Monday, August 22, 2011

Geology, Ecology, Economy and Politics

Susquehanna County is the second most sparsely populated county in Pennsylvania. It lies in the Endless Mountains, a section of the Appalachian range in the northeast corner of the state. 

According to the theory of plate tectonics, the Appalachians are some of the oldest mountains in the world, dating back 1.3 billion years. They were formed by a series of collisions and separations of today's continental land masses, which originally rested in a clustered grouping along the equator at a ninety degree angle to their current position on the globe. (Visualize the circular face of a clock. The continents once lay along a line drawn between nine and three, but then turned, pulled apart and aligned along the axis between twelve and six).

Geologists believe the earth's crust compresses and expands along seams in an accordion like fashion. When the land masses shift and collide, mountains are thrust upward like snow pushed by a plow. When they drift apart, oceanic basins form that slowly fill with organic material and sediment from the eroding hills. This infinitely slow "breathing" process of the crust is thought to have formed the Appalachians in three distinct phases. The first occurred when the western coast of South America collided with Proto-North America (the land mass which became today's continent). After they floated apart on the surface of the earth's molten core, two large "arches" of islands gradually followed one another into the vacated area. Both were drawn toward the continent by a "sub-duction zone" which with gravity, heat and pressure swallows and digests the earths crust, returning it to molten form. 

During these two geological periods, ocean floor sediments and the Taconic and Avalonian islands were peeled back and shoved up onto the hills driving the mountains higher. To the west of these new Alpine like peaks, a shallow sea formed stretching to what is today Indiana. This became an immense collection basin for eroded materials washing down the inland side of the mountain range. 

Sediments left in this region of the Appalachian-Catskill Delta would later fossilize into Pennsylvania bluestone, a variety of sandstone mined almost exclusively in Susquehanna County. Blue stone was formed from mineral rich sediments in tidal pools and along shorelines with the highest quality stone grains resulting from deposits created by shallow swift currents spreading the sand over long distances. 

The most current collision and separation of continents began 350 million years ago when Proto-America was rammed by the lands of Gondwana. They separated 130 million years later forming North America, the Atlantic Ocean and Africa. The period of compression metamorphosed much of the rock of the Appalachian range and then stretched, cracked and rearranged it yet again as the continents drifted apart. 

Successive glacial periods followed, periodically blanketing the northeast in ice until about 11,000 years ago. The tremendous weight of the expanding ice packs, as deep as the highest mountains, reshaped the hills, exposing rock strata from previous geological periods, carving out rivers and lakes and strewing "erratics" (boulders carried for miles by the moving ice) over the reformed landscape. When the ice melted, deposits of "glacial till" formed new landscape features, like the lands of Brooklyn and Long Island, which are an accumulation of sand, pebbles and rock shorn from the hills northwest of Manhattan. The sea level rose some 400 feet and the shore line retreated from the edge of the Continental shelf to its present location.

The geology and ecology of Susguehanna County has defined the region's economy since the first white settlers began to infiltrate the then hunting ground of the Iroquois Nation. 

The hardwood forests of the region wood be decimated for charcoal production. The bark of hemlock trees would like wise be exploited in mass for the tannin used in leather processing. By the 1850's, the virgin forest would be clear cut and towns named "Stumpville" would rise in its stead. Sheep and cattle would be grazed on treeless pastures, confined to acreage by stone walls made from the alluvial shale found plentifully mixed in the region's thin topsoil and ceaselessly disgorged by ox drawn plows. To the south, the Wyoming and Lehigh valleys would become the primary source of anthracite coal which replaced wood as a fuel source during America's 19th century industrial revolution. 

There were two main waves of settlers to locate in Susquehanna County, the Scots-Irish who came when the region was still frontier (1810-50) and then the later spill over of Eastern European immigrants who arrived seeking work in the mines and valley's textile mills after our Civil War.

There is an odd paradox in this county. Although it has always been a land of small dairy farms, independently operated bluestone quarries and timber-men, it is a Republican stronghold. I suspect this affiliation can be traced back to Lincoln era and the fiercely anti-slavery Methodists and Baptists who voluntarily gave a disproportionate number of young men to fight with the Union. More recent are the Reagan-Bush Republicans, who derived their income from work with military sub-contractors. These included the now closed Bendix Corporation which was located near the county seat in South Montrose and Lockheed Martin, just over the northern border in Owego, NY (which recently lost the contract on Presidential helicopters granted by the Bush Administration) as well as IBM which had its international headquarters in Endicott, NY, thirty miles from Montrose. 

Beside government and healthcare, these corporations offered the only substantial white-collar employment in the region. Support for the military-industrial complex has been a Republican mantra for the last forty plus years. Marry job with patriotism and it’s easy to see why the "hawks" have found support here.

The coal region to the county's south begins in Forest City, PA. It is a Democrat stronghold. It drafts its political complexion from the valley, much as the giant electric generating windmills on the surrounding hills are fanned by thermals rising from the warmer lowlands.

Carbondale, the next town south or "down the line" from Forest City was the west terminus of the first gravity driven rail system in the United States. To deliver the anthracite coal to its markets in Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, New York and Boston a canal system was used that started in the town of Honesdale, Pennsylvania and connected to the Delaware River, where it was floated south in barges. To get the coal to Honesdale a narrow gauge track was constructed over the mountain. The weight of the loaded coal cars descending the east side of the mountain pulled the freshly filled cars up the west side and the empty cars back from Honesdale. 

Before anthracite coal, there was no substantive railroad system in America. Rails came into prominence with the development of the coal and iron industry. 

Prior to the Revolutionary War, Great Britain forbid the colonies from producing finished iron products. Instead, unrefined "pig iron" smelted from ore over charcoal fires was shipped to England where it was made into finished products that were then sold back to the Colonies (a grievance every bit as great as the tea tax). 

It was not until the mid 19th century that a Philadelphia entrepreneur figured out how to make anthracite coal burn; a result achieved by blowing pre-heated air on the fuel. Once ignited, the high carbon content made anthracite burn hot and it became the choice for America’s iron industry as well as for homes and factories in the growing metropolitan areas on the eastern seaboard. 

In order to meet the rising demands of coal consumers, networks of railroads began to supplant the earlier canal systems. Prior to the Civil War high quality iron rails where purchased from England, but with the rapid expansion of tracks spurred by the war, production in America grew. 

The Bessemer process of steel production was then developed in England and brought to America by Andrew Carnegie. Burning bituminous coal mined in western PA in special ovens, an almost pure carbon product called "coke" was developed (anthracite was called "natural coke"). With anthracite and coke for fuel, iron ore was smelted into molted pig iron through which air was blown. The impurities in the iron attached to the oxygen and burned off, leaving steel as the finished product, a better choice for rails and the boilerplates of steam engines. With the Bessemer process, steel could be manufactured at about 10% the cost of the traditional smelting process, changing production time from a day to fifteen minutes! By the end of the 19th century, one third of all steel produced in the US was going to the manufacture of rails for the expanding transportation network.

Thus began the great corporate take over of America’s Gilded Age and the transformation of the Union from a democratic, subsistence agricultural culture to today's monopolized capitalistic system.

South of the family farms in Susquehanna County, in what was then the nation's wealthiest city, the Irish coal miners of Scranton, PA were organizing the first labor unions in the United States. Galvanized by the inhuman working conditions and poor wages of this immensely profitable industry and originally unified in opposition to Abraham Lincoln's discriminatory draft laws introduced during the Civil War, the Irish in New York City's Tammany Hall brought the Democratic Party to the mines. Generations later, the Democrats still have a vibrant coalition in the hamlets of the great anthracite valley. 

But the labor unions bled and continue to bleed. Carnegie, who's company created a closed economic system, owned the natural resources, the transportation, as well as the raw and finished goods manufacturing. The costs of all the components of production were then fixed commodities except for the human element...labor. And Carnegie went after labor with both barrels of his Pinkerton guards' guns blazing. He broke the Union at Homestead, PA and his steel empire moved into the twentieth Century unchallenged.. Then came the age of reformation and government regulation, of Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders, of the graduated income tax and eventually a new king, JP Morgan and United Steel.

However, as time has passed, the strained rope between regulatory government and big business has seemed to shorten, and a "new" government of America has emerged. It is a voting coalition of professional politicians and lawmakers funded by the cooperate elite. 

Local government and unions, the forums of free speech and the voice of working men and women, have either erroded or dissolved all together, leaving what was once a one person, one vote democracy disenfranchised from its life support systems. No more do we derive our strength from small community units, but instead we seem to have become dispensable members of a hive community with 1% of the population controlling 98% of our countries wealth. 

The American Republic has twisted and transformed like the geology of the landscape. The two party system so repugnant to John Adams is now firmly entrenched and Jefferson's lofty ideals of a government for and by the people have drifted as far from their origins as the continents on the shifting global mantel.

Adams was a farmer. He tilled his own fields with his own hands and he knew the "common man" on a first name basis. Jefferson was a slave owner, a dreamer of great dreams, a self-proclaimed Agrarian who spent years in the most sophisticated cities of Europe. These two men differed on the fundamental question of mankind's nobility. While Jefferson wrote of all men being created equal, he owned his slave lover. Adams on the other hand, felt that given the opportunity to power, the most humble man could become a tyrant.

I have worked hard on my own property in Susquehanna County for the better part of forty years. As a young man, I set an aesthetic goal for these two hundred acres quite different from the the dairy, quarry, or timber men that had come before me. Like the wind and the rain, we have shared the spotlight as elements of change. I have acted upon stone and earth as have the great forces of glaciers and plate tectonics and they have acted upon me, creasing my skin with wear and age. We have become part of one another. I have tried to honor this work. I have felt grandly involved and at other times worthless before this rippled landscape. 

Is anything held in judgement? How can a flat stone skipped across a farm pond be compared with the seismic shudder of sub-ducted bedrock? How can human plans rival eons of random geological reordering? 

Zen Buddhists often meditate on riddles or questions that can not be solved logically. These Endless Mountains are often my own "koans" and its a sugary thought that great questions are but wooded foot paths between spectacular views.

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