11/01/2013 03:54 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Digging and Drilling in Fracktown, USA

A dozen toy shovels dangle from the ceiling of Mr. Kovach's English classroom at Northeastern Ohio's Howland High School, urging students to dig deeply into classic texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird and Beowulf. On a recent Friday morning, one college prep class delves into a scene in which Beowulf sacrifices one of his warriors while he contemplates a battle strategy.

These students, and a group of honors students I spoke with over lunch, are strategizing, too. They view this metaphoric digging as a tool to position themselves for seats at respectable universities around the country. With one exception, they plan to earn degrees in such fields as engineering, medicine, law, and pastry arts and then to settle somewhere else. They see little chance of professional success in their home town.

I ask them about the lucrative oil and gas extraction going on around them, and they admit they know very little about it. One student mentions there may be some environmental concerns and says the topic arose briefly in a social studies class. They know about the hotel going up behind the mall in nearby Niles "for all the Texas oilmen who will be coming." About the issue in general, another adds, "They don't tell us too much."

For that kind of education, they would have to leave their suburban comfort and head to the edge of Lordstown, where a more literal digging is underway. The residents of a nicely groomed manufactured home park are watching -- and smelling and hearing -- a rig as it drills the first of eight approved extraction wells about 800 feet from their property line. Pat, the resident closest to the site, says the noise and light have been intrusive for the past few months. At one stage lasting several weeks, her home was bathed in virtual daylight 24 hours a day. The noise continues and keeps her up at night. She is not looking forward to the arrival of seven additional wells.

On the day of my visit, Pat and her neighbor Colleen have summoned John, a Global Community Monitoring volunteer, to bring out his equipment. They have smelled some strong odors throughout the day and want him to run a test. We sniff around the property and stand inside Pat's kitchen for a while. They call Colleen their canary; she describes the random smells she has detected since the drilling began. Ultimately, they decide not to use one of two plastic bags John has to capture samples in his monitoring device. They will save these pricey items for a day with less wind and more certain olfactory evidence.

We drive away, and I see signs of these people's commitment to their homes and neighborhood. Gardens and crisp green lawns have been carefully tended over the years; sunrooms, decks and carports speak of financial ease and comfort to scale. Unlike the high school students, these retirees and their mobile homes seem firmly planted. And so their uncertainty -- about the conditions imposed on them and the long-term effects of the drilling -- has turned them back into learners and, to their own surprise, activists.

John, a diesel mechanic in his mid-50s, is quite willing to do the teaching. A lecture by Youngstown State University scientists ignited his interest in the extraction industry, and now he can quickly overwhelm a listener with information. About those anticipated Texas oilmen, he says "They're already here." Some of them converged on members of the Niles City Council after that body passed a resolution banning extraction there, and within a matter of weeks the decision was reversed. (John and fellow citizens plan to put the issue on an upcoming ballot, aiming for a more decisive and irreversible result.)

Then there is the matter of the eleven earthquakes that shook the area shortly after injection wells started pouring contaminated water from the fracking sites into the ground. Alarmed at Ohio DNR's (Department of Natural Resources) insistence on short-term monitoring and self-regulation, John bought a seismograph on the Internet and convinced a science teacher to install it in a vulnerable sandstone school building close to a soon-to-open injection site. In a few weeks, the children will be monitoring the ground below them. They hope for the best, but as John remarks, "We have only one aquifer, and what will happen if it is compromised?"

Yet John also tells about a friend who has leased twenty acres for a $64,000 signing fee and expects to earn $50,000 annually for 30 years. My sense is that people who do this are not necessarily greedy; some are hungry and others have had their careers cut short by economic shifts. In Howland the school system reports an increase in the child poverty rate from four percent in 2000 to over 16 percent in 2011. Spikes in this rate align with the closing of established factories, notably Delphi and Packard Electric, both of which supplied the auto industry for half a century and employed generations of skilled workers. Even the high school students observe that some of their fellow students "hide their poverty" behind new clothes and other material things. And infrequent visitors like me commiserate with them over the loss of signature flavors of the local Italian restaurants we thought would always be there for us. In terms of economic well-being, we have far surpassed Beowulf's sacrifice of a single compatriot.

In many ways, the conditions, the opportunities, and the risks of extraction present this lovely place with the perfect storm. When I complimented Mr. Kovach on his metaphoric shovels, he smiled and pointed to a set of bright red children's snow shovels in the back room, sitting ready for an even deeper plunge into literary texts and the larger social questions these readings evoke. I hope he deploys them well and that all of his neighbors are similarly equipped in the days and years to come.