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Downriver: Fracking and Consumerism Eroding Rural Communities

Rev. Leah D. Schade

Waite’s e-book, Downriver, is a series of six vignettes that give us brief yet compelling glimpses of life in America moving between rural and suburban landscapes and communities. I have lived in both places and found myself nodding in recognition of the details in these tiny portraits. Waite beautifully captures a child’s perspective on a farmer-neighbor’s death, the twang of conversation between two old friends reminiscing and the humorous family drama of a canoeing trip. 

The opening piece, "Fractured," is a taut short story about friendships, farms, communities and cows negatively affected by the shale gas industry. While the story is realistic fiction not based on actual events, the circumstances of a farmer faced with the decision to lease his land to drilling or face the demise of his farm is all too common in Pennsylvania and Ohio. The tragic irony is that his decision results in more loss than he, his wife or his friends could have ever anticipated.

The piece "On Target" is a wry, rueful essay contrasting a big-box store with a country store, and a Main Street town with the pre-fabbed “community” going up on the outskirts. As a pastor, I was reminded of Jesus’s parable of the rich man storing up his wealth when I read Waite’s poignant words: “In the end, when the builder is dead and gone and the piles of money are spent and lost forever, the destruction of that beautiful farmland will remain. And still, there will be no community.”

Waite wields her words like a fine-bristled paintbrush: “She remembers standing at the window, staring at the holsteins dotting the field, wrapping thick muscular tongues around patches of grass.” Her descriptions of fields and farms, plants and animals are vivid: “Notice the way the shoots of those corn stalks grab at the soil and hold on tight, like two rows of fingers trying to maintain a grip on time fleeting.” Yet some of the portraits are quite sparse, and you may have to go back and re-read to fill in the white spaces meant to engage imagination. I believe this is part of Waite’s technique, intended to draw in the reader and have them complete the picture in their own minds.

My only complaint is that there was not more. The book can be read in one sitting and is a bit like pulling up to a table of appetizers that tease us with a taste of the chef’s talents, but leave us hungry for more. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Small-plate reading, like fine dining, affords you small bites of intense flavors that stay in your memory and give you a glimpse of what is possible when a well-trained writer focuses her lens on glimpses of life that really matter. 

And what matters to Waite? Small town communities. Stewardship of land and beauty. Honesty. Neighbors with relationships that go beyond a wave at the mailbox. And a willingness to reveal one’s regretful, but unavoidable complicity with an economy that cares nothing about the aforementioned values.

For a miniscule investment of time and money, the reader will be treated to a finely-crafted work by an author whose writing reminds us to slow down and pay attention to those fleeting moments and disappearing places. Sadly, as we watch family farms ruined by fracking and rural communities collapsing under the pressures of consumerism and dispersed industrialization, little gems such as Waite’s recollections may be all that remain of our most important resources—land cherished for its intrinsic value, people cherished for their humanity and communities cherished for their commitment to protecting both.

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