Leah Grady Sayvetz lives in Ithaca, New York, where she grew up in the Catholic Worker tradition and part of the broader Catholic Worker community across the country. After having finished school in the Philly area, she most recently returned from traveling through southern states and spending time at the Open Door Community, a Catholic Worker house in Atlanta.
As we drove home from Watkins Glen this afternoon, it began to snow. The flurries danced about us and flew at the windshield as we sped down the road, making our surroundings seem magical. The rolling hills, carved out by a gorge or waterfall here and there, brushed in the feathery grey of bare trees which covered hillsides of rich dark brown hummus now patched with bright white snow… the landscape took my breath away and I remembered how in love I am with this region where I was born. As the snowflakes fell like little blessings from the sky, we in the car remarked on how today had brought a huge blessing: New York’s governor had just banned Fracking in the state.
This morning I rose early and carpooled from Ithaca, the place where I was born, to Watkins Glen, another small town to the West of us. Ithaca sits at the south end of Cayuga Lake, Watkins Glen at the south end of lake Seneca. Both lakes named for the First Nations Peoples who these lands have been stolen from, Cayuga and Seneca are the two biggest of the Finger Lakes. I know that Cayuga Lake, where I have grown up, is forty miles long. Seneca, which I am less familiar with, stretches an even greater distance. Both, obviously, provide water to tens of thousands of people. Today I joined twenty-seven other folks from around here in a blockade of the entrance of Crestwood, a facility that stores fracked natural gas in salt caverns under Seneca Lake. At the time of our action, Governor Cuomo had not yet announced his decision on whether he would ban Fracking in our state. In the absence of governmental action to protect New York State from the very real dangers of the Fracking industry, ordinary citizens have been standing up for their communities. Our action follows over five years now of extensive citizens’ action to protect New York State from Fracking, actions including letter writing, rallies, town hall meetings, town bans. Most of the people in this morning’s blockade have been in this struggle for years now and are in it for the long haul.
Today we took on the theme of being a musician’s contingent standing against Fracking and against Fracking infrastructure in New York. As we formed a line across Crestwood’s driveway, some played guitars, a banjo, we all sang. A big truck turned off the highway and came to a stop in front of us. It carried supplies for Crestwood’s expansion of gas storage under the lake. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has approved the permit for Crestwood to add a half a billion cubic feet of additional natural gas storage in delapidated salt caverns under this big beautiful lake. The salt caverns have shale in their lining, brittle layers of rock that cracks easily under pressure, and the roof of one cavern has already collapsed. These huge empty spaces in the earth under Seneca Lake are what is left from salt extraction over the decades and are not designed for gas storage. Such a practice puts a large water source at high risk, for we’ve seen that the vast majority of all underground gas storage accidents take place in salt caverns. We were not going to let this truck with supplies for the gas storage expansion to pass our human blockade. We sang out, “We are Seneca Lake!”
The Sheriffs arrived and quickly cleared the driveway, loaded us all into squad cars. It was a very orderly affair, nobody got ruffed up, they didn’t even use handcuffs on us, and I was driven to the Sheriff’s station in the front seat with the deputy. The whole scene contrasted starkly to stories friends and family have brought back from Ferguson where the Black Lives Matter and Shut It Down movement has ignited and the police respond with military equipment, rubber bullets, pepper spray, beatings, terror. Riding, uncuffed, in the front seat of a cop car, I couldn’t help but remember, too, images from the Idle No More movement. Our friend Chris sends back footage from Canada where the Elsipogtog Nation Peoples courageously defend their land and communities from extractive industries, corporations backed by the Canadian government and supported by the police.
I am grateful to We Are Seneca Lake for mobilizing so many folks who ordinarily don’t speak out on many issues, I am grateful to be a part of a movement standing up against corporate rule, standing up for the lake, for the animals and plants and people relying on the lake. I want us to remember that we are connected to Idle No More, to Black Lives Matter, to Shut It Down. All of these things are connected.
We are taken from the Sheriffs’ cars into the Public Safety building and gathered together in a room to wait while officers call pairs of names to give out our tickets. My cousin Marie has started a go-around for people to introduce themselves, say why they are here. As my fellow arrestees take turns sharing, I hear people speak of our community and the environment being under attack, of the risk of our children being poisoned, many express the fear that comes with realizing that they cannot rely on the government to protect their communities. These are real concerns for each one of us, but for most of us they are new. In my mind I am thinking how this has been the struggle for First Nations Peoples and descendants of enslaved Africans for hundreds of years. I want us to remember that. Remember, too, that we are all connected. When it is my turn to speak, I share my thoughts with the group, and I am grateful that each of us has the opportunity to speak, for the diversity of backgrounds and perspectives. I remind us that we are on stolen ground and that First Nations Peoples continue to fight to defend their sovereignty, their cultures, and the earth. Last summer, I say, I had the privilege of joining members of the Six Nations of the New York State region, the Haudenosaunee, and members of other First Nations along with their non-Native neighbors in the Two Row Wampum Renewal Campaign Paddle. In Two rows of canoes down the River That Flows Both Ways (aka the Hudson) we commemorated the Two Row Wampum treaty that calls for mutual respect between Native and colonizing peoples and the protection of natural resources. Although the fears which people shared this morning in the Sheriff’s office of imminent threat to our environment and children’s health may be new for many of us, let us not forget that the actual threats are not new. Let us not forget that the struggle in defense against these threats is very old.
I am here in memory of a dear friend, Gay Garrison, who passed away in April. Gay loved this land, these rolling hills, its farms and lakes. Her homestead in Danby, farmland nestled in a beautiful valley, has hosted several organic farms over the years as new farmers started what today are thriving sources of local food. Gay knew the importance of clean water, and as a nurse understood the health implications of toxicity posed by Fracking. She loved her community, she stood in solidarity with her First Nations neighbors, and she did everything she could to educate the public about Fracking and organize for a Fracking ban. I brought Gay’s photo with me to Crestwood today, and as we all waited there in the Sheriff’s office, I took it out and passed her photo around. I felt Gay’s spirit there strongly among us. I’m sure we all felt the energy of our ancestors, of those who have gone before us in the struggle for human dignity, for health, for life. I hope, too, that we could all feel our interconnectedness with all struggles for these things, for in this connectedness we gain our strength and the energy to keep on.
The deputy called my name and I was taken into a hallway where they confirmed my name, address, eye color, height and weight. They gave me a ticket and date to return for arraignment on trespassing and disorderly conduct charges. As I pushed open the doors leading out of the Sheriff’s building, I was greeted by an eruption of cheering and as cameras snapped away I held Gay’s photo up high. I was here because of Gay, because of people like her putting in so many hours of writing letters and phone calling and laying the groundwork for the rest of us to follow, to join in with our bodies. “Governor Cuomo banned Fracking in New York!” I couldn’t believe my ears. I had to have them repeat it a couple more times, hear it coming from different faces, then I broke down in tears. This is what Gay had been fighting for. In my mind I saw the beauty of the sun setting over the fields on Gay’s farm, remembered going to Albany with her to rally the governor, and her concern about passing on her land to her children when it was surrounded by gas leases. Now her grandson who was born in June can grow up on that land without the fear of a nearby Fracking well contaminating his water. I felt overwhelmed and felt the tears keep coming.
Heading home again through the beautiful winter landscape, I knew the struggle wasn’t over. Big Money and corporate greed will continue to push for their way and even if we don’t have Fracking wells, we will still have to fight the pipelines and trains carrying fracked gas, the trucks carrying highly toxic Fracking brine, the storage of fracked gas in structurally unstable salt caverns. I hope, too, that even if the fight against the Fracking industry wins its goals, that we do not forget those of us in our communities who continue to be threatened by systemic oppression, that this fight awakens us and keeps us awakened to the groaning of the universe for change.