Will Elwell, my neighbor here in Ashfield, Massachusetts, is a man of many parts – farmer, husband, father, tennis coach, coffin maker, and post-and-beam barn builder. It was the last-named part that prompted him to ask me if he could erect in my hayfield a replica of Henry Thoreau’s famous cabin on Walden Pond in Concord. He wanted to locate the 10 x 15’ building directly in the path of a pipeline scheduled be built by Kinder Morgan of Houston, Texas. He hoped it might send a message to the pipeline giant: KEEP OFF THE GRASS.
When my wife, Carol, and I bought our old farm over 20 years ago, we were asked to sign a covenant to the title which forbade us from putting up any permanent structure on our 11-acre spread (not much of a spread by Texas standards, of course). The idea was to preserve open space and the rural character of the neighborhood. We readily agreed.
Then, about two years ago, Tennessee Pipeline Co. (a subsidiary of Kinder Morgan) came calling with other plans for our backyard. We were shocked. We felt betrayed, heartbroken, really. We wondered, what about that covenant we signed in good faith? What about our so-called property rights? Does this mean the Woody Guthrie song now goes, “This land is their land….?”
So I said sure to Will and moments later, or so it seemed, there was this rustic Greek temple standing in our New England landscape. Actually, it took about half a day for Will and a couple of dozen volunteers to get the thing up. The jaunty little building is more than the sum of its posts and beams because it represents the will of the people, which is why we named him Will in the first place.
This brings to mind another act of defiance that occurred in these parts in the years 1786-87, called Shay’s Rebellion. Let’s hear it for Shay. It was a failed attempt by the farmers of western Mass to fight onerous taxes and unfair land seizures ordered by courts acting in behest of merchants who might be described as fat and greedy if we were feeling polemical. Thomas Jefferson, our ambassador to France at the time, was unfazed by news of the uprising. He famously wrote, “The tree of liberty needs to be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants,” adding, as only a farmer at heart would say, “It is its manure.”
Another farmer with serious military experience, George Washington, was asked to use his influence to calm things down in Massachusetts. He refused. “Influence is not government,” he declared, no doubt foreseeing the shameful malpractices of K Street in the city named after him. “Let us have a government by which our lives, liberties and properties will be secured.”
The cabin raising on March 18, 2016 was made festive when more than 100 pipeline opponents stopped by during their protest march from Windsor to Northfield, the towns where large and very noisy compressor stations are to be located to manage the flow of gas through the pipeline. The marchers included a lot of college kids – it was spring break. They gathered in a circle around the cabin and listened to Will read from Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Then Delta LNU burned herbs in an iron pot and recited a prayer that she said was a combination of the beliefs of four Native American peoples. She bestowed an Indian name on Will: Earth Badger.
Earlier I had said publicly that we should “call in the cavalry” if and when the pipeline builders show up. Will argued for a more peaceful approach. He was willing to badger people but not beat them up. I suppose he is right. Perhaps friendly persuasion will yet win the day, if only the powers-that-be will listen to their own citizens and not to all the sweet talk coming from Kinder Morgan.
Things won’t be the same around here with a pipeline carrying noxious fracked gas from Pennsylvania through farms, orchards, woods, waterways, bird sanctuaries, and other conservation lands in Massachusetts.
Send us your Phillies and your Flyers, if you must, but keep your gas.
“What is the use of a house,” said Thoreau, “if you haven’t got a tolerable planet to put it on?”