Google "Ohio," "fracking," and "map" and you'll get a drawing of the Buckeye State overlaid with digital pushpins that mark where the trucks are lumbering in with concrete and piping, bands of structural steel, and garage-sized compressors. Forests and pastures are giving way to massive drilling pads, where millions of tons of water will accelerate the slow, natural process by which oil and natural gas emerge from the brittle rock.
Most of the pins on this map run north and south, parallel to the Pennsylvania border. They mark permits issued for drilling of the Utica and Devonite shale beds, which some say is the key to our country's energy independence. A thick cluster of pinpoints runs from Akron to Marietta, while a few outliers dot the landscape of my home, a rural crossroads-turned-suburb called Howland Township. The first well in my county is under construction.
It would be easy to become emotional about this. No matter how much we change, we want home to stay the same. That line of pins, the shale line, also marks the road I took to Grandmother's house and later to Ohio University. The well under construction lies just a few miles from Camp Sugar Bush, where I learned to sleep in a tent in the woods, steer a canoe, and make Thousand Island dressing from scratch. My family has been gone from the region for two decades, but many friends and memories remain there, and so do our dead.
In the areas where drilling has begun, people speak of tainted water, noise- and light-disrupted sleep, and various other health hazards. One would imagine that those numerous earthquakes centered in nearby Youngstown might be difficult to ignore. And yet advocates can be found among the landowners and business leaders, as well as state and local government officials. Even some of the most vocal opponents have been swayed by the promise of a new source of income.
From my new home in North Carolina, I juggle sentiment and concern with reason, and I try to keep an open mind. The best window on this unfolding action is my hometown newspaper, the Warren Tribune Chronicle. The "Shale and Gas Drilling" section of Tribe Today shows all boats floating higher on the wave of this industry: housing, retail, suppliers, processing plants and pipelines. Senator Rob Portman dropped in recently to decry federal regulation and predict 200,000 new jobs to harvest the "energy in the ground here in Ohio." Two Ohio State University engineering students with ties to the area have formed a networking group with sights aimed at the extraction industry. One of them gushes, "I'm not a political analyst nor an economist, but I believe that this shale is one of the most encouraging developments to hit the Youngstown area since the steel industry of the past."
The past this student speaks of is the one that nurtured my happy memories of home. The steel industry was very, very good to my family and the families of my classmates. Republic Steel chose my father to be its first computer programmer; we grew up using old punch cards for our grocery lists. My brothers and I had our own bedrooms. We enjoyed music lessons, waterskiing on Mosquito Lake, shopping trips to Cleveland's finest stores, and my dad's whimsical Sunday outings. We even saw Niagara Falls with the water turned off!
Where steel reigned, those sturdy and sexy American cars also rolled off the assembly lines. On weekends our Mustangs, Camaros, and Grand Ams encircled a McDonald's whose manager clung stubbornly to his yellow arches. We ran our engines on cheap gas and ate burgers and fries in our cars.
My older brother could labor in the mill from Memorial Day to Labor Day and plunk down a check for a worry-free year of college tuition and fun. Those who stayed behind joined their fathers and grandfathers in union jobs that demanded hard work but put the food on the table and then some. At worst, a new machine knocked some workers down the pay scale from time to time, and pink soot from the blast furnace dusted the windshields of our cars. No one imagined, in my remembrance, that these days of prosperity would ever end.
Growing up in the 1990s, though, these shale-ambitious students would have seen much less optimism and many more cold factories and shuttered storefronts. I wonder if they learned the subtle variations among each of the mom and pop pizza sauces that flavored my youth, or if by then it was Domino's and Pizza Hut all the way. Did their older kinfolk convey to them the sensory feast of heat and force and pounding rhythm that transformed raw ore into the sleek shapes and mighty pillars girding 20th century life? I hope so, regarding the sauce and the grueling work. Yet given these young men's distance from the pulse of the life I knew, who can blame them for acting on a different vision for the future?
In the summer of 2011, my son and I made a college visit to Cleveland and Pittsburgh. We sliced through my corner of Ohio, and without warning he asked if we could see an Amish community. His timing was perfect; I made a quick U-turn and within minutes we arrived in Mesopotamia, my grandfather's birthplace, on the night of the annual ox roast festival. Our family kept a country cottage nearby, so I knew the roads well. My son would later tell his friends we had been to the "Amish state fair." I was thrilled to introduce him to the square black buggies, the people's modest dress, and the clean white houses nestled among fields of corn and wheat. A few Rumspringers tinkered with cell phones and waved from the back seats of cars, but for the most part things looked like they always had.
That line of pushpins, with its ensuing promise of jobs, noise, fuel, illness, prosperity, and devastation of nature -- you decide -- is marching northward in these earth-loving people's direction. I'm so glad we passed through when we did.