The Council of Pronghorn: Terry Tempest Williams Honors the Silent Witnesses to Fracking
Author-activist Terry Tempest Williams is known as a “citizen writer” for the work she’s done to emphasize environmental ethics and conservation, especially in the “Red Rock” region of her native Utah and in Alaska.
The following writing, titled “The Council of Pronghorn,” is one of Williams’ many jarring statements on environmental degradation in her book, Erosion: Essays of Undoing. This thought-provoking essay uses Wyoming as an example of how the petroleum industry has devastated areas in our country. The pronghorn antelope serve as the silent and seemingly omnipresent witnesses to these impacts, and Williams posits that their fate may resemble our own.
I strongly suspect a big part of real art-fiction’s job is to aggravate this sense of entrapment and loneliness and death in people, to move people to countenance it, since any possible human redemption requires us first to face what’s dreadful, what we want to deny. —David Foster Wallace, Review of Contemporary Fiction, 1993
What I want to deny is that fossil fuels are killing us. What I want to deny is that living in the state of Wyoming is living in the heart of denial. And if we want to see “entrapment and loneliness and death,” all we have to do is go out and visit the oil patch in Sublette County or Sweetwater County or Gillette, more commonly known as “Razor City,” in Campbell County, Wyoming.
The “dreadful” truth is that if Wyoming were a nation, it would be among the largest coal-producing countries in the world. Since 1996, more than 7.7 billion tons of coal have been produced, most of it coming from the Powder River Basin. Trains leave Gillette twenty-four hours a day carrying coal from our state to yours. We live in a rectangle that borders Utah, Idaho, Montana, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Colorado, all part of the fossil fuel boom in the Interior West. This is a ravaged landscape and few see it, even those who live here.
In 2007, I accepted an invitation to become the first “writer in residence” at the University of Wyoming’s creative writing department. The students I worked with were extraordinary. Many of them were local, but others were not. The students—poets and nonfiction and fiction writers—decided they wanted to do more than examine themselves on the page, they wanted to go outside. They wanted to get a glimpse into the state of the state of Wyoming and believed storytelling could open a door to what a sense of place really means, a gauge and a guide to what folks in Wyoming were thinking. Together, we created a program called “Weather Reports.” It would be simple, direct, and nonthreatening: “What’s the weather like in your town?” Students created a road map. We would visit seven communities in the state that were being impacted by oil and gas and coal-bed methane gas development from Pinedale to the Powder River Basin to Rawlins, Riverton, and the Wind River Reservation.
The “Weather Reports” took place on Friday evenings, when we would gather at a library or arts center, a politically neutral zone, and invite the community to gather in the name of storytelling. On Saturday, we would offer a writing workshop to those in attendance who were interested in developing their stories on the page. The format was always the same: A student would read a story they had written, then invite those in attendance to tell their own. We would form a circle and begin with one question:
“What keeps you up at night?” No one was prepared for the emotion or depth of sharing that followed. Our first “Weather Report” took place in the town of Pinedale, elevation 7,182 feet, located at the base of the Wind River Range; population 1,865. It is also a boomtown, 32 miles north of the Jonah Oil Field, which is estimated to contain 10.5 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.
It was standing room only in the public library. Residents talked about poisoned water, the elevated benzene levels re- lated to the oil and gas development, the ozone alert that was posted for the first time in their history on that very day.
We listened to senior people, primarily women, talk about “Project Wagon Wheel.” In the 1960s, during the Cold War, the Atomic Energy Commission planned to extract Wyoming natural gas with five underground nuclear explosions. The women who protested that action rose to tell their history and it was personal. “I’ll be damned if they were going to blow up our backyard, sage or no sage,” one of the women said. They recounted a straw poll in Sublette County on the presidential election day in 1972 that showed 970 people were opposed to Project Wagon Wheel, 279 were in favor, and 105 were undecided. This was a revelation to the hundred-plus residents in the room. A young man stood up and said: “If you could stop five nuclear bombs, we can hold these gas companies accountable.”
One story of courage followed another until well after midnight. The librarian stood in the back of the room. Her words closed the evening: “One day, I think I’m going to wake up and Wyoming will just be one giant hole in the ground with everything we love, gone.”
In the town of Gillette, elevation 4,556 feet, population 30,560, a mother stood up and said, “What keeps me up at night is the health of my children. My five-year-old son has a rash on his legs and our well water is red.” She paused to control her emotions. “Is anyone else experiencing this?” One by one, other mothers stood in solidarity and shared similar stories, and then two nurses took the floor: “Can anyone tell us why we can’t keep enough chemotherapy in this town to treat all the cancers in Campbell County?”
When we arrived in Casper, the financial hub of the state, elevation 5,118 feet, population 57,814, it was a different story. The state senator Kit Jennings showed up in his shiny black cowboy boots, wearing his sport coat, a bolo tie, and Levi’s held up by a belt with a silver buckle shaped like an oil rig. Everyone knew who he was and everyone knew he was in the pocket of the coal-bed methane industry now following our every move. They didn’t like people talking. Wyoming is a state of big distances with few occasions to assemble. People were isolated and the oil and gas companies liked it that way. The industry had gotten to Jennings, and Jennings was going to get to us.
The senator might as well have entered the room with a loaded shotgun, so violent was his rhetoric and so personal—but a circle had been created and a space of respect had been established. The woman seated next to him handed him the microphone. “What keeps me up at night is thinking I have to show up to a hippie-dippie circle like this . . . You say there is a direct correlation between the rise of crystal meth and rise of rigs in our towns, well that’s bullshit, what do you know”—he was addressing his remarks to me—“you’re an outsider from Utah.” We listened. It was his turn to tell his story. When he finally realized there would be no confrontation, no conflict, no heated exchange of words, he simply paused and said: “I was raised on the oil patch as a kid—people looked down on us, called us white trash.” And with that the combative senator began to tell the truth of his life.
We witnessed the art of storytelling and story receiving.
Senator Jennings had tried to shut down the students’ “Weather Reports” and pressure the president of the University of Wyoming to fire me. But President Buchanan defended our program. Freedom of speech. What’s wrong with telling stories and listening to one another? What’s wrong with gathering as a community to consider where we live, what we love, and what is at stake in the twenty-first century?
What lawmakers fear most, especially those financed by the energy industry, is the art of independent thinking, the arc of creative thinking. What power tries to control is the story, especially the story that sees the world as a complicated whole. What the oil and gas companies know is that if they can keep people isolated and the story fragmented, keep as little known as possible, and in some cases lie, then they can go about their business without protest or accountability.
But the most revelatory of all our “Weather Reports” took place in the bars in Riverton, elevation 4,951 feet, population 11,058, adjacent to the Wind River Reservation, home to the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes.
Riverton, Wyoming, is famous for having sixteen drinking holes in a two-mile stretch. The bars are segregated. We went to a roughneck bar and an Indian bar. The roughnecks were making big money at big risk with long days, where a little meth went a long way to carry them through what is known as “a tower”—twelve-hour days for fourteen days straight and then a week off to rest. We learned Wyoming has the highest worker fatality rate in the nation, three times the national average. The men know this. And one young oil worker after another told stories of death by “trippin’ pipe” or “throwing chain” accidents, or incidents where the drilling mud caught fire or the actual rigs blew up. But their stories always had the same tagline: “It was the guy next to me.” At age twenty-one, many of them saw themselves as invincible. “The sick thing is the family whose boy got chewed up on the rig received a check for ten thousand dollars from the worker compensation fund. And what’s really fucked up is that the company only got fined six hundred and twenty-five dollars for the chain tong mess-up.”
The stories told in the Indian bar where the Arapahos and Shoshone hang were not about jobs on the rigs at all, they were about no jobs.
Their stories were about poverty, missing women, and bison being killed once they crossed the boundary of Yellowstone National Park. Some of the men were blunt enough to ask why we were hanging out in the “wrong bar.” Then it got real. The students came to understand that story engages the whole person. People lean forward. Words matter and cut through race, class, and politics. Stories move us and move through us, become the conscience of a community.
It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it. —Upton Sinclair, Oil!
A year after the “Weather Reports,” I set out on a road trip with two artists, Felicia Resor and Ben Roth, to witness the oil and gas development in Wyoming. We wanted to go deeper than we were able to go with our “Weather Reports.” We wanted to see for ourselves how the fossil fuel economy was impacting the state physically, something that was largely invisible to its citizens, because of either lack of interest or lack of access. Felicia was born in Teton County and raised on a ranch. She was a recent graduate of Yale, with a major in the humanities. Ben was native to Colorado, a metal artist, now living in Jackson. We had received funding from a foundation called Invoking the Pause, by an anonymous donor who asked that we reflect on some aspect of climate change through an art project and how this work might enter into the public conversation. The grant was designed as a two-year project. The first year, we were to investigate what a climate change art project might look like, do some ground truthing, then “pause” to reflect as a team on the information we had gleaned. During the second year, we would begin to collaborate and create something out of that pause.
We formulated our project with the knowledge that Wyoming was the largest coal producer in the country, responsible for more than 90 percent of U.S. coal. Our road trip would bring us into proximity with the sources of Wyoming’s coal, oil, and gas. We wanted the abstract to become real. We were aware of our complicity behind the wheel, the gas we were using (Wyoming is not a small state), but short of riding horses, this was our means of traversing the “Cowboy State,” visiting such far-flung towns as Spotted Horse, Buffalo, and Ten Sleep. We were committed to thinking about what we might do as artists to “move people to countenance it,” the “it” that was not yet known to us.
We made visits to the Jonah Oil Field, to the man-camps in Sweetwater County, to the Halliburton Hilton in Pinedale, to the coal mines in Gillette, to the ranches in the Powder River Basin suffering from the “split-estate agreement” that says residents might own the surface rights to the land, but the federal government owns the natural resources below the land. We witnessed coal-bed methane pumps in the front yards of ranch houses; water-quality issues associated with hydraulic fracking; boomtowns where locals are few and roughnecks are many. We became acutely aware of our nation’s thirst for oil and the hidden costs that remain invisible to most of us. When we asked our guide at the Jonah patch about the decline in air quality in Sublette and Sweetwater Counties, he said it was a result of the geysers in Yellowstone National Park spewing “god knows what” into the atmosphere. There was no discussion to be had. He was the industry’s public relations man. “Those who say the ozone is up don’t have any baseline studies to support their claims.”
That night, we stayed at a friend’s cabin beneath a sky of stars now noticeably obscured by the lights of a twenty-four- hour workforce on rigs lit up like Christmas trees. A decade ago, this was a night sky of only stars, not construction lights and gas flares dotting the sage flats from one horizon to the next. We talked about how these same lights fuel our economy, pave our roads, and pay for free in-state college tuition for any graduating high school senior in Wyoming who wants to go to the University of Wyoming in Laramie, the state’s only university. Residents benefit from its natural gas, oil, coal, and coal-bed methane in tangible ways. Wyoming is a rich state because of its rich resources—and a well-educated one.
We drove from Pinedale to Cora and traveled across Union Pass in the Wind Rivers through a forest of lodgepole pines, once green, now red. It was a long, dry, and dusty road, eerie, even, for those of us who had lived in the American West all our lives. The expanse was so vast, we almost got used to the red forests, a result of local warming that has created a double life span for pine bark beetles, who cut through the bark of the trees to the cambium layer and kill the pines. We saw ghost forests of white bark pines and we imagined hungry grizzlies searching for their autumn food source of pine nuts and not finding them—at risk of entering hibernation in a state of starvation. We witnessed more split estates of mineral rights, above ground and below, that have torn up the hearts of ranches and ranchers in the Powder River Basin, where coal- bed methane operations have ravaged what ranching families believed was their rightful land passed down through the generations. And we witnessed the enormity of the black open-pit coal mines in Gillette, a town where there is so much money, local kids have learned to stand in front of the open doors of bars to catch twenty-dollar bills as they fly out of the saloons or pick them up in the desert snatched by the fingers of sage.
Throughout our wanderings, there was one constant: pronghorn. They were present wherever we went, four-legged witnesses to the environmental stresses in the sagebrush plains. We would see the antelopes watching, not running, as they sat on the edges of the Jonah Oil Field between the rigs and the man-camps, between the roads and the burning slag ponds. Their legs would be hung up in barbed-wire fences as they tried to escape the oil reservations. Many of them, defeated, just sat directly on the oil patches, lethargic, emaciated, fenced in and trapped, their ancestral sage flats now crisscrossed with roads looking like black asphalt scribbles on the whiteboard of winter.
As we drove the long distances, we saw pronghorn antelope standing behind the barbed wire, frozen in fear. And then, in the Big Horn Basin, we saw them running with the wind. And then they would stop and turn, as if looking over their shoulders for what was chasing them. They haunted us. And their large black protruding eyes never left us, as we wondered what they were seeing that we could not.
Pronghorn antelope are uniquely American, found nowhere else on Earth, part of an ancient family, Antilocapridae, that has been roaming North America since the Pliocene era, with fossil records dating back five million years. It is one of the only mammals to have survived the Ice Age. For almost two million years, the pronghorn’s primary predator was the cheetah. They still run with a memory of this Pleistocene cat with speeds of up to eighty miles per hour. The Arapaho and Shoshone call the pronghorn antelope “Windhorse.” With their remarkable peripheral vision, the pronghorn can see in a radius of 360 degrees and spot intruders for up to three to four miles.
The herds we saw in Sublette County around the Jonah Oil Field migrate from Grand Teton National Park in the fall back to Pinedale in the winter, in a hundred-mile seasonal journey returning to the Tetons in the spring. This path of the pronghorn is the longest ungulate migration in the lower forty-eight and has been intact for more than eight thousand years. Now, with the intrusion of development, it is more difficult for them to manage their ancestral trek.
No matter where we seemed to go in the state, the pronghorn were present. Their white geometric markings on tan fur and their black hooked horns create the most stunning of animals. Averaging three feet tall at the shoulder and seventy-five to a hundred pounds, pronghorn are barrel-chested animals with a huge heart and expansive lungs, perfectly adapted with their short buoyant legs to fly across the high plains. As we drove through the miles of open range, another pronghorn would appear on the side of the barbed-wire fence, white fanny flared as danger was noted. I remembered a Polaroid of my three brothers, Steve, Bob, and Dan, each holding up by the horns the pronghorn they had shot as a rite of passage in the 1970s—their boyhood pride exhibited.
We returned home from our road trip with a sobering perspective. The oil and gas companies had created a wide and gaping wound across Wyoming. As U.S. citizens, it can be said, we are all the beneficiaries of America’s oil independence, but there are social and environmental costs and the price is being paid by small rural communities. In Pavillion, Wyoming, with a population of roughly 250, the EPA warned residents in 2011 that they could no longer drink, bathe in, cook with, or farm with their water. Why? No one was saying exactly, but everyone suspected it was contaminated by fracking, by the chemical soup injected into the substrate to release the natural gas. The very company that had fouled their water, Encana, the Canadian company responsible for drilling more than two hundred natural gas wells in the area, donated $1 million to provide water cisterns “to impacted residents” and fund a state study, all the while repeating to the community, “We are not responsible for the problem.”
When we sat with these images over the next year, reflected on them, and digested all the information we had gleaned from our summer of witness, we discussed how our ideas as artists might contribute to the conversation surrounding climate change. What emerged from the “pause” was the overriding presence of the pronghorn.
The pronghorn as witness. What were they seeing? What were they saying to one another? What would they say to us from the vantage point of the Pliocene?
The three of us imagined “A Council of Pronghorn,” a circle of witnesses: twenty-three pronghorn antelope standing in a circle representative of the twenty-three counties in Wyoming. We imagined their skulls floating above weathered fence posts—an homage to the ranching culture—each secured to an iron base repurposed from the gas fields.
We saw each skull not only representing a county in the state, but a voice heard, a story told, a perspective felt. We gathered antelope skulls from hunters, from local collectors, and many from roadkills left behind on the shoulders of lonely straightaways, cleaned meticulously by Felicia and her sister, Avery. The posts were made of lodgepole pine and spoke to the obstacles the animals face, whether fences, roads, or oil rigs. Most of these posts came directly from the Resor ranch. The metal bases made of discarded machinery disks were salvaged from the oil patches, addressing our industrial footprint. We believed these various elements could tell a story:
Animals bear witness to a changing world, a changing climate. The fate of the pronghorn is our own, holding us accountable for what has been taken and for the beauty that remains.
Over the next six months, Ben created the twenty-three Pronghorn Witnesses. Their skulls did float above the spines of weathered ranch posts, each one secured in an iron base. The Council appeared. My task as the writer was to create a poem that would animate them. We imagined lines, words, written in black calligraphy across their skulls.
But once we saw “The Council of Pronghorn” fully articulated in their circle, it became clear to us that they did not need the imposition of our words. A secret language was held within their presence. Their power was gleaned from place. The poem would simply appear as a bookmark, located on a stand to the side of the circle.
Here’s how the words came to me: I lived with one of the skulls. Wherever I was sitting in our house, the skull sat with me. If I was writing in my study, the skull was on my desk watching me. If I was cooking a meal, the skull was by my side preparing the food. If I sat on the porch, the pronghorn skull accompanied me.
After a month, I felt comfortable with our relationship. I slept with the skull.
Brooke was away—and that night, I placed the pronghorn skull on the pillow next to me. I cannot tell you where my dreams took me that night, only that when I awoke, the words were fully formed.
We, The Council
to this moment
when our eyes
wish to peer
into the hearts
are you creating
when we can
run as Windhorses
but are relegated
The Council of Pronghorn made its first appearance in the courtyard of the Center for the Arts in Jackson, Wyoming. They circled the square as a disturbance. Visitors had the choice of standing next to pronghorns as part of the circle; inside the circle enduring the horned witnesses’ gaze; or outside the circle as observers. Most people stood outside the circle. The children, however, wanted to build a fire in the center and dance.
And then, The Council of Pronghorn received an invitation to participate in an international exhibit on water at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Ben Roth agreed to drive the pronghorn across the country in his van. What he couldn’t have known at the start of his journey was that the day he arrived in Manhattan, August 27, 2011, would be the day Hurricane Irene made landfall in New York. It took him approximately six and a half minutes to get the twenty- three pronghorns from one end of the island to the other, to get to the cathedral. The city had been evacuated—there were no cars, no buses or taxis or people on the streets. Since this was Ben’s first trip to New York, he didn’t realize the rarity of this moment.
The Council of Pronghorn arrived at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine just as the Arapaho describe them, “Windhorses.” One by one, Ben brought The Council of Pronghorn into the cathedral, which was now a pop-up shelter for the homeless where people could weather the storm.
The pronghorn were placed stoically in a spacious circle inside the nave of the cathedral as the wind roared outside. They told the story of fracking in the American West, of a boom-and-bust economy and contaminated water in towns like Pavillion, Wyoming. They stood as witnesses to the costs of a fossil fuel economy. They haunted, frightened, instructed, and inspired each visitor with their dignity and stark beauty—many who came to see them had never encountered a pronghorn antelope before.
The Council of Pronghorn came to be known as “The Eighth Chapel” and remained in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine for almost a year, so compelling was its aura. It is still there, now a semipermanent installation on the grounds of the cathedral on 114th Street in Manhattan, bearing witness to a city and state that continue to face and to fight against their own fracking future.
Excerpted from EROSION: Essays of Undoing by Terry Tempest Williams. Published by Sarah Crichton Books an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux October 8, 2019. Copyright 2019 by Terry Tempest Williams. All rights reserved.