Fair Play on the Marcellus Shale
By Jonah WaltersSeptember 11, 2021
Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town by Colin Jerolmack
From the top, you could see Williamsport, Pennsylvania, in the distance. If you looked out past the city, the hospital, prison, and airport, and focused instead on the hillsides, the dark humps looming behind everything, you’d spot what looked like white lakes: whole reservoirs of fluorescence, floodlit pockets so bright they cast stains even along their peripheries. Those were drill sites for natural gas.
If you were lucky, they’d be flaring one of the rigs somewhere in the distance, and you’d see an orange flame erupt from the darkness like a parrot feather. So hot and bright, it turned the sky above blotchy, and sometimes, if you were a teenager, you’d climb down the ladder and get in the car and drive toward where you thought it was, just for the alien thrill of riding off into an artificial sunset made of burning methane. But you never actually got all the way there, because the rigs are on private property, beyond fortified lines you can’t cross.
The methods used to extract the gas — directional (or “horizontal”) drilling; hydraulic fracturing — require technologies that have existed for well under a century, becoming financially viable only in the past several decades. But the gas itself, and the subterranean ribbon of shalestone enveloping it, is one of the oldest things in the world.
It was deposited almost 400 million years ago, during a period when life on land was just starting to appear in the fossil record, making it about 100 million years older, and thousands of feet deeper, than Pennsylvania’s celebrated anthracite coal. It is more than 50 million years older than the Susquehanna River, among the oldest rivers in the Americas, which runs atop it. It predates the present-day Appalachian mountain range itself, which, having previously eroded to a flat plain, only took on its current contours about 60 million years ago — almost 350 million years after the formation of the shale.
Today the Marcellus Shale bears the name of an ancient Roman general who, according to Plutarch, slayed an enemy ruler in hand-to-hand combat and then stripped him naked for his armor. In 1782, revolutionary partisans selected the name for a set of military housing tracts they established by decree in the wilds of western New York. When the new American republic forcibly annexed the remaining Onondaga territories (present-day Onondaga County), the outpost town of Marcellus ballooned into a fearsome frontier settlement, deserving of its violent name. And it was there, in 1839, that the New York State Geological Survey discovered a peculiar outcropping of mottled black shalestone in the woods outside of town. This outcropping, it was later determined, was but one protruding finger of a vast underground rock formation spanning the length of the northern Appalachians, from West Virginia up through Ohio and Pennsylvania and all the way to the Canadian shelf beneath the waters of Lake Erie.
Williamsport, Pennsylvania, is located about 160 miles south of Marcellus, New York, on the Susquehanna’s loping west branch. The city sits at the confluence of that river and Lycoming Creek, which in the British colonial period marked the westernmost boundary of the region’s Lenni Lenape land concession. But a band of rogue colonists calling themselves the Fair Play Men pushed well beyond that frontier line in those years, illegally settling a territory that sprawled all the way to the lowlands of the Tiadaghton Forest some 15 miles away.
There is a story — probably apocryphal — that these settlers were the protagonists of a world-historical coincidence in 1776. On the very day the Continental Congress convened itself in Philadelphia, the story goes, representatives of the Fair Play Men happened to meet under the boughs of the 100-year-old Tiadaghton Elm, on the westernmost edge of their unlawful province, to ratify their own Declaration of Independence from Great Britain. When the courier they dispatched arrived in Philadelphia a few days later, he discovered the frontiersmen had been scooped by coastal notables and so he returned to the wilds with his head hung low, the declaration still sealed with wax inside his saddlebag.
While the Fair Play Men didn’t get to lead the revolution, the war did liberate them from the restrictions on land-grabbing imposed by the British crown. After the genocidal Sullivan Expedition razed scores of Lenni Lenape and Haudenosaunee villages in 1779, fresh waves of settlers arrived from the eastern colonies, especially New Jersey. To this day, the main population center in the valley west of Williamsport bears the disorienting name of Jersey Shore. Through ethnic cleansing, these settlers claimed private dominion over hundreds of plots of land. They did so under the pseudo-legal protection of the Fair Play Men. Continuing to administrate the area, they operated as a kind of land-owning agrarian mafia until their absorption into the formal state government around 1785.
Up to Heaven and Down to Hell: Fracking, Freedom, and Community in an American Town derives its title from a peculiar element of the property regime established by the Fair Play Men and their collaborators in Pennsylvania’s Lycoming Valley. There, as in vast swathes of the emergent settler republic, private landowners enjoyed dominion not only over the surface of their lands, but also over the infinite column of space above and below them. A relic of ancient jurisprudence made durable through settler colonialism, this principle still structures property rights in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
A Latin maxim meaning “Whoever’s is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell” was first articulated by the Roman jurist Accursius about a millennium after Marcus Claudius Marcellus began sparring with Gauls in the Apennines. It was preserved in English common law as metaphor, not description: landowners enjoyed mostly unfettered use-rights on their private lands, but the monarch still exercised sovereign ownership over the kingdom’s natural wealth, which included the minerals and metals contained in the subsoil.
What was legal fiction in royalist England was made literal through settler freeholding in the Anglo-American colonies. There, any man who owned a parcel ruled a kingdom. The land was inviolably his, and his alone, as were all the layers of rock and riches beneath it. Just as the annexation of the Onondaga territory led the New York State Geological Survey to discover the Marcellus Shale, so too did the Fair Play Men’s genocide against the Lenni Lenape create the legal conditions for drill sites to proliferate, as if by invisible consensus, across the hillsides of their looted valley more than two centuries later.
In industry parlance, a sizable gas deposit available for exploitation is called a play, the same word colonial settlers used for tracts of productive gameland. Williamsport, the “American town” referenced in Up to Heaven’s subtitle, was one of the earliest epicenters of the Marcellus Shale play in Pennsylvania.
To write Up to Heaven, sociologist Colin Jerolmack moved from his regular digs in New York City to a Williamsport neighborhood of short-term rentals and foreclosure auctions called “Millionaires’ Row” (its name is a holdover from the early 20th-century lumber boom). With the sensitivity and patience of a veteran ethnographer, he then spent years building relationships with a broad cross-section of locals in greater Williamsport.
Predictably, then, Jerolmack’s book is populated by complex characters — the retired janitor who’d rather “suck on a gun barrel” than lose his ancestral homestead; the affluent environmentalist who ultimately signs a gas lease over the thrumming of her bleeding heart; the empty-nesters who manage, against all odds, to create something like an ad hoc leasers’ union among their neighbors; the resource geologist who finds himself the bridge between two warring worlds.
Jerolmack began his research in the heady early days of the gas boom, when I was still out climbing that cell-phone tower above Muncy Creek, fresh out of high school. I lived with my parents in a town called Lewisburg, which, although less than 20 miles downstream from Williamsport, is not on the Marcellus Shale. It sits in another river valley, near the fork of the Susquehanna, and does not harbor natural gas beneath its water table. Driving upriver toward the shale, as I constantly did in those days, eventually came to feel like transiting a great divide. Still, the formative experiences of my adolescence took place in the Lycoming Valley: kids from all over the area tended to congregate in Williamsport, usually as soon as we got our drivers’ licenses, lured by the closest thing we had to a city.
Hydraulic fracturing, colloquially known as “fracking,” began as early as 2003 in the western part of Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until 2008 or so that energy companies began to see the Marcellus as the next great play in North America. In 2010, a fracking moratorium in New York pushed speculators into the southern shale states, and that was when the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania seized an opportunity to get the edge on its competition. Today it is the only energy-producing state in the country that does not require oil and gas companies to pay severance taxes on locally extracted resources sold beyond its borders.
For good reason, then, the arrival of fracking in Pennsylvania tends to be narrated as an example of nefarious public-private sector collaboration: powerful energy interests colluded with a conservative state government to impose a non-local land use without popular consent. But the truth is that fracking required widespread local participation even in its earliest moments. (As Jerolmack writes, “[T]he big picture overlooks how personal fracking is.”) Because landowners in greater Williamsport enjoy dominion over their subsoil rights, energy companies couldn’t just show up and start drilling. First, they had to be invited in.
I remember the momentum behind fracking. A soft-spoken resource populism developed among our peers and elders. Fracking became a matter of personal emotional investment, and so it was impolite to discuss it in deliberative fashion. A private matter, it was a question to be decided within families. But as drill sites proliferated, each authorized by a local landowner with a lease that exchanged subsoil rights for the promise of gas royalties, it became obvious that what we had achieved through our politeness was passive consensus. More than 12,600 gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania since 2004, with permits issued for 9,000 more. Thousands of them are located in greater Williamsport.
Jerolmack calls Williamsport the “land of the freehold,” evoking the colonial character of landownership in the area. Freeholder societies, it turns out, are not set up for the kind of democracy that can rein in resource extraction; municipalities couldn’t ban fracking, or even regulate it all that much, because they were superseded by Pennsylvania law. Besides, the primary driver of gas development was the origination and renewal of gas leases — something left entirely to the discretion of private landowners and typically decided at a kitchen table, not a town hall.
The ecological transformation fracking wrought, that patchwork of floodlight and flare I saw from above Muncy Creek, was not the result of some authoritarian state action, nor even the simple outcome of untrammeled corporate greed. Rather, it was an aggregate effect of thousands of private landowners’ deciding to lease their subsoil rights — to play the “gas lottery,” as Jerolmack calls it. And because an owner of a small to mid-sized parcel of land in greater Williamsport is nearly as likely to be an unemployed steelworker as a high-income professional with a job in town, the gas lottery didn’t discriminate: for some it promised enrichment, for others it offered rescue.
Of course, the ecological degradation associated with fracking affected leasers and non-leasers alike. But perhaps ironically, this kind of collective hardship actually accelerated the shale’s development, as those who initially refused to sign leases came to understand that gas royalties could represent a kind of individual repayment for the common wealth that had already been lost.
The historian Greg Grandin reminds us that settler colonialism, as a historical process and political endeavor, seems often to turn back on itself, devouring its own anatomy like a snake eating its tail. So perhaps the most revealing of Jerolmack’s findings is that while “[i]n the end, nearly every landowner in greater Williamsport leased,” a good number of those leasers came to experience the loss of autonomy over their land as an intolerable violation of fundamental freedoms. Even the ostensible winners of the gas lottery — the lucky landowners with productive wells who, for a time, received thousands of dollars in gas royalties each month — tended to have mixed feelings about fracking in the end.
In Williamsport, fracking was a collective action undertaken with no public deliberation — it happened to us, and yet we did it to ourselves. Somehow the most monumental decision our community had ever faced was broken into shards and scattered randomly between individual households. Or “freeholds,” as we all would have said 200 years ago, and as some still say today.
Up to Heaven and Down to Hell is a work of empirical scholarship that strides confidently over the false boundary between ecological and social history. In the US academy, at least, the arguable ur-text of this genre, the book that makes Jerolmack’s possible, is Changes in the Land, first published in 1983.
In that book, historian William Cronon argues that the environmental project of settler colonialism in the Anglo-American colonies was to untangle “resources” — that is, ecological specimens the settlers identified as commodities — from the social tethers that bound them to the land. The settlers’ objective was to integrate these resources into an emergent global market based on the European ideal of impersonal commodity exchange. To accomplish this, they committed themselves to annihilating the Indigenous property regimes that had previously structured resource rights in the American Northeast.
This kind of pillaging frontierism caused a wrinkle in the early logic of capitalist accumulation. In England, labor-intensive commodities like cultivated crops carried the highest value at market, and so returns on investment were always tempered by the landowner’s recurrent need to reproduce his labor force through wages or other rewards. In the colonies, however, the most profitable commodities — fur and lumber — derived their value not from the strenuous nature of their production, but from their scarcity in England.
Through force and intimidation, settlers laid claim to these resources as “wasting assets,” in Cronon’s memorable phrase — deposits of ecological value, easily converted to liquid capital in the overseas market, which accrued to the landowner as supposedly “natural” benefits of private ownership. In this way, colonists “consume[d] natural wealth as a substitute for capital.”
But while Cronon’s book is a work of history, Jerolmack’s is an ethnography: his sources are living people, his evidence the decisions they make day by day. Up to Heaven’s core insight is that the tragedy of the commons on the Marcellus did not result from some primordial deficit of human psychology. It stemmed from political sources. And while Jerolmack doesn’t describe it in quite these terms, it is clear that one cause of the tragedy was the settler institution of property-in-land on the permanent frontier.
By chasing individual rewards in the boundless substrata beneath their soil, the residents of greater Williamsport merely exercised their prerogatives as freeholding settlers. If this process foreclosed the possibility of democratic deliberation, well, that was the system working as intended. As a matter of fact, the whole point of settler legality in the Anglo-American colonies was to liberate resource commodities from the social entanglements that restricted their perfect integration into an external market.
Property-in-land is a kind of settler cosmology. Claiming vertical ownership over a shard of crust and mantle is like taking dominion over a sliver of geological time. And if we think of the passage of geological time as something productive — a process through which improvements congeal and new capacities consolidate — then we can see the vertical plots over which settlers claim dominion not only as repositories of past events, but also as layered reserves of ecological value.
On the Marcellus, history may seem to vindicate the colonists’ dark cosmovision. The land’s greatest “wasting asset,” if we can call it that, turned out to be contained in a form that would have been unimaginable to the earliest land-grabbers in the Lycoming Creek basin. And so it’s certainly tempting to think like those settlers, to accept the premise that each plot of land represents a vertical repository of boxed-up ecological value.
Fracking arrived in northern Pennsylvania on the heels of a decades-long industrial decline, in the context of a rapidly metastasizing despair indexed by rising drug dependence, homelessness, and suicide. In the 21st century, the “wasting asset” of the gas would have to substitute not only for capital, but also for wages and welfare.
Suddenly words like “birthright” were on everybody’s lips. The refrain heard round the region during the gas boom was that the gas was valuable and it was here, goddammit. By a providential accident, it actually belonged to some of us. How dare we discourage anyone from capitalizing on that value?
But before long, of course, the royalty checks quit coming. The pace of fracking slowed dramatically around 2013, as gas companies shifted their attention to more lucrative deposits in Ohio and western Pennsylvania. The boomtown became a bust-town. Nowadays, the people who stayed are left to salvage what they can from the degraded land and disrupted social fabric left behind by fracking in greater Williamsport. I think we’re all still wondering what the hell happened — and whether the gas lottery was worth it.
Across the country, shale regions like the Marcellus have become geographies of renewed settler violence. Especially on the Bakken Shale play of the northern plains, the arrival of large numbers of male gas workers intensified the vulnerability of rural, and especially Indigenous, women to abduction and assault. Writing about the Bakken as well as the Marcellus, Toni Jensen argues that, in the 21st century, “the degradation and exploitation of Indigenous women and children continue through […] the force and power of the fracking industry.”
Jensen isn’t the only Indigenous author who describes shale plays as zones of special vulnerability and degradation. In a short story by Kelli Jo Ford, the narrator recalls letting a high school classmate sweet-talk her into chasing a flare, just like I used to do; the pair follow “the orange glow through pastures, carrying a bottle and blanket,” across Texas’s Barnett Shale. A decade later, returning to the area amid ecological collapse, she spots a gas well billowing “hazy, electric smoke” and has to remind her husband that “this happens from time to time in oil country, even when there isn’t an apocalypse going on.”
Stories like these remind us that the slow apocalypse of settler colonialism in the Americas is frivolous, vicious, and preventable — and fiercely contested at every turn. “We understand that alongside every creek, every rock formation, every piece of land that was once and still is ours,” Jensen writes, “there is crying, yes, there is blood on the bright green of the women’s dresses, but there also are our images, our words, ringing out like song.” As Nick Estes observes in his magisterial Our History Is the Future, it was the development of the Bakken play that led to the planning of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which in turn prompted the stand-off at Standing Rock, arguably the most significant local struggle in defense of Indigenous sovereignty in more than a century.
Writing in the New Republic, Jerolmack has pointed out that Indigenous-led social movements and disgruntled gas leasers tend to express their grievances in similar terms: at root, they both demand “sovereignty over land-use decisions regarding fracking.” He acknowledges that their apparently rhyming demands “stem from distinct, unequal, and troubled histories,” and so would inevitably make for “a very uneasy alliance.” Nevertheless, Jerolmack suggests that such a coalition might advance a program of local self-determination against the interests of trans-local gas companies, and in that way erode the legal and ideological basis for the tragedy of the commons that unfolded on the Marcellus.
He’s far from the first writer to propose something like this. By framing the lack of deliberative control over common property as something that disenfranchises settler and Indigenous communities alike, Jerolmack echoes an argument made by Nimiipuu anthropologist (and Marxist) Archie Phinney almost a hundred years ago. Writing in 1936, Phinney observed that Indigenous households were legally resigned to “a vapid economic status” in the US settler republic — and so, as individual actors, could only aspire to “assimilation on the lowest level of white proletarian existence.” But it was his hope that decapitalized Indigenous communities might come together with the disenfranchised “mass of average rural white families” to defy, and ultimately reinvent, the uneven geography of property and privilege that prevailed across rural America.
Can we find the germ of such a politics in Williamsport’s disgruntled freeholders? Maybe, maybe not. Questions like that can’t be answered by books or book reviewers. But in Up to Heaven and Down to Hell, Jerolmack succeeds in demonstrating that, even in the “land of the freehold,” the mutual delusion of private property-in-land is not as stable or invulnerable as it may appear.
Here’s one more tall tale from the Lycoming Valley, this one about where the Fair Play Men’s abandoned Declaration of Independence may have ended up. That piece of blotted parchment, the foundational document of settler property in greater Williamsport, was lost during the Big Runaway of 1778, when freeholders barricaded themselves inside forts to cheer on the military annihilation of the Lenni Lenape. The lore is that it’s buried out there somewhere, preserved in an iron box and sealed in waterproof wax, perhaps beneath the packed dirt of a forgotten fortress, deep in the Pennsylvania wilds.
Locals still go out searching with metal detectors and spades. To discover it, according to one group of enthusiasts, would be “better than an Indiana Jones movie and more mysterious than the search portrayed in National Treasure.” But if I learned anything from Up to Heaven, it’s that maybe that lost Declaration, like the gas 5,000 feet beneath it, would be better left underground.
Jonah Walters recently completed a PhD in geography at Rutgers. His essays and reporting have appeared in Full Stop, the Guardian, Jacobin, and elsewhere.
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