As I write these words, I look out my window at at rounded, weathered, Appalachian mountain, topped with trees, rising up from behind the houses in my small town. This mountain, and the many others in Western PA, are part of my blood–the nutrients that came from these soils are what built the very structures of my bones. These mountains are where my ancestors walked and toiled; generations and generations of them, going back two centuries (which is quite a long time for the USA) and in one particular family lineage, much much longer. And now, finally, after most of my adult life away, I have returned home. The funny thing is, Western Pennsylvania isn’t exactly a place people are moving to, and in fact, its a place many are running from. The mountain that stands north of my small Pennsylvania town is a nature preserve–and yet, at least a dozen cleared locations, many fracking wells are present there, even in the wild spaces. Heck, the community garden has a well sitting less than 30 feet from the vegetable patches in this town, if that give you a sense of things. These wells are just the newest iteration of the long-abused land’s history: from the logging industry that nearly wiped Pennsylvania’s forests out a century ago to the mining industry who left their toxic mountain-size piles of coal waste and whose long-abandoned mines continue to pollute our streams, to the farmer’s fields that are now so toxic that even the plants on the edges of the roads cease to grow there–it seems there is no end to the toll that this land takes on behalf of the natural resource demands of industry and humanity.
Because of the environmental issues present in PA, I think that some question my move–why did I return to a place with such active fracking and other environmental challenges? Why, especially when more and more stories each day show the seriousness and destructiveness of the practice and the toll on both human life and nature? Why would I endanger myself in that way, when I could have stayed where I was or found another job I would enjoy somewhere else? It is for a simple reason–this is my land and I was called home.
Two months ago, I spent time in New England while I was doing my permaculture design certificate. On my journey there, I stopped in Western New York, at an amazing organic vegetable farm. I had lunch with the farmers, and we spoke of their land and the work they were doing. They revealed that many people were flocking from Pennsylvania to New York to escape fracking, selling their homesteads and farms and starting anew. In a second visit on my trip to New Hampshire, I spent time with a group who was working hard to prevent a natural gas pipeline and compressor station going into their community. When plans for the compressor station were revealed, a number of houses immediately went up for sale on the market, and others I spoke with said that they would be leaving for certain if the station went in.
These issues are hardly unique-the Amish in Ohio and Illinois, who are cashing in and getting out due to the disruption of their lives. I’ve seen firsthand the oil boom in North Dakota and what it did to the communities there. I think about recent reports of horrible environmental devastation in China and those who are helpless just to live in the pollution. The list could go on and on. When I think about stories from around the world, I can’t help but wonder what percent of humans today are facing the issue of living in environmentally degraded land and witnessing, firsthand, that devastation. When we see our lands degraded, or even threatened with such acts (as in the community I describe above), I think one of the big questions to ask is–If I have the capacity leave the environmental destruction where I live now, can I go somewhere that’s better? Or, as in my case, am I willing to move into an area with known environmental destruction?
I don’t think the answer to these questions are simple–not for anyone who faces them. And unfortunately, more and more people ARE facing the harsh reality of environmental devastation at their doorstep. So let’s break down the issues that contribute to how we can better answer these questions if/when the need arises:
First, there is the privilege of being able to leave, which very few actually have. For as many humans as may have the privilege to leave, there are many more humans and others who are forced to stay whether or not they want to. Just as importantly, the land does not have the privilege of leaving; the trees are rooted where they are, the streams ebb and flow in their valleys, the plants grow each year in the soil, and all of the land is exactly where it is. What happens to everything and everyone else when you leave? They are still there.
Second, there is the matter of humans’ existing displacement and a lack of connection to the land we are on. Many people that are alive today, at least in the USA, have decided or been forced to move elsewhere and may already have been displaced 4 or 5 times from the land of their birth. So we also have the issue of living on land that doesn’t resonate with us in the way that our birth lands do. This is not to say that we don’t care about the lands where we end up living–we very much do. But they don’t always feel like “home” and when they aren’t home, its easier to leave them. This problem isn’t a new one. For a long time, people have being displaced from their birth land and with that displacement comes distance–and most importantly, less care and concern. Many modern thinkers (Wendell Berry and John Michael Greer come to mind) have posited that the goals of industrialization were to mechanize labor, to essentially replace people with machines, to concentrate wealth in the hands of the few, and to displace people from their land. And it worked–people flocked to cities for work, and slowly, farmers left or were forced from their farms and those farms were mechanized so many less people were needed to live there and work there. You treat land differently if you think you’ll be on it your whole life, and you’ll pass it onto your children, and your children’s children. The land is not a commodity–its part of the family. Today, we are at an all-time high for people being disconnected from their land–and part of it has to do with these displacements.
Third is the issue of scale. To me, the most important question for those thinking of leaving land that is under threat or actively polluted is simply “How do you know that where you are moving to, in the long term, is going to fare any better?” Part of the issue we face is that climate change and environmental degradation are not local problems. They may manifest differently in local settings, but ultimately, they are a problem on a global scale. Everywhere you live, everywhere you go has something that is harming you and the land; some resource that someone wants to extract, some existing toxins, or some factory or plant producing something. This might be mining, mountaintop removal, acid rain, city pollution and smog, oil extraction, gas fracking, oil pipelines, various industries and abandoned industries, polluted waterways and oceans, Superfund sites, polluted soil, illegal dumping, an unexpected environmental disaster, and so on. Look at the effects of extracting fossil fuel energy–on this continent, at least, we have all sorts of issues that span every state and challenge so many: pipelines, fracking, oil spills, oil wells, offshore drilling, power plants, coal veins and acid mine runoff, and many others. I point to North Dakota as a good example–when I first visited it over 10 years ago, it was a beautiful, serene, and very unpolluted place to be. Now? Its one of the fracking capitals of the USA, and everything is different about it. Could the North Dakotans ever have imagined this radical change over such a short period? I think not. The truth is, that all of us, on a global scale, are facing environmental degradation, likely of multiple kinds and likely over a period of our lives. I’m not convinced that moving anywhere “special” solves the problem–you move away from one thing and move toward something else. I left region plagued with oil pipelines and a lot of leftover toxicity in the soil because of industry and went to a region with acid mine runoff, boney dumps, and fracking. Both have their challenges–and the truth is, anywhere I would move will have its challenges, and things like climate change are affecting us all with increasing intensity.
And so, we come to the precipice and stand on its edge. Behind us, the lands we know and love, being ravaged by something we cannot stop. We maybe have tried, and failed to stop it, or we have learned about it to late to stop it. Before us lay, potentially, options of moving somewhere new, somewhere “better”? Do we stay? Do we bear witness? Do we hold space for this land and share in its fate? Do we leave? Do we even have a choice?
If a choice is available–the choice is for each individual to make.
I’ll share mine: I specifically chose to come back to this very environmentally challenged region because it is the land of my blood and my birth. I was honored that I was able to have the opportunity to choose to come–and I took it.
If I don’t stand for this land, if I don’t hold space for it, if I don’t understand the long history here of humanity’s pillaging of natural resources, if I don’t begin the process of energetic healing and regeneration–who will? We all have choices to make each day and each moment. How we spend our time is particularly critical in a time when our world is hanging on the precipice of so much change–how the world is shaped in the years to come, is largely based on the actions of each of us, today.
People write to me a lot on this blog, and one of the questions I frequently get asked is: how do you develop a deep and spiritual relationship with the land? My response is this: go where you are needed most. Find the most degraded place you can find, a place that really needs you and the healing that you–and possibly only you–can provide. And take a stand on your land. Love that land. Do the healing work there, on the soil, on the rivers, on the waters. Fret not about what you can or can’t accomplish, just do everything that you can. Learn, grow, listen, use your intuition. Mimic the patterns of nature, bring abundance and biodiversity back. Do what it takes. Work with the soil. Understand the soil. Understand everything you can about that land and what is growing there. And most importantly: commit to staying. Our lands need us, to be there, to be present, to do something, even if that something is small. Take a page from the Native Tribes on this continent, so many who see no difference between their identity and their land: they–and their lands–cannot be bought for any price.
To me, this is where the path of of my nature spirituality lies–in really making a commitment to be in and with the land, to understand it, to teach others about it, to heal and regenerate it. Nature is not there just for my benefit–its not there just because I want to have a special relationship with some trees or walk into the forest and be healed. It is not there to please me. Nature gives so much to me, but I believe I must have a relationship with it in order to create a deep spiritual connection. Relationship, by its very nature, implies a give and take. If I want to walk in that forest, or walk up to that tree, and really connect with it, I must treat that forest like any other family member–and when that family member is in need, I must recognize that need, hold space, and be willing to help as I can. I must realize that my actions, each of them, can be sacred actions in communion with that place.
One of my favorite poets and writers is Wendell Berry. A man well ahead of his time, he has been writing about the ramifications of industrialized agriculture long before any others–and he continues to hold a sacred vision of a different kind of relationship with the land. His poem, called “Work Song, Part II: A Vision” deeply inspired my post this week. I close by sharing it here, in its entirety:
If we will have the wisdom to survive,
to stand like slow growing trees
on a ruined place, renewing, enriching it…
then a long time after we are gone
the lives our lives prepare will live
here, their houses strongly placed
upon the valley sides…
The river will run
clear, as we will never know it…
On the steeps where greed and ignorance cut down
the old forest, a new forest will stand,
its rich leaf-fall drifting on its roots.
The veins of forgotten springs will have opened.
Families will be singing in the fields…
native to this valley, will spread over it
like a grove, and memory will grow
into legend, legend into song, song
into sacrament. The abundance of this place,
the songs of its people and its birds,
will be health and wisdom and indwelling
light. This is no paradisal dream.
Its hardship is its reality.
– Wendell Berry