each tri-axle load of shale pulled from the farm, about a tenth the market price of driveway gravel; $5,000 per well to cover damage, meaning loss of acreage to pads and access roads and pipeline right-of-ways; $1,000 for timber destroyed during the drilling; and $1,250 for the loss of five mature fruit trees.

These numbers form the truest accounting of ecological responsibility as measured by extractive industry. Land, flora, environment become finite numbers. Within the equation of gas exploration, a fruit tree is worth $250, which is a value consistent with nursery prices or, at least, with the cost of buying a mature fruit-bearing tree. Yet not every variable can be included in the equation. What of the decades of lost fruit, of the seed propagating forests, of the habitat coverage for small mammals, the nesting ground for birds, the food for birds and deer, the deer providing food for coyote? Overall, what of the way a single tree fits into the complicated matrix of an ecosystem? What of soil stability and oxygen production and shade and all sorts of things that aren’t really directly economic and are therefore (in such an accounting) not rational and therefore unimportant? Two hundred and fifty dollars covers it. And $5,000 covers the fracturing of habitats in well-pad clear-cuts, as well as the disruption of soil when pipelines are buried and the perpetual risk of pipeline failure.

I am, above all else, expressing an aesthetic loss. These monetary values are assigned to the farm where I grew up, and to me, there’s considerable insult when a certain number of dollar bills becomes the standard by which I am forced to assess the now permanent industrial odor that lingers near each well and the loss of, say, the place I first awkwardly kissed a neighbor girl. I understand, as well, that it is easy to dismiss the impracticality of my professed loss. I am mourning something intangible in the face of industrial progress and the American way of life. All I care about are trees and the culture of the forest and a world defined by something other than economy. Yet, this is, to me, the crux of our current global environmental peril: capitalism, having long ago won the war of ideology, has morphed into a very specific and narrow worldview. Value is rarely considered without economy. We measure things in currency—dollars mostly, sometimes euros, progressively the yuan, but always within the metrics of deferred barter.

“We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us,” Aldo Leopold writes, and I cannot keep from applying his mid-century, surprisingly countercultural thinking to the family farm and to fracking and to the necessity of the value of the aesthetic. Leopold champions what economy ignores: “Our ability to perceive quality in nature begins, as in art, with the pretty. It expands through successive stages of the beautiful to values as yet uncaptured by language.” True, an ocean view or a mountaintop vista can boost property value, but otherwise, the economic focus of contemporary attitudes assigns a null-value to real aesthetics. The presence of a particular insect, for example, does nothing to motivate the real estate agent to market a particular location. More likely, the prohibition of development because of the presence of a particular rare, or perhaps endangered, insect or fern or flower or fish is the opposite of a selling point. Progress and economy blocked by silly pieces of nature. Such is the foolishness of the ecological that we think it worthwhile to consider the merits of things beyond their monetary value.

Near the highest point on the farm, I walked past one of the new wells, this one tucked into a stand of trees whose loss my father particularly lamented. At one time, my wife and I had hoped to build a house there, before we learned we’d both lose the jobs we’d found in the area. For my father, I believe, losing this site was the greatest insult; with it went any hope for grandchildren growing up on the farm or a summer cabin on the back forty or even just the maintenance of the woods my father has walked for decades.

Throughout these woods, small chunks of sandstone and shale have worked their way to the surface over time. I found a suitable specimen then chucked the rock at the brine tank, which rang dully, unsatisfyingly, so unlike a bell. After cutting through the woods past my old treestand, I emerged into the back field and paused to listen—first, to the chatter of winter birds; then, to the background noise of the two major highways visible from the farm. Nowhere, save the now lost building spot, can you escape the sound of rushing cars. I counted, also, the structures on the horizon: one coal-fired power plant, three cell towers, and at least half a dozen radio towers. My mood was souring, some kind of self-righteous indignation mounting even before I considered the string of high-power transmission lines that cut diagonally through the center of the upper fields.

It was in this mood that I found the pine stakes, and it was in this mood that I pinwheeled one of them into the high grasses. However powerless this effort may have been, I felt a certain pride in the removal of the stake. I thought about Ed Abbey and about the scene in Desert Solitaire when he plucks road survey stakes out of Arches National Park (Monument, then) to temporarily block, or maybe only to annoy, those who were mapping the course of a new road. Here, I suppose, lies the true folly of the literary. I considered my act as narratively akin to his, and I remembered Abbey’s origins in my hometown—he was a graduate of my high school, in fact—and my small vandalism made me feel, I guess, Abbyesque and powerful.

Self-satisfied, I walked off the hilltop, down into the fields beside the house, and discovered the work of another crew, this one from the electric company, which had visited a few weeks earlier to reclaim the right-of-way for the high-power lines that cut across the farm. The fields below had begun to return, gradually, to forest since my father took the farm out of cultivation. Annually tilled fields of corn and hay had been ceded to autumn olive, an invasive shrub forming forearm-thick gnarls, which, elsewhere on the farm, my father had recently been working to eradicate; throughout the upper fields, I had come across clearings where his brush hog had splintered and chopped the shrubs away to stumps. Directly beneath the power lines, however, everything had been stripped away. The electric company had brought powerful mowers and leveled a 75-foot-wide swath. Everything had been ground to bare earth. Grass, shrubs, trees—whatever had been there was no more. And, now, I discovered that the path gave an unobstructed view of the power plant, located seven straight-line miles away. From this lower part of the fields, the plant loomed atop the horizon, in a place where it had never been visible before.

In the windbreak between the family farm and the neighbor, the crews had felled several trees of notable size, oak and cherry. The trees had been cut and left behind to rot, which is perhaps the most ecological part of the whole enterprise. It seemed a waste to have the logs just lying there, but at least they would break down to replenish the soil in time. Yet, it was hard to run my fingers along the forty-five rings of the largest cherry and not feel a heavy and personal loss. The rings dated the tree to 1967, which would mean it sprouted in the same year my parents married, thirteen years before they bought the farm. This is a loss that I consider cultural: a tree felled by a sort of ecological colonialism that considers a forty-five-year-old tree only as a hypothetical cost, as a future interference to future profit. The cut made it clear who owns and controls the land, and what surface rights really amount to. All I had to do was look up the hillside or down, following the path cut wide through the fields. Prairie grass and shrub brush can reclaim only so much; a mower claims as it wishes.

Yet, I took it as some small sign of hope that among the fallen logs at the property line, I found a half-chewed corncob and a pile of recent raccoon shit. Some kind of quiet protest perhaps—or at least a recognition of what hasn’t yet been cut away.

Let’s see:

a 75-foot swath about 1,500 feet long = 112,500 square feet = 2.58 acres.

2.58 acres X $225 per acre for tilling, planting, and harvesting = $580.50.

2.58 acres X 200 bushels of corn per acre yield = 516 bushels.

516 bushels X $2.50 = $1,290 dollars gross (in 1998 figures).

$1,290 – $580.50 = $709.50 net annual profit.

Thus, one can calculate the economic-aesthetic loss of the power line cut at just over $700 of despair and lament per year. Maybe add $1,000 for the chopped up timber as a one-time economically expressed sorrow.

If I update numbers imperfectly to 2012:

2.58 acres could be planted with one bag of corn seed, which costs between $200 and $300, depending on whether I want Roundup-ready seed. Say $250.

Applying an inflation calculator to the preparation costs, each acre comes to about $315, multiplied by my 2.58 acres, which would run to $812.70.

Corn prices are up, too, so I’ll yield about $6.50 per bushel X 200 bushels per acre X 2.58 acres = $3,354 gross. (But, wow, economic-aesthetics are complicated; the value of corn shifts each time I revise this essay. By 2013, corn prices had crashed to a bit below $4.50 a bushel. Then they went up. Down. Up.)

$3,354 – $812.70 – $250 = $2,291.30 net profit (or $2,322 – $812.70 – $250 = $1,259.30), which—if despair and lament corresponded with monetary value—would mean I’m apparently 3.23 times sadder to see the clear-cut in 2012 (only 1.77 times sadder in 2013) than I would have been in 1998, which also means that the rate of inflation for ecological sorrow has far outpaced standard economic inflation.

Except, to be fair, in 2012, the fields were just prairie grass, which is a non-market, non-crop. Prairie grass is an economic loss, really. First, there’s the cost of seeding. Roughly, I’d need 12 pounds of seed per acre, X 2.58 acres, so 30.96 pounds of seed. Thirty pounds of native grass seed, bought commercially from an online seed company, like Ernst Seed, a reclamation grass specialist located near where I live now in northwestern Pennsylvania, would run me from $360 for some tall oatgrass to $720 for buffalo grass. Let’s ballpark it at $500. Then I’d have my $812.70 cost for site preparation, which means that producing 2.58 acres of prairie would cost me $1,312.70. I can’t sell it to recoup any of those costs, and I have to spend money mowing the grasses down each year since it isn’t really feasible to burn the prairies to maintain them, as would be the natural way. So, considering fuel for and upkeep of a tractor, I’d probably have to spend $500 a year, forever, just to keep the dang prairie going.

In units of economic-ecological sorrow, then, the power company has done me quite a favor by denuding the right-of-way. Instead of being $709.50 worth of sad at the loss as I would have been in 1998 (or $999.37 of sad, adjusted for inflation), I am $1,312.70 worth of happy—or would be, if I’d been smart enough not to plant in the first place. Still, I’d be saving $500 each and every year.

Furthermore, it’s quite lucky that the clear-cut happened after the land had been taken out of agricultural monocropping and put into non-economic prairie grass, because the ravaged swath of land actually makes for an emotional profit when I calculate the 1998 profit versus the replanting loss for 2012. If I accept the perpetual occupation of the powerline and don’t replant, I can secure a $2,312.01 swing in emotional value, to the upside. Sure, I’d be quite a bit more dollars worth of emotionally distraught if the land had still been in corn, considering the extra profit potential, but it wasn’t. It was just grass and wildflowers and healthy diverse habitat, which would be losing me money. And money is the unit of record here. That’s what I’ve learned, what extractive industry tells me. How else might I measure loss? Money is the only way to accurately render my economic, aesthetic, and emotional reaction to . . . well, to anything. Right?

I turn away from the property line so that my back faces the power plant. Looking uphill along the right-of-way, I pin a massive buck with my eyes. He stands at the horizon, broadside to me. I am close enough to recognize the solidity of his structure, but not close enough to count the antler points. There is no doubt, however, that he is a monster, the kind of animal the valley’s hunters will be vying for when deer season opens next week.

I do not know, yet, how to interpret this as metaphor. He is sky-lined and vulnerable. If I carried a rifle and had the inclination, it would be an easy kill, thanks in no small part to the new opening provided by the power company. I walk toward him, and, eventually, wariness overcomes his bravado. He disappears into the autumn olive, in the ghostly way of deer. My father will later tell me that no one shot that buck through the Pennsylvania deer season, which will surprise me. The neighbors are talented hunters, fair and honorable but relentless when that kind of trophy appears. In my moment on the farm, in the air left quivering by the deer’s sudden arrival and disappearance, I have no idea what will happen to him. In that moment, the metaphor of the farm and gas drilling and coming seismic testing and conversations about what is right and charitable cannot be discerned. There is a deer; then he is gone, his absence marking either destruction or triumph.

About the Author

Matthew Ferrence

Matthew Ferrence teaches creative writing and literature at Allegheny College in northwestern Pennsylvania. His essays have appeared widely, in venues that include Blue Mesa Review, Gulf Coast, and CutBank.

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