A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
I never order trout in a restaurant. Though I was tricked once by neat rows of trout on ice at my local fish market. Never again. Their taste, at best, only a vague resemblance to what I’d grown up with.
My dad always carried the fish he’d caught in an old wicker creel. Straight from a mountain stream to our kitchen. Brookies, he called them, which I discovered later are the Pennsylvania state fish. These red speckled trout went from creel to newspapers at the kitchen sink for cleaning. Then my mother rolled them in corn meal and sautéed them in butter in a cast iron pan as old as my dad’s creel.
“The best meals I’ve ever had,” my niece once said of the delicate smell and taste of the sweet trout from those long ago lunches. That this tribute came from a granddaughter who later turned vegetarian makes me smile.
When I was old enough to walk the creek, I learned to fish in Double Run, my dad’s favorite spot. A mountain stream of white waterfalls, flat rippled stretches, and deep pools, it runs frothing down the hillside into Loyalsock Creek, which drains into the Susquehanna River, the center of one of the largest watersheds in the country. This, then, empties into the Chesapeake Bay, and from there into the Atlantic Ocean.
This afternoon, a grey day in late September, my adult daughter and I are near the end of a five-hour drive back to where I grew up. As we start up the valley , the mountains around us feel like old friends. Today, though, there is something different. The winding road, usually deserted, is full of traffic. A steady stream of pick-up trucks and tankers rolls along just barely keeping to their side of the narrow road.
“What’s going on?” Jessie asks.
“Frackers,” I say. Quitting time on a Friday afternoon, the workers are streaming out of their natural gas drilling sites for the weekend. Bumper to bumper traffic in a rural area that has always had just one traffic light for the whole county. Clearly, there are changes ahead.
“More wet weather coming,” the rental manager says when she checks us in. “That flood last week from the storms, and now there’s more rain.” She hands us keys to the small stone cottage we are renting that sits on a privately-owned parcel of fields and woods. “Call if you need any more firewood,” she adds. “And don’t be surprised if you hear a helicopter buzzing around in the morning. It’s the frackers.”
I open my mouth, then close it again. There are at least two sides to the word. Ironically, this undeveloped area is eager for jobs, including those with fracking. But the area also relies heavily on tourist trade, people drawn to the pristine beauty of these mountains. Raising the possibility of a disastrous collision somewhere down the road.
‘Stop this!’ I want to say. But I don’t live here anymore, and people who do seem to feel I have lost my right to object to this fracking invasion. Nonetheless. I worry about the pressurized fluids the frackers inject into the ground, a sort of slurry of water and chemical additives (some still unidentified to the public). Particularly when I am right here – in the mountains.
In the morning, it’s raining, the kind of steady rain that usually signals an all-day affair. No matter, we put on our raingear and drive down to World’s End. In the center of this state park, orange traffic signs close the road to the town below. Through the drizzle, I can make out thick trees and saplings along what used to be the edge of the creek now toppled sideways or into the water. The flooding from the unusual pattern of heavy storms has pushed the creek banks back, leaving thick deposits of rock and gritty dirt on top of what had been a green forest floor. And some of the heavy wooden tables where we often picnicked are now tipped on their side, others flipped completely upside down, carried distances by the surging water.
“Look!” Jess points to the lower end of Double Run, where it empties into the Loyalsock. “The trail’s closed.” The trunk of an uprooted, thick hemlock blocks the path as frothy water roars down the creek bed.
Heading back to the road, I remember a picture from a time when my dad brought Jessie and her brother as preschoolers to this same spot. A picture that now sits on my son’s bookcase back home. Over the years, it has survived two moves though Chris only sees it now on his visits home for holidays. My daughter, in her little blue jacket, stands beside her even then taller twin brother, both of them grinning as they hold up their catch.
Congruently, there is (somewhere) a small black and white picture of me, about that same age, fish proud, with my thumb stuck in the gills of a Double Run trout. And from further back in time, in a family album, another black and white photo, my dad looking much younger than I ever remember seeing him. Striking a cocky young man sort of pose, pipe in mouth, showing off his catch of the day.
Sunday morning, the rain has stopped. I pour coffee, then lay kindling for a fire. An odd, out-of-place sound registers, a distant humming, first faint then more distinct. It grows into a loud mechanical buzzing that thunders right overhead. The frackers.
I run outside. A silvery helicopter is tacking back and forth over the fields beside the cottage, a thick cable suspended from its belly. The cable hangs straight down with a rectangular metal box attached to the bottom, a box that stays smoothly horizontal just yards above the ground. Sensing equipment. Looking for more places to drill.
“Go away . . . Go away,” I yell, arms waving over my head. The whirring buzz drowns me out, but I keep on. I frantically jog in place, shifting to face the helicopter. But it is oblivious; its path does not change. It continues back and forth over the fields. Then whirls around and heads down over the hill, its sound fading to a muted buzz, then silence.
My daughter stands in the cottage doorway. “Oh, Mom,” she says.
I hug her and weep.
The flood damage we saw yesterday along the creeks was bad. But over the years this area has survived flooding, hurricanes and even a tornado. The land and waters have always righted themselves, proving their ability to absorb and repair damage from these sometimes strong but natural events.
But fracking feels different. Unknown. Even with all its scientific data, man is at the helm. Not nature.
Aldo Leopold wrote, decades ago, in his classic Sand County Almanac:
“Like winds and sunsets, wild things were taken for granted until progress began to do away with them. Now we face the question whether a still higher ‘standard of living’ is worth its cost in things natural, wild, and free.”
In my mind I see my dad, creel still in hand, pausing only a moment before he answers.
By Jacqueline F. Robb