An Aquakening by Mary Sansom O.
In 2006, my two sisters and I inherited our parents’ property on the Left Fork of Wilson’s Creek in Wayne, West Virginia. My youngest sister said she might one day want to sell her share, something my middle sister and I had no intention of doing any time soon, so we deeded her a piece of land that didn’t mean anything to us. That left Ruth and I as the owners of the house and land where we had grown up. Or so we thought.
In July 2015, Ruth attended a meeting in Huntington sponsored by the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, or OVEC. In the wake of the news that Rogersville Shale had been discovered underlying Wayne County, OVEC organized a community meeting about leasing mineral rights. When the moderator asked who owned their mineral rights, my sister raised her hand. However, while visiting our aunt in Wayne and telling her about the meeting, my sister discovered otherwise.
When I went to visit Aunt Eliza soon after I found out we didn’t own the mineral rights, we sat on her low porch supported by white columns and edged with pink and purple petunias. She sat in the swing with one arm across the back, propelling herself vigorously to and fro with one foot in a terrycloth house slipper while I sat in a lawn chair facing her.
Aunt Eliza told me she had gone to the courthouse in the early 1960s to clear the title to her and her husband’s property because it had not been properly released from a loan. She remembered in almost photographic detail the chain of title of the land her father had owned, which included ours as well as theirs. She said her father had managed to secure the mineral rights to almost all the property he had bought or traded for, but he had failed in his dealings with one landowner.
“That Viney Furbee refused to sell the mineral rights,” she said. With her characteristic exaggerated delivery, she spat out every single word. So far as I was concerned, the sentence might as well have begun “That devil Satan.”
She told me how Vina Furbee’s son, who was known as “Red” Furbee, had visited her when he was nearly 100. His son had brought him, and the elder Furbee asked if she knew who owned the mineral rights to our property. She told him she wasn’t sure. Afterward, the elder Furbee sent her flowers, and Aunt Eliza was quite impressed with his gentlemanly air. She seemed to recall him fondly. I had no idea what to make of Aunt Eliza’s story. I didn’t understand the reason for his visit or her fond remembrances. I had nothing but animosity for the Furbees. What’s more, my mind was reeling from Aunt Eliza’s recall and storytelling abilities. She had recited all the adjacent landowners of the past fifty years, along with their accompanying genealogies, moving deftly up and down the keyboard of time. She was equally adept at discoursing on the descendants as on the ancestors, and by that I mean she was a repository of ancient and up-to-the-minute gossip.
Up until then, I had never heard of mineral rights. Now the term thumped around in my head like a tennis shoe in a dryer that spun night and day. Not long after my visit, Ruth I and gathered all the deeds to our property and the tax tickets and headed to the Wayne County Courthouse. I drove an hour from my home near Charleston to her house in Huntington, where we hopped into her minivan to drive the half hour to the county seat.
The records room was lined floor to ceiling with oversized books stacked horizontally like the drawers in a mausoleum. Elbow-high steel cabinets with slanted tops housed more books beneath them and did double duty as a work surface designed to accommodate several of the giant tomes open at once.
Bound in tattered cloth of faded green or dirty white, the old deed books were about as wide as my shoulders and long as my torso. They were heavy as we pulled them out of the shelves, where they rested on steel rollers that reminded me of the accordion lifts used to load caskets into hearses.
We didn’t have much time before closing, so we worked quickly to look up the deeds and make sense of all the transactions. Each of us brought a notebook and took notes. My sister took neat notes but kept getting confused by grantor and grantee. I didn’t have any trouble grasping that the first term referred to the seller and the second to the buyer, but my notes were so messy I doubted I would be able to read them the next day. In less than an hour we followed our parents’ 1964 deed back to that of the Furbee’s.
In Deed Book 244 on page 361, Vina Furbee, a widow, sells the property to Barney and Evelyn Asbury in 1948. We skimmed the document, turning to the second page, where we found the reservation, which said, “THERE IS RESERVED from this conveyance all coal, gas, oil and other minerals with the right to operate same on said property.”
Toward the end of the document, the reservation was mentioned again: “TO HAVE AND to hold unto the said parties of the second part, with all rights and appurtenances thereunto belonging, excepting such reservations as heretofore made, and with covenants of GENERAL WARRANTY of title to same.” It was all too much to take in at once, and there was no time to have copies made.
That evening we went back to my sister’s house and continued our research on the Internet with Ruth at one computer and her husband, Tim, at another. Tim stumbled across the county’s online tax records. Since we knew who held the mineral rights, he was able to search the records and to find all the tax tickets that belonged to anyone with the last name Furbee. Looking through them, we found the one that matched our property description. B.S. and Vennie Furbee’s tax ticket for 55 mineral acres on Wilson’s Creek matched our two tax tickets for 41 surface acres and 15 surface acres on Wilson’s Creek.
Once we discovered the full name of the mineral owner, we searched every category of legal instrument in the database to see if anything else turned up. We had no idea what we were looking for, but at last we found something: an oil and gas lease recorded in 2006 in the county clerk’s office between Walter B. Furbee, attorney-in-fact for Elza R. Furbee, a widower, of Senecaville, Ohio, and Cabot Oil & Gas Corporation of Charleston. The deed in the courthouse, with its language reserving the minerals to the Furbees, somehow gave them the right to lease our property to Cabot without our permission. The Furbees didn’t even have to notify us that such a contract had been drawn up and filed in the courthouse.
I had hoped we would somehow be able to recover our mineral rights, but reading the miniscule print on the computer screen, I felt as if our land had been handed a death sentence. Cabot had the right to do anything it wanted to get at everything of value, whether oil or gas, and all the names of the products sounded so ugly: casinghead gas, hydrogen sulfide gas, coalbed methane gas, and gob gas.
“In other words, if we fart, they have the right to capture the methane,” I said, and we all laughed.
When I got home that night, I found the lease online and looked at it again. I couldn’t read very much at once. The legalese in combination with the industry lingo was too overwhelming. I picked my way slowly through the language trying to figure out what it all meant. At first, I thought the Furbees had signed the lease in 2006 after my mother died. Just for an instant, I felt a spark of kindness for the Furbees because I thought they had been keeping tabs on our family from afar. I assumed they had kindly waited for first our father, and then our mother, to die before signing the lease. I figured they had waited until Mom and Dad were gone, so our parents wouldn’t be distressed if they found out. In the next instant, I realized the deed had been recorded in April, three months before our mother died.
As I read, I thought back to what was going on in our family when the Furbees were negotiating their lease. Nine years’ ago, our mother found out she had stage-four cancer. The diagnosis had forced her to move from our old white house on Wilson’s Creek to a newer brick one in Huntington near my sister Ruth. My mother decided to forgo chemotherapy, and the cancer spread rapidly. At the end, I took leave from work and stayed with her until she was transferred to hospice house where she spent a month wasting away in a medically induced coma. No one would ever again live in our house. Over the years, when we occasionally went back, we risked mold illness for the chance to step back in time and hunt for the souvenirs we had left behind. Mold, mildew and mice mingled to create air so spongy and pungent it burned our lungs as soon as we stepped through the front door.
I read the lease again, and I realized it had been signed in mid-December, 2005. That was Mom’s last Christmas, and we had gone to Beckley to spend the holiday with Grandma the way we always did. As her illness progressed, we continued to make the two-hour trip at regular intervals even though she winced in pain the entire time. During one of our visits toward the end of her life, her pain spiraled out of control, and I went to two different drug stores trying to get a prescription for methadone filled. After I finally got it, Mom had refused to take it because she didn’t want to become a drug addict.
Skimming over the lease, certain parts jumped out at me. “No well may be drilled nearer than 200 feet from said dwelling house now on said premises without the written consent of Lessor,” the lease read, referring to an oil or gas well. At least I have control over that, I thought, because I will never sign that, and then I realized that it was Furbee, and not I, who had the authority to give permission, and, of course, he would.
In legalese, the lease stipulated that Cabot could cut down trees, remove structures and build roads, pipelines and power stations. The company could use anything it wanted “except water from wells of Lessor.” It was jarring to see Furbee described as the owner of our well, this interloper who didn’t have the right to set foot on our property.
In my favorite reverie, I am hiding in the trees above the house where the old graveyard is, watching every move the workers make with my father’s rifle trained upon them. I fire, and it doesn’t matter where my bullet goes, so long as it connects with something, the back of a head or a gas tank that sets off an explosion.
Of everything I read with increasing dread, I dreaded most the thought of the injection wells that could be placed on our property. I had no idea what an injection well was, but I knew intuitively it was the most dreadful thing that could happen. I knew in my gut that, of the various forms of the death penalty that could be administered to our property, lethal injection was the most terrible. I felt as if our land were a pale bald child lying in a white hospital bed as evening fell and I waited for the nurse to make her rounds with the last shot of morphine.
I imagined what it would be like if Cabot Oil & Gas had drilled an oil or gas well on our property when Mom was terminally ill. I pictured trucks loaded with bulldozers and heavy equipment pulling into the hollow over old culverts not designed to stand up to such weight, and I felt myself shaking. I felt myself trembling. I felt as if I had awakened to the thick sludgy air of a nightmare, the kind of night terror where I wake up looking for the position of the doors and the windows to figure out if I am in the house I live in now or the house I grew up in. I was not simply awake. I was aquake.
What if Mom hadn’t been able to move to Huntington and had been forced to spend her dying days in the house in Wayne while heavy machinery prepared the drill site? At the end of her life, light hurt her eyes, and we kept the curtains drawn. She had to shut her windows because the unrelenting hum of interstate traffic far in the distance just about drove her crazy. She was used to perfect quiet punctuated by the lilting calls of hoot owls and whippoorwills. I don’t know what I would have done if she had had to spend her last days next to a drilling site.
I turned to the first paragraph of the oil and gas lease one last time, and my eyes landed on the final sentence, which described the bounds of the property “formerly owned” by the Furbees. At last, I found the only truth in the document: the words formerly and owned, the past tense of own. The Furbees had – long, long ago – owned our land.
The night I found out about the oil and gas lease, and for many months thereafter, I couldn’t sleep. When I lay down, all I could think about was how preposterous it was that someone in Akron, Ohio, had the rights to our property. I spent hours and hours at night searching the Internet on my phone to learn all I could about mineral rights.
Soon after, I joined the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization, a statewide organization based in Charleston and established in 2007 to protect surface owners, and all landowners for that matter, from the abuses of the oil and gas industry. In the membership form I mailed in, one question asked what I was willing to do to help the organization. For my answer, I scribbled “kill or die,” but not without some thought. At first, I hesitated to write that down. If Cabot ever drilled our property, and if I did kill someone, I didn’t want there to be any kind of evidence that my action was premeditated. The man would get what he deserved, a bullet in whatever body part I managed to hit that would take whatever toll it took. And then that response scared me, and I made myself write it down to make sure I would never do it for fear of the form being used against me. I made sure to add, “Just joking,” because, of course, I wasn’t.
When I wasn’t thinking or talking about mineral rights, I fantasized about how I could protect our land from Cabot Oil & Gas. My first line of defense would be to chop down all the trees on either side of the dirt driveway so that they fell across the road in an interlaced pattern so as to prevent the trucks from getting in in the first place. Or the culverts could be torn out and metal spikes placed alongside the road. But with Cabot standing to make millions of dollars from our property, the trees would be bulldozed aside in a single day. The flat tires would be changed and the culverts replaced just as easily.
Even in my daydreams, I know I couldn’t stave off the drillers for long, so that left death and destruction as my only options. In my favorite reverie, I am hiding in the trees above the house where the old graveyard is, watching every move the workers make with my father’s rifle trained upon them. I fire, and it doesn’t matter where my bullet goes, so long as it connects with something, the back of a head or a gas tank that sets off an explosion. It’s all the same to me as I melt into the woods, an event that drives up costs and makes Cabot think twice about whether the company should be drilling on land without the real owner’s permission. I also wonder about the possibility of damaging Cabot’s equipment beyond repair. I know a mechanical genius or two. But once again, Cabot has millions of dollars at their disposal to repair and replace the equipment they need to make money off our land.
My fantasies don’t stop there. In my mind, I’m stirring up a small revolution of land owners willing to band together to use guerilla warfare to defend their property. We position ourselves in three different hiding places in the hills, so that we’re shooting from a triangle around the drill site to give the illusion of larger forces. In this situation, no death is necessary, and the aim is, once again, to drive up costs and stall for time by making Cabot install security cameras and hire ‘round-the-clock armed guards. In all my scenarios, the main point of everything is to provide enough resistance to cut into the easy profits they will get from our land. I know that’s the bottom line.
I have one final fantasy, and it feels best of all to revel in this because it is repayment in kind, otherwise known as Old Testament-style eye-for-an-eye justice. In this one, I bribe a disgruntled truck driver hauling slickwater to drive up to Akron, Ohio, to dump half a load of the toxic slurry onto Furbee’s lawn. Then the driver turns around and heads to Texas to the home of Dan O. Dinges, the chief executive officer of Cabot Oil & Gas, to dump the rest in his yard. What would this do to their property values? How would they feel about their family being exposed to the toxic waste used to fracture a well, a cocktail fracking proponents benignly describe as a simple mixture of water, sand and everyday chemicals? I laugh as I imagine a crisis team in HAZMAT suits with gas masks descending upon the two distant neighborhoods to clean up the spill. Soon after, For Sale signs go up in the yards. Remorse and guilt are nowhere in my repertoire. After all, the Furbees and Cabot will have made the first move by invading our property, which three generations of our family have owned for almost 70 years. My family alone lived there for more than forty years, and we have title to the land and possession of it.
But the problem with all my reveries is that they’re impractical. First, I can’t shoot and don’t own a gun. Second, I don’t really want to spend an inordinate amount of time out in the woods during tick season, which is practically year-round due to warmer winters brought about by climate change. Third, I don’t live in Wayne, and I don’t have the time or the energy to keep watch over it night and day. Fourth, I’ve turned the problem over enough in my mind to realize there’s practically no way to defend our property due to the lay of the land and the fact we no longer live there. If I were to buy property with defense in mind, I would pick out something accessed by a single long road that could be guarded.
Fifth, and lastly, I understand what’s fueling my thoughts of violence. I stumbled across the writings of psychologist Dr. Peter Michaelson, and I know that feelings of helplessness and powerlessness are at the root of the kind of domestic terrorism I’m envisioning. When a person feels powerless, the feeling is so unpleasant that he or she turns to murder because it feels better. Murder feels like power. The more victimized people feel, the more likely they are to turn to violence. But in harming others, they ultimately harm themselves. And so, instead of taking up a gun and shooting, I picked up a pen, so to speak, and began writing. Instead of killing and maiming, I turned to researching and writing. I would use the only weapons at my disposal: words and the truth.