- The following first appeared in the fall issue of About HER, a regional insert magazine.
When Mara Robbins read a Facebook update from a family friend this past July, she realized that the skills she had been developing over her 43 years of life were about to line-up for a worthy cause. “Looks like Floyd has a pipeline fight on its hands,” wrote Bill Kovarik a Radford University Professor of Communications, who is currently teaching science and environmental writing at UnityCollege in Maine.
Kovarik’s comment was the first Robbins had heard about the Mountain Valley Pipeline. Proposed to pass through Floyd and other regional counties, the pipeline would transport natural gas extracted through fracking from West Virginia to PittsylvaniaCounty by way of a 42” wide and 300 mile long underground pipe.
Realizing that the pipeline would provide no consistent economic benefit to Floyd but would pose unknown environmental and health risks, Robbins set about to spread the word. With the encouragement of Kovarik, she re-activated Citizens for the Preservation of Floyd, a grassroots group that her late father, Wayne Bradburn, founded in the late ‘70s to stop the 765 kilovolt Dominion power line from coming through Floyd.
Citizens for the Preservation of Floyd became Citizens Preserving Floyd County (CPFC) and Robbins began coordinating information, enlisting the help of others and speaking at meetings and events about the importance of water preservation and the dangers of fracking, a controversial process of blasting deep into the earth to release trapped methane gas, the principle component of natural gas. Although natural gas burns cleaner than coal, methane is a potent greenhouse gas, and fracking has been linked to water and air pollution and to an increased risk of earthquakes.
Robbins, a poet and writer, has lived the majority of her life along rivers and creeks, first in North Carolina and then for 37 years in Floyd County. She currently lives next to The Little River with her daughter Kyla and her partner Leigh Rainey, who Robbins describes as the “most essential behind the scenes part of the organization.”
Having grown up with a great appreciation for clean water, Robbins says she is committed to protecting Floyd’s water in the long term and has recently launched a crowd funding project at Indiegogo that involves collecting water stories and poems, publishing an anthology and writing poems for project supporters. “We are committed to protecting our water in Floyd. So much environmental work is about remediation. We have an opportunity to protect a watershed that hasn’t been compromised yet.” Robbins said.
As a Blue RidgeMountain community, Floyd has no underground aquifers of collected rainwater. The water source in Floyd comes from rain that has collected in fractured rock. This provides only a small reserve and a relatively short time for filtering, making it vulnerable to contamination and drought. About 95% of Floyd households are served by private water, wells and springs, and Floyd’s water streams into the Little River, the Dan River, the Roanoke River and others. “Floyd’s headwaters feed over 10,000 miles of waterways, 28 counties and 4 major metropolitan areas. That’s a pretty big backyard,” Robbins pointed out.
Robbins was shaped to be an advocate for peace, justice and the environment from an early age. Primarily home-schooled, she studied non-violent resistance as a teen at ArthurMorganSchool, a progressive boarding school with Quaker values in Burnsville, North Carolina. She played leading roles in plays, such as Peace Child and graduated from HollinsUniversity, where she majored in English with a Creative Writing concentration and took Environmental Studies and Gender and Women Studies courses.
As a founding member of the Floyd Writers Circle, Robbins co-hosted a monthly spoken word night in Floyd for the seven years the group was active. Her essay about love and loss, Someone to Hold On To, was published in Real Simple Magazine in the spring of 2011. But it was her first regionally published poem at the age of 16 that was the first foreshadowing of the work she does today. If I could take this broken world / and give it back its trees / its gentle healing summer rain /its clear cool autumn breeze / then I could take the magic of the wood / the magic of the mind /and spread it then to all my kin / to all of humankind …
Floyd County is known for its environmental advocates, as well as its musicians and artists. CPFC meetings called by Robbins and posted on Facebook exceeded turnout expectations and have grown to encompass well over 200 attendees. Local support for CPFC’s goals includes professors, scientists, biologists, artists, musicians, farmers, local government officials and existing citizen groups, such as The Partnership for Floyd and SustainFloyd. Floyd’s Community Education Resource Cooperative (CERC) funded Robbins to attend a leadership certification program.
“I’m participating in government for the first time in my life,” Robbins said with enthusiasm. She expressed how inspired she has been by the willingness of the Floyd Board of Supervisors to share information and ongoing dialogue. In August the Supervisors unanimously passed a resolution asking the two companies involved in the pipeline proposal to halt land surveying in Floyd and to attend a community meeting, which was subsequently scheduled for late October.
Some of the CPFC committees that have been formed include those to address legal, financial, public relations, outreach, research, volunteering, fundraising and event planning matters. There is even a song writing committee, which has led to the formation of Musicians and Artists for Change. “Poetry, music and art has sustained the workers of every grassroots movement,” Robbins commented.
At a recent event to debut “To the Last Drop,” a film about Floyd water, Robbins updated the crowd and also read a poem, introducing it by saying, “You’ve heard from my head. This is from my heart.” The poem, titled Deep River, concluded: We’re the heart of this river, friend. / A drop in the Cumberland / bucket, halfway/ home and sobbing. / Carry me the rest of the way. / Help me climb into clean.
Robbins and others at the event spoke about the need to pursue renewable energy sources and to shift some of the focus on energy production to energy conservation. Attendees were uplifted to hear reports that solar energy could be cheaper than natural gas in a span of about 10 years.
Robbins sees the work of stopping the pipeline from coming through Floyd as a skirmish, just one battle and not the war. “I see the big picture. We have the potential to be a model for others and we can have fun doing it,” she said. She noted that 400,000 people recently marched in New York for Climate Change action and that Climate Change could be an impetus for policy change “because it affects everyone.”
In early October, just days after CPFC became a chapter member of the Blue Ridge Environmental Defense League and received its non-profit status, local newspapers reported that the proposed Mountain Valley Pipeline would be rerouted north and would avoid cutting through Floyd, Pulaski and HenryCounty. Citing the change as a way to minimize impact to the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway and a way to better utilize existing routes, the partner company involved said that the newly proposed route will continue to go through Giles, Montgomery and Franklin Counties, and will now go through Roanoke County.
“This news is a testament to the collective strength of Floyd Countians,” Robbins said. “It feels good. We stood our ground and we did so with respect, with compassion and with a fierce commitment. Community truly is stronger than corporations.” But the relief is bittersweet for Robbins because so many counties will still be affected. “It’s our intention in Floyd to do what we can to support those other communities with the resources we have. We’ve maintained since the beginning that we don’t want this pipeline in anyone’s back yard.”
The poem Robbins wrote when she was 16 ended with a hopeful image of a candle flame becoming the sun, a representation of the collective. Today, she remains hopeful about the power of community to bring about change. She encourages others to “be willing to be a blade of the grass that forms the beautiful fields of a grassroots movement. And if you’re passionate enough? Be willing to be a field.” ~ Colleen Redman _________Our World Tuesday