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Book Review: Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America, co-edited by Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby

Reviewed by Lucia Hadella in partnership with Oregon State University’s Spring Creek Project and Environmental Arts and Humanities program.

How does one go about telling the story of hydraulic fracturing in the United States in a way that illuminates its repercussions for humans and nonhumans? Through poetry? A short story? An essay? Does one travel to a town where fracking is prevalent and talk with its residents, see the operations, walk across the scarred ground? Editors Stefanie Brook Trout and Taylor Brorby made the decision, when putting together Fracture, to include all of these approaches in an effort to capture the qualms and indignations surrounding fracking.

The story of fracking is globally relevant, contributing to the larger saga of climate change and energy production, but it is also local, personal, and intimate. In her poem “Small Buried Things,” poet and singer-songwriter Debra Marquart writes to fracking states, such as North Dakota, with a warning and a plea. Highlighting the sacrifice of life-sustaining water and air for the quick returns from fossil fuel development, she writes, “more oil than we have water to extract / more oil than we have atmosphere to burn.” Addressing her home state, she urges, “north dakota   dear sleeping beauty   please, wake up / they have opened you up and said, come in   take everything.”

I first learned about fracking during my senior year of high school, and I can still remember those infographics depicting the cracks that spread through the shale layer, sometimes more than a mile below the Earth’s surface, branching like a system of roots where trees will never reach. I remember the video of a woman in Pennsylvania turning the knob to her kitchen sink, lighting a match, and flinching as the water ignited with a flash. She talked about methane levels, about getting dizzy in the shower, about the money the gas companies gave her to lease her land for drilling. As an Oregonian who had not witnessed fracking firsthand, my schooling on the subject was important but incomplete.

Indeed, one can only learn so much about fracking by watching videos and studying diagrams. A collection like Fracture helps to humanize the on-site damage done by fracking and offer a more complete look at the political and economic forces at play. In order to gain insight for his Fracture contribution “The Occupation,” writer and professor Paul Bogard traveled to southeastern Ohio to better understand how communities there are affected by natural gas extraction. “What I saw in Ohio,” he writes, “is a land under occupation.” Between the “ubiquitous tankers labeled ‘brine’” and the “constant industrial noise, like a factory’s churn and whine,” Bogard quickly determines that the real-life fracking scene is far different from that described by the oil company Halliburton.

Fracking wastewater pond, courtesy of the Filmmaker Fund

On their website Halliburton depicts fracking operations as quick, quiet, and safe. Advertising to communities made vulnerable by poverty and limited access to education, the company downplays the environmental disruption and chemical contamination while emphasizing opportunities for job growth and “easy money.” Bogard learns from his hosts, Appalachia locals, that the oil and gas companies first try to coax landowners into signing leases, and then they revert to divisive tactics if that doesn’t work, “turning neighbor against neighbor.”

Like so many other contributors, Bogard’s narrative style entices Fracture readers, and I found myself roped in by the human intrigue of his journalistic approach—and then I remembered that these disturbing stories are real. The threatening industry representatives, the landowners who are duped and coerced, and the ground that “has the look of a recent battle, torn up and scraped bare, all yet to heal” comprise the reality right now in many towns across the nation. It seems appropriate that some authors in Fracture chose fiction as their avenue for exploring a practice whose implications for the future are both significant and unknown. The subject is heavy, and it tugs at the imagination, demanding an explanation and a way to look forward for what actions must be taken.

This heaviness is the reason why Fracture, which reads smoothly from page-to-page, author-to-author, and genre-to-genre, is also demanding. It requires from its readers a degree of empathy and self-reflection, all the while provoking frustration with a larger system that allows and perpetuates suffering at the hands of power. In her essay “The View from 31,000 Feet: A Philosopher Looks at Fracking,” nature writer and philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore stares down at an eastern Utah landscape speckled with fracking wells. From her seat in the airplane she wonders, “By what right do humans take what they want from the land—not just what they need, but whatever they want—with no regard for the living, animate community that already exists in that place?”

Indeed, some Fracture contributors, such as Moore, take their discussions beyond fracking, seeing the practice as one component of a broader system of resource exploitation in the name of growth, convenience, and progress. In his essay “Insanity,” activist and philosopher Derrick Jensen examines fracking as one part of a dominant culture obsessed with growth at any cost. He reminds readers that “[f]racking is not one lone mistake. It’s not one lone act of greed. It’s part of a larger pattern. It’s one symptom of the disease—the insanity—that is this culture.” He urges readers to fight fracking with this larger picture in mind and to understand that what is needed in taking action against fracking is a systemic shift and not one that views the extractive practice in isolation.

And indeed, Fracture is a call to action. In fact, it comes complete with several guides on how to take charge against fracking. In “A Feminist’s Guide to Fighting Pipelines,” activist-publisher Ahna Kruzic and sociologist Angie Carter share sage advice on getting started, building community, moving forward, caring for oneself, and adhering to radical imagination. I will leave you with their words as a gesture of resistance: “Trust that through the undoing, the dismantling, the collapse, we will learn to remake and will remember to question, to honor, to debate and disagree and come together again.”

Lucia Hadella grew up in Talent, Oregon. She received her B.S. in Natural Resources from Oregon State University, where she is currently earning an M.A. in Environmental Arts and Humanities.

Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America

Ice Cube Press

Read and share your own thoughts on the Center for Humans and Nature’s Questions for a Resilient Future Series: Does fracking violate human rights?

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Book Review: Fragment

You may have read that in mid-July a massive iceberg broke off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf. Measuring about 2,000 square miles—nearly the size of Delaware—it is one of the largest icebergs ever to calve from the ice shelves ringing the continent. Scientists expect that it will eventually fracture, with some pieces remaining in the Weddell Sea and others moving into the Atlantic Ocean. They don’t expect the pieces will pose any danger nor do they anticipate sea level rise should they melt. But what if, rather than an iceberg splintering off an ice shelf, the continent’s largest ice shelf, itself, a land mass the size of France, were thrust into the ocean? How much global devastation might result from an event of that magnitude?

For the answer, look to Craig Russell’s fast-paced eco-thriller, Fragment. When the novel begins, a glacial avalanche severs the Ross Ice Shelf from the continent and creates a tsunami of ice that destroys two polar research stations, Scott Base and McMurdo Station. “The wave is not a perfect line,” writes Russell. “It is the product of four, falling, runaway glaciers, thrust like goring bulls into the Ice Shelf’s back…shards of surface ice are launched ahead of the onrushing swell. Launched like harpoons, catapulted forward at the speed of sound.” Only three people survive the onslaught: a polar climatologist, an astronomer, and a marine biologist.

Fragment is their story, but not theirs alone. The novel is driven by an ensemble cast that includes sailors aboard a U.S. atomic submarine, journalists, climate-change denying politicians, a self-promoting marketing director of a major cruise line, a Scottish sailor literate in the wild waters of Drake Passage, and a blue whale named Ring. All (of the human characters) are trying to make sense of what the ice shelf’s surge into the Atlantic could mean for coastal countries, and some are warning of the epic environmental and human carnage to come. It will be no surprise to readers that these warnings fall on proverbial deaf ears. Says a German scientist at a hastily-called European conference, “Such examples are imaginative, but we must not inflame the passions of the public…we must take a balanced view. We cannot simply adopt an alarmist view.”

In this climate change allegory, characters are somewhat thinly drawn in background, if not environmental outlook. Readers will quickly distinguish between those who are noble—who respect earth and all her inhabitants—and those who are selfish and scornful of nature. This lack of complexity in character development combined with short chapters that jump among settings, pitch the action of the story forward at a steady, page-turning clip. Fragment is hard to put down.

Perhaps the most compelling character in the novel—and certainly the purest of heart—is the blue whale, Ring. When the scientists who survive the Antarctic tsunami develop a language that makes communication with Ring possible, what follows is inter-species cooperation unlike the world has ever seen.

Fragment leaps so seamlessly from fact to fiction that it may drive readers to their computers or smart phones to find out where exactly fact ends and fiction begins. That’s how well-researched and executed I found Craig Russell’s eco-thriller.

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Book Review: South Pole Station

Ashley Shelby’s debut novel, South Pole Station, takes readers to the bottom of the earth for a wry, multi-layered story that tightly packs art, science, polar history, climate change, politics, humor, and human relationships into a vivid tale of courage and redemption.

The novel’s central character is thirty-year-old Cooper Gosling, whose life has hit its nadir. Cooper’s art career is going nowhere, her relationship with her parents is strained, and her twin brother’s suicide has left her emotionally unmoored. Seeking something—there’s an ambiguousness to what that might be—Cooper applies to the National Science Foundation’s year-long Artist & Writer’s Program at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, “the most remote research station on the planet.” (Vetting includes 500 questions—a “pelvic exam of the mind,”—that includes such queries as “How many alcoholic drinks do you consume a week? A day?” and “Would you rather be a florist or a truck driver?”)

At the station, Cooper establishes an easy camaraderie with her fellow “Polies,” an eclectic group of scientists, support personnel, and artists whose defining characteristic is that they “don’t fit in anywhere else.” This commonality of sorts is what sustains the station’s fragile ecosystem. But cracks begin to emerge following the arrival of Frank Pavano, a scientist in the pocket of climate change-denying politicians and their allies in the fossil fuel industry.

Pavano’s presence at Amundsen-Scott—he’s out to prove global warming is a hoax—infuriates the station’s scientists and puzzles many of the non-science personnel, including Cooper, who befriends Pavano, and Pearl, a cook with Machiavellian ambition. When the scientists seek to undermine Pavano’s every activity, Cooper agrees to travel with him to the “ice-coring camp,” on the fringe of the polar outpost. It’s there that a freak accident will change Cooper forever, imperil the station, and ignite a global controversy.

This climate thread, one of many plot lines woven into South Pole Station, is what givethe novel its tension and an unexpected timeliness. (The book is due out in July.) In a recent article for Slate Shelby writes:

In 2010, I began work on a novel set in a time I was certain would be looked upon as one of the most embarrassing periods of the climate change “debate”: the George W. Bush era. The novel, set at South Pole Station and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, … is, in part, a dark comedy, and it was a fun story to write—mostly because Obama was in office and the absurdities of politicians trying to legislate climate change out of existence had begun to fade away.

But as the opening scenes of the Trump era began to play out, these gremlins are springing back to life.

How much will Trump’s withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris climate accord and his administration’s claw back of Obama-era environmental regulations energize “these gremlins”? How much might they slow, or even reverse, progress made over the last decade? My hope is very little. But “hope,” as Shelby sees it, is, ironically, what climate deniers often prey upon. Thus, this exchange between Cooper and two scientists—Sal and Sri—following a well-attended climate lecture by Pavano:

“No, she’s right,” Sal said, still looking at Cooper. “Pearl is the test case. She was buying last night. She was feeling guilty about participating in a consumer economy that is leading to the destruction of the earth. Remember what she said? ‘I don’t want the earth to be warming.’”

“So? None of us do,” Sri said.

“But when Pavano told her it wasn’t, she said that made her feel better. She was relieved. Pavano gave her the out she was looking for.”

“Pearl is Everywoman,” Cooper said, through a mouthful of pancake.

Sri looked from Sal to Cooper and back again, his black unibrow furrowed. Suddenly, his eyes widened. “And it took Pavano two-thousandths of a second to plant doubt in Everywoman’s brain.” He stared at the wall. “Shit. People are dumb.”

“Pearl’s not dumb,” Cooper said…

“The problem isn’t brain power,” Sal said. “It’s hope. They’re hopeful. Deniers provide hope. We don’t. We’re doom and gloom, and that’s what makes it so easy for Pavano to convert.”

Shelby likely didn’t intend for South Pole Station to be a call to action, but in the age of Trump it may become one. That would be a good thing. But I’d be remiss not to emphasize that South Pole Station is a solid read for any era. Shelby’s quick wit and journalistic eye for detail ground a story that will appeal to readers of environmental literature, polar enthusiasts, and anyone who loves a story with complex, quirky characters and a compelling plot.

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Book Review: Marrow Island by Alexis M. Smith

Alexis M. Smith’s lovely novel Marrow Island envisions environmental catastrophe on several levels, beginning with a devastating earthquake and the subsequent oil refinery accident whose effects, even though these events are backstory, linger on every page.

The novel begins with a mysterious opening chapter, in which Lucie Bowen, twenty years after the earthquake, is again fleeing the island of her youth, this time under very different circumstances. Unlike during the earthquake, which Lucie and her best friend, Katie, survived together, Katie now is a suspicious presence (“I’m not leaving you alone with her,” says Lucie’s boyfriend, Carey); by the end of this short chapter, Lucie says of the inhabitants of her former childhood home: “I forgive them for trying to kill me.”

When Lucie left Marrow Island, it was uninhabitable, or so she and everyone else believed. Yet when Katie writes decades later with stunning news — she has been living on the island with other “colonists” in a thriving community — Lucie’s affection for her friend and her journalistic curiosity bring her back.

On the island, Lucie witnesses an astonishing transformation, but she knows all cannot be what it appears. During her time on the island, through those from her long-lost friend to the colony’s leader, Sister J, Lucie begins to uncover what is really happening, and what she finds is both inspiring and devastating. While the story moves inexorably toward more devastation still, there remains a lot of hope, a belief that perhaps not all is lost after all; we see this in the colonists and attempts to recover the land, as well as in Lucie’s reconnecting with her past: “I felt Katie taking my hand. My body relaxed, a conditioned response that should have been lost years ago.”

Marrow Island is a book as much about a woman’s attempts to reconnect with her past as it is about the environment. With a narrative that alternates between Lucie’s visit to the island and her life in Oregon with Carey, Smith’s novel portrays the connections between eco-disasters natural and man-made, between relationships past and present, and how we recover — or do not — from landscapes forever changed.

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Book Review: Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley by Ann Pancake

Ann Pancake’s new story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, brings readers to the West Virginia territory of her extraordinary novel, Strange As This Weather Has Been. In these novellas and stories, the ravaged West Virginia landscape is such a deeply ingrained part of these characters’ lives that those who move away are lured back—even if they may not completely understand why.

In “The Following,” a Seattle woman finds herself mysteriously drawn to animal bones, eventually using a job interview as an excuse to return to her homeland: “many days I felt so feral I’d choose homelessness over that sense of living inside a speeding car I’d had while working full-time.” And when she returns, she discovers that the land was still a part of her: “The smell of the place. It’d near rolled me. A smell foreign to anything I’d scented as an adult—water on limestone? Appalachian dirt? acorn rot?—but one sniff. And I was eight years old again.”

Yet for a visiting cousin in the story “Sab,” who “said she had to come home and didn’t think a week would be enough…Said she really just needed to get out in the woods…” finding her roots proved more difficult. “How long do you think it’ll take,” she asks, “before I’ll get all the city out of me?”

pancake

For most of these characters, the landscape is so deeply a part of them that they can never fully leave it behind — and the tragedy of its destruction weighs heavily on them all, from the retired miners in “Arsonists” who watch their town burn down one home at a time to the narrator of the novella “In Such Light” who “traveled under horizons of coal power plants, heaving up out of their own steam and effluvium like daymare mirages, menacing unoccupied castles, the cooling towers monstrous squat beakers, some mutation out of a chemistry set. The oil refineries with their perverse metal trees, overtall, spindly, their flares rippling, biblical, each crown a sterile altar.”

Everywhere the effects of the coal industry hovers, visibly and emotionally, made vivid by Pancake’s haunting prose. In “Arsonists,” former miners futilely spend their nights on watch, surrounded by the aftermath of fire, to catch whoever is burning down the town’s company-owned homes. “Some of the houses are just scorched, their windows like blackened eyes. Others went full-blaze, gaping open now, their charred rooms exposed—a pitiful vulgar to it…Overhead, the flattened hills roll in dead slumps, like men’s bodies cold-cocked…like men knocked out. The humps of their twisted shoulders, their arms and legs drunk-flung. Them sprouting their sharp foreign grass.”

Among Pancake’s many gifts are to reveal at once the beauty of her native landscapes and the suffering it endures — where, as she writes in “Arsonists,” the mountain-top blasting turned day to night and “dust stormed the hollow so thick…everybody’d had to birth their headlights, their houselights, right through the middle of the day…That year, there was no summer green, no autumn red. Everything evergray and velvet.” And Pancake’s every sentence is something to be savored — from the pitch-perfect voices and descriptions (“He says his words like flat creek rocks laid”) to the details that reveal physicality as well as character and place (“The bottom half of his face was twice as long as the top, out of balance even by horse standards”).

AnnPancake

The narrator of “The Following,” the only story set outside of West Virginia, is overly aware, in part due to the recent losses in her own life, of the “Great Losses of These Times”—“the atmosphere boiling, the Arctic thawing, oceans rising, species dying.” She reflects: “That same spring my life was being dismantled, BP annihilated the Gulf and a coal company with a criminal environmental record slaughtered twenty-nine miners in the hills not far from where I’d lived as a child.”

That so many other characters in this collection haven’t left their hometowns doesn’t mean they don’t feel the same sense of foreboding; Pancake captures their sensibilities beautifully, from young and teenage girls for whom poverty has made them older than their years to Matley in “Dog Song,” who feels his twenty-two dogs are the only ones who understand him, “the loose part in him” that makes him the object of rumor and nicknames. When his dogs begin to disappear, the despair is overwhelming: “…just when he’d think it couldn’t get worse, think a body couldn’t hold more hurt, another dog would go, the loss an infinity inside him.” Every character reveals an entire mirror landscape reflecting the whole of this region that Pancake portrays so distinctly.

Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley is a stunningly beautiful collection by one of our finest writers — and one of our most important voices in environmental literature.

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