Heidi Czerwiec


North Dakota is a foreign country. Alien. A flyover state, even from space. When we show our foreign friend a photo of a satellite flyover, he’s astonished. At nightfall, light clusters on the frozen prairie, phantom city emerged from among the ghost towns. A blooming midnight meridian. Stars in a lake of blackness, a constellation of ignited eyes. The natural gas that emerges alongside the oil costs more to capture than flare. The foreign companies that drill here burn money, a billion a year in flames and fines. A Little Kuwait on the Prairie whose dread watchfires smelter under the dark more brightly than Minneapolis. More broadly than Chicago. In winter, truckers cluster for warmth beneath the flares, which fling their flapping rags of fire six yards into space, toward the stars and satellites and passing planes.

Foreigner, flyover passenger, when you peer out your window, what do you see? What lies beneath you?

Q: What lies beneath you? A: Plowed prairie. Aquifers left over from the jagged edge of Lake Agassiz’ glacial age beneath that. Oil left over from before that, beneath that. “North Dakota is not an industrial State, and the likelihood of serious ground-water pollution resulting from industrial processes appears remote at this time. Groundwater is a renewable resource” (USGS report, 1983). Unless that resource is taken out of renewal. Unless that millions of gallons are mixed with a proprietary blend of chemicals exempt from testimony and the Safe Drinking Water Act, a reference to the lethal in it. Unless that mix is injected at high pressure into rock to fracture it, thereby forcing its oil to the surface. Watch it darken and rise. Unless that water, now waste, is rejected, reinjected into disposal wells. Unless that oil and waste water is spilled, leaked, or dumped and contaminates streams and reservoirs. Unless in 2011 the North Dakota Legislature passes a bill that states, simply: fracking is safe. Any word to the contrary is poisoning the well, the water.

The poisoning of their water, their wells, is a primary concern to farmers. More than a thousand spills per year, right in the breadbasket, yet only fifty fines to an industry that polices and pardons itself. What’s the solution? Catching them. What’s the problem? Catching them. Fracking water ravages farms, seep filling the furrows, slow and perilous. You never see a spill produce again, not even weeds: so toxic it sterilizes the land, poisons animals who drink it, kills aquatic life in wetlands and streams. The crop is wilting as we watch it.

But those plowed prairies converted to overfertilized farmland are prone to overland runoff. The Dutch say fertilizer is good for the father, but bad for the sons. Methane from natural gas fixes nitrogen into anhydrous ammonia, a process fueled by more natural gas. UND (Mining) and NDSU (Agriculture) have partnered to convert flared gas to fertilizer, to satisfy those farmers who require a lot of the stuff – to say nothing of the gas required to power all those tractors, sprayers, and combine harvesters over vast acreages. It takes oil to grease those wheels, to create – between Gas and Ag – a good industrial lubricant.

In the man camps, alcohol and drugs make a good social lubricant, smoothing the (high)way for the thousands of roughnecks, petroleum engineers, pipeline catters, truck drivers, carpenters, contractors, and electricians, as well as journalists, adventure scientists, scholars, and photographers who arrive here daily, driven across the continent onto the prairies. Two Bakken-bound men on meth head out from Montana. The men outnumber the women by 30%. Many leave families swimming in underwater mortgages but otherwise safe as houses, while sex offenders and former inmates unemployable elsewhere also come, wayward past disappeared. Sherry Arnold, math teacher, heads out for her morning run.

Oil companies erect dormitory-style barracks, with no tolerance for guns, alcohol, drugs, or women – even spouses. Or RVs and trailers populate amenitied lots with attendant attempts to set boundaries, winterize and hunker down for the long term. Then, there are parked pickups and vans and makeshift shantytowns, frail structures insulated with styrofoam, plywood, and hay or what have you against the cold wind’s stinging grit, no water or sewage – the smell carries twelve miles outside of town. Outside of town, her shoe is found.

Not enough lubrication, and things break down; but too much is a slippery slope: “We got one guy, got in this other guy’s camper and he wouldn’t leave, so the guy beat the shit out of him.” Concealed-carry permits skyrocket: “We never send just one girl out alone to clean properties, and still they get propositioned.” With no set boundaries, reported rapes are up 20%. A farmer finds her body abandoned in his field. Glen Crabtree, floor hand at a rig, sports a tattoo reading Fuck, Fight, or Trip Pipe and he’ll do it, too – he’ll ride this boom till it busts.

Boom and bust, through rock, literally. Two miles vertically, then laterally two miles. (What lies beneath you?) Filter socks are prophylactics that catch the flowback from ejaculated fracking water. Which is not water but water, plus a secret blend of chemicals, salts, metals, and “naturally-occurring radioactive material.” The new “norm”: a hot mess of hot waste, 75 tons per day. The socks discarded in landfills till Geiger counters started clicking insistently, incessantly. After this became unacceptable, after they stopped accepting them, the only place to take them (for a fee) is a facility in far Colorado.

Soon, they surface on the reservation, in dumpsters and abandoned buildings, flatbeds with missing plates. Indian children at play don them, becoming ghosts. Radium conceals itself, too. In young bodies it replaces calcium to honeycomb the bone. It plays a garbled game of telephone with the DNA, lodging in the reproductive organs, the bust. Then, boom.

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist who teaches at the University of North Dakota where she is the poetry editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She has two recent collections: A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster (Dancing Girl Press), and SWEET/CRUDE: A Bakken Boom Cycle (Gazing Grain Press), of which this is an excerpt.

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