Part II: Along the Susquehanna River to Harrisburg

“I confess that I am angry at the manufacturers who make these things. There are days when I would be delighted if certain corporation executives could somehow be obliged to eat their products. I know of no good reason why these containers and all other forms of manufactured “waste”— solid, liquid, toxic, or whatever — should not be outlawed. There is no sense and no sanity in objecting to the desecration of the flag while tolerating and jusitifying and encouraging as a daily business the desecration of the country for which it stands.”

Wendell Berry, “Waste”

My trip took me through the town of Shamokin Dam by the mighty Susquehanna River. That dam testifies to other things we do for our energy “needs.”

It testifies to a belief that machines save us from the alleged drudgery of work.

It testifies to the abdication of our culture to keep itself skilled in the things that have enabled its survival for the thousands of years since the ice retreated and people domesticated animals from the dog to the sheep, learned how to irrigate land and rotate crops.

It exemplifies how people use machines to proliferate other machines at the expense of Nature.

When I looked at the dam on that blustery Wednesday riding under my own power into a full face of wind, I couldn’t just see the dam. In the energy calculus of Pennsylvania right now, our corporate government, what Wendell Berry has called “the economy’s government and the government’s economy,” are not seeing fit to disestablish the Shamokin Dam or any other dam and replacing them with other less ecologically damaging sources of energy. They certainly are not reducing our energy consumption. They are merely adding to it because of our so-called “needs.” Following the logic of a host of energy “experts” who no doubt profit from the despoliation of the Earth on which we rely, our “needs” will just escalate. Infinitely.

So when I saw the Shamokin Dam, I also saw the coal plant and the natural gas well, all of which pollute our water, scar the landscape, pollute the air whether through the release of carbon dioxide, methane, benzene, or the incredible din of the operation. Our “needs” seem to overshadow sanity and moral clarity.

According to those with Marcellus Personality Disorder (MPD), we are the freest people on Earth. And yet we are told we are the also the neediest. I fail to see how a people who need so much that they must destroy Nature’s ability to maintain or restore its carrying capacity are free. It sounds as though we are actually slaves to the energy magnates who tell us we are free. All around me I hear the voice of Big Brother and see his propaganda. The newspeak inverts the truth so that freedom is slavery, beauty is ugliness, progress is regress, and cleanliness is pollution. Wow. I love Big Brother.

Down, down, down along the Susquehanna I went. I stop for a whoopie pie, some water, and some hot chocolate mixed with coffee. The people at the little shop ask me where I am going. “The Capitol,’ I reply.

“Are you a teacher?” they ask. They know something about how angry teachers are in this state because of Corbett’s budget cuts to schools.

“I am,” I reply. I don’t explain that I teach at Penn State as a graduate assistant. It’s immaterial. “Isn’t it nuts that the governor is going to slash spending on schools and he refuses to tax the booming natural gas industry?”

The older woman behind the counter, probably in her mid- to late-sixties smiles and looks puzzled at the same time. “I don’t know anything about that. I don’t use natural gas. It’s funny how you don’t pay attention to stuff that doesn’t affect you.”

Exactly. And herein lies one of the great hills we must constantly climb and descend. A great swath of people out there cannot envision how their behaviors ripple out into the larger world. To use Wendell Berry again, people have great trouble seeing themselves within a large pattern. To use a mechanical metaphor we are one part in a system of interlocking parts that makes the machine function. I prefer a biological metaphor. We are cells in a superorganism. One cell’s function and functionality modifies the other parts of the system for better or worse. An unconscious human in the United States – one who does not see how their voting, their basic electricity or fuel consumption, their food purchasing or growing, or the number and kinds of widgets they have and use in and out of the house – is an ecologically dangerous entity. Buying, using, and selling the gadgetry of such a fossil fuel addicted economy perpetuates and extends that same economy. Because our state and national corporate governments’ prime directive is growth, the individual is steered toward ignorance about the consequences of fuel consumption whether that be climate change, mountain top removal, or methane migration and hydraulic fracturing.

How can a woman like this woman, polite and warm with a kind smile, selling me a whoopie pie, understand her and her community’s consumption on other places? I suppose one possibility would be through schooling where students would learn about the ecological consequences of actions. It could also be done through conscious and conscientious media. And when I say ecological consequences, I mean the broad set of effects on economies, society, and ecosystems scaled small to large. And here, of course, I am hung on the governor’s decision to slash school funding and to give away the gas rights to our state forests.

South I went. Gulls soared overhead. At one point I flew below a flock of a few hundred and watched them wheel from the east shore over the islands. Miles downriver, I see the ridges on the other side move into a bend in the river. This river is millions of years old and its winnowing way is surrounded by the wisdom of the mountains (picture at right). Trucks roar by, their wakes pulling me along. Highways really do not exist for bikes. Highways are barely for humans.

And then, out of the blue, I see my wife and son in our car. Just shy of crossing the river south of Halifax, they pull over and we smile (picture at right). It is a beautiful moment. In those moments I feel buoyed beyond measure. I feel believed in and supported. I can practically touch the devotion when she tells me she has a cheese sandwich for me to eat when I get to Harrisburg. My son, just three years old, gives me a big hug and kiss. After just a couple of minutes, I am warmed and go on. It is just less than 20 miles to the end of this ride.

At about noon, I can see the Capitol building ahead of me, miles down Route 22 into the city. I smiled a big smile and thought what a kind of nutty thing it is I am trying to do. There I was, one guy on a bicycle trying to do something right. But I was also aware of the fact, and continue to be aware of the fact, that I was not alone. When I started letting people know what I was going to do, a marvelous thing happened. First, of course, some people tried to get me to plan well and I am indebted to them for “talking me off the ledge” and doing this too rashly. Then, as the plan emerged and I decided to attend the rally with PennEnvironment and others from across the state to protest the budget cuts and the lack of a severance tax, people started sending me emails.

They wrote to me about their fears and their hopes. Both were hand in hand. There was a grandmother who wants justice for her, her children, and her grandchildren. There is a woman who gave birth to her children in her house in the midst of the beautiful forest and how the surrounding forest has been carved up for gas drilling and trucks and you can no longer hear peepers at night. Now it’s a hellish din of trucks and compressors. There is a woman bound to a wheelchair who wished she could go with me. People saying, “Give ‘em hell!” People are full of hope that someone will do something right. And so I wasn’t just one man on his way to a rally and a meeting. I was carrying those people’s stories to the capitol so that they could be seen in the face of a 34-year-old father who loves his place and the places that millions more love.

Ultimately, it seems this is about love. Love of family. Love of home. Love of place. Love of life and living with, on, and through the land. I am not a religious man, but somehow I like to believe that somewhere Aldo Leopold, one of America’s great naturalists, is smiling at me warmly.

At about 12:20 I roll to the east entrance of the capitol building. My father-in-law and two other Centre County residents have come. We are ready to protest for justice and ready to visit Mr. Corbett. Our letters are ready and our words are true.

I talk to one of the Capitol Police who tells me that he got an email about me that morning. I was surprised and not. I could be some total wingnut after all. He tells me that the governor isn’t in. Whether this is a way to divert me and my compatriots, I can’t know. It didn’t matter. We were going up anyway.

I changed into a t-shirt that reads “Don’t tread on me” with a boot print with the words “Big Oil” in it we are ready to go. I got it from a fellow gas activist that It was time to protest.

To be continued…

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