Cover image for Here and There: Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscapes By Bill Conlogue

Here and There

Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscapes

Bill Conlogue


$78.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06080-4

$32.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-06081-1

Available as an e-book

248 pages
6" × 9"
12 b&w illustrations/2 maps

Here and There

Reading Pennsylvania's Working Landscapes

Bill Conlogue

“Bill Conlogue, in Here and There, offers a nuanced, multilayered act of attention to the realities of land use and land thought in northeastern Pennsylvania. His intertwining of history, literature, and lived experience in a very particular place joins a new chorus of counterstatements to the twenty-first-century mantra of global sameness. A skillful scholar and writer and a native of the region, Conlogue has created a model work of ‘narrative scholarship’ and ‘practical reading.’”


  • Description
  • Reviews
  • Bio
  • Table of Contents
  • Sample Chapters
  • Subjects
The global economy threatens the uniqueness of places, people, and experiences. In Here and There, Bill Conlogue tests the assumption that literature and local places matter less and less in a world that economists describe as “flat,” politicians believe has “globalized,” and social scientists imagine as a “global village.” Each chapter begins at home, journeys elsewhere, and returns to the author’s native and chosen region, northeastern Pennsylvania. Through the prisms of literature and history, the book explores tensions and conflicts within the region created by national and global demand for its resources: fertile farmland, forest products, anthracite coal, and college-educated young people. Making connections between local and global environmental issues, Here and There uses the Pennsylvania watersheds of urban Lackawanna and rural Lackawaxen to highlight the importance of understanding and protecting the places we call home.
“Bill Conlogue, in Here and There, offers a nuanced, multilayered act of attention to the realities of land use and land thought in northeastern Pennsylvania. His intertwining of history, literature, and lived experience in a very particular place joins a new chorus of counterstatements to the twenty-first-century mantra of global sameness. A skillful scholar and writer and a native of the region, Conlogue has created a model work of ‘narrative scholarship’ and ‘practical reading.’”
“The argument of Here and There is that even everyday environments, like that of Scranton—a working and peopled landscape that is not wilderness, not the sublime, not the stuff of postcards and Sierra Club calendars—these places too, with landscapes that have become what Frost called ‘diminished things,’ deserve attention and care. Conlogue demonstrates that we come to know and care about a place in part by knowing its history and seeing how that history pertains to the present; in part by our personal affiliations with a place; and in part through an acquaintance with literary texts that highlight the crucial connections between people and their places.”
Here and There contributes to an emerging body of ecocritical narrative scholarship by offering a distinct regional perspective from an often neglected landscape, one that is defined as much by agriculture as it is by industry. Bill Conlogue provides an innovative confluence of natural, family, and regional history, successfully mapping the reflexivity of the three. Moreover, he mindfully studies the intellectual and pedagogical impulsesformal and informalthat are inspired by these entities, and in so doing spurs the reader to consider how and why we learn about our processes of inhabitation.”
“An intriguing blend of history, memoir, and literary analysis—an insider’s perspective rubbing up against an outsider’s critical eye. Here and There is full of unexpected juxtapositions that offer original, creative views of the Pennsylvania anthracite region in decline.”
“Conlogue uses the voices of poets to call attention to the stories not celebrated in the region [of northeastern Pennsylvania] to underscore the importance of understanding the place we call home. He calls attention to the darker remains of industry; rather than focusing on the heroic story of ‘building a new nation,’ he wonders how residents could ignore culm banks, mine fires and subsidence to remain unaffected by the physical past.”
“One can only wish that everyone loved the homes they were born into as much as Conlogue loves his; he renders Scranton and rural Wayne County with such enthusiasm and undying interest as to make the anthracite region appear rich with meaning and beauty.”

Bill Conlogue is Professor of English at Marywood University.


List of Figures and Maps

Preface: Homework


Introduction: Orientation

1 Working Watersheds

2 Merwin and Mining

3 Fixing Fence

4 Barn Razing

5 Other Places

6 Rendering the Mounds of Home

Coda: Watersheds in Play






Perception is inference.

—Atul Gawande, “The Itch”

In Here and There I challenge the assumption that literature and local places matter less and less in a world that economists describe as “flat,” politicians insist has “globalized,” and social scientists imagine as a “village.” Through the prisms of literature and history, I explore tensions and conflicts within northeastern Pennsylvania, tensions and conflicts created by national and global demand for the region’s resources: farmland, forest products, anthracite coal, and college-educated young people. Powerful ways of knowing, history and literature tell stories of people in time and place; they are not simply dates or fictions. The project pivots on the interplay between other places and my native ones: Scranton, where I now live and work, and the family dairy farm, where I grew up and to which I often return. Sharing the Moosic Mountains, each ground is a place of beginning, becoming, and homecoming. My experiences in this “rough terrain” may be unique to me, but I know they are common, ordinary, shared.

The local and the global intersect most visibly in how people treat the land where they live. Because we must use land to survive, we need to think carefully about the ethics of land use. Responsible not only to themselves, but also to the community, landowners touch the lives of next-door neighbors, others living in a watershed, and those residing a world away. These responsibilities encompass, literally, everyone, everywhere, living and to come. It cannot be otherwise, because our lives are profoundly connected to and shaped by the world beyond our home ground. We inhabit, as they say at Marywood University, a “diverse and interdependent world.”

The interplay among places that I invoke has become increasingly important to scholars of environmental literature and history. For example, in Writing for an Endangered World (2001), literary scholar Lawrence Buell offers a critical framework for understanding the sort of rural/urban interchange that I describe. Buell juxtaposes depictions of “‘green’ and ‘brown’ landscapes” to argue that environmental writers and critics must attend to a single, complex environment that interweaves the found and the human-made. Adding to Buell’s argument another layer of complexity, I study the altered landscapes of the mine-scarred Lackawanna Valley, home to what I describe as dark fields.

Somewhere between a green field and a brown field, a dark field has been industrially developed and polluted, but people live there, often unaware of the site’s history and danger. The natural and the constructed may intersect most obviously in the green fields of a farm, but the dark fields of mined land testify to the thoughtless, forgotten abuse of the natural and the human-made. In traversing meadows and woods, culm banks and mineshafts, towns and cities, I uncover a past that remains all too present. This past is like dark matter in the universe: it’s everywhere but nowhere visible.

Any discussion of literature, history, and the environment is insufficient if it does not address the human need for food and fuel. Anthracite coal mining, the foundation of nineteenth-century U.S. industrialization and urbanization, erased in no time the northern hardwood forest of a very local geography, planting in its place an unstable, boom-and-bust economy. Agriculture, the work that I knew growing up, turned the adjoining beech and hemlock forest into a patchwork of fields and woods that another forest may now be reclaiming. Although our family farm survives, barely, farmers as a group have statistically disappeared from the American landscape; our shrinking farm, once a member of a thriving neighborhood, limps along as a remainder and a reminder of another time. With food and fuel basic to people’s lives, environmental writers and historians need more than ever to re-envision rural and urban places as parts of a single tapestry, one that is rapidly fraying. Mending the damage starts with remembering what damage has been done.

Acutely aware of their proximity to this damage, several scholars of environmental history and literature have recently called for more attention to a “literature of everyday nature.” These writers place landscapes within their historical and cultural contexts, and they encourage examination of the working landscapes where most people live. For example, in reminding us that “wilderness” is a socially constructed concept, one that did not take on its current resonance as a place of escape until the late nineteenth century, William Cronon asserts that “most of our most serious environmental problems start right here, at home, and if we are to solve those problems, we need an environmental ethic that will tell us as much about using nature as about not using it.” To show us how our attention to home can be diverted, Bart Welling analyzes ecopornography, a “type of contemporary visual discourse made up of highly idealized, anthropomorphized views of landscapes and nonhuman animals,” a discourse that hides “damage inflicted on the nonrepresented, nonphotogenic landscapes that are logged, mined, dammed, polluted, or otherwise exploited to provide the materials and energy required for producing and distributing images of more visually appealing places.” Although Scott Hess wants us to imagine nature as the everyday world of the “unspectacular, developed, aesthetically ordinary environments where most of us live and work,” he points out that everyday nature is “not just a location, but rather a kind of attention, or better yet, a way of defining our identities and values through local relationship rather than through imaginative escape.”

Here and There explores working landscapes. I understand work to include duty, craft, and creativity. As an expression of ideas, our work reveals how we answer moral questions that arise in our use of land. When one adds the present participle, the word places us in time: working means “used as a guide” and “capable of being used as the basis of further work.” I define the word “landscape” to refer not to land so much as to human perceptions of land; landscape is about point of view. Examining working landscapes, which are both places and depictions of places, demands then that I judge what I have been seeing and doing in the world.

Regions Within Regions

Regions are “culturally constructed” landscapes. The American West, for example, is much more a product of human imagination than it is a fact of nature. As human constructs, language and literature necessarily shape our definitions of region. However, as modes of representation, each can, at best, only point to what it seeks to express. In the gap between thing and word stretches not only a world of error and deception, but also the possibility of powerful insight. In this gap, we imagine our lives and communities. Because such gaps pockmark my understanding of northeastern Pennsylvania, I can make sense of the region only by tracing its interdependent relationships with other people and places, across time.

Named for an industry that all but disappeared sixty years ago, the Anthracite Region, a series of distinct coalfields, has a rich ethnic and labor history, a long record of social and environmental upheaval, and a reputation as the first major example of U.S. deindustrialization. A collection of fragments defined by the geology of its coal, the Anthracite Region consists of four geographies—northern, eastern middle, western middle, and southern fields—and three commercial zones: Wyoming, Lehigh, and Schuylkill. Found in patches within the folds of the Appalachian Mountains, from Schuylkill County north to Susquehanna County, each field is distinct from the others because of its type and quantity of anthracite, its settlement patterns, and its links with New York and Philadelphia. For example, the northern field, which includes the Lackawanna Valley, has the deepest deposits and its coal has the highest carbon content, but it was the costliest to mine and the last to develop. While the southern field looks to Philadelphia, the northern field faces New York.

A region within a region, the northern anthracite field exerted a gravitational pull on places and people far beyond the mines. For example, the Pennsylvania Coal Company purchased props from farms in neighboring Wayne County to shore up its mines in Forest City, at the extreme northern tip of the northern field. Miners latticed their workspaces there with white and red oak, chestnut, beech, maple, birch, and locust—until, that is, they exhausted the local supply. After nearby forests all but disappeared, companies imported loblolly pine from the South and, later, Douglas fir from Oregon via the Panama Canal. Companies preferred wooden props, by the way, because they failed over time, thus warning of a working mine, rather than crumpling all of a sudden, as steel often did. Beneath towns and cities up and down the Lackawanna Valley a mixed phantom forest still stands, a forest cut from faraway farms.

My mother heated our Wayne County farmhouse with anthracite until January 2004, when her old Van Wert stoker gave out and she switched to oil. Until then, she had long been in the minority, hanging on to the fuel she grew up knowing. Today, her heating oil is trucked from where she grocery-shops, Forest City, about ten miles away, just below the headwaters of the Lackawanna. In June 2008, my mother, a native of Carbondale, taught me a lesson about the power of place: “I’ve been here [on the farm] forty-five years, and I have no interest in Wayne County; only Lackawanna County. That’s why I get the Scranton paper.” To write about the farm I must write about mining, which is to write about U.S. industrialization, which is to write about the end of farming.

I grew up on a Wayne County dairy farm, lived in Scranton for a time as an undergraduate, and spent four years living as a graduate student near Washington, D.C. My experiences in these different places gave me different contexts for understanding the relationships between human work and the land. Farm life engrained in me an awareness of nature’s rhythms and whims, my familiarity with Scranton taught me that some work can irreparably damage a place, and my time within the Beltway showed me that distant decision makers can thoughtlessly alter local lives and lands.

A renewed sense of home will be increasingly important to us all as more and more local cultures—family farm networks, urban neighborhoods, and native peoples—disappear into the global industrial economy’s regimentation and homogenization. If we do not remember the remnants, our connections with one another will wither. If we do not keep varied communities and healthy places, how can we be decent to one another in a world that is ever more uncertain, claustrophobic, and hostile? And if we cannot be decent to one another as human beings, what hope is there that we can be decent to the rest of life?

At work, I’m a generalist, a professor who teaches in a small English department at a comprehensive Catholic university. I still wonder that I have a job doing what I enjoy: studying language and literature, explaining poems and plays, interpreting novels and films. Sometimes I think that the world around me values these activities less and less. Teaching undergraduates, writing essays, and thinking about where I am and the work that I do here and there are the main threads that make up my life; they’re not separate parts of a “career.” The literature and history I profess tell stories about what it means to be human; each explores the narrative of our connection, alienation, combativeness, and generosity. In asking questions about good and evil and right and wrong, they matter—and the humanities in general matter—because our lived experience demands that we each think carefully about our answers to this question: How am I at work in the world?

The best literature teaches us that other people are people. Inviting us to see with others’ eyes, it increases our capacity for empathy and mercy, and reminds us that human lives are bound up with and dependent on a living earth that predates us and will outlast us. Within this context, we realize that we are keepers of a shared gift that we hold for only a little while. In Here and There, I practice what Wendell Berry calls “practical reading,” a phrase he uses to remind us that literature teaches us something about the world; it’s not simply a display of verbal virtuosity. Is it really possible to read The Grapes of Wrath, for example, and not think through the social and economic dilemmas its characters confront?

Practical reading empowers us to think critically and carefully about ourselves, our relationships with others, and our connections to the world beyond us. Reading fine writing gives us the courage to confront the paradox at the heart of a liberal arts education: to be free is to understand—never fully, never completely—one’s dependence on others, living and dead, human and nonhuman.

Each chapter here begins at home, journeys elsewhere, and returns to northeastern Pennsylvania. A thoughtful coming and going is, I believe, the essence of knowing where one stands. For example, what has my teaching to do with what happens in the world around me? How do everyday issues within these places help me to understand what’s at stake in larger debates about land use, the value of the humanities, and the role of the teacher/scholar? How does the story of my home ground contribute to the human story? If we don’t look around us, I keep telling myself, we won’t see what’s beyond us.

At Home

In the Anthracite Museum hangs a map of the Lackawanna Valley, dated 1886. Depicting land from Scranton to Forest City, the map traces in red the valley’s underground mines. Particularly striking is the sinuous circulatory system that overlays Scranton’s street grid, which is almost invisible. Although many maps divide land into counties, states, and nations, this map marks company property; the usual political divisions compete with blocks of corporate control. The map reminds me that the region’s geology holds hostage its geography, even its urban geography. The city of Scranton, like most cities and towns in the Anthracite Region, has its doppelganger in a city below, a dark Atlantis peopled by the ghosts of the men and mules who worked both into existence. Today’s visible city rests on the crumbling pillars of the buried one, a fact expressed in every mine subsidence.

Bridget and I live within that tangle of red, in an old Scranton suburb, on a quiet street, in a shingle-style, balloon-frame house nestled between a home owned by a banker and one owned by a casket salesman. In the three houses across the street live a social studies teacher, a widow, and a retired couple, the man a former composing room worker at the Scranton Times. Educators, lawyers, and businessmen live up and down the block. Shaded by two silver maples, our house has a wide front porch, a white picket fence around the back yard, and uneven bluestone sidewalks. Like much of the valley, though, our home sits on hollowed ground.

Developers added Richmont Park to the more exclusive Green Ridge section in the early 1900s. Hoping to take advantage of the valley’s increasing wealth, the cachet of Green Ridge, and middle-class people’s desire to leave the industrial city center, investors Jordan, Hannah, and Jordan purchased the ground in 1893 from the Pennsylvania Coal Company. As a condition of sale, Pennsylvania Coal stipulated that subsequent land purchasers could not stop the company or its heirs from mining under the development. Homeowners here, Bridget and I included, own no mineral rights. Deeds also note that Pennsylvania Coal has already mined beneath Richmont Park, and that neither the company nor its heirs are to be held liable for later injuries or damages as a result of this prior work. This would include, I imagine, mine water flooding one’s basement, one’s house disappearing into a mine subsidence, or coal gas killing a family member. These things have happened.

The house has had eight owners in its hundred-plus year history. Carpenter William Erhardt and builder Ernest Latham purchased the lot in 1906; they constructed the house the following spring and summer, when the first people to occupy it, the Reinhardts, moved in. Designed to appeal to people of a certain income, the house included a finished attic room, a servant’s quarters with fixtures that combined gas and electric lighting.

A mine foreman, John Reinhardt owned the house until 1913, when George Llewellyn, a superintendent for Prudential Insurance, bought the place. By 1915, Llewellyn had moved to Clay Avenue, but he kept the house until 1919, when he sold the property to George Vasey, who manufactured diamond tools. Vasey soon sold the house and land to Fred Frederickson, who lost the property in 1935 due to delinquent taxes. The bank held the house in trust between 1935 and 1946, when George and Elizabeth Simms bought it. They, in turn, sold it in 1948 to the Harrises, Dorothy and her husband, Luther, who worked for Scranton Lace Company. They occupied the house for the longest time, forty-six years, the years of Scranton’s steep economic decline. In 1994, the widowed Mrs. Harris sold the property to William Conway, whose grandfather happened to be Fred Frederickson. We purchased it from Conway in 2001, two months before 9/11. At the closing, he gave us a box of tools, which we accepted with appreciation—and apprehension.


Going home began with understanding the rock at my feet.

The bone structure of this region accumulated slowly, horizon upon horizon. Despite epochs of ice and mountain building, ages of deposition and erosion, millennia of migration and extinction, this land has never stopped working. A thousand million years ago, time immemorial, a continent ripped apart and formed the sea Iapetus, approximately where the Atlantic is now, and lasted longer than today’s ocean. In the Paleozoic era, Iapetus, named for the father of Atlas, closed as the split continent “came together in a crash no less brutal than slow,” thrusting up the Appalachians, glacial high, a mile or more. Valleys appeared, and were buried, their rivers coursing in one direction, another, and then, maybe, not at all. During the Mesozoic era, the stitched-together continent tore apart again, widening to form today’s Atlantic, which still grows. As this collision and declension unfolded, glaciers advanced and retreated, a dozen times, more or less, across northeastern Pennsylvania.

The last glacier, the Wisconsin ice sheet, erased the work of ancestral glaciers, leaving in its wake Wayne County: more than two hundred feet of clay and silt, sand and gravel. As the head of the Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania observed in 1881, the county is “an unbroken sheet of Drift, with the usual aspect of Till, with loose boulders, striae on exposed outcrops, drift dams, buried valleys, reversed drainage, and innumerable drift inclosed ponds and lakes.” Beneath most of this drift stretches the county’s bedrock, the Catskill continental group, mainly red and brown sandstone and shale; another, younger bedrock, Pottsville and Post-Pottsville formations, underlies a sliver of the county, along the west edge, in the Lackawanna Syncline, part of the Ridge and Valley Province. Poor farmland, yes, but we could move the drift, which could also move us.

On a Sunday afternoon in the early seventies, not quite ten years old, Mike O’Neill and I unearthed Iapetus in the dirt behind his house in Pleasant Mount. On tableland two thousand feet up and a hundred miles from the Atlantic, an old sugar maple shading us, we sat in cool soil, surrounded by ragged grass that greened at a stream in the neighbor’s yard. We had little else to do but dig. Making a hole for no good reason, we turned up a stone. At first it looked like any half loaf, the kind of rock we’d seen often enough. But then we turned it over. A constellation of shells studded the flat side; each sharply etched, fine grained. Seashells? Astonished, we met each other’s eyes, realizing we had in our hands evidence of another time, an alien wonder. Only later, in school, did we find out that an ancient sea had covered the place, a warm and shallow sea that mountains and glaciers had replaced. Still later, the wonder drained, we learned about buried valleys, erratics, drift, debris.

Devonian, Pennsylvanian, Carboniferous.

In April, we’d pick rock. Plowing and harrowing the Flat was never enough; to plant corn the ground had to be cleared. A kid, I was little help as my father and older brothers, sweating away two or three long afternoons, wore their hands raw tossing rock onto a stone boat, sheet metal with three-inch pipe welded to the sides, an upturned end serving as a prow. My father, a Lucky Strike in the corner of his mouth, guided the John Deere 3010 at a crawl, Bob and Jack behind, bent to the ground, hardly glancing with each throw. I kept ahead, loosening a stone here and there for one or the other, itching for shade and a sip of water. A half hour, the boat loaded, we’d climb aboard for the ride to the creek, the soil shearing off smooth behind us. Bankside, we’d toss the rock on a pile meant to keep floods from eating the field, but even after generations of stone picking and piling, the water found a way.

Swollen with snowmelt or storm rains, Johnson Creek ate at basher silt loam left from the Wisconsin ice sheet. After sweeping around, or over, the rock pile, the waters often enough swept soil into the woods or carried it on to alluvial fans on farms far downstream. There, in other fields, other stone boats ferried across similar flats the same glacial drift, stone buried when ice retreated from the land in the last cold spell, during the Pleistocene Epoch, about twelve thousand years ago.

To pick stone was to choose. You didn’t need to throw on every rock, just ones you judged capable of doing damage. Occasionally the plow would resurrect a stone large enough that it took two to handle, but more often than not we picked rock no bigger than a good book or a loaf of bread. Every once in a while, someone would discover an odd rock, black and crumbly, maybe, or one shaped like it had come fresh from a mason. As far as I know, we never came across a star, only pieces of mountains.

We stopped planting corn in the late seventies—too expensive—but I discovered picking rock again when in college I came across “A Star in a Stoneboat” (1923), a Robert Frost poem that offered me a new context for moving rock. In the poem, a laborer, clearing plowed ground of glacial drift, levers a meteorite into a stone boat. He doesn’t realize, however, that he’s come upon a “smooth coal,” a onetime fire in the sky that’s gone “stone-cold” (4, 10). Once an awe-inspiring sight, this star, come to earth, has died, but in dying has recharged the “very nature of the soil” (21). Now “burning to yield flowers instead of grain,” the star has been resurrected as a poet’s metaphor for art making (22). After the laborer removes the rock, a kind of waste where it is, he uses it to enclose space with a wall, a human-made artifact whose pattern across the land makes a place, the field. Although the laborer “noticed nothing in it to remark” (7), the speaker, a poet, marks the star so that he feels “Commanded” to “right the wrong” that the once-transcendent stone has been made marginal, ordinary (35, 36).

The heavens may fail, but wonder sings on in the mundane. The speaker cannot undo what’s been done by placing the “star back in its course”; telescopes long ago made such stars into stones (30). And if the meteorite is left “lying where it fell,” its former glory is known—and meaningful—to no one (30, 39). Reshaped for human use, the star still carries within it its “long Bird of Paradise’s tail,” and “promises the prize / Of the one world complete in any size” that the speaker is “like to compass, fool or wise” (16, 55–56, 57).

The promised “prize” is a reoriented, recharged relationship with this magnetic world. The meteorite, a smaller version of Mars or Earth, stars of “death and birth” and “death and sin,” possesses “poles, and only needs a spin / To show its worldly nature” (46, 49, 50–51). Held in the speaker’s “calloused palm” (i.e., the palm of the poet, the poem’s other laborer), the stone will “chafe and shuffle . . . / And run off in strange tangents with [his] arm” (52–53). No longer oriented by the stars, the poet/laborer holds a lodestone made erratic by the tension between the sublime and the ordinary, between the mystery of the universe and the earth’s magnetism. Following a new course in an old world, the poet looks not to “school and church” for answers but goes about “measuring stone walls, perch on perch” to find inspiration in the land, the “one thing palpable besides the soul / To penetrate the air in which we roll” (11–12, 43, 45). Despite his calluses, this singer is electric with feeling.

My homeland divides in two like no other place in Pennsylvania. The multifold map accompanying the 1881 geological survey of Susquehanna and Wayne counties sharply separates the geologies of the Lackawaxen and Lackawanna riversheds. The map’s pale grays and browns, depicting the Appalachian Plateau, contrast with the bright red line of Mauch Chunk shale that rings the Lackawanna Valley’s northern tip. Geologist I. C. White marvels at this, the map’s “most striking feature . . . the very curious curling up of the end of the Carbondale coal basin, northward; and the continuation of the axis of its trough (or synclinal) in a nearly due north direction along the mid-county line.” He describes the formation as a “remarkable violation of the general law of direction which governs the whole system of anticlinals and synclinals in Pennsylvania; virtually cutting off those of the Alleghany mountain region . . . on the west, from all connection with those of the Catskill mountain region of New York State.” The result: “No one of the Susquehanna river folds can be identified with any of the Delaware river folds—the two systems of folds flattening out as they approach each other and being kept apart by the north and south fold which cuts transversely across and between them.” Maybe because they are so sharply separated in their suturing, crossing and recrossing these folds has been, for me, an education in metaphor.

For example, commuting to high school, and then college, I passed a rock that gradually grew symbolic of the watersheds’ separation. I. C. White described the rock as a “massive grayish-white sandstone, with a few pebbles . . . still dipping northwestward . . . most probably the representation of the Cherry Ridge conglomerate.” Unlike any rock nearby, in color or size, this erratic rests in Griswold’s Gap, on the crest of the Moosic Mountains, between Curtis Valley and Browndale, and marks, in my mind, the exact divide between the Lackawanna and Lackawaxen watersheds.

These watersheds, however, are not really separate systems; as neighbors, they interlink, and each opens to other watersheds, on end. A rain shower near Belmont falls to each river, to the Lackawaxen, which flows across the Appalachian Plateau to the Delaware, and to the Lackawanna, which drops off the same plateau at Stillwater to cut a course through the ridge and valley system of the Susquehanna rivershed. Even when I lived furthest from the farm, for four years in College Park, Maryland, near the Chesapeake, Mount Pleasant Township showers found the sea through the bay. So these waters have stayed with me.

Colliding continents folded and refolded the earth’s crust here, rolling up layers of dead Devonian trees, plants, and marine life. As mountains rose, their weight compressed the dead, pressing from them almost all but carbon. The folded layers hardened, over millennia, into anthracite, or hard coal. In the trough of one fold rides our house, and beneath us stretch seams of carbon. A slight correction: one bed, the Clark, lay there until the 1930s, when it was hacked out and shipped off to disappear into heat and light. Only the shell of what was remains.

I visited the void in July 2010. The Lackawanna Coal Mine Tour, a Scranton tourist attraction, brought me under in a car that descended at a 25° pitch. The circle of light at the mine entrance receded, smaller and smaller, the deeper we went; as we rounded a bend, natural light winked out, leaving only lamps to show the way. With a jolt, the car stopped, and we clambered out beside a shack 250 feet below the surface, in the ten-by-fifteen Clark vein. Rail thin, a retired miner, the only one of us wearing a hard hat, collected us before a chart of the region’s coal beds: Rock Bed, Big Bed, New County Bed, Clark Bed, Dunmore #1, Dunmore #2, and Dunmore #3. Under them all lay the Pottsville Conglomerate, bedrock. Explaining how the beds ran, our guide talked fast, and didn’t ask for questions.

“C’mon,” he said.

Striding along the gangway, going deeper into the mine, he sang out, “When the pillars start talking, miners start walking.”

After uneasy glances at the walls, we followed, quickly.

Geological faults, our miner-guide told us, were a big problem; big coal producers, but risky to mine. We stopped beside a cathedral-like room. Inside, a hand pushed through the debris of a cave-in; when our miner pressed a button, the hand waved. Amused, a few people laughed, but the wounded mannequin guarding the room looked on, impassive. The space was too much, our guide pointed out: the folding earth had shoved a vein twenty-three feet straight up, raising a column of anthracite but also creating a dangerous mine prop problem.

How do you take so much and not get buried?

Gawking at such spaces is no recent phenomenon; curiosity seekers have strolled through coal mines near here since at least the 1840s. The final report of the First Geological Survey of Pennsylvania (1858) includes two full-color lithographs of mines near Wilkes-Barre, considered by at least one observer to be “outstanding examples demonstrating geology and artistry.” In volume 2’s frontispiece, “The Baltimore Comp. Mines, Wilkes-Barre,” rock strata dwarf three tourists who have come to wonder at the Mammoth vein, the largest coal seam in the northern field, in some places forty or more feet thick. The lithograph depicts no markers of industry or technology, other than a fence and three tunnels, which might pass for natural caves. The tunnels on the lithograph’s left side mirror gaps in the rock columns on the closer right side; all the gaps open into mines. Cliffs of coal and rock, topped with evergreens, overwhelm the ghostlike and easy-to-miss people who stand at mine entrances. The immensity of the Mammoth vein made the Baltimore mine, which first shipped coal in 1814, a popular tourist trap three decades later. But why? Were people awed by the coal or by its disappearance?

Maybe by its disappearance. An emphasis on the vast interior space rendered in the other lithograph, “Interior of Baltimore Co. Old Mine, Wilkes-Barre,” suggests that the absence of coal is the site’s main attraction. Inside the mine, the viewer looks across a gigantic room, through two more rooms, toward the mine entrance, a distant sphere of light colored with green trees and blue mountains, a summer scene. A well-dressed man stands just inside the opening, chatting with two brightly dressed women: one in a red shawl, the other in a blue dress. Making the colors stand out, the rest of the scene wraps them in black and gray. Dwarfed by the interior space, the only other figure, an indistinct miner on a small shelf inside the largest room, blends with his surroundings. The scene offers no trace of mining equipment. It’s as if the space has been hollowed without effort. As if by magic.

Three years ago, I discovered that coal may not be the only fossil fuel beneath my house. I happen to live above the Marcellus, a swath of shale under much of Pennsylvania that holds what may soon become one of the largest natural gas fields in the world. Thickest in eastern parts of the state—Susquehanna County is a current center of attention—Marcellus shale formed during the Devonian period, just over 360 million years ago, a time that saw a great mass extinction, mainly of marine life. As layers of organic material accumulated and deteriorated, they hardened to shale, and produced natural gas, which eventually created enough pressures of its own to fracture the surrounding rock. Not long after, just over 300 million years ago, Iapetus, the shallow sea separating the ancient continents of Laurentia and Gondwana, rapidly closed. As the continents came crashing together, a “promontory in the vicinity of New York City locked Gondwana and Laurentia at a pivot point,” which swung Gondwana clockwise, slamming it into Laurentia and thrusting up the central and southern Appalachians, which buried the shale and rolled beds of anthracite. The collision, which lasted about 15 million years, determined not only the pitch of coal seams but also the direction of Marcellus shale fractures. In other words, what played out over millions of years millions of years ago has led major corporations to think about whether they want to drill—read, mine—under my house. Again.

Long after the drilling ends, oil and gas people may well remember alongside I. C. White the geologists Terry Engelder (Penn State) and Gary Lash (SUNY Fredonia), who started the recent corporate stampede to northeastern Pennsylvania. In early January 2008, the scientists pointed out that “the Marcellus would become one of the world’s top super giant gas fields.” They soon spurred on the resulting rush to sink unconventional wells when they claimed that “Marcellus Shale weighs in with more than 500 trillion cubic feet of gas in-place spread over a four state area.” Engelder calculated that there’s enough gas in Marcellus shale to satisfy all U.S. energy needs for at least twenty years, at current levels of consumption. Although Marcellus gas may reduce the nation’s carbon emissions and could cut U.S. dependence on foreign oil, one thing is certain: tapping it puts in play billions, if not trillions, of dollars.

To strike it rich, rig operators must drop their drills six to seven thousand feet, turn them at right angles, bore in a NNW or SSE direction several thousand feet more, and inject at high pressure sand and water to fracture further the rock. Gas then squeezes through the resulting fissures toward the pipe, which carries it to the surface . . .

Working Away

To help me understand what’s happening at home, I wrote Here and There as narrative scholarship.

The description of the 2011 Modern Language Association Convention theme, “Narrating Lives,” omitted how narrative informs scholarship in the study of language and literature. Although MLA president Sidonie Smith acknowledged in the description that the association “assembles membership stories of the professional lives of language and literature scholars in changing times,” she left no room for how the interweaving of personal stories and traditional scholarship “exposes the work of the humanities in the world.” This interweaving, however, has become a major practice of ecocriticism, a fairly recent and expanding subfield in the discipline.

In a paper delivered at the 1994 Western Literature Association Conference (WLA), Scott Slovic, a founder of the Association for the Study of Literature and Environment, used the term “narrative scholarship” in urging “ecocritics to ‘encounter the world and literature together, then report about the conjunctions.’” Slovic’s term caught on. At the following year’s WLA, nineteen ecocritics offered position papers about narrative scholarship. Since then, several prominent writers have published important examples of it.

Although ecocriticism is not alone, of course, in introducing the personal into scholarly work, narrative scholarship does occupy a unique position within ecocritical practice, so much so that one critic claims that narrative scholarship is “how ecocritics write.” This is not surprising, given the subfield’s roots in nature writing, which privileges representations of individual interactions with the wild; as Terry Gifford notes, “Narrative scholarship has, in a sense, been an assumption behind American nature writing since John Muir’s first published essays.” In this context, it is noteworthy that when ecocriticism was organizing itself as a distinct subfield in the 1990s, many literary scholars who had “significant academic reputations as theorists” were turning to the personal, a fact that 1998 MLA president Elaine Showalter noted in her presidential address.

As is the case with personal criticism in general, ecocritical narrative scholarship is not without critics. In a 2004 essay in Environmental History, Michael Cohen characterizes some versions of narrative scholarship as a “praise-song school” of criticism, which, he argues, is “not sharply analytical but gracefully meditative.” Cohen claims that such scholarship is “fraught with dangers”: it too easily becomes “travelogue,” “clichéd,” or “sermonizing.” Two years later, Eric Ball accuses narrative scholarship of avoiding “many of the political aspects of environmental and ecological discourse.” Asserting that narrative scholarship “could only have come out of the U.S. tradition of nature writing and its related ecocriticism,” British academic Terry Gifford, a writer of narrative scholarship, points out that “this kind of writing is generally frowned upon in the United Kingdom with the suspicion that such personal narratives are probably too self-indulgent and uncritical.” Ouch.

Questions about the legitimacy of narrative scholarship affect not only ecocriticism, but also every discipline within the humanities. Any scholar concerned with the relationships among writer, text, and world must address issues related to the use (or not) of the personal in scholarly writing. In addition to literature and language studies, the disciplines of anthropology, history, and sociology struggle with the use of the personal in their scholarly practices. At a time when the humanities seek connections with wider audiences, personal criticism has emerged as a major form of outreach. Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), for example, has been a runaway best seller.

Narrative scholarship should especially interest, and trouble, literary scholars, who now confront questions about the value of their work. Reporting about the 2009 convention session “Why Teach Literature Anyway?” the Chronicle of Higher Education observes that “one could argue that the real story of MLA 2009 was a quiet but urgent one: how literary scholars can justify what they do nowadays.” Writing about literature using a form all understand—narrative—is one way to go.

Fields of Play

Six chapters, plus a coda, follow. The literary texts I examine are from the region, or fit with the book’s themes, and they address issues that are both local and national in scope. The problems that people confront in northeastern Pennsylvania, including problems related to water quality, resource extraction, and waste management, are problems that confront people across the country. In Here and There, I examine not only how everyday nature gets represented in literature, but also how literature has helped me to understand my connections to home.

Confronting a natural gas rush in northeastern Pennsylvania, I think in chapter 1 about water, a central concern of many of my neighbors, who fear groundwater contamination. The chapter examines how the region treated its water sources in the past, and asks what it would mean to live with bad water. The landmark Pennsylvania Supreme Court case Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Sanderson (1886), Mary Austin’s sketches in The Land of Little Rain (1903), Robert Frost’s poem “A Brook in the City” (1923), and Leslie Marmon Silko’s novel Ceremony (1977) create a context for understanding how the Marcellus gas play may play out.

Chapter 2 acknowledges that to write about the region is to record trauma, both human and environmental. Miners faced the constant threat of injury or death; cave-ins, floods, fires, roof-falls, asphyxiation, and machinery accidents took their toll of lives and limbs. Although coal mining here has all but ended, strip mines still scar mountainsides, culm banks dominate former patch towns, and streams run stained with acid. Coal mining has irreparably damaged a quarter of the region’s 484 square miles; it’s no wonder that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency defines the Wyoming and Lackawanna valleys as a distinct ecoregion. Exploring how writers have represented this trauma, I use as points of departure the work of Scranton poets W. S. Merwin and Jay Parini; I read Merwin’s “Luzerne Street Looking West” (1956), “Burning Mountain” (1960), and “The Drunk in the Furnace” (1960) alongside Parini’s “Anthracite Country” (1982), “The Lackawanna at Dusk” (1982), and “A Lost Topography” (1988).

Thinking through how maps shape how we know a place, the third chapter, “Fixing Fence,” investigates the life of Jason Torrey, a central figure in Wayne County history, a Massachusetts man who first settled in northeastern Pennsylvania on land later owned by my family. In addition to the family connection, Torrey interests me because he worked as a surveyor, someone who created many of the property lines that we live with today, lines that a bioregional consciousness blurs, if not erases. In 1814, Torrey drew the earliest U.S. county property map that shows landownership. Robert Frost’s “Mending Wall” (1914) helps me to think through issues raised by Torrey’s work.

“Barn Razing” meditates on the history of the farm by tracking the erection and erasure of its barns. Our dairy farm evolved in the mid-nineteenth century near enough to a rail line—initially laid to transport coal—to move from participating in a local market to contributing to the New York City milkshed, a fact manifested in the farm’s barn building. I end this chapter with a recounting of my razing of a three-story barn, on a Memorial Day, no less, that signaled a loss of this history.

“Other Places” argues that it matters where you learn. Within the context of my experiences as student and teacher, I wonder how different types of schools prepare people for the moral issues implied in land use. I place beside Marywood University, my nonprofit employer, the for-profit University of Phoenix and the Scranton-based International Correspondence Schools, which was founded to educate anthracite miners. The chapter concludes with an analysis of Robert Frost’s “The Pasture” (1914), a lyric that taught me how to see the land anew through poetry, which I define as a collection of other places.

The final chapter, “Rendering the Mounds of Home,” reflects on the Lackawanna Valley as a palimpsest of unstable ground: layers of mines that brought to the surface underground wealth now haunt people as an underground menace. Land subsidence, caused by the collapse of mine pillars, has long plagued the valley, a fact I explore in studying celebrated incidents in the context of the major U.S. Supreme Court case Pennsylvania Coal Company v. Mahon (1922). Not only is mine subsidence a metaphor for the region’s present economic instability—and the instability of all things—but so is strip mining, which mauled the valley from the 1920s to the 1970s. The underappreciated film Wanda (1970) and the Pulitzer Prize–winning play That Championship Season (1972) link these instabilities to ironies in the circulation of waste. Mining created mountains of inferior coal and slate. Once a chief supplier of fuel to East Coast cities, the Anthracite Region now imports the same cities’ municipal garbage, creating even more artificial mountains. (One local landfill runs excursion tours of its facilities.) Reflecting on the A. R. Ammons poem Garbage (1993), I place mine subsidence and mountain building within the context of current debates about what to do with the remains of our creativity.

The coda briefly examines reclamation and restoration projects at Marywood University to understand how people help to heal human-inflicted damage to the natural world. After reading Wendell Berry’s “The River Bridged and Forgot” (1982) as a way to reconceive our relationship to the rest of life, I end the book with a glance again at the gray dawn of natural gas drilling in northeastern Pennsylvania.

A major political force in the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, a recent flashpoint in controversies over immigration, and a potential East Coast energy supplier (once again), northeastern Pennsylvania stands at a crossroads in its history. But it stands there perplexed, I believe, looking for a story that not only transcends but also incorporates the narrative of decline that others have pinned to it. As I look at my home, I see that although dark sites remain, some brown fields are, in fact, greening.

The uniqueness of a place’s geology, culture, and history denies the global economy’s demand for an interchangeable-parts definition of human experience. To assume that every place can be any place is to endanger all places. What works here does not often work there, so the best way to understand any place is to see it in the context of other places, other times. All I can offer people who want to understand this one place, northeastern Pennsylvania, is my perspective as an insider with an outsider’s point of view. Overlaying my lived experiences with my experiences reading literature and history, Here and There shows how the region connects to and shapes the world beyond home. I’m from the place I write about, but the more I think about it, the more mysterious it gets. What I keep discovering is more than I could have imagined, more than I can absorb, more than I can say.

How have you been at work in the world?