Soft-spoken introvert finds herself in the middle of the fracking battle
By Michael M. Barrick
“Let us thank the earth
That offers ground for home
And holds our feet firm
To walk in open space
To infinite galaxies.
“Let us salute the silence
And certainty of mountains:
Their sublime stillness,
Their dream-filled hearts.”
From the poem “In Praise of the Earth” by John O’Donohue in his book, “To Bless the Space Between Us”
Note: This is the second installment in a series about fracking, (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas), controversial because of its impact on public safety and health, as well as the environment.
WESTON, W.Va. – Ten miles west of here, Barbara Volk gracefully eases through the woods along a steep slope of her 200-acre farm. A self-described introvert interested primarily in the natural world in which she lives and works, Volk is now a reluctant activist, having been forced to join in the fight against the natural gas industry which looks to dramatically – and irreversibly – transform the quiet hills of North Central West Virginia.
She explains, “I don’t want to be an activist. I didn’t want to do this. But I have to. They brought the battle to me. This is my home, my life. This is my retirement.” By her last statement, the self-employed artisan, farmer, herbalist and horse podiatrist is referring to her lack of a pension plan or other retirement outlet. She has chosen this way of life – one she has planned since she grew up in Baltimore in neighboring Maryland.
To her, the land, her work and her entire life are inseparable. “I am concerned about my plans, what I’ve worked for all my life. I expect this farm to sustain me as I grow old.”
In short, she is sure that the rapidly growing fracking industry, which is expected to build upwards of 300 horizontal natural gas fracturing wells in western Lewis County, will forever disturb her peace. “I live a really idyllic life. But I also work very hard. Everything I do every single day is something I love to do.”
This is obvious to a visitor. Even though she had set time aside to talk about fracking and the harm she believes it will do to her homestead, she also still has work to do on this sunny and warm last weekend of summer. The horses need fed and the hay put up. “I’m sorry,” she offers, “but I have to take care of my horses.” Though it is hard work, it is also obviously enjoyable to her. Taking her visitor down to her barn, she talks to the horses, mixes grains for their meals and puts up the hay. She then takes a little time to “talk” with two of her horses in the corral, communicating without words. Instead, she gestures, and they follow her commands, stop and make eye contact with her. A witness can’t help but sense a connection between human and animals, a connection she is sure she won’t be able to find anywhere else – or here, should the gas companies succeed in their plans.
So, she fights. “I have been involved ever since I knew it was coming to West Virginia because I drive through southwestern Pennsylvania a lot and saw the devastation there.” Now, it is much closer, just north of here, over the ridge in Doddridge County.
Asked how she responds to claims by gas producers that fracking has no negative impact upon people and the environment, she offers, “It just seems to me that anyone can tweak statistics in their favor. In Doddridge County, I have seen the polluted water. I have seen ponds with dead fish. They can claim it is not fracking, but that’s the only thing that’s changed.”
She also points to the noise pollution associated with the construction of well pads; the flaring that produces fierce, bright flames that light up the night sky; pollution to ground and surface water; the impact upon the narrow, harrowing roads throughout the region; and the disharmony that is already occurring between neighbors who work in the industry and those, like her, that oppose it.
Her modest home has skylights that offer an unobstructed view of the sky. “With the gas flares, I won’t be able to see the stars. It’s noisy. The blow-off tanks go off 24-hours a day.” She continues, “I need a big buffer.” Pointing from her kitchen to the ridge across the way, she added, “I remember when they drilled conventional wells. It was constant noise and lights. It drove me crazy.”
She is also concerned because she does not own her mineral rights. She argues, “I’m a surface owner. I am supposed to have rights. We are being bulldozed by these corporations. I own everything I see. I won’t see the stars. I won’t have quiet. I won’t have peace. That needs to be taken seriously.”
Hence, she says, “I need to be more and more vocal. West Virginia is a beautiful state, but it is being destroyed. It’s like we’re the throw-away state. I am concerned that the beauty and the environment will be totally destroyed. I can’t accept that. I have to work. But it’s not just a job. I don’t have just a job. I don’t have just a home. I have a way of life.”
Hours after the visit first began, the sun began to disappear over a western ridge. “This is when I wind down. At the end of the day I walk my dogs. I walk in the woods and all my stresses go away. I wouldn’t trade my way of life for anything.”
She concludes, “I just want to breathe, to be quiet – to enjoy the quiet. I am afraid that is coming to an end. When I grow old, if these companies are successful, West Virginia will no longer be beautiful.”
As one listens to Volk, and enjoys a walk with her in the woods with the only sound being a slight breeze rustling the leaves slowly changing to the colors of autumn, one is drawn back to John O’Donohue’s poem as he pleads:
“Let us ask forgiveness of the Earth
For all our sins against her:
For our violence and poisonings
Of her beauty.”
© Michael M. Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2014.
To learn more about Barbara Volk, visit her website.