Nobody Talks About the Land

As part of my education about high voltage power lines, I have watched a couple of Webcasts of hearings and panel discussions at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and the Department of Energy.

I have watched these discussions, and I’ve heard lots of talk about the environment, green this and green that, “renewables” (one of those ugly nouns stolen from an adjective) and lots of other Washington jargon.  In all of these discussions, I have not once heard anyone talk about the land.  Everyone talks about transmission lines as though they were just wires.  They refer to coal as just another fuel without any mention of where that coal comes from or what it really costs to mine it.

I live on a farm in Calhoun County, West Virginia.  When I talk with my neighbors about deer hunting, building fence or hauling hay, they never refer to my land or my property, they say, “Those deer ran through you.”  Those of you who live in a city or suburbs may not understand the world view that this way of thinking reflects.  It is, however, very real where I live.

We see our land as part of “us.”  This is not some kind of modern “eco-awareness.”  It is a cultural view of the world that connects back through time to the peasant cultures of Europe and the culture of people native to North America.  Those cultures still resonate strongly in rural West Virginia, as they do in other parts of our country.

What does this have to do with power lines?

The PATH power line will take more than 6000 acres of West Virginia land out of productive use by living, breathing West Virginia families.

Now think of the people who own, live on and work that land.  Each of those families have lived with that land, some for all their lives.  Living with a piece of land is a privilege.  It is a relationship, just like a relationship with a friend or someone in your family.

Living with a piece of land means that you shape that piece of land to meet the needs of your family and perhaps to make a little money.  You build fence, perhaps some buildings, maybe a pond.  You build and restore your soil with manures, compost, fertilizer and lime.  You raise a garden and do a little hunting or trapping.  You manage your own animals and their pasture.

Much of your life’s work and much of your play grows out of this land.  It becomes a part of you.  As you put more of your energy into the land and it gives back food, your body literally becomes part of the land and the land becomes a part of you.

Living with a piece of land also involves lots of compromises.  You make mistakes.  Sometimes you do damage.  Because our farms are small, and none of us has lots of money, the damage that any of us can do to our land is pretty small.  It can almost always be fixed given a little work and time to heal.  We know the scale of our compromises, and we take responsibility for them every day.

A 138 KV power line crosses my holler.  It is 5 lines suspended from 80-foot wooden towers.  The right of way takes up less than 100 feet and the land owner who originally gave Allegheny Power the right of way had the wisdom to ban herbicide spraying on this section of the line.

This power line is big, but it is small enough for us to live with.  It is a compromise we all accept.  This line runs from a West Virginia power plant to Spencer, the neighboring county’s county seat, from which our own power comes.  We know that we and our fellow Calhoun Countians benefit from this line, so we live with it.

I didn’t hear anyone in Washington at these national energy conferences talking about compromise.  Those of us who live with the land understand compromise, because we do that all the time on our farms.  All I heard was sneering talk about how land owners were in the way of progress and something called “the national interest.”

For the folks at FERC and DOE, money should be enough.  Pay them for their rights of way, and they should shut up and go away.  And live with power companies controlling a large strip of land right through the middle of their farms.  Well, it’s a little more complicated than that.

If you want to come across me with your big power lines, you have to start by talking about the land.  If you don’t understand that, you’re in for a fight.