I spent some time at Endless Mountains Farm in Benton, PA, operated in part by several members of Shalefield Organizing Committee (SOC), a group of dedicated activists created to put more focus on resources in local areas that don’t normally get funded by NGOs. While there, I sat down to interview Zora; a member of SOC who has serious concerns about the proposed gas pipeline that may be installed near the farm where she lives and works.
Observing the garden and wandering chickens as the sun prepared for the day ahead, I watched as an Amish man rode by on a horse at full gallop. The kitchen table I sat at was covered with soil and I spent an hour labeling baby watermelons while chatting with Zora; a new farm resident who left her apartment life in Rochester, New York in search of manual labor and an environmental-minded setting.
“I ended up here kinda by accident,” she said. “I quit my job and came out here to chill for a while last summer and really liked it.” Zora was wearing overalls and had just finished preparing a bed of soil for tomato plants. “I’ve been a farmer for… what’s the date, June? Two months,” she laughed. Raised a vegetarian by an animal rights activist mother, Zora has been organizing around various issues for a long time. At age twelve she tried to volunteer for her first electoral campaign. “When they rejected me I was really offended,” she said.
After graduating from college in 2012, she canvassed for the working families party; a third-party left-leaning electoral group. After that, she taught Sunday school at a Synagogue and then worked full-time as an organizer for Food & Water Watch. “I got really sick of that,” she said, “so I went back to working in a coffee shop for a while.” With a degree in economics, Zora could be doing anything, but her passions and commitment to the environment have led her to SOC. “I really liked the scene and stuff,” she said with regard to her sophomore year exposure to the environmental group Earth First!, whose tactics are geared toward direct action. “I met all these really amazing people and learned about hydrofracking and direct action and I was like, ‘this is great.’” Though SOC and Earthfirst! are different groups with different tactics, organizing with Earthfirst! helped lead her to SOC because she was searching for something in Northeast PA to complement her Earthfirst! organizing.
As a friend of a few Earth Firsters and being known as the “campus radical” myself, I asked Zora how that sort of activism was received on campus, as I know it often leads to estrangement and judgmental looks from passersby. “I was definitely known for that sort of thing,” Zora says. “But people wouldn’t ask me about the stuff I was doing. Nobody thought I was crazy, but they were just totally blank—no one really got it.”
When I mentioned the current fight against shale gas extraction in Pennsylvania, Zora expressed both hope and impatience. “People think we’re really weird for living collectively and moving to a rural area, but we’re farmers, so they’re receptive. Being a farmer is probably the best organizing tool we have around here because it gives us a kind of legitimacy.” One of the most difficult things about being an activist, to me, is the hostility toward hippies and “tree huggers”, so I nodded and smiled when she mentioned legitimacy—people are only going to take you seriously if they think you’re serious. In the same light, people affected by natural gas extraction and fracking are going to listen to others who are affected by this issue more than temporary organizers who pass through trying to help. “Passion and empathy are great, but they don’t give you the perspective of someone who lives the reality day-to-day,” Zora explained. “The Atlantic Sunrise pipeline would be two miles away from the house so it’s put me in a situation where the organizing is much more real.”
As a new member of the rural Pennsylvania community of Montrose, I understood what Zora was saying. During my time there, I spent a fair bit of time sitting outside on the porch and saying “one of these wells could explode at any second”—a scary thought. That’s what she meant by that whole “reality” thing.
When I asked about what Zora thought about the current Williams energy company Atlantic Sunrise pipeline and what kind of support SOC has seen, she had a mixed answer. “We’re early in this campaign,” she said. “We want to meet people where they’re at, but people are hesitant. People are afraid to talk. You have to tread carefully.”
Coming to a town where the neighbor across the street yells “drill baby, drill!” when he drives by in a car, and everyone is leasing their land to the gas industry in exchange for monetary compensation (read: tons of money) and a non-disclosure agreement that prevents them from publicly speaking out against fracking, I realized that I need to tread lightly myself. These rural areas are low on the socioeconomic food chain, which means a lot of people are supportive of an industry that provides a large amount of cash for a seemingly small amount of property destruction. It’s hard to compete with a company that flashes their wallet and has maps created with ten-thousand-dollar software programs.
A focal point for Benton will be the compressor station Williams plans to build, and the subsequent increase in noise and traffic from pipeline activity. “We’re not gonna get everyone in this area to be against this. There’s too much propaganda, too much indoctrination about why gas is good, but there is a solid number of people opposing shale gas extraction and that’s gonna grow,” Zora said.
The last question I asked her was related to the collaboration of grassroots and larger environmental groups. “We can always use more support,” she said. “Some of the big greens have been open to that and some haven’t—it’s an evolving conversation.”
In a multi-faceted movement, there are multi-faceted strategies: it only takes a few seconds to share a link on Facebook, Re-Tweet, re-blog, or email something to thousands of followers. Big environmental groups should be happy to support grassroots organizations and should be spending an equal amount of time helping out on the front lines. Everyone knows that there are other environmental problems to worry about, so pick your poison, but these communities, these people, are being impacted now. Soon, extractive processes are going to swallow these small-town economies and leave nothing but the shells of pipelines for future generations to clean up.
Photos by The Author, and via Endless Mountains Farm’s Facebook page