Peace of Mind

My relationship with West Virginia has always been strained. I’ve lived most of my life in her hills, attending kindergarten and grades four through twelve in two adjacent counties in the Northern Panhandle. But even from a young age, I felt I didn’t belong. In high school this feeling intensified as I started to think more deeply about my place in the world, my hopes and aspirations, and my relationship to the environment. This was also the time hydraulic fracturing for natural gas (fracking) started to sweep through my area. The country roads crumbled under the weight of trucks bearing oversized machinery. Friends and neighbors sold their mineral rights. Even the university campus—where my home is built, where my father and his girlfriend teach—even they sold. Commercials from the gas companies told them they were making the right choice. Almost overnight, the drills went up. I passed at least two or three on my twenty-minute drive to school, and since then even more have sprouted, the dirt paths to their sites cutting through what was once farm and forest.

I once blamed the people for letting this happen. For a state with a motto that reads, “West Virginia, Wild and Wonderful,” not many people seemed to care about mountaintop removal and fracking and chemical spills, or at least not enough to prevent them from happening. I spent a summer in upstate New York working at a bed and breakfast, and everywhere there were lawn signs and bumper stickers and pamphlets that read “No Fracking!” “Not in my backyard!” “Keep fracking out of New York!” How come these people just got it and no one from West Virginia did? Soon, though, I realized it wasn’t fair to blame the people. Those industries bring a lot of West Virginians a lot of badly needed money. Then I started blaming the politicians and companies, and though they proved very easy to hate, they seemed much more difficult to fight. So, finally, I started blaming myself. I had visions of swooping in, writing op-eds, creating organizations, making bumper stickers that read “Frack Off!” complete with an image of a backhanded fist and a drill tower protruding in place of a middle finger.

But instead I shut down. The “Impeach Obama!” lawn-signs that once sunk my gut left me unmoved. Even tossing aluminum cans and plastic bottles into bins that would end up in a landfill only left me shrugging. Apathy eased into me, taking the place of my anger, filling me, instead, with a dull, blue flame that burned too low to stir anything.

It was in Kansas, of all places, that I found myself thinking most about West Virginia. I was on tour with an a cappella group, and the community where we were staying reminded me a lot of where I grew up: one high school for the county. Lots of camouflage. Ethnic food limited to one terrible Mexican restaurant and a Chinese chain. They were even going through a similar fracking boom. So I did what any reasonable person would do. I wrote a song. And I finally felt something about my home state again. I felt comfortable calling it home. I had more empathy for the people I once thought of as part of the problem. I thought there might be some hope of recovery after all.

As I wrote the lyrics and worked out the melody in my host’s home, I imagined driving around the windy hills of my own home, looking out over the farmland, the cows lazily chewing their grass in the day, the towering drills and their red-blinking bulbs awash in the chlorine-blue work lights of the night. I imagined the neighbors who owned this land—neighbors I didn’t actually know—and constructed a narrative around them. I tried to envision the details of how they came to sell their mineral rights, their mixed feelings about doing so, their struggling crops, the parents’ desire for a different life for their kids. I did all of this through extremely naïve and biased eyes, to be sure—after all, perhaps they were completely fine or even happy with how events unfolded. Maybe they would laugh at me and my song if they ever heard it. I have no idea. But at least I did something, even if it was only rekindling a connection to the place I now call home. It just took a few years, a massive assault on the environment, and some 1,500 miles between us to let it happen.

You can find more of Sharif’s music with his band Wendy and the Bear.

Sharif Youssef was born in Rhode Island and has spent much of his life between Alexandria, Egypt, and West Liberty, West Virginia. He loves Thai food and slow lorises and wishes to be reincarnated as a bonobo. Send him an email at sharif.youssef@yale.edu.  

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