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Up from below

There are many layers to any place, but at the beginning, the one layer that brought me to this particular swath of southern New York and northern Pennsylvania is several thousand feet underground: the Marcellus Formation.

That thick piece of shale holds natural gas that, until the combination of horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing came along several years ago, few people thought would be drilled from underground.

Before heading out to walk across 70 or so miles at surface level, I spoke to a geologist who explained that as I moved from New York to Pennsylvania, the Marcellus beneath me would be heading downhill. In other words, it sits about 3000 feet underground beneath Dryden, where I took my first steps. And it sits 6,500 feet or so underground in Dimock, where I plan to end my walk later this week.

Gas companies can make more money pulling gas from the thicker, more productive deposits beneath Dimock, and that’s where a lot of early efforts went. There isn’t as much gas to be had around Dryden, but worry about the damage that fracking can do led the Town of Dryden to pass a drilling ban upheld by New York’s courts. It was celebrated as a victory for home rule, but also guarantees for now that farmland will remain agricultural only.
I began my journey at this horse farm, owned by a woman convinced that fracking and clean water cannot coexist. “My tap roots run deep,” the woman told me.

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All of New York state remains under a fracking ban, with a moratorium in place as state agencies continue environmental and health assessments about the impacts of such extensive industrialization of the countryside.

But by the end of day two of my walk, when I had crested Shindagin Hollow State Forest and descended country roads into the Town of Candor, I’d entered a new county and new political terrain.

Town leaders and landowners talked about lost economic opportunity, with New York staying under a moratorium as hundreds of wells have been drilled across the border in Pennsylvania. The old-timers gathered for the daily coffee talk in a farmhouse in Owego figured that the chance to lease their land as part of an energy boom won’t come back around in their lifetimes.

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“New York shot themselves in the foot,” said one man, who just days before had been part of a search crew who found a local woman who had been lost in the woods for three days.

That odyssey had the coffee crowd debating whether the village police or the county sheriff should have done more to find her more quickly.

At one point, one of the men in the group, which meets for coffee 364 mornings a year (taking a break only on the first day of deer hunting season), stood, and by way of explanation as he headed out the door for home, said, “nature calls.”

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