Each Other — Where We Are SANDRA STEINGRABER
Playing with unknowns underground
WHEN I MOVED my family from a cabin in the woods outside of Ithaca, New York, into a
house in a nearby village, it felt like a faith
healing. I could walk again. A sidewalk
stretched from my door out to a craggy
maple tree and then connected with another sidewalk that headed down the block
toward Main Street. Here was a track, upon
which the wheels of a double stroller could
roll, that linked me to co=ee, library books,
postage stamps, hardware displays, bank
tellers, and a bus line. Hallelujah.
Out in the woods, foxes and newts had
roamed our backyard, but I myself wasn’t
doing much roaming. The road that connected me and my children to the rest of
the world was ditched on both sides and
carried trucks and a 50 mph speed limit.
Nobody was going to be tricycling along
it, and trips to obtain cash, band-aids, or
wallboard nails involved car-seat buckles,
tantrums, and drive-through windows.
But now I sat on my front stoop and
grinned. To be sure, the village sidewalks — century-old slabs of stone — were
neither plumb nor true, but this was evidence that they had outlasted a generation
of street trees whose roots must have lifted
them and then, in dying, set them down
uncrumbled but askew. Looking at the misalignments, I tried to guess where trees
had stood in 1840. From a geologist neighbor, Bill Chaisson, I learned that our sidewalks are a form of shale—the mother of
slate—created from marine sediments.
That’s when I noticed the marks of a vanished ocean on the walks’ rippled surfaces.
And it is this vanished ocean—and
a deeper layer of shale called the Marcellus—that has now placed the Finger
Lakes region of New York, known for waterfalls, vineyards, and dairy farms, at the
center of a looming epic battle over a new
form of energy extraction known as high-volume slick water hydrofracturing. Or, to
use the world’s ugliest gerund: fracking.
There are four stories to tell about it.
The geological story goes like this: Four
hundred million years ago—before the
Earth knew trees — the Acadian Mountains
eroded into a nameless sea. Its silt sank
into a trough in the ocean floor, together
with the remains of mollusks, squids, and
vania, and New York, the shale’s rock,
methane, and heavy metals have remained
locked together. Underlain by brine. Over-
lain by drinking-water aquifers.
If it goes forward, fracking will usher in the biggest ecological
change in New York State since the original forests were cleared.
sea lilies. Under pressure, this graveyard
turned into shale, forming a chalkboard
the size of Florida. And the plankton and
animals trapped inside became bubbles of
methane. Because eroding mountains
shed elements, this trough also captured
uranium, mercury, arsenic, and lead. And
so, in a bedrock layer that ranges from 2 to
200 feet thick, at a depth of 1 to 2 miles
below the Earth’s surface, at a tempera-
ture that ranges from 140 to 180 degrees
Fahrenheit, extending for some 600 miles
throughout West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsyl-
within a horizontal formation like the Mar-
cellus was not profitable.