Outside a country store in the Allegheny Mountains, she stood behind a table covered in mason jars of home-made apple jelly and pickles. It was one of those glorious fall days in
West Virginia, so I lingered to buy some of Bertie’s homemade apple jelly and a stapled booklet of poems. Seeing my interest, she recited a couple from memory. I recall one was an ode to her home state and the other a tragic-cum-humorous story about a mouse. I was told she memorized over 100 of her poems, most of them end rhymes or couplets that celebrated country life, family, friends and animals over a long and often hard life. I listened to more over the years whenever I visited her mobile home in a quiet hollow (‘holler’) of Webster County.
Eventually, I offered to help her reach a wider audience. I recorded videos in her home and have now compiled her best poems in a published anthology for her 96th birthday in June 2020.
We gathered along an empty country road to gaze at the wounded hillside. It now has an orange stripe of bare earth instead of a green canopy. The sight reminded me of how skin contracts from the path of a surgeon’s knife, leaving a trail of blood seeping from underlying layers of fat and muscle.
After the dozers finished the cut, huge trucks and cranes laid sections of 42-inch pipes in a line for welders to join together. This was an advance section of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline. Our group of 30 observers were mostly from environmental organizations in West Virginia, along with a few locals and this correspondent.
A web of pipelines across the continent conveys natural gas and oil to ports and power stations. The ACP connects the fracking shale fields in the north-western region of the state to North Carolina over 600 miles away. It passes through private and public property, up and down mountains, and under hundreds of streams. The Mountain Valley Pipeline is another gargantuan project an hour’s drive west. Both have paused while the courts decide if they meet legal standards for crossing streams.
Before they snaked across our landscape, numerous homeowners posted NO PIPELINE signs in their front yards and petitioned lawmakers and federal organizations to rigorously examine the alternatives and risks, but permits were approved anyway. A few large landowners benefited from leasing the rights of way, but most rural folk objected to eminent domain that overrules their property rights, the disruption of quiet lives and despoliation of scenery, as well as pollution. Their interests were easily trampled over by corporations that want the shortest route (even if more hazardous) to save money and trouble from more argumentative folk nearer urban centers. Piping energy is a big business ($Bns) and offers rich dividends for investors.
Plans were published last year for an underground mine safety research facility close by. The site is adjacent to one of our friends, an ex-coal miner who lost a relative in a mining disaster. Safety must not be neglected while coal is still mined, but why plant a facility in this valley that will send shock waves like earthquakes through rock and underground rivers? I recall the prospectus calmly noted about 2.5 miles between the testing site and the pipeline, but I measured under 2 miles on a topographical map. We await news after I raised an alarm.
This is the worst terrain for safety and the environment, and engineers have rarely struggled with it. Not only is it mountainous, but the geology is karst. Limestone is riddled with caves, sinkholes and underground waterways that are poorly mapped. Heavy rain causes landslides, more so after erasing the ground of forest cover and other vegetation. We worry that hydraulic fluid and oils will leak into groundwater to spoil drinking water in wells and springs. They threaten aquatic life, not only protected species but trout that attract fishermen from out of state to pristine streams that helps the fragile local economy.
I admit a personal interest. We have a home nearby and it is not comforting to be told we are just outside the two-mile blast zone should a spark ignite gas from a leaking pipe. Nothing engineered is 100% safe. A smaller pipeline in Beaver County, PA, blew up in 2018. A family had a narrow escape when their home was destroyed a quarter-mile away, and several high voltage pylons were toppled.
I won’t condemn pipelines out of hand. They are better than dispatching combustible fuels on trucks and trains (remember the explosion that killed almost 50 people in Quebec in 2013?). But I don’t have confidence in how decisions are made and executed. Corporate interests easily ride over country people, native Americans, Canadians, and other minority communities. Politicians should represent their constituents first, but too many seem closer to corporate executives with deep pockets. That leaves the courts as guardians of laws to protect public drinking water and protected species.
Some questions about other controversial pipelines now encircle the ACP and MVP projects. Why build them when we should cut back on fossil fuels and put the investment in renewable solar and wind power? Was there a full accounting of ALL the costs: economic, social and environmental? Is the industrial euphoria another gold rush for the few to profit and leave the environment degraded like 19th century California? It is awful to imagine how people will suffer if the coronavirus pandemic triggers an economic depression, but it may halt the pipeline craze. I know people who would be glad if pipes lie redundant in the ground, but they will sigh at the scars left on their beloved hills and mountains.
There’s a family I know in the Allegheny Mountains of West Virginia that has made maple syrup for over a century. As they are now short-handed of youngsters leaving for city work and the retainers get older and frailer, I offered to help this year.
I sat down with Gary in his sugar shack. He is the older of two brothers who manage the operation. They had already checked the network of tubes tapped into sugar maple trees that crisscross the wooded slopes. The sap runs along the plastic channels toward a main line to finally reach a large tank outside the shack.
“In the past we tapped each tree separately,” he told me. “Before we left for school, while it was still dark, we had to bring down heavy buckets full of sap from the woods.”
“I guess winters were harder in those days,” I said. “This is another mild one.”
“Oh yeah. It started snowing in November and the ground was covered until March, even April. Blizzards piled snow high as fence posts.”
His brother Ronnie came inside. As first I didn’t recognize him in the dense steam filling the room.
“Hi. We need the extractor to clear the air,” he said, wafting a hand to clear the fog.
“I’m up for that,” I chipped in. “When your family started making syrup was it to supplement farm income in winter?”
“Not at all.” It was Gary who replied. “What our Granddaddy made was the only source of sweetness for the family. He never bought sugar at the store.”
“Nowadays, we only make it to keep the tradition going, and sales just about cover our costs,” Ronnie added.
Before we fixed the extractor on the tin roof, I brought in some logs from the huge pile they had cut and split last year. It’s cheaper to boil sap over wood fires than use electric or gas heaters. There’s no shortage of wood in and around the Monongahela forest.
Much of their equipment is homemade and looks antique. Harvesting sap doesn’t cost a penny when it runs by gravity and is boiled with local wood, but costly in time and effort. The fluid is fed into a large tank over the first fire which is kept alight around the clock. If it starts foaming Ronnie squirts from a proprietary bottle to raise the surface tension. In the old days they used a piece of bacon. The warmed sap passes to the evaporator, the most modern part of the system, where it bubbles over a second fire and generate clouds of steam. 100 gallons of sap is concentrated to about 2 gallons of syrup. We threw logs on the fires every half hour to keep them hot. Ronnie checked the specific gravity of the liquor with a hydrometer (looking like a long thermometer): the optimum is a narrow band.
It’s obvious when a sugar shack is making maple syrup. While one chimney smokes from a log fire another belches steam from the evaporator. The process runs for up to a month.
I asked Gary to explain the daily cycle.
“Sap don’t flow at night cos of freezin, but starts when it warm up.”
When a tree gets warmer its interior pressure rises and sap flows up the xylem tubes to drip out of holes tapped through the bark, like blood oozing out of a wound. The sugar synthesized in the leaves by photosynthesis the previous summer has been stored in the tree as starch (a polymer of glucose). As spring approaches it is mobilized ahead of the season of growing shoots and leaves, and very slightly sweetens the sap. The yellow-bellied sapsucker knows this too as it drills holes in smaller boughs. When the bird returns it may find an insect in the sticky sap, and enjoy the protein morsel in a carbohydrate sauce in dead of winter.
During cold weather tree roots remain unfrozen and soil moisture is drawn into them by the process of osmosis to generate “root pressure.” Sap rises up the tree in the xylem. That’s the principle, although plant physiology is more complicated. I love to see a family honoring a time-honored process using equipment and principles I can understand in an era when the technology I use is beyond my comprehension. Besides, making maple syrup is a gentle art that does no harm to trees or wildlife.