It is so hot my skin is slick with sweat. My shirt clings to my back with a disagreeable tenacity. The sun bores down with all the subtlety of a drill bit; overhead, a few clouds wrestle half-heartedly for rain and give it up. It is an unseasonably warm day in late May, but then again, aren’t all the seasons coming earlier these days? It’s hard to remember what the weather is supposed to be. We stand in a line, side by side: before us the road, behind us the vast bowl of Seneca Lake, all around us the rolling hills and vineyards of the New York Finger Lakes. If you kept your eyes closed, you could imagine that all was right with the world. You could forget that beneath the lake lie hundreds of acres of depleted salt caverns and that just behind us, Crestwood Midstream, a Texas-based energy company, is gearing up for work. But of course we are not here to forget. We are here to remind. We form a human blockade before these gates, to prevent the trucks from entering or leaving, to interfere with business, or, at the very least, to bear witness to a crime that is about to be committed: the storage of that liquid propane gas in those abandoned, unlined salt caverns beneath a lake that provides the drinking water for a hundred thousand people.
A constant stream of traffic barrels past; drivers honk vigorously, give us the thumbs up, or, sometimes, a gesture of another kind.
“So why do you do this?” the reporter asks. “Why stand all day in the sun?” My brain struggles to connect some thoughts, but they disperse like the clouds beneath the sun’s fierce glare. “What do you hope to accomplish?” he asks.
He’s a nice guy; he waits patiently for my response. We had thought that Governor Cuomo’s ban on fracking in New York State had put an end to all this. We wouldn’t end up like our neighbor, Pennsylvania, its mountains fracked beyond recognition, its streams cloudy, its water poisoned. But the industry’s latest response to the claims of pollution has been to propose the use of LPG — that is, liquid petroleum gas — instead of water to frack the wells. Pumping methane, propane, and butane into the earth to fracture rock has been touted as much more “environmentally conscious” than the use of water. Whereas water returns to the surface along with the natural gas, bringing with it all the chemicals that are used in fracking, LPG remains obediently where it’s been put: in the earth.
It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around the environmental consciousness of such a concept.
But it’s the perfect way to get around that pesky fracking ban.
Or so they hope.
There are about a dozen of us standing here today. The reporter has been here all day; he’s suffered in the sun as well. His question seems the most basic one there is, and yet I don’t know how to answer it. What do I hope to accomplish? An end to fossil fuel use? Will standing here on this godforsaken highway, attempting to blockade a multimillion dollar industry really bring an end to the impending catastrophe of climate change?
The reporter smiles at me. Down the line, one of the activists begins a song. Unfortunately, it isn’t one I know. The blockades at this facility have been ongoing for over six months. Each one has a theme. There have been Birder blockades, Chef blockades, Vintner blockades, Health Care Workers blockades, Mom blockades, Dad blockades — we are nothing if not creative. Even Santa Claus got arrested here just before Christmas, prompting an irate letter from one resident citing trauma to his child. Unfortunately his ire was misplaced. Instead of expressing anger with Crestwood for initiating the arrest, he placed the blame on us, the environmentalists. In all the coverage of this issue, those who oppose hydraulic fracturing are continually labeled “environmentalists.” Those who support it are referred to as “residents.” Never mind that we are residents as well, many for multiple enerations. The technique is a clever way to paint us as outsiders with agendas, and it works every time.
This particular blockade has been themed “People of Faith.” I am not a person of faith; I’m already uneasy, off my game. I know Christianity’s come a long ways since the Crusades (and even the 1980s), but as a lesbian, I’ve learned to be wary around the faithful. When one of my neighbors on the line confesses she’s an atheist, I nearly embrace her. I tell her I am too, but the truth is I don’t even have the faith for that. Can I really say there is no god? How would I know? Despite a few token pantheists carrying signs that quote Gandhi and the Dalai Lama, there’s a heavy emphasis on Judeo-Christianity among these people of faith. There is something unnerving about being surrounded by people in ecclesiastical stoles, and the size of some of those crosses they wear around their necks makes me feel a little faint. The Star of David medallions are only slightly less alarming. I feel like I should come out to them, the way I’m always coming out as a lesbian, but about a much more fundamental difference. I am not a person of faith. I am, in fact, the antithesis. A person beset by doubt.
I’ve got to hand it to them, however; these people of faith are articulate. “An occupational hazard,” one minister comments wryly. They’re full of the spirit, too. Every time one of them steps forward to speak, the others pump their fists and call out: “Preach it, sister!” They are great people to put in front of a mic. And they know how to blockade in style: they arrived armed with camp chairs and sun hats, books and sunscreen. The previous week, at the Water Equals Life blockade, we were all so serious we never let go of the banner, never took a break, refused to drink anything because we were so afraid that if we left to pee we’d miss our chance to be arrested. We were so sunburned and dehydrated we couldn’t have smiled if we’d tried. If we’d been people of faith we would have been the kind that flagellate themselves. After seven hours in the sun, we had to concede that there would be no deliveries that day. We left dispirited and grim, our feet tired and our backs aching.
The reporter is still standing there, microphone in hand. He’s tall and lanky, with grey hair and kind eyes, a ball cap pulled down to shade his face. His question is a fair one: what do I hope to accomplish? I wish I had an answer. The trouble is that deep down I am filled with doubt, and not just about religion, but social change as well. Monumental events have occurred in my lifetime: interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, nuclear disarmament, an end to apartheid, the fall of the Berlin Wall. My mother, born before women had the right to vote, lived just long enough to help elect an African American president. But knowing this doesn’t dispel the lingering doubt. There is something so huge about this issue. The energy companies have so much money, so many government subsidies, so much power that (thanks to Dick Cheney, the former CEO of Halliburton) they’re exempt from the Clean Water Act. They are soulless in their pursuit of profit. And they have the power of the government behind them: the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which has jurisdiction over the storage of LPG, has officially declared that construction can begin immediately, even though geologists have documented the instability of the caverns. Of course, every member of the Commission has ties to the Industry. Why would this surprise me?
And yet it does.
I saw what happened in Pennsylvania with the advent of the fracking industry, welcomed with open arms, given free passage to invade the land, to rape and plunder without penalty or even a severance tax. I know people whose water has been rendered undrinkable, whose land has been decimated, whose lives have become untenable. The shale beneath their feet is not the only thing that’s fractured. I’ve seen families split apart and neighbors turned antagonists by conflicts over lease offers; descendants of miners, who own no land, pitted against those of farmers, who do. And these were people who had so little they’d thought they had nothing left to lose.
There is so little time to change the damage being done by our unrepentant use of fossil fuels—in as little as 30 years, we could render this planet uninhabitable. And my standing in front of this fence is going to stop that?
Around me the People of Faith begin to sing “Amazing Grace,” and I join in. Our voices swell up on the first verse, falter on the second. We sing “We Shall Overcome,” “America the Beautiful,” “This Land is Your Land” (or This Lake is Our Lake), “I’m a Tree on the Water,” or something like that. An Iroquois water song that we turn and sing to each of the four directions. I have no idea what the words are. I suggest “We Are the Champions,” but no one besides the other atheist has ever heard of Queen. “Seriously?” I ask them again and again. “Freddie Mercury? Where were you in the 70s?” Divinity School is a popular answer.
At 54, I am one of the youngest people here. The weathered farmer to my left is nearly 70. The woman at the end of the line is 90. Everyone else is at least in their 60s. They have been standing up for their beliefs — and being arrested for them — a lot longer than I have, and for a lot more issues.
The reporter clears his throat, to prompt me. “An end to climate change?” I try. It comes out sounding more like a question than I’d hoped.
“Seriously,” he says.
Sweat trickles down my forehead, pools on my glasses. What do I want? “Perhaps Crestwood will see the light, decide to switch to solar, or wind,” I say. It’s so lame I nearly roll my eyes.
The reporter smiles again, perhaps a little condescendingly. “Perhaps, yes,” he says. “But what do you really want to accomplish, standing here?”
How has he known to ask me this question? Is it so obvious that I am a Person of No Faith? Do I wear my doubt on my face like a brand? The sociologist beside me comes to my rescue. She is articulate beyond reason, and she’s not even a preacher. I try to memorize what she is saying, but I am too awestruck by her ability to speak without stammering.
I’m not a complete idiot. I know why we are standing here. We are standing here to block trucks from entering or leaving the facility. We are standing here to physically stop what is happening. We are standing here so Crestwood will have us arrested, so we can clog up the courts and cost them money. So we can call attention to what is happening here. So we can try to prevent disasters such as the one that took place in Kansas, where natural gas stored in salt caverns leaked through underground fissures and caused explosions seven miles away. So we can remind people that not so long ago in a nearby county the collapse of a salt cavern poisoned an aquifer forever. That one of the salt caverns beneath this lake where Crestwood plans to store its gas has already suffered a 400,000 ton roof collapse. That Seneca Lake has the highest salinity of any of the Finger Lakes, a clear indication of the fissures that most certainly exist within these caverns. I want to be arrested. Hundreds have been. It is my turn. It is something I can do. It is a concrete action I can take. I have lived and worked in the Twin Tiers of Pennsylvania and New York for nearly half my life. I fell in love with the rivers and the lakes, the hillsides and the trees. I have kayaked every Finger Lake, multiple times. I can put my body in front of a truck. I can go to jail. This is why I am standing here.
This is the simple answer: I want to protect this lake. I believe my actions can help to do that. But then what? Do I want Crestwood to go put its liquid propane gas beneath some other lake? What about the other lakes, the other states, countries, every continent on earth? How can I protect a thing as huge as a planet?
“Are you afraid of being arrested?” the reporter asks the sociologist. She shakes her head. “Absolutely not,” she says. I eye her, reverentially. Personally, I am terrified of jail, but I’ll do it if I have to.
I am losing faith even in my ability to be arrested. No one has been arrested for the past week and a half because for some time now there have been no trucks for us to stop, most likely because Crestwood has figured out a way around us. We are committed to this form of protest, yet a part of me wants to cross that line and chain myself to the fence. “Oh, they tried that in the very beginning,” one of the veteran protesters tells me. “Now they’ve got injunctions; they can’t come within a thousand feet of this place.” He shoots me a look. “That means they can’t even drive on this road.” I stare at him, mesmerized. Route 14 is the only road that runs along the west side of the lake where Crestwood is. This means they have to go all the way around the lake (an 80-mile circumference) to get to a local winery or a microbrewery, or, I don’t know, Canada. We’re not trying to be martyrs. We are farmers, vintners, brewers, pastors, teachers, store owners, or, in my case, a vocally challenged writer. This is our land.
But not, apparently, our lake.
Or our water.
Or our road.
I wonder what it is I think the word “faith” means. It has always seemed to me to imply an allegiance of some kind, a tacit agreement not to question whatever the fundamental tenets are. This alone disquiets me. I haven’t even said the Pledge of Allegiance since the second grade. Questioning authority comes as naturally to me as breathing.
“You’re getting a burn,” the woman beside me says. “My bag’s over there; I’ve got a long-sleeved shirt you can wear.” A supporter brings us apple slices topped with almond butter, gives us sips of water from a thermos. Another offers crackers and cheese, another fresh asparagus from her garden. I think that there is more than one kind of communion. And more than one way to be political. One of my fellow blockaders tells me to take a break and sit down. I do, and it feels like — well, like heaven. When I return to the line, I ask one of the People of Faith if she’s had a break recently. “Why don’t you go sit down awhile?” I ask her. She smiles at me gratefully, and hands me her end of the banner.
What sustains me here on this blockade is not religion but collective action — a faith not in the idea of heaven but in the immediacy of earth, in the connection between land and water, in the knowledge that we live in a closed system and that what we have is all we’ll ever get and that what we lose is lost forever.
Behind us, a Crestwood pickup truck pulls up. We stretch our banner taut, spread out to fill the driveway, carefully positioned well behind the no trespassing signs. We form a barrier, fragile as our aquifer, formidable as our faith. He won’t get through, not on our watch. The door slams and the driver gets out. He looks at us and shakes his head, then pushes a button. We watch the two halves of the chain-link gate slide toward each other, three rows of barbed wire, freshly placed, menacing us from the top, as if we might suddenly decide to climb over, as if we couldn’t get there much more easily by kayak, from the other side if we really wanted to. The gate clangs shut, a definitive proclamation, but through its links we can see the lake, its waves sparkling in the sunlight, the second longest of the Finger Lakes and the one with the most water: 4.2 trillion gallons, roughly half of the water in all the Finger Lakes. Six hundred thirty feet deep and 38 miles from end to end, it shines before us, filled with sailboats and jet skis and kayaks, all giving each other space. It is only one gate, easily breached. But we — we are legion. And we will come back. Together, working on all fronts, using all our gifts, we will accomplish change. We will preserve this world, one way or another, for those who will come after us.
This I believe.
Louise Blum is a novelist, short story writer, essayist, and kayaker living in Corning, New York. She was arrested for blockading Crestwood Midstream almost immediately after writing this essay. Reprinted from the book Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America (Ice Cube Press, 2016).