Dear America, coal colored my childhood. Black, luminous lignite coal, exhumed from dusty Dakota prairie put bread and milk on the table.
Dear America, I remember burning coal. Before the first snowfall, Dad and I hopped in our silver Dodge pickup, the bench seat covered in a coarse blanket, and rumbled down the country road to fill the truck bed with coal. When we got home, I helped unload the black lumps, my hands struggling to hold the jagged not-quite-rock, not-quite dust that would heat our home.
Dear America, life on the northern Great Plains is defined by extractive economies. Coal. Water diversions. Oil. Grazing on public lands. My father’s two brothers, as well as my grandfather, spent their entire careers in coal. My father worked at a coal-fired power plant in his last working years. Coal is in my blood.
Dear America, this summer, on a road trip west to hike to the source of the Missouri River, my friend John and I stayed at my uncle’s house. He works in coal near Gillette, Wyoming; his house rattles when the three mines across the highway blast dynamite to get at lignite. One time, his grandson’s rifle fell from the wall and hit his head.
Dear America, over breakfast, while updating my aunt about my life, I told her how John and I saw mile-long coal trains leave Wyoming. “Everything leaves Wyoming full, and then comes back empty,” she said.
Dear America, greatness is found in the breadth of the mixed grass prairie. The world tends to be amazed at verticality—particularly the height of mountains. Instead, I relish the vastness of the prairie. In childhood, I heard pheasants thrum in the marshy land beyond the wheat field behind our house. I hurled crank baits into the Square Butte Creek, praying to God I’d catch a northern pike. Today still I smell the coffee-scented Ponderosa pine in southwest North Dakota, climb buttes off little-traveled roadways, and catch toads in the baked mud on the banks of the Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers.
Dear America, I do not say this lightly: I intend to end the fossil fuel industry. North Dakota, home to the second largest oil play, roars with flares. Theodore Roosevelt National Park is ringed by fire. The Missouri River now contains radioactive material—these are not convenient facts for our great narrative.
Dear America, a new narrative unfolds along the sage-scented banks of the Cannonball River in North Dakota. The Sacred Stone Spirit Camps of the Standing Rock Sioux Nation block construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Brown bodies, riddled with rubber bullets, soaked with water, face black-armored police in the black night. Another profit, another erasure of culture.
Dear America, my father is a life-long union worker.
Dear America, wealth is in our topsoil, in our waterways. It is in helping our neighbor build her new roof, and walking an elderly man across the street. Jobs can be created and can disappear—wealth, once lost, is gone forever. If the American Spirit is to thrive in the 21st century, it must come from our relationship to place and to each other. Without a place, we have nowhere to root ourselves, no safe anchor to weather the storm. Without each other, we walk our paths alone.
Dear America, a farmer in Iowa got arrested protesting the construction of a pipeline on her own land. On her own land.
Dear America, late at night, when I close my eyes, I go back in my mind to the breakfast table and think of my aunt. I think of how to keep Wyoming full, how to protect the pallid sturgeon I love. I think of the sage grouse in North Dakota doing the sagebrush step, and I remember that maybe the way forward is more like a dance—a gentle push here and pull there, striving to move together to make something beautiful of the place and people of our lives.
Taylor Brorby is an award-winning essayist, and a poet. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, Taylor’s work has appeared in many journals and received many grants. He is Reviews Editor at Orion magazine, and his poetry collection, Crude: Poems, is forthcoming from Ice Cube Press.
Header image of hand holding coal by Pavlofox, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Taylor Brorby by Lisa Maren Thompson.