for our grandchildren, with apologies

Fracking--A FableIn the past, everything took forever.

Rain fell for centuries, and millions of years after that, the ancient Appalachian Basin just west of what is now the East Coast spent even more millennia becoming a sprawling, shallow bowl. And then nothing much happened. Another million years passed. Mountain ranges slowly rose and receded, and continents wandered into each other and eventually the basin began to fill with seawater and for another million years, the surrounding mountains slid wetly down the slopes of themselves and settled into the bottom sludge of the basin.

More tens of thousands of centuries passed while the water sloshed and the undersea mud thickened, and in all that time, no human ever stood on its shores, no blue crab ever scurried in the ooze.   There were no witnesses. And even if there had been, who could have stood the boredom of watching that slow, barely breathing world? The only testimony ever made to that languid time was locked in the mud.

For yet another several million years, it piled up—thick, black, and putrid. Over the next millennia, miniscule creatures evolved: phytoplankton, blue-green algae. They floated in the shallow seas until they died and drifted down to be entombed in the ooze that lay fifty, one hundred, two hundred feet deep.

Then came more mountains moving. A few continents collided, some peaks rose, some valleys sank. Meanwhile, down in the black ooze, remnants of those tiny creatures that had been held in the mud were shoved more tightly together, packed side by side with sludged-in sediment, cemented together, cooked by the heat deep in the earth, and converted into hydrocarbons.  Layer after layer of crammed-together particles and silt began to sink under the accumulating weight of the mountains that grew above.  Wrung of its moisture, its pliability, its flow, the mud slowly, slowly, over millions of years, turned into gas-rich rock.

And there it lay, miles under the surface, as the old basin above it emptied and rose and more continents meandered into each other and finally the sun dried the Appalachians, which eroded and softened, and three hundred million years after the first mud settled on the bottom of that basin, humans appeared. We developed with lightning speed — geologically speaking —our brains and vision and hands, our fast and furious tools, our drills and ingenuity, and all the while that ooze-become-rock lay locked and impenetrable, deep in the earth, farther than anything, including anyone’s imagination, reached, until in the split second that is humankind’s history on this planet we pushed a drill with a downhole mud-motor a mile deep and made it turn sideways and snaked it into that ancient rock speckled with evidence of another eon, and a few minutes later we detonated small explosives and blasted millions of gallons of slick water —sand and water and a bit of biocide in case anything was alive down there — into what hadn’t seen water or light for four hundred million years.

The shale shattered, the black rock spider-webbed with skinny fissures as the above world inserted its tendrils, and into those tiny rifts we rammed more sand to keep them wedged open wider.

And then—remember the blue-green algae?—the gas that had been locked in that stony underworld for almost four hundred million years suddenly had an exit. It flowed through the intricate shudderings of brand new fissures and up the borehole through the limestone that had been laid down millions of years after the mud, and up through the bedrock just below someone’s pasture and out into a world with air and fresh water where we humans, fur-less and in need of fuel to stay warm, exercised our resourceful minds.

And then in another split-second’s time—geologically speaking—we drilled another thousand wells, fracked another million tons of stony earth a mile beneath our feet.

And when the slick water was withdrawn from the fissures and small slither-spaces and that prehistoric bedrock was lickety-split forever changed, no one could predict the impact, not even we inventive humans whose arrival on this planet is so recent, whose footprints, so conspicuous and large, often obliterate cautionary tales.

And soon the unpredictable, as always, occurred.

And now, in no time at all, not everything takes forever any longer.

Barbara Hurd is the author of three books of creative nonfiction and two of poetry. Her work has appeared in numerous journals including Best American Essays, The Yale Review, The Georgia Review, Orion, Audubon, and others.  The recipient of an NEA Fellowship for Creative Nonfiction, winner of the Sierra Club’s National Nature Writing Award, three Pushcart Prizes, and four Maryland State Arts Council Awards, she teaches in the Stonecoast MFA program at the University of Southern Maine.

Photography by Michael McKniff