Earlier this summer, Taylor Brorby published Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land (Liveright 2022). The book has received strong reviews and Taylor is doing the rounds of readings and interviews (which you can read here, here, and here). Over the last decade, Brorby has emerged as one of the most important voices associated with the Bakken oil boom in the western part of North Dakota (and we reviewed his 2016 edited volume a few years ago). His book, which I’m excited to read and digest, appears only to add to his status as he continues explore fracking and the fractured land as more than a literal evocation of fracking as a process or as a easy metaphor for social disruption.
To celebrate the publication of his new book, Boys and Oil, we thought that we’d publish here his essay from NDQ 87.3/4.
As you likely know, these days are particularly challenging for many cultural institutions, publishers, and little magazines. So even if NDQ doesn’t float your boat, If you can, consider buying a book from a small press, subscribing to a literary journal, or otherwise supporting the arts. I heartily recommend grabbing a copy of the new issue of Hotel Amerika which is celebrating its 20th anniversary by publishing an anthology of some its most creative, provocative, and stimulating work. Grab a copy here.
The Fracking of My Body
1. The other week I sat in my doctor’s office and stared into the flecked alabaster floor; I was waiting for test results to come back. The previous day I had fasted, gone to the hospital, and watched vial after vial of blood drain from my body. This is normal for me, a type 1 diabetic who, from the age of five, has gotten used to all manner of needles, finger pricks, and hospital waiting rooms.
When the doctor ripped open the white sheet to enter the examination room, the look on her face betrayed her.
Not good is it? I asked.
She exhaled and told me that the amount of medication I take for high cholesterol and high blood pressure weren’t working, that we’d have to double the doses and hope that it would help lower my numbers.
When I asked if more exercise would help, or changes to my diet, she feigned a smile and said maybe, but that I needed to understand that I am the type of person who would always be on pills.
Earlier in the summer I committed to exercising two hours a day in the gym. I climbed moving stairs, lifted weights, did lunges. I even became one of those people who do sit-ups, push-ups, and planks in their home living rooms. I stopped drinking beer, ate more fresh produce, and virtually eliminated carbohydrates.
Now, in the examination room, I felt anger—anger because I had lost five pounds, was eating better. Friends had even started to say I looked “skinny”, a phrase rarely used to describe my Viking body. Now, my doctor told me that my numbers were higher, that even another hour of exercise—swimming, I had suggested—would be negligible.
As I kept asking what more I could do, my doctor kept reassuring me that I was already doing so much, but then she came out and said it: You’re so young for this to be happening. It’s purely genetics—but, god, you’re so young.
2. When I was a child I kept a small piece of lignite coal in a little cedar box my Grandpa Brorby had made for me. I was told in school that coal, over millions of years, transforms into diamonds and, I thought, if I gave it to my children and they kept passing it along, eventually the onyx little lump would change into something luminescent and beautiful.
3. Fossil fuels flow through my veins. Four generations, fourteen members in all—including both parents—have worked in the coal fields of Gillette, Wyoming, the Bakken oil boom in western North Dakota, the natural gas fields of Alberta, and the coal beds of my home in Oliver County in south-central North Dakota.
Every state I’ve lived in—six in all—has been impacted by hydraulic fracking.
When I left North Dakota in 2006 for college, an oil boom came to my home. Thanks to the invention of the whipstock, a device that slowly, over several thousand feet, bends pipe horizontally, the difficult-to-reach layer of oil sandwiched in shale was now accessible. Towns began to double, triple, quadruple, and quintuple in size. Pumpjacks began to pockmark the prairie and, at night, my home was now visible from outer space due to the flaring of natural gas. North Dakota was now the planet’s largest bonfire. The prairie was fracked, plunged with pipe, broken with saltwater and chemicals, forced to give up its black blood.
4. I can remember knowing something was wrong. I couldn’t make it to the bathroom, couldn’t quench my thirst. I’d push up the faucet lever and hold my head sideways, chugging water hard, until my throat began to burn. And then it’d hit—I’d bolt for the bathroom as warm urine ran down my little legs.
My parents took me to the doctor in Bismarck, miles out of coal country. A nurse pricked my finger; the number was too high to be registered on the glucose monitor, and they admitted me to the hospital.
I knew what the finger prick meant because Mom and my dad’s brother, Uncle Greg, both had to prick their fingers, both had to uncap shining needles, both had to draw insulin into a syringe before plunging it into their bodies. Sometimes I’d see them wince. And now I knew, in my own small way, that a future of pain was on the horizon.
5. Sixty-five million years ago, North America buckled. Great mantles of earth shot upward, grinded, whittled, and broke away. Water, wind, and ice sculpted the growing Rocky Mountains—the sediment and grit and sand washed down the mountains’ slopes, were carried east on ancient rivers. The sediment mixed with ash shot into the sky and carried on the airways. It sat in still pools and hardened into siltstone, mudstone, and sandstone.
6. For the past decade I’ve kept a close eye on the Bakken oil boom, have interviewed landowners, taught creative writing in boomtowns, have trespassed to see well sites up close. Sex and drug trafficking have increased, there have been over ten thousand oil, chemical, and saltwater spills, flaring continues. A woman, Sherry Arnold, who was raped and killed by two men working in the boom, was found years later, her buried body hidden near an abandoned farm. Her death isn’t reflected in the price of gas at local fuel stations.
7. North Dakota is the least-visited state in the country. “Least-visited” might serve as a euphemism to the wider culture for “least-interesting,” a place where nothing much happens. Flyover country.
But North Dakota is a major migratory highway for birds, which now have to navigate open-air fracking waste deposit sites. Sage grouse and antelope populations are down due to the spreading of pumpjacks. Benzene, a known cancer-causing agent present in Bakken oil, has spilled into the Missouri River—a river over ten million people rely upon for drinking water and the main artery of the Breadbasket.
In some ways, at least from coastal perspectives, this is all invisible. Thank God we don’t live there, we think as we turn the TV to the next station.
8. For the next sixty-three million years, water sculpted stone in present-day western North Dakota. Rivers meandered, changed course, and carved away layers of settled earth, hardened stone. There was enough water, then.
9. For many people, including friends, my diabetes is invisible. Sometimes I get asked if I’m wearing a pager on my belt; oftentimes friends will say I never knew you were diabetic. Having a chronic illness isn’t a sexy topic for conversation. Do you really want to hear about having seizures, getting a hemoglobin shot in your left ass cheek, or the latest allergic reaction to adhesives on your love handles?
Because illness is constructed as an individual’s issue we, in America, link it to our individualism. After all, like financial situations, we believe we can overcome any obstacle, including our deteriorating health.
In a culture that prides itself on the ability to transcend any situation, diabetes and fossil fuel extraction stand as stark counterarguments: they both are rooted to destruction.
10. In me at all times is a small plastic catheter pushing insulin from my pump through a plastic tube into my body. On the prairie at all times pumpjacks rock up and down, pulling precious oil from the ground—oil that is literally inside of me. Now, entering my twenty-sixth year with diabetes, my body is showing physical erosion below the surface. The Bakken oil boom, in its fourteenth year, continues to erode the fragile shortgrass prairie of western North Dakota. When I change my pump site every three days, I wash my love handle with an alcohol wipe before plunging the catheter into my body; sometimes the alcohol burns. Every day, statistics reveal, there is a spill of some kind in the Bakken oil boom.
11. Two million years ago, great slabs of glaciers swept south out of Canada. The ice altered the course of the Little Missouri River, which now had access to the delicate skin of earth. It cut away soft folds of bentonite clay, shaved away layers of clinker and coal and mud. It cut deeply into the foundation of what, now, was slowly becoming the badlands of western North Dakota.
12. When I started to see my latest massage therapist, she asked if I rotate my pump, whether it stays in the same place or moves. I told her that I move it every three days to avoid infection.
Do you wake up during the night and have to move it? she asked.
I told her that every night I wake, even if only slightly, to move my pump closer so the tubing doesn’t tug at my skin. Sometimes I wake to a sharp pain in my hip when I roll over on top of my pump.
I ask because your pump is altering your body’s alignment.
13. The Bakken oil boom has altered my alignment. If each politician felt pumpjacks inside their body, would their vote to protect the planet change? If each oil baron felt burning alcohol across their torso, would they stop laying pipelines? Would we, as a culture, hear the cries of Earth as our own?
14. Every three days I must change my pump site. I loosen the near-empty insulin reservoir from my pump, grip the adhesive patch on my skin, and rip the catheter out of me. Sometimes I bleed. Sometimes there is a hard lump at the site of extraction. Sometimes, there is the early sign of scar tissue—the catheter having been injected too close to an old site, or perhaps it rubbed against muscle as I tossed in the night.
15. I had my first seizure in second grade in Mrs. Fryslie’s class. Was it after recess, before milk break?
When I’ve seized, everything fades, a gradual wearing away. If I’m awake, sometimes I can get attention before I fall down and do the minnow on the floor; if I’m asleep, I continue “sleeping,” waking with a thick lump from a bitten tongue, a bruise on my head if I fall from bed. Coming to—it is as if I’d risen from a painful nightmare, my muscles sore from tension.
16. Now, the Little Missouri River is the size of a twig—chocolatey, shallow, it winds through western North Dakota, the only waterway in a parched landscape.
17. When I was a few months old, James Hansen, the former head of NASA’s Goddard Institute, testified before the United States Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. Global warming has reached a level such that we can ascribe with a high degree of confidence a cause and effect relationship between the greenhouse effect and the observed warming. . . . It is already happening now.
18. The long-term complications I face due to diabetes include cardiovascular disease, stroke, chronic kidney disease, foot ulcers, blindness.
19. The long-term complications I face due to climate change include food shortages, increased drought, intense forest fires, tornadoes, hurricanes, trenches dug to prepare for large-scale human death.
20. In December 2013, an oil gasket blew in western North Dakota. Over 27,000
gallons of saltwater, as well as 850 gallons of oil, sloshed down and across the frosted badlands. The oil and saltwater oozed roughly a quarter of a mile before freezing in a dry drainage, four miles from the Little Missouri River.
21. When I play the game of Which Diabetic Complication I Choose, I choose the amputation of my legs. I figure I could still play piano and purchase prosthetics so that I could learn to stroll through state parks, listening to tanagers or chickadees.
22. As a writer, I’m afraid of going blind.
23. All oil, chemical, and saltwater spills in western North Dakota eventually find their way into the Little Missouri River, which flows into Lake Sakakawea, the second reservoir on the Missouri River system, which eventually merges with the Mississippi, just north of St. Louis, and flows on into the Gulf of Mexico, entering the world’s salt waterways.
24. As an environmentalist, I’m scared for North Dakota, projected to be ten degrees warmer by the end of century. To some ears, that might sound like less-severe winters, but to my ears, it sounds like increased soil erosion, soil infertility in adapting to new crops, native species—the grasses—going extinct from the bioregion they’ve secured in place for millennia.
25. Each day, I think about my own extinction.
26. Each day, I think about our extinction.
Taylor Brorby is the author of Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land and Crude: Poems, Coming Alive: Action and Civil Disobedience, and co-editor of Fracture: Essays, Poems, and Stories on Fracking in America. He is a contributing editor at North American Review and serves on the editorial board of Hub City Press and Terrain.org.