Article by Carrie Brunk, Clear Creek Creative (Clear Creek, Rockcastle County, KY)
Photos by Melisa Cardona (New Orleans, LA)
Clear Creek Creative is a member of Alternate ROOTS’ 2014-15 Partners in Action cohort.
It’s a bold move to drive off a rural road back into the woods and right up to a stranger’s house in the mountains of East Kentucky. Even here in the foothills where we have a little distance from what has been coal country and all the hard history that goes with that, an unknown truck pulling up to anyone’s home is almost certain to be met with serious suspicion and, occasionally, a shotgun.
So, from the start, the big gleaming white dually pick-up that drove all the way back into our little place here at Clear Creek last December announced both a boldness and an outsiderness. That the driver didn’t know or care to stop a good distance away and walk up slowly, at the least, spoke poorly of him already.
It turned out that he was a nice enough guy, a good ol’ boy we might say, just doing his job. And the boldness as well as the good-ol’boyness, I’m pretty sure, were explicit qualifications when he was hired as a land man. As I stepped out to meet him, he strode onto our porch and took his stance close enough that I felt the doorknob at my back.
He spoke to me by name first off. And then he delivered a monologue peppered with background research he seemed to have done online about me, my partner, my neighbors. In the moment, it was unsettling and I suppose it was part of his script — meant to establish a false familiarity and also assert a knowing, a dominance.
Furrowed eyebrows and a strong wind likely moved him to get to the point more quickly. He handed me a lease for the mineral rights of this land to be signed right there and then if I pleased. Or, I could talk it over with the man of the house and mail it back with our signatures. Don’t hesitate, though, these royalty rates won’t last, he said with a smile.
The ease and self-assurance with which he made an offer seem like a deal quietly enraged me. He spoke hardly at all about the terms of the agreement — all very unfavorable to the lessee — and focused on the upfront money we would be given upon signing. He made sure to note that he could get that payment to us before Christmas for buying gifts or to pay the annual property taxes at the new year or maybe for some other debt we didn’t know we had yet.
And then there would be the royalties to come once the fracking starts, he said enthusiastically. Based on our acreage, it could be a good chunk of change to count on for years to come. He looked at me expectantly as I scanned the lease. I wondered how deep his internet research had gone and whether he already knew we were a “no” and was just here so he could say he covered the territory. Or just to make sure we knew about forced pooling — as long as 50% of the land in our area is under lease, they can drill under all of it and those who didn’t sign just won’t get paid.
I saw no good in letting loose with rage and other’ing this man who was out doing his job to pay his own bills on a cold near-winter morning. Instead, I asked him question after question slowly, deliberately, about what fracking would be like here in these beautiful hills on the edge of what the industry is calling the “play” of the Rogersville Shale. I told him I had been to North Dakota and I know what it looks like there. Would the fracking pads here be that big? How dangerous would it be to get around the big trucks on these windy little rural roads? How would our spring water be affected? What about the toxicity of all the chemicals and the effects on our farms and food? What about the hundreds of earthquakes that the Oklahoma state government now admits are due to fracking? What about the ban on fracking just passed in New York?
The land man was not prepared for this encounter. He was only prepared to move the lease and the pittance. The money was all he — and the people he worked for — expected me and my neighbors and all the other people in Rockcastle County and the surrounds to care about.
Whether they were drawing on the actual history of this region’s complex though largely compliant relationship to extractive industries or whether they were just counting on people who mostly don’t have a lot of money being willing to do anything to get some, they figured it was a safe bet that many would just sign.
And some have. The thing is, there are many who haven’t — me and my partner Bob and lots of other folks who have all sorts of different backgrounds and relationships to the land they live on.
See, as of that encounter with the land man, Bob and I had already met a week prior with eight of our neighbors in an old schoolhouse down the road because we had seen the unfamiliar fancy trucks and we had heard about the land men beginning to work the area. We had already planned a next meeting to invite more people from up and down Clear Creek and over in Red Lick across the county line to share information, whatever folks’ perspectives might be. We had begun to organize.
What’s more, the whole year prior to that, a group of us here on Clear Creek and round-about had begun the process of devising an original performative piece about the land and water and stories of this place that we live in — why we are grateful for it and why we fear for it. Our creative process led us to explore the transition with a big “T” that our region is currently experiencing — the Transition from what we believe to be the waning years of coal’s economic, political, and cultural dominance to a brighter future for Appalachia that we are all responsible for envisioning and enacting.
It was about six months before the land men even hit the ground here — before we even knew that Clear Creek and the surrounding area would be directly affected by fracking exploration — when we offered the early results of our creative process exploring land and water and Transition. We worked for months with our community’s artists, farmers, foragers, builders and everyone else who showed up along the way. We did story circles and devised work and ensemble work and we had workshops to make theatre, to make songs, to make masks, and to build a timber frame community kitchen from the oak of this land and an earthen oven from the clay of this land.
After all that and more, the work-in-progress presentation ultimately took the form of a midsummer performative walk in the woods that ended with a four-course farm-to-table feast for 147 people sat together at six long tables here on the Clear Creek grounds. Through the stories and the music and the walking and the meal that followed, we opened up an explicit and aspirational conversation within our community about our relationship to the land, about the preciousness of our good water, about our food and farms as a source of abundance, about the kind of community we live in and the future we are building. It was a call to conscience and it was a celebration, an honoring of the land and the water and the food and the people and their stories.
All of this work within our community was deeply infused by a multi-week artistic exchange and series of events with a big bunch of ROOTS friends from New Orleans — the cast and crew of Cry You One — and our tremendous summer-long Clear Creek artist-and-fairyworker-in-residence Nicole Garneau. Cry You One has been part inspiration and part companion study for us. We understand that work as a bayou-based exploration akin to our own Appalachian exploration here on Clear Creek. We have each in our own places focused on a land and its peoples, their exploitations and extractions, their resistance and resilience, their stories and their music and their movements. We have both sought to create art that is of, by, for, and on those lands and its peoples in the most literal senses. Our community has learned a great deal from witnessing the Cry You One stories and sharing in their artistry, hosting their people and making a creative comparative study of their circumstances culturally, economically, environmentally, ethnically, politically, and socially.
The stories and questions of the Gulf Coast that Cry You One bears and the stories that we are bearing through our own work here in the foothills of Appalachia are fundamentally about transitions and change and the choices we make in critical moments as individuals and families, as communities and counties or parishes and at the larger scale of our whole regions and ecosystems. In Appalachia, there are some who believe that the “Transition” of this place is meant to be from the legacy of the declining coal industry to the burgeoning oil and gas industry as savior. These folks see fracking as the only choice to replace a way of life that is the only one they’ve known and maybe the only one they can imagine.
There are others who understand that version of Transition to mean a shift from one extractive model to the next — a transition from mountaintop removal mining that blasts the tops off the mountains in order to extract coal to deep-well hydraulic fracturing that injects millions of gallons of fresh water mixed with toxic chemicals into the earth to extract oil and gas. A transition from dangerous jobs to dangerous jobs. A transition from politicians bought by coal to politicians bought by oil and gas. A transition from the rhetoric of a war on coal to the false promise of domestic oil and gas. A transition that pays no mind to climate change. A transition that divides community rather than builds it.
There is no good choice there, no meaningful Transition — not in environmental nor economic nor cultural nor political or social terms. The exploitative impacts on the people and the land and the water and the democracy and the very life of these places by that kind of industry is known.
While many would welcome that Transition to the poverty and uncertainty they believe is the only other alternative, there are more and more who have come to believe that this place we live in and all of us in it deserve something better. More and more of us are learning that no one is going to deliver it and it is in fact our responsibility to create it. So more and more of us are figuring our way toward how.
As we come up this summer on almost a year since that hosting of Cry You One and the presentation of our own work-in-progress, that “how” is being driven for many in our little neck of the woods by community organizing and by our creative process right alongside, intertwined. We are learning to make the “how” less about fighting the land man and the fracking and more about resisting the Transition they promise by manifesting our own Transition person by person, story by story, community by community, alternative by alternative.
Through all this we are finding that the art, the food, the ritual of our creative work can keep the community organizing in response to fracking from being only a “struggle against” and allow it instead to be infused more and more deeply with
an honoring of
a together with
an aspiration toward
a love for.
Gratitude to Alternate ROOTS for their support of this work through Partners in Action as well as to the Chorus Foundation, the Network of Ensemble Theaters, South Arts, and hundreds of our community members here in Kentucky and more than a few afar. We’ll be hosting the next iteration of our performative walk in the woods and farm-fresh feast at the height of midsummer’s bounty on Saturday, July 25 here on Clear Creek — join us!
Carrie Brunk works with people and organizations committed to envisioning and enacting a better world. She facilitates and supports change efforts ranging in scale from local communities to national networks. The vehicle for Carrie’s work is Clear Creek Creative, a collaborative endeavor with Bob Martin. She lives off the grid in the Rockcastle foothills of Kentucky’s Appalachian Mountains.