Nearly everything reminds me of fracking these days. On the bus home from New York this morning, there was the usual offender, a woman having a long, loud conversation on her cell phone. I put in my ear plugs. Then someone in the back, probably in the bathroom, decided to smoke a cigarette, holding us all hostage to his or her desperate addiction for a couple of hours as the smoke settled into the upholstery and our lungs. I didn’t have nose plugs. Besides, nose plugs wouldn’t have worked for my lungs. Why didn’t I walk the length of the bus and ferret out the smoker and demand him or her to put out his or her cigarette pronto? I don’t know. Everyone was pretending like it wasn’t happening. Soon enough I was calmed by the busload’s indifference, their eerie denial. Rilke was getting interesting again. Do you see where I am going with this?
I used to come from the Rust Belt, but now I come from the Frack Belt, fifteen miles east of Youngstown, Ohio, where fracking wastewater pumped back into the ground caused a series of earthquakes this New Year’s Eve. The media tends to characterize the natural gas boom as either environmental disaster or economic panacea—a technology that has arrived just in time to save small farmers from foreclosure and provide jobs for those who have been struggling without them. But the people I know who have sold leases to their land to the energy companies are doing just fine. They are doctors, professionals, small business owners, large business owners. They are not on the brink of disaster. They own McMansions, send their kids to private schools (or don’t… because they don’t really believe in education that much and would rather pocket the money rather than waste it on sensibility or whatnot.) Consider the country club where my parents golf and swim. Does it really need the extra dough from the gas in the bedrock under their land? Of course it does. That way it can pay off its bills without raising members’ dues.
My father, a recently retired doctor and Goldwater Republican has a complex relationship to the industry which has swept up his town. In theory he believes in deregulation, in a person’s freedom to determine his or her own entire fate, financial or otherwise, but he also doesn’t want people to die of cancers caused by the chemicals the fracking companies pump into the ground (benzene, toluene, the list goes on…) or the chemicals and metals that fracking draws up (arsenic, uranium, etc.) In the Rabbit room of the country club, a room where men go to smoke cigars and gossip—yes, only men—he has raised concerns about these agents and by-products of the fracking process known to cause cancer. What if they pollute the acquifer as they have been known to do at many sites? What if fracking on the property of a family who has sold the rights to their land pollutes the water of families who have refused the companies’ lure?
It’s here that I should include information about my parents’ living situation. Half the year, they are trying out retirement in my mom’s hometown in Italy, the place where they met and where I was born and spent my early childhood. When my father raised concerns about cancer to his golf buddies, one of them, a toilet magnate, said, “Why do you care? You’re going to be gone soon, anyway.” Indeed, why does he care? Why do I? I don’t even live there anymore.
There are good things that remind me of fracking, too. Like Gregory Lawless’s poems. He is from Northeastern Pennsylvania, but the culture is nonetheless familiar to me. I identify in particular with the speaker’s ambivalence toward an already compromised landscape in “Sere,” which appears in White Whale Review. In the context of the burgeoning fracking industry in Pennsylvania and climate change, delicate, elegiac and precise pastoral poems like “Mint” from Gulfstream become ethical stands, which give their beauty uncommon depth. Here’s another called “Factoryville Eclogue,” which appears in Devil’s Lake:
November fields. Ice-withered parsley and wild
alfalfa after a morning of freezing rain. I look
for heart-leaved asters in the open woods,
with riust-colored scissors and a plastic bag. They go
in an old glass inkwell on my wife’s nightstand
and last eight days in water. Winter flowers,
she says, but that’s not quite right. I don’t
correct her. Winter is her business. Fall
is mine. Christmas ferns wither well
before December. I keep a bed of them
in a bucket out back and watch ravens
snatch the leaflets for their nests. Parabolic birds.
The color of stories. Maybe not. Everyone has a neighbor
who shoots them. Not everyone has a neighbor,
thank God. Thank God, for what? For winter, the sound
of ravens sorting ferns in the snow. My wife thinks
I look too much. At what? You look too much,
that’s all. It’s fall. A truck from Dalton Lumber
tipped over in the field. Everyone is alive.
They left an hour ago and left their lumber.
Stacks of blond planks stained with ice, fifty yards
From dead asters. What do I tell her? They were out
of flowers. Who are they? The field, the fall,
who knows. They were out. I take some dead ones
back, my scissors frozen shut. Thanks. Thank
God for what? The field-kill dressed in ice, a lumber
spill, generations of ravens in the firs. No snow
yet. Is that a blessing? I don’t know. Who’s in charge
of these blessings?
And another called “Factoryville Anabasis” from The South Dakota Review:
Three great blue heron eggs chewed apart by young raccoons
between sleeves of jewelweed and slender nettle.
I used to paint vulture eggs in Petaluma.
They laid them in the loft of an abandoned barn nearby and sometimes in the crotch of a fallen pepper tree.
I never got the brown spots quite right, like flecks of blood on a washed-out white cotton shirt.
I used to hang our wash on the bare branches of an old arroyo willow.
My wife said her shirts smelled like leaves, but I could never tell.
The coyotes here in Pennsylvania will eat raccoons during long, lean winters.
I never know what I’m hearing in the woods.
The shells of heron eggs like broken lakes.
I can see the creek where the raccoons clean their feet.
Low water now, dry summer: lures, beer bottles, and a pair of broken oars on the banks.
The grocery store in town sells gopher poison and heavy-duty grease for tractor gears.
I haven’t seen a vulture egg in years.
Gregory Lawless’s first book of poems is I Thought I Was New Here (BlazeVOX). Look him up!