By Mike Schneider
Eliza Griswold is an accomplished, award-winning poet, who also writes for The New Yorker and covers southwestern Pennsylvania politics. This year, she published Amity and Prosperity, One Family and the Fracturing of America, a product of seven years getting to know people who live in the Washington County communities of her title. Amity brings to readers sharpened awareness about the ramifications of the natural-gas boom we’ve been living through. Recently it made The New York Times list of 100 Notable Books of 2018.
Griswold’s narrative tracks a years-in-the-making metamorphosis in the life of Stacey Haney, a single mother, nurse and owner of a family farm near Amity. In 2004, with no ill-will toward the fracking industry, Haney hoped to finance long-needed improvements to a rickety barn where she sheltered goats, pigs and Bob and Doll, her donkey and mare. Haney knew, through talk in the community, that other property-owners had been cashing in, selling leases that could yield thousands of dollars per acre, substantial money in this economically-depressed Appalachian region.
Beyond the chance for income, writes Griswold, Haney also thought about wider concerns related to fossil fuel. Tired of her country sending young people to die over oil, she saw the war in Iraq as more of the same. She felt the USA should rely on domestic energy, and if she could promote that while helping herself financially, why not? A wave of oil-and-gas industry public-relations — with virtually no reporting at the time about what could go wrong — also influenced her decision.
Many NewPeople readers can guess how this story turns out. Over a course of years, Haney’s life became an almost unimaginable tragedy, with drastic deterioration in the quality of her well water and an accumulation of health problems for her daughter and son. Eventually, the family had to leave their farm, and Haney became enmeshed in a life-consuming fight for redress from Range Resources.
A large part of the sadness of Amity is the almost total futility Haney experienced
in seeking help from state and federal agencies. Several representatives from the EPA and Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection visited and investigated the nearby leaky fracking pond. Repeated lack of follow-through, however, which Griswold documents, is increasingly frustrating, even to someone such as this reader, not personally undergoing the frustration.
Amity unfolds also as an account of how someone uninclined to activism changes with time and refuses to back down — even when backing down may seem like the prudent course. Part of Haney’s learning, and some of her friends as well, is about how “one may smile and smile and be a villain” — including amiable people (some of them Washington County locals) paid by Range to handle interactions with the community.
Later chapters recount an ultimately successful legal battle that led to a landmark decision, Robinson Township v. Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in which Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court held unconstitutional most of “Act 13” — a 2012 law to facilitate fracking. The decision breathed new life into Article I, Section 27 of Pennsylvania’s constitution, which mandates that the state “conserve and maintain” public resources “for the benefit of all the people.” Robinson is an outcome of advocacy by husband-and-wife pro bono attorneys, John and Kendra Smith of Washington, most of whose prior practice involved representing the oil-and-gas industry. In response to seeing Haney and others steam-rolled by fracking companies, they applied their legal expertise on behalf of local communities.
Readers may appreciate a below-the-surface aspect of Amity, in that Griswold — Princeton trained, a fellow at Harvard Divinity School — had to win the confidence of people apprehensive, if not outright biased, about so-called educated elites. From her June appearance at Carnegie Lecture Hall, one could surmise that she’s helped by her unshowy, down-to-earth manner.
A virtue of Griswold’s writing is its surface neutrality. She writes as a journalist and reports without an apparent axe-to-grind. She marshals abundant reasons to appreciate how Haney and others in her situation would choose to take the money and believe they were doing, ethically and morally, the right thing. Amity’s convincingness, in no small measure, reflects Griswold’s ability to be in the background — a writerly presence perhaps most noticeable by how much she’s not telling the reader what to think.
Mike Schneider won the 2016 Robert Phillips Prize in Poetry from Texas Review Press, which in 2017 published his chapbook “How Many Faces Do You Have?.”