Writers to Read: On Compression by Taylor Brorby

As Polonius reminds us in Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit.” But when dealing with geological time, this might seem oxymoronic. When reading about earth’s time periods millennia need dozens, if not hundreds, of pages—and let’s not even begin to discuss the amount of pulp needed to begin writing about millions of years. Yet compression seems to be the best ingredient in Barbara Hurd’s compact 712 word essay, “Fracking: A Fable.”

Hurd’s lush and vivid language put Earth’s time into human language:

“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.”

Hurd takes our understanding of time and, like rolling a piece of play-doh, condenses it and presses it smaller. Millions of years are rendered in short sentences. With a flick of a phrase, time—time beyond human understand or concept—is whisked away:

“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?”

What many readers might consider monumental in Earth’s history, Hurd renders in pithy sentences: “A few continents collided, some peaks rose, some valleys sank.” No big deal. And part of the reason the movement of time is no big deal in Hurd’s piece is that the main focus is on the precious energy source our lives depend upon: oil. Hurd’s piece is not strident, doesn’t chastise, and is not what we might call typical “activist” writing. Yet there is a lurking concern in her layered approach—subtly, Hurd urges the reader to think of time, what the scale of time looks like—the reader might dig deeper to understand how humans have manipulated Earth’s processes for our own benefit, our own dominance.

Halfway through the essay, Hurd’s pacing shifts. The sentences pick up tempo, and we start to blaze across the page at lightning speed. Look at this:

“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.”

One sentence. Compression does not necessarily mean short sentences; it can also mean rapid, quick-moving, and lucid thinking—this, undoubtedly is one of the hallmarks of Hurd’s piece (which writers might also turn to for vivid language, rich imagery, or the play of mind-bending concepts of time). In this way, Hurd mimics the geological compression throughout Earth’s history. The writing condenses, is layered, and has staying power like a geological period.

By the end of the essay Hurd alludes to the risks of fracking—not by commentating on spills or radioactive material—but through our understanding of story:

“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.”

Eventually, Hurd’s sentences do shorten. Her final two paragraphs are each single sentences: “And soon the unpredictable, as always, occurred.” Disaster? Biocide? The reader’s mind is left to its own devices. “And now, in no time at all, not everything takes forever any longer.” The reader, pushed along a continuum of time, now understands just how quickly we inventive humans have compressed the timescale of the world.

Like a smooth river stone, Barbara Hurd’s “Fracking: A Fable” is smooth and round, something to carry in your pocket, pull out, examine. It is bedrock. Enjoy the language, the imagery, but enjoy too its precision, it’s compression. After all, it speaks to a practice that places us and the future of ecology in peril.


ContributScreen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMing Editor Taylor Brorby is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, he is currently working on a poetry collection related to the Bakken oil boom, as well as an essay collection and editing an anthology of creative writing on fracking, “Fracture,” for Ice Cube Press, due out this winter. Taylor is a regular contributor to Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, and he is the book review editor at Orion Magazine.

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