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Tom Montgomery Fate reviews “Fracture” Edited by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout

The same night I first started reading “Fracture,” a new literary anthology about hydraulic fracturing (or “fracking”), I happened to hear Sen. Al Franken (D.-Minn.) on CNN, endorsing the practice as a “viable part of our energy policy.” “Fracking isn’t all bad,” Franken claimed, because, he argued, the production of natural gas through fracking is less harmful to the environment and climate change than coal production, which it might replace.

When progressive senators such as Franken support the fracking industry, one realizes the difficulty of confronting this energy debacle. Though a clear environmental threat, some liberal senators view it as a necessary evil as they grope for compromise on a “clean energy” bill amid a divided Congress and against the lobbying muscle of Big Oil.

But “Fracture,” a collection of essays, stories, and poems about fracking in America, makes a gallant attempt to take on Big Oil and corporate greed. The editors, Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, have collected the works of nearly 50 writers — from Bill McKibben to Rick Bass to Pam Houston to Linda Hogan. And these are not, of course, the old nature writers — who sought to discover the unspoiled, the remaining bits of “untouched” wilderness, which they flew to in jets and bush planes. These are environmental writers, who seek to recover the spoiled, the damaged, the non-wilderness. Their task is not to discover the rare, but to recover the ravaged. As writers, they are necessarily both artists and activists.

Even so, “Fracture” includes a wide variety of voices and thinking, which is what keeps the book from slipping into what anthologies of social critique can become — cycles of guilt-laden lament, where the language of the activist overwhelms the language of the artist. In “Fracture” these two viewpoints somehow converge rather than compete, resulting in an innovative and compelling weave of writers who both educate and inspire.

Historian Patricia Nelson Limerick defines hydraulic fracture: “a process to release gas and oil from impermeable (‘tight’) underground formations. The technique known as horizontal drilling makes it possible to drill a well vertically and to branch off horizontally and thereby to reach a much greater area of the subsurface for fracturing. Bringing a vast resource of shale gas and shale oil into reach, the convergence of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling have called into question…the looming scarcity of US-produced oil and natural gas.”

Later, philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore opens the big question: “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? By what right do heavy-booted invaders tromp over a land of night lizards and woodrats under pinyon pines, and canyon wrens that pour their golden scales down red rocks that once were beaches of an ancestral salt sea, a land of small crossroad towns and, in hidden places among the rocks, drawings of water, human hands, and spiraling time?”

And later, poet Claire Kruesel frames moments of revelation from the Bakken fracking field in North Dakota. In so doing, like the other poets and writers in “Fracture,” she reminds readers of a central, though subtle, point in the book: You must see the world before you can save it, again suggesting the artist as activist.

At night, the civilized world blooms gold,

to the eyes of roving satellites,

the dark globe

branded by loose pockets

of fire and filament.

The amber body of gasoline

curls into buried drums, to feed

cars and trucks and motorcycles

that illuminate the country

in vanishing glimpses.

To this trio of voices add the essayist, the fiction writer and the investigative reporter, and you get some idea of the range of the writing included in “Fracture.”

But the work is not only diverse in style and genre. The sociopolitical critiques of the impact of fracking are quite varied, which may be why I wasn’t completely floored to find an essay that aligned with Franken’s belief that fracking isn’t all bad — an essay that is more pragmatic than idealistic.

In geographer Tyler Priest’s essay “Frackenstein’s Monster,” he quotes French philosopher Bruno Latour, who compared Dr. Frankenstein’s creation with the “monster” of fracking: “We confuse the monster for the creator and blame our sins against Nature on our creations.” Priest expands on Latour’s thought: “Humans create flawed technologies, not perfect ones. The moral of Shelley’s story is that we should not reject our monsters but care for them just like we would our children…. But fracking, like the reanimation of Frankenstein’s monster…cannot be undone. Killing the monster is also undesirable, given the environmental advantages of generating electricity from natural gas versus coal…. We should acknowledge unconventional oil and gas as vital national assets, but we also should place conditions on developing them. Mutual understanding and compromise between the industry and its opponents are necessary…. Although not easy, this is really the only choice we have.”

This moderate, compromising angle is rare in “Fracking,” and some will likely find fault with it. Yet it points to one of the book’s strengths: The writing goes beyond artfully condemning the evils of fracking. Instead, many writers think outside the box of hopelessness, inspiring readers to get involved in the struggle, and perhaps even to become a part of the solution.

Tom Montgomery Fate teaches creative writing at College of DuPage in Glen Ellyn. His most recent book is “Cabin Fever,” a nature memoir.


Edited by Taylor Brorby and Stefanie Brook Trout, Ice Cube, 472 pages, $24.95

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