The neighbors thought of their land differently. But they found a common purpose in opposing gas shale development in Susquehanna County.
Part autobiography, part non-fiction record of gas drilling and leasing in Susquehanna County, Pennsylvania, Seamus McGraw’s The End of Country details the conditions that drew the gas industry to the Endless Mountains, and the situation the locals were in when the industry arrived.
It all starts when McGraw, a writer for Playboy magazine, has to make a decision with his sister about leasing their mother’s land — and their childhood home — to the gas companies. McGraw’s attempt to figure out what is best for his family drives the story.
McGraw contextualizes this question in the destructive history of the nearby anthracite coal region. Mine waste from the underground mines still lies on the surface and many streams and creeks are polluted.
He also presents another serious backdrop to the financial draw of leasing ancestral land in Northeast Pennsylvania to the gas drillers: the failure and decay of the local farm economy and the need for something to replace it.
Throughout the book, McGraw travels from his own state of mind and into the heads of Susquehanna County residents, gas company landmen, scientists and even 19th century villagers. He offers insight into how these different actors deal with the industry’s rush to lease as much land as possible in the region.
But it is not always clear who is speaking, or whether there is any truth to how the author portrays their differing points of view. In the case of the historic villagers who discovered the usefulness of natural gas, the book lapses into historical fiction as McGraw characterizes the villagers’ thoughts and feelings in ways he could not know about.
In this way, The End of Country keeps the reader guessing about the author’s perspective. Because McGraw writes in the voice of what people are feeling at the time, it often seems like he is evaluating what is—only to let those thoughts be the backdrop to what happens next as he shifts to a different piece of the story.
One particularly worthwhile section of the book depicts a feud between two neighbors. One neighbor works the only real resource he has — his land — by quarrying different areas in rotation. He sees his work as a give-and-take relationship, where he must never take too much and must allow the land to heal.
The other has a more romantic relationship with the land, believing it should not be touched and that his neighbor is doing irreparable harm.
Yet they both stand up against Cabot Oil & Gas, breaking rules at their expense. And in the process, these neighbors, once at odds, learn what they have in common.
Though the transitions in The End of Country can be abrupt, McGraw’s characterization of people’s thoughts makes the book an enlightening read for anyone who’d like to understand the state of mind of landowners who signed gas leases in Susquehanna County.
Mitch Troutman writes for Pennsylvania From Below, a grassroots journalism publication based in Pennsylvania.