The Machine in the Garden

On Mothers Day this spring, a small group of Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Quakers visited Wellsboro Monthly Meeting in Tioga County with the hope that those of us who live outside the Marcellus Shale drilling area could develop solidarity with those who are experiencing the many negative impacts of natural gas drilling. The organizers called this event "24 Hours in Tioga County."

Our visit to Wellsboro was set into motion the previous year, in September 2010, when the Yearly Meeting approved a minute brought forward by the Upper Susquehanna Quarterly Meeting setting forth their concern about the economic and environmental effects of the Marcellus Shale Play in northeastern Pennsylvania. The minute asked PYM to support a moratorium on gas drilling, to communicate this issue throughout yearly meeting and to establish a goal of sharing information, resources and "possible responses" with other Yearly Meetings.

We saw firsthand the effects of industrial development: drilling for gas in state forests, heavy equipment stockpiled along US Rt. 6, and farms occupied by drilling pads, evaporation ponds, huge compressors, and 20-inch pipelines. We were told that since 2008, 3,200 wells have been drilled in Tioga County, and there is the possibility of many new pipelines. County officials told us that there were many obstacles in the way of an orderly industrial development: increased truck traffic, maintaining the water and sewer infrastructure, educating land owners, the loss of low-income housing, and stress on emergency services. We learned that the benefits included the creation of new jobs, increased wealth for some landowners, a local boom economy during a national economic recession, increased research opportunities for colleges, and economic stimulation for local businesses. The hydraulic fracturing process required drillers to draw enormous quantities of water out of local waterways, forcing it into the wells under high pressure, and then to find ways to dispose of the toxic wastewater products. One scientist said that the hydraulic fracturing technology was not dangerous in itself, the danger lay in human and natural failures: ruptured pond linings, truck spills, and broken well casings, for example.

There is a history of natural resource extraction along the northern tier of Pennsylvania: first timber, then coal, then oil, and now natural gas. Once again, Pennsylvania is experiencing a paradigmatic shift that is transforming the pastoral landscape into an industrial landscape.

The Wellsboro Quakers are working hard to cope with the resulting crises. They took us to the gas drilling fields. They invited us to scientific lectures and we worshiped with them in Quaker silence. Is there a way for us to share their feelings? What is at the heart of their unrest that could stir us with equal passion?

What I witnessed there reminded me of a machine in the garden. It is a theme from ancient literature, a way to speak about how matters of the heart are transformed by technology and the factory system. I thought of a book by Leo Marx, The Machine in the Garden: Technology and the Pastoral Ideal in America. Marx traces the transformation of the pastoral landscape by American and European essayists from Thomas Carlyle to Herbert Marcuse; novelists from Washington Irving to F. Scott Fitzgerald; political writers from Thomas Jefferson to Karl Marx. He also shows visions of American pastoral landscapes by painters from George Inness to Charles Sheeler.

Here is what Leo Marx has to say about the metaphoric approach: "Though poetry and fiction are not very helpful in establishing the historical record as such, they are singularly useful, I learned, in getting at the more elusive, intangible effects of change—its impact on the moral and aesthetic, emotional and sensory, aspects of experience." These are some of the writers who showed how the arrival of industrialism affected Americans’ inward, spiritual life, as well as their outward, physical life. Carlyle found traces of mechanical thinking "in every department of thought and expression: music, art, literature, science, religion, philosophy and politics." What Carlyle calls the "destruction of moral force," is akin to what would be known later as "alienation."

Wellsboro Meeting Quakers have learned a lot about gas extraction technology since the boom began in 2008. Their guided tours brought us face to face with gas drillers and farmers. We watched PowerPoint presentations by county planners, university biologists, and sociologists. We shared a delicious potluck supper and stayed overnight in their homes, talking with their friends and families. Despite the evidence that they were rapidly gaining knowledge, there were also signs that industrial activity, day and night, was taking its toll. In worship sharing one discouraged resident said, "It’s over, it’s a done deal."

Another said, "Those of us left are squeezed between the rich and the poor." One family had left and a second family is leaving—"we need to get on with our lives; our kids are ready for college."

The gas workers feel these effects, too. A Williamsport Friend told this story about her husband’s meeting a group of gas workers outside a local hotel.

"He asked where they were from and they said they were from Texas and Arkansas. They asked where he lived and he said ‘up on the Loyalsock.’ ‘What’s that?’ they asked. ‘It’s one of the five major creeks that cut through Lycoming County,’ he told them. ‘We’re working at Trout Run,’ they said. ‘Oh, that’s on Lycoming Creek,’ he told them. It was clear they didn’t know the name of the creek that flowed below the drilling site, either. ‘Well, where do they go?’ they asked him. ‘To the Susquehanna River,’ he replied. ‘Where is that?’ they asked. ‘Right there,’ he pointed—to the river that was less than a hundred yards from where they were standing.’" (Karen Frock)

The lack of a connection between the inward life of the laborer and machine technology produces what Karl Marx called alienated labor, an idea that "has dominated the criticism of industrial society ever since."

What does alienation mean to the Wellsboro Quakers living in "The Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania"? In the beginning nine out of ten Americans colonists were farmers. Today not one American in ten lives on a farm. Most of the Quakers I met in Wellsboro sold their mineral, gas, and oil rights years ago, but they still oppose industrialization. Their concern is for conserving the environment, developing renewable resources, preserving farmlands and forests and, above all, safety for humans and animals. Some are willing to sacrifice for their values by taking a second job, commuting to nearby Elmira, New York, or distant Philadelphia. Thus, they keep their pastoral lifestyle, whether their love is for the agricultural, rural, and primitive or quietist life.

It is understandable why some Wellsboro Quakers are giving up, moving on. Those of us who do not live in the Marcellus Shale drilling area wish they wouldn’t quit, but our sympathy is mixed with reality. As Leo Marx observes, the "pastoral life has whirled and gone." He reminds us that Herman Melville and F. Scott Fitzgerald came to this conclusion in Moby Dick and The Great Gatsby. Eric Fromm warned that alienation leads to experiencing the world passively, separating the subject from the object. Those of us living outside the Marcellus Shale Play may treasure the pastoral dream, but if the pastoral life is gone, why should we care?

Part of the answer lies in our cultural history. To Marx’s list of novels employing this metaphor, I would add Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. In the final pages of the novel, the narrator, Lyman Ward, awakens from a nightmare to hear an eighteen-wheeler charging up steep grade "snorting and bellowing…its song full of exultant power…in my mind I could see it charging up that empty highway like Malory’s Blatant Beast." On one layer, the 18-wheeler is the modern version of a fearful beast. Stegner’s literary reference to Sir Thomas Malory’s Blatant Beast goes even deeper into cultural history, to the Arthurian legend of knights who confront not only a fearsome beast, but also two ugly hags who accompany it. They are relentlessly evil, trying to distract the knight from the search for truth, filling the atmosphere with envy and deception.

The truth is that the machine in the garden is not going away. Oil and gas leases will expire and have to be renegotiated, dormant gas drilling sites can be drilled again, and lawsuits will be stalled in litigation for years. Politicians and gas companies claim that there are 50 trillion cubic feet of natural gas reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a 100-year supply.

Public opinion can tip the balance if the passions are strong. The Marcellus Drilling News recently published a survey by a pro-drilling public relations firm that indicates that public opinion is turning against drilling in the Marcellus Shale. ( It is true. Activists recently came from all over Pennsylvania to hold a rally in Harrisburg that drew several hundred demonstrators to the Capitol Rotunda and into legislators’ offices. Grassroots organizations, such as the Lancaster County Community Action Forum on Marcellus Shale have a large following. Nationally, New York Times published an investigative series of articles on gas drilling this year that was met with robust counter-arguments. The Pennsylvania Council of Churches approved a resolution calling on the House, Senate, and Governor to enact legislation and policies living up to the Pennsylvania Constitution. These activities are effective.

Their demands are remarkable. Declare a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until scientifically-based legislation can be developed to protect natural resources; create comprehensive legislation that will prevent gas corporations from overestimating reserves to investors; provide free legal counsel for all citizen landowners that will insure economic justice for all landowners; provide for the remediation of industrial damages to the environment and infrastructure; bring the environmental regulatory agencies up to working capacity so there can be objective, thirdparty verification for all aspects of this industry; free up health agencies and science laboratories to monitor the effects of gas, oil, and coal energy on the population and animals; and fund public education so future generations will have the necessary wisdom to respond to future energy needs.

We talked to a farmer, Carol Johnson, who, with her husband Donald, had worked their farm in Tioga County for 50 years. They sold their mineral rights to a land salesman for a down payment that was a fraction of the total sale price. Soon afterwards, a pit holding flowback water on their property ruptured, spilling into pastureland. Their cattle, attracted by the salty brine, drank the toxic liquid and were subsequently quarantined by the Department of Environmental Protection. The gas company, East Resources, Inc., would not acknowledge responsibility for the poisoning of the livestock and, according to Johnson, cancelled their contract, refusing to pay the balance of the leasing price. She said they returned later with a proposal to install gas pipelines that would connect with pipelines on adjoining properties, establishing a network to distribute natural gas to consumers on the eastern seaboard. Her story does not end there; she said that she hopes to pass her farm on to her children for their future.

It is stories like these that stir the passions of Wellsboro Quakers. These stories create solidarity among all Pennsylvanians, continuing a cultural history represented in the essays, novels, and paintings of authors and artists.

Undistracted by the lies and the invidious business practices of international corporations, Carol Johnson said that what she worried about most was the loss of clean drinking water forever. She stunned us all by saying that everyone deserves a chance. The Quakers in Wellsboro have a strong commitment to tell the truth and to do what Carol Johnson urged us to do: "Get the story out there."

Robert Lowing

Robert Lowing is a member of Lancaster (Pa.) Friends Meeting. He is a retired art professor from Millersville University, where he taught photography for 33 years. He and his wife, Cynthia, have heated their homes with wood, coal, oil, and now, gas, throughout their lifetime.