Melissa Matthewson reviews Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, edited by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout
Ice Cube Press | 2016 | ISBN: 978-1-88160-90-1 | 475 pages
Just like for mineral,
now the search between rock, flint,
— Linda Hogan
The pump-jack is the symbolic mechanical structure of the West, a representation of oil and gas drilling, an image that personifies the story of U.S. energy production. Hold that image in your mind and think of the words Aldo Leopold wrote, published posthumously in 1949 in A Sand County Almanac: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” I expect that Leopold’s land ethic and his legacy have not been forgotten; yet, when faced with the environmental crises of our contemporary period, the complexity of energy production, and in particular, the nature of fracking, I wonder if we haven’t neglected his land ethic, and if, in our race toward energy independence, we’ve somehow overlooked and lost sight of how the vast open spaces of our country are still, and even more so, geographies of hope, as Wallace Stegner once wrote. In our failure to remember what it means to preserve the integrity of a landscape, Fracture, a new anthology out from Ice Cube Press, asks us to remember and demands that we call to mind the ideas of Leopold by interrogating and exploring subjects of conservation, wildness, landscape, and economy, requesting that we consider a new worldview, one of moral courage, compassion, prudence, and justice.
Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, edited by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, compiles personal essays, scientific writing, poetry, and fiction investigating the process of fracking and its potential impacts on communities and the environment. Fracking is a method of extracting natural gas from shale rock by the injection of water and chemicals into deep rock layers to release the gas. The controversial process creates new pathways in the rock, i.e. fractures, thereby allowing the gas to be released. With an introduction by Pam Houston, the book presents lyrical, smart, maddening, and often heartbreaking stories of fracking from a number of important thinkers, writers, and activists, including Barbara Hurd, Rick Bass, David Gessner, Carolyn Raffensperger, Derrick Jensen, Linda Hogan, Richard Manning, Bill McKibben, and Kathleen Dean Moore. This book is the first of its kind, a sort of teaching text that universities and classrooms across the country can use to provoke conversation about fracking. At the heart of it, the anthology represents an array of inquiry into fracking, the possible consequences and impacts on the landscape, communities, and economy, as well as the justifications and economics of the industry. The pieces in the anthology move around the country, from the Bakken formation in North Dakota to Utah to Ohio and around the world, and while much of the work covers similar terrain, each piece offers a divergent view and layer of experience about oil and gas production.
For instance, in an essay by Jon Jensen, we learn about sand mining and its relation to fracking as well as its effects. In another essay, Kathryn Miles explores the history of oil production in Oklahoma and the resultant tremors. It’s titled “Slick: The (Mis)fortunes of an Oklahoma Oil Town Faithfully Presented in Nine Parts and with Special Attention Paid to Geographic Features Therein.”
The poetry in the book makes for an emotional case against fracking with poems by Debra Marquart and Wayne Mennecke, among others. The poems create dynamic pauses and interludes between the serious narrative of the other works in the book. What is unique about this collection is each writer’s choice of form and style. This particularity to the writing invigorates the anthology and maintains reader engagement.
Early in the collection, Paul Bogard writes a provocative essay titled “The Occupation” in which he leaves his hometown in Minnesota to visit a fracking community in southeastern Ohio. He writes, “I felt like I was visiting a country where a foreign force from a land of white pick-ups and only men, stained and unshaven, had come with their heavy machinery to do what they pleased. And I thought this is an America I don’t know, that most of us don’t.” Bogard, up front, admits his ignorance, his privilege in living in a place where fracking is not a threat to his beloved landscape and home. Likewise, before reading this anthology I held only a small understanding of the nature of fracking, now greatly expanded. As Bogard continues on in his essay, he provides an overview of fracking juxtaposed to the local community, who tell him sadly about “unitization,” a situation in which a company will force a landowner to comply with a fracking development even if they do not agree, resulting in turning neighbors against each other. He writes, “What I saw in Ohio is a land under occupation.” Further, “… the ground has the look of recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal. Long corridors slashed through woods for new pipelines, fresh wounds, fragmentation—forests and fields broken apart. Compressor stations, injection wells, pump jacks, well pads . . . the conquering army has arrived.” As Bogard follows locals deeper into the occupation of their town, he finds that communities have little control over their homes, that laws and regulations have been created to allow industry to develop the fracking sites, including the infamous Halliburton loophole, which Vice President Dick Cheney ushered into law in 2005, exempting the fracking industry from key provisions of the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Safe Drinking Water Act.
In one of the more lyrical essays, Kathleen Dean Moore writes beautifully about fracking in “The View From 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking.” She is on an airplane flying over North Dakota when the pilot comes on the intercom to announce they are flying over the Bakken shale oil fields. She looks down to something she’s never seen before: “The entire plain, horizon to horizon, was studded with flames.” She’s overcome with surprise and grief, which leads her into questioning how we might, as humans, permit this kind of violence against the land. What is the story we tell ourselves, she asks. “A culture embodies a worldview, a set of answers to the fundamental questions of the human condition: What is the Earth? What is the place of humans on Earth? How, then, shall we live?”
The answer seems to be destruction and violence, but Moore continues that we cannot destroy habitat without destroying ourselves. “Playing out that script has brought the world to a cosmically dangerous place,” she says. Moore continues in her essay to fly over Utah, witnessing more fracking wells and waste ponds, and then on into Oregon, where she views the “fake pipeline that snakes along an entire neighborhood block,” which then takes her home to Corvallis, where she wonders about the possibility of a new story emerging:
Because we understand the world’s systems and beings to be interconnected, we realize that all flourishing is mutual, and that damage to any part is damage to the whole. This is the foundation of justice. Because we can understand the world as interdependent, we gratefully acknowledge our dependence on one another and on the life-giving systems of the Earth. This is the foundation of compassion. Because we recognize that the Earth is finite, we embrace an ethic of restraint and precaution to replace a destructive ethos of excess. This is the foundation of prudence. Because we understand the planet’s systems to be resilient, we are called to take every possible step to harm and undo the damage we have done. This is the foundation of hope. Because the Earth is beautiful, we will refuse to be made into foot soldiers in the oil industry’s wars against the Earth. This is the beginning of moral courage.
And perhaps this is the manifesto of this book: going forth with restraint and courage as we attempt to find our way through the complexity of energy production in the U.S.
What can an anthology of this nature do for its potential readership? As one reads, the book advances with a sort of attentive urgency, pushes forward as an elegy to the loss of landscape and wildness, and progresses, to what seems to me as a call to action. Through reading, I’ve come to know the cast of characters key to energy production in the U.S., the potential problems, the shaky science, the people whose lives have changed because of oil and gas development.
Fracture falls into a repetitive rhythm at times—multiple essays have the same data, and some of the stories lessen the impacts—but in general, the anthology makes a case against fracking while also allowing the reader to ask more questions, to learn, to instigate action. How do we create “a countervailing narrative?” How can we oppose fracking, yet still drive cars?
Richard Manning closes the anthology with an elegiac essay titled “Now We’re Talking Price,” in which he moves about the Bakken shale formation in North Dakota, looping between the history of Theodore Roosevelt and the loss of a precious and wild landscape to profit, price, and energy reserves, and ultimately, “the tragedy of the commons.” He writes that “you might hate the idea of oil rigs on the family ranch, but if you don’t sell someone else will, and it’s all going to hell anyway so might as well sign. We do not decide whether to drill oil. Price decides. Price and how much is in the ground.” And perhaps that’s what this book does best: describes in detail the tragedy of fracking as price and supply become forces of change in rural communities across the country that are up against big oil and gas development.
Read Melissa Matthewson’s essay “Fall, or Falling” appearing in Terrain.org.
Header photo of natural gas flames by Adam Gorka, courtesy Pixabay. Photo of Erica Watson courtesy Erica Watson.