Excerpt: Land Marks by Maryann Lesert

Chapter 1 – TV Ticker

I don’t know why I turned on the television in the first place, except to provide a little white noise. It was that time of the semester when the essays were piling up, and I had heard more about my students’ lives and their problems than I could possibly carry. (Couldn’t they see the stack of essays I was hauling away from class?) After teaching all day and into the night, I didn’t want to remember the excuses or the hardships. I wanted noise, simple white noise.

I climbed the dark carpeted steps to my second-story apartment, thinking about the one man who had ever shared the space with me. It was Sam who suggested the golden yellow color we painted the entryway and dinette. Recalling our better days, I strolled through my tiny dinette, loving those golden yellow walls and the drop-sided table with two wooden chairs. I knew what I was doing, indulging in the escapism of romance. This was the time in every semester when I started thinking about getting a dog, maybe even dating again.

Sam had been so attuned to color. The landlord loved the pinky salmon he’d picked out to trim the exterior window casings. She said they made the windows pop, and she credited me two months’ rent for our labor. Sam was fit and active and he loved to be outdoors, but I soon discovered that he didn’t love the trees or the darkness of wet soil or the ways different leaves let go of water. He loved moving through the outdoors, preferably on wheels and as fast as possible. Why I needed to stand under a white pine, touching its trunk with one hand and my heart with the other, was something he would never understand.

I opened one of those tart red wine-beers and passed back through that golden yellow dinette before I paid the television any attention, but as soon as I saw the face on the screen, the smooth beige of her skin and the short haircut that brought her sandy brown hair up in curls, I knew. It was Sonya. One of them had finally done it—gotten themselves arrested.

There was nothing more than a ticker below her photo. “Woman arrested, possibly child, sabotage at northern Michigan frack well site. Details at eleven.”

My first thought was, Hank? Why on earth would they have Hank out there with them? And then I was annoyed with yet another demonstration of right-now journalism’s grammatical failures: possibly child? Did that mean there was one person arrested whose age was in doubt? Were there actually two people in custody, one adult and one child? And how could you have someone possibly in custody?

The weight of the bag of essays still hanging from my arm came to me, and viewing those essays in a whole new light, I lifted them gently over the back of the couch. If I hadn’t been overwhelmed by the thought of adding another twenty to the pile of sixty already stacked and waiting, I never would have turned on the TV. I would have missed this.

Eventually, Brett or Kate or Mark would have called or texted; at least I hoped so. The last time we talked we agreed to stay in touch but not too closely. They hadn’t taken that to heart, had they? My suggestion for distance? I didn’t mean for them to go silent on me.

I sat in front of the old television that I only occasionally used for weather reports, trying to find some patience with the converter box. Part of me used to enjoy watching Sam fight with the rabbit ears, him begging me to get cable and a flat panel. By the time that first winter had set in, his love for color wasn’t enough, and I asked him to leave.

The Live at Eleven teaser began with a quick zoom to a headshot of Sonya. It was oddly small, as if the station had gotten hold of a school or license photo and quickly scanned it in, but her classically proportioned face, the smile that could have come from an archaic Greek sculpture, was unmistakable. The text ran again. “Woman arrested, possibly child, northern Michigan frack well site,” before a live shot of what looked to be a tree-lined clearing.

I sat forward, scanning the graying bands of darkness that faded back from the light stack on the news truck, searching for the telltale pink and orange flags, the lights, the noise of a well pad, but there was nothing. Justin Thompson, the same spiky-haired reporter who had covered their Winter Campout, swept his arm over a dark, empty field as he entered the shot, backed by a tree line like any in northern Michigan, mixed hardwoods and pines.

Justin Thompson reporting from a northern county frack well site where at least one person has been arrested in what appears to be attempted sabotage. Stay tuned for the full report at eleven.”

Had they somehow managed to get Thompson into their fold? He had to have known to end up hitting the story from what appeared to be an empty, half-excavated field.

They were good. I had been exceptionally proud of the protests and events they had planned. But I also knew, as they stepped closer and closer to direct action, how things could go wrong. Were they trusting a news guy to wait for the right time? What a coup that would be.

Had someone tipped Thompson off?

Thompson had seemed sympathetic when he’d covered their Winter Campout. He’d gotten quite a bit of screen time, too, thanks to the bizarre thunderstorms that came out of January’s snow clouds. He called the report “Environmentalists Occupy Frack Well Site,” and for a new reporter, he had gotten some unforgettable shots. In one day’s time, temperatures had plummeted, falling from nearly sixty degrees to near zero, ending a heat streak that was way too warm for a January thaw. Snow clouds rolled in off the lake, filled with pinkish red lightning, and a rather new meteorological term came into vogue: thundersnow. The icy snow, blowing across the field as a constant presence, held on to light and sound for long periods of time, elongating the rumble of thunder and the lightning’s eerie pink glow.

There was a flash as Thompson wrapped up his winter report, and both he and Brett had ducked as pink light flickered overhead and remained. The camera panned the campers’ tents, orange and green glow worms in the windblown field, and when asked what the group wanted, Brett had taken the opportunity to connect fracking and all sorts of unconventional extraction methods—boiling bitumen in open pits, steaming it up from the ground, blowing the tops off mountains—to our third January of thundersnows. “This,” he had said, pointing to a night sky swelling with morning-like light, “is the very real face of climate change.”

Brett had turned to the camera, looking a bit older with a short chin beard and the dark hair under his hat calling attention to his thin face, and as I leaned forward, listening, I had the strangest feeling that someone else was leaning forward, watching just as I was. Some private security operator zooming in to draw a box around Brett’s face, gathering stills and labeling shots with organizational information. What the group was called, how many appeared to be involved, Brett’s estimated height, weight, eye color, age, ethnicity, any personal details or key words he used repeatedly.

It really was that kind of a world now, and Brett seemed to understand.

He had turned to the camera as if peering into that basement office. “But we don’t have to accept that there is nothing we can do to slow or stop the damage,” he said, his rather large, hazel eyes fixed. He had accepted the role of spokesperson, which meant he could never, ever get caught in any direct or property-damaging action. The oil and gas industry would rejoice in making an example out of him.

But now it was Sonya’s wide face and her frizzy curls being plastered all over the screen, and the smeary scanned image wasn’t making me feel any better. Why no mug shot? Had they already moved her? By eleven o’clock, the drive for drama would have quiet but quizzical Sonya transformed into an ecoterrorist apprehended in the middle of an extensive plot.

There was a time when I was worried about Sonya for other reasons. Early in the semester, when they were all together in that first EcoLit class, she’d missed two weeks without warning and had not kept in touch. It was a small class then, a pilot course I’d just put together. I had purposefully mentioned it to shy Brett and shaky Kate, students I’d had in other classes. Mark had come on his own, a transfer student who had dropped out of engineering school, hoping to find something less exacting. The eight or nine of us in class that day were already deep in discussion, tables pushed to the center of the room to make our small square, when we heard a knock.

I opened the door, still talking about Parsons or Stratton-Porter, one of the lesser known writer-adventurers, and there was Sonya and that smirk. Only that afternoon she didn’t appear smug or pensive. She looked tired.

I didn’t know what else to do,” she whispered. There was a tuft of blond hair and a child’s perfectly round head sticking out from the sleeping bag she held across her body, and without a word I slipped her and Hank inside.

Just a week before, the provost had sent down an urgent communication. Without exception, there would be no smoking on campus and no children in the classroom. The college had agreed to provide every student with a stainless-steel water bottle and to remove drink dispensers that used plastic bottles, but we still didn’t have childcare. So, woman to woman, I slipped Sonya and her then two-year-old son into the classroom, knowing from the look on her face, she wouldn’t finish the semester if I didn’t.

Sonya, at twenty-one, was a single parent who wrote with sensitivity equal to the writers we were studying, and me, I was barely tenured, teaching a pilot class that was barely running with ten students. Together, we silently ushered in a new pact. Hank became part of the class for the next three or four weeks while Sonya worked to find a new job. In the meantime, Brett and Kate and Mark—the four of them had already formed a strong bond—devised a way to watch Hank between classes and get him to daycare when Sonya’s workplace refused to adjust her hours.

But Hank on a well site? There was no way Brett, or Kate, or Mark would let Sonya bring Hank anywhere near a well pad. It didn’t make sense. Either Thompson was holding back, or it had all happened so quickly that even the authorities weren’t sure who or what they had. What were they up to? The Live at Eleven teaser ran again, and Justin Thompson appeared at left after an initial pan of the darkening field, sweeping his arm over the “northern Michigan frack well site.” I searched again and thought I saw a stake, some of the orange and pink flags marking the widening of a road or the entrance to a well pad, but there was no berm or gleaming limestone, no trucks or equipment. Were they trying to stop a new site?

A year ago, I knew who was drilling where and when. I knew why North American Energy was deep into the Utica-Collingwood and why Dillon was poking holes around the edges of the A-1 Carbonate layer. I knew the landscapes before and after, and I was able to guess what the four or five prospectors in Michigan might be up to in the near future. But that was only because I had devoted two years to some intense boots-on-well-sites research.

After two summers of that kind of research, I needed to get back to school, to make teaching a priority again, and the four of them needed the space to plan whatever it was they were planning.

I knew they would do it, didn’t I? Something big. I never knew what, exactly, or when, but I always knew they were serious and that anything they decided to do would be done out of reverence, out of love.

I had listened to their ideas on Sonya’s mangy back deck and helped them shape their thoughts as they continued to write. There were times when I thought of Mara, when Mara and I were young like they were, when we acted as a pair. Perhaps I should have told Kate and Brett and Sonya and Mark, more. But whatever it was I was becoming, mentor or friend, I had been their professor, and that role stuck. I was worried about influence.

Now the question was: Had I dropped out on them when they needed me most?

Was I wrong, not letting them know that their professor, Rebecca Walton, had once been known as Elizabeth Stone, a rescue climber and writer inside of actions? That I understood, completely, why they needed to keep quiet, because being a good activist was not so different from being a good teacher? I had walked into teaching not knowing that this role, too, would require me to push back my sense of self so I could be a better listener. Both roles, each in their own way, required me to be a good secret keeper.

Ten o’clock. It would be an hour before any real news came in.

The networks would spend the next hour heightening and sensationalizing. Soon enough the “apparent sabotage” would be “Ecoterrorists target frack well site.” “Terrorists threaten America’s oil independence.” Live at Eleven would scramble for the perfect sound bite. They’d create a spinning graphic with canned music to herald their story, since Thompson was the first on site. By eleven, they’d have an exploding drill rig pinned to the map for sure.

I glanced back to the bag of essays slumped on the couch as if they could again lead me to where I needed to be, and that’s when I remembered. Sonya had sent one of her “Hey Teach” emails a week or so ago. I had only skimmed it because it was midterms—that time of year when I barely slept or ate or moved, when my eyes became grainy and my body ached with the reading.

I considered getting a second wine-beer but decided to make a pot of coffee instead.

For all my worry about influence, all I wanted now was a chance to intercept, to stop the messaging train. They had tried. For two years they had tried: with articles, with songs, with videos of the destruction we had witnessed across the state, with carefully crafted speeches and letters, by standing up at auctions and public meetings. Now, they would be labeled.

Anyone who didn’t understand how four promising students in a literature class could become “ecoterrorists” should stand at the crest of the twelve-foot-tall mound of earth surrounding a frack well site, a berm swollen with and smelling of still-living roots. Let anyone quick to judge gaze across ten acres of forest floor scraped level and dry. Let them see and hear, smell and feel the screech of the drill rig biting into brain and bone, the chug of diesel engines, the roar of compressors. Let them stand there trying to comprehend the circus of hoses and coils, the tanks and the vats, piles and piles of half-ton cylinders of steel pipe, because there is no such thing as a two-mile-long pipe. The pipes of drilling and fracking thunder end to end as they descend into the well bore, segment following segment, and the drill bit grinds away.

I walked back past those golden yellow walls, hoping—hoping—I had not missed something important.


Maryann Lesert writes about people and place in equal measure. Her first novel, Base Ten (Feminist Press, 2009), featured an astrophysicist’s quest for self among Lake Michigan’s forested dunes and the stars. Before novels, Maryann wrote plays, including three full-lengths, five one-acts, and collaborations with a memoirist and a local symphony. Maryann lives in west Michigan, where she teaches writing, enjoys time in the natural world (shared with family and friends), and writes by the big lake.

Learn more on her website.

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