Idreaded opening "The End of Country" because what else could it be but bleak?
It is, instead, a rare, honest, beautiful and, yes, sometimes heartbreaking examination of the echoes of water-powered natural gas drilling -- or fracking -- in the human community. It is rich with details -- names of dogs, brands of beer, daily rituals -- that make this story vivid, personal and emotional.
The tale begins millions of years ago, when an ancient lake becomes the rock that traps natural gas a mile beneath the Earth's surface in Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia -- what is known as the Marcellus Shale, a vast, rich deposit that some say our nation is tapping just in the nick of time.
Author Seamus McGraw yanks the story forward several millenniums, to the fall of 2007, when his widowed mother is offered $150 an acre, plus hundreds of thousands in future profits, for the right to drill her 100 acres in northeastern Pennsylvania. It's the same land the author roamed and worked as a boy. The person making the offer, the first of many emissaries from energy companies, is a mousy young woman with a Texas drawl and a ring through her nose -- a rarity in that hardscrabble part of the nation.
Every emissary, the author notes, opens his or her plea with the same words: "Beautiful piece of land you have here."
We swing with the author, his sister and his mother among "moral and cultural ambiguities" as they fret over what to do. They envision financial salvation, but at what unknown cost? McGraw portrays himself as a burnt-out journalist with two kids, forced to pawn a sentimental rifle to send his 6-year-old daughter on a class trip. He portrays his mother's region of the Keystone State -- 90 miles from his own home -- as burnt out, too, but rugged. He refers to the land as "a resource and a refuse, a place that, as the old saying goes, had been rode hard and put away wet."
"Always," he says the locals well know, "its fate and yours are linked."
As lease offers soar with forecasts of yet more gas from the shale, we meet neighbors who become wary with each other, resenting those who signed on later, ill at ease with those who stand to get nothing but headaches from the din of drilling. We meet a high-minded teacher who signs because she wants to be "at the cusp of a new era" of energy. She and her neighbor, a craggy hermit, become unlikely allies in a daily mission to keep the drillers honest and responsible. We also meet a hound dog named Crybaby who plays a dramatic role.
Elegantly written, "The End of Country" is not just about a loss of trees and streams and silence; most of McGraw's cast believes the Earth will repair itself once the drilling is done. "The End of Country" describes the end of a tough, contented self-reliance that exists in places like this, where nobody would choose to live if life were only about money.
I hope for a sequel from McGraw, so we can know how the windfall plays out for his family and their neighbors and the land. In the end, "The End of Country" reminded me of the wisdom of Will Durant: "Civilization is a stream with banks. The stream is sometimes filled with blood from people stealing, shouting and doing things historians usually record while, on the banks, unnoticed, people build homes, make love, raise children, sing songs, write poetry and even whittle statues. The story of civilization is the story of what happened on the banks. Historians are pessimists because they ignore the banks for the river."
Susan Ager, a former columnist for the Detroit Free Press, is at email@example.com.