a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
The first map was not the map I needed. But it was the map I had in front of me, so I had to make do.
It’s early spring of 2010. I’m with my sons visiting the Wies Earth Science Museum, which is located on the University of Wisconsin – Fox Valley campus in Menasha and serves as the official mineralogical museum of Wisconsin.
We’re regulars there, my four boys and I. The exhibits are our friends, and we make it a point to stop and visit our favorites: fossils and gems, a model copper mine, a seismograph that measures the earthquakes we make when we jump. The T-Rex bone is the highlight – shaped like the thigh of a chicken but as tall as a child. You can touch it, if you want to. And we do. It is grainy, like wood, and cool. Our hands move with awe. We are almost afraid. Impossibly old, the bone is a treasure from a time so long ago it is a place. A lost place. This bone is the only thing remaining.
After touching the bone, the boys drift towards the video-demo of a quarry blast, past the display explaining Wisconsin’s silica-rich landscape and the industries it supports: construction, foundry, glass. I stop. I have questions for the map.
It’s a small map, no larger than the span of my hand. I have to lean close to read it. I focus on a dark stain marking the Cambrian and Ordovician bedrock, a shadow-shape of the state itself, covering the west and reaching east and north with a long, curved thumb, an underground peninsula. The mark of the sand.
I like to think about the ancient geology that formed this landscape. I like the story: how when this bedrock was formed, this continental mass was floating somewhere far away on another part of the earth’s crust, where it served as the floor of a great, shallow, sea, and the sea, with warm and gentle hands, rolled and rocked and stirred until grains of sand were polished smooth, all the impurities worn away. I like to think of those grains of sand, cemented together by time and pressure, maintaining their form. A billion-billion tiny miracles. Crystal balls in which to see the future.
In 2010, what I know about the hydraulic fracturing industry amounted to two things: the practice was expanding, and it required sand. Wisconsin, especially the western counties, has that sand. And people, even in 2010, were getting anxious, were starting to resist. They noted with alarm that the mines seemed to cluster in twos or threes, hauling off the hills, scraping down the bluffs. And the mining caused so much traffic. And made so much dust. And used so much water, entire ponds of water. And sometimes the company pumped that same water back into the ground. Or watched as it overran its banks, dirtying local streams. Killing the fish.
I live in central Wisconsin, far from the heart of mining country. Still. Just to be sure. I needed to know.
We rely on distance and time. We live under the illusion that they can protect us. And sometimes they can. The earth churns and changes, pressing down and rising up again. Seas spread and retreat. Glaciers pass over, leveling hills and leaving their scratches on certain types of rock.
I take my best guess and point to a spot on the map. The clear place, between shadow-thumb and shadow-hand, where the sea’s floor was pressed down beneath a harder bedrock, where the sand, if it is still there, is impossible to reach.
“We live here.”
That night at home, I look out into the darkness, towards a spruce tree we planted ten years ago, a gift from my uncle after my father died. I say to my husband, we are safe. I checked the map.
He is pleased, but the truth is, he hadn’t known to be afraid.
# # #
August 2011 and a map printed on the front page of our local newspaper outlines two farms in red – the entire north-east corner of the Township of Union, where we live. One hundred and sixty acres total. The location of a proposed non-metallic mine. Silica sand.
I was wrong in my reading of the tiny bedrock map. I was too far west in my guess of where we lived. Or perhaps the map was off, skimming the edge of Waupaca County just a touch too closely, drawing me out of it when I should have been in.
Since that day I have learned lots of things from maps. Like, how many industrial sand mines operate in Wisconsin and how many more are proposed. How close the mines are to towns and railroads and homes. Which ones have been cited for violating environmental regulations and how many more have complaints pending against them. There are maps that trace ground and surface water and maps that mark truck routes and railway lines.
And there is testimony, a mapping of complaints: respiratory illnesses in the old and in the very young, traffic that tears up the roads and terrorizes other drivers. Dirt. Noise. Compromised wells. Reports from towns where one-hundred-year-old buildings are crumbling, their foundations shaken by the constant vibration of transporting. Claims that the companies aren’t keeping their promise to clean up the streets when the trains come through, coating them in dust.
Some people laugh, say things like, “At least we’re upwind,” believing that distance can save them.
Some of the maps, the most frustrating ones, trace the flow of money: studies that question the economic benefits of mining and demonstrate the impact on neighboring property values. Road repair costs adding up to more than the tax revenues. Job losses when small businesses flee. Counties where elected officials approve their own mines. Where pro-mining commissioners leave public service for industry jobs and new pick-up trucks.
This is what I have learned more than anything else: there is no map to tell us who will suffer and who will not, who is being honest and who the mining companies have bought, which mines will be operated responsibly and respectfully (because I choose to believe that such a thing is possible) and which will send muddied water into streams, killing them off. There is no map to tell us which mines will be isolated and which will mark a cluster of three or four or more only miles apart, an entire landscape and the water aquifer beneath it. Gone.
And to that end, because of what we do not know, in the last three and a half years I have come to know the town hall, just up the road north on Highway 22, and the county court house, on the same highway but further away and to the south. I know the place where citizens stand to testify when we speak to our elected officials: the town board, the county board, the planning and zoning committee (one for the town and another for the county) and finally the county’s ad hoc non-metallic mining committee charged with rewriting our county ordinances.
I have often been emotional. I was only once shrill (and I do not regret that). I bought a black blazer and purple shell – from Good Will – and eventually even a suit. I have come with facts and with studies, with charts and with graphs and with maps.
Look at a recent map of frac sand mines in Wisconsin. Each dot on this map marks a place where people like me have fought, and have lost.
# # #
Lies can also be mapped, I suppose, based on how far they are from the truth and the questions you must ask to route your way back to it.
Not frac sand.
This is the story I heard most often. This was not frac sand. Foundry sand. Everything you hear about those mines in the west is not true.
Again and again I heard this story. And this story – especially the part about how this sand was different from frac – this story died pretty slow. In the local imagination, marked on the map as a sea of red, this story never died at all.
The first person to tell me our sand was not for frac was Tom Petke, an employee of the A F Gelhar Mining Company, not so long after I found out about the mine proposal.
Not for fracking, Tom Petke told me when I called him on the phone.
Tom Petke is from here. His family farms and owns a shop that fixes equipment. I’ve been to their place. Tom worked for Gelhar, and he came to our township meetings to represent the mine.
This is not sand for fracking, he insisted. This is sand for the foundry. Waupaca Foundry is what he meant. He didn’t have to name it for me to know.
And for a moment, I was relieved. I imagined the sleepy local pits and quarries where the county gets its gravel for road projects. Or better yet, the even smaller pits like the one on the farm where I grew up, where my father went when he needed sand for concrete work or fill.
“Oh,” I said. “A pit. Like some farmer who punches a hole in the side of one of his hills.”
“No,” he said. “No, not really.” He was not happy to say this to me, but to his credit he did. “It’s industrial.” A strip-mine, one that takes the entire hill.
A sand mine. No different from those in the other parts of the state.
But, he insisted, it was not the kind of sand in demand for frac. Or, more specifically, it could be used for fracking, but only for the vertical drill. The harder sand in the western part of the state, that is the stuff the industry really wants, the sand they use for horizontal drilling.
I do not believe Tom Petke knew he was lying when he told me this. I do not believe that he ever lied on purpose. Even when he claimed that the deposit was isolated, singular and unusual. That guys from his company found it by accident when they stopped off at the local lumber yard just in time to see a report left by some well-drillers. I believe Tom Petke believed that story, too.
And he didn’t mean to lie when he told me that, yes, the mine will make dust, but no more than a farm does. And the mines are more heavily regulated.
“You’d rather have this here than a feedlot,” he said to me. “That’s a lot worse.”
He believed that. And maybe he’s right. It’s hard to know.
And he said, “My folks keep asking if it’s frac sand in the hills on their place. Then they could quit farming. Retire. Buy a house in Florida. But I checked. It’s not.”
And he believed it when he said, “You’re four miles away, you said? You won’t even know that it’s there.”
# # #
This is a standard industry maneuver, I’ve been told, to find a local business to partner with. To tell us that we shouldn’t be against the mine because it belongs here. You need this mine, the company tells us. You just don’t know it yet.
The Waupaca Foundry, the foundry, as it is called, consists of three plants, two within the City of Waupaca, and one on its northern edge. That third one is the first thing I see when I drive into Waupaca for groceries or to go to church. It’s huge, minimalist and symmetrical, dark against the sky.
Of course, the foundry isn’t really the foundry anymore, at least not in the way we still think of it, as our foundry, part of the city since just after the Civil War. In 1978, the last of the foundry’s local owners sold it to a German company. Since 2012, Waupaca Foundry has expanded to two other states. And been sold. Twice. Shareholders made a killing. The jobs – good jobs, I was once told, so good that for all those years there were no moves to unionize – the jobs got worse, of course. A Japanese company owns the foundry now. The owners say they’re committed to it. They want a long-term investment. They want to make steel. But, who knows. Japan is awfully far away from here.
# # #
A representative from the foundry came to one of our township meetings in the fall of 2011. Short and round, cheerful and sparkling, wearing a lavender shirt, he was the guy in charge of buying sand, which the foundry uses to make the forms that hold the molten steel. He explained the situation to us: how the fracking industry had driven up sand costs and interfered with foundry operations. How the foundry and Gelhar had struck up a deal. A win-win, he said, for the foundry and for Gelhar. The foundry needed a reliable supply of sand, and Gelhar was willing to sell below market value, which was peaking at about that point, inflated by the hydraulic fracturing boom. A win for our township, too. Because of the jobs.
But he was not unsympathetic. “I understand why you folks have questions,” he said. “To be honest, if this mine was coming by me, I’d have questions, too. You should all think it over and get your questions answered.”
He stood beneath the fluorescent lights when he said this, surrounded by cheap Formica wood-grain tables and stackable steel and vinyl chairs, the landmarks of every town hall in the country, scraped across the same tile floor.
He seemed willing to let us think things over. So long as in the end we agreed. And why wouldn’t we? We would lose the hill, but after the mine was closed, in seventy years, we would have a lake. A lake, my biologist friends tell me, with no natural outlets and no filtration systems, and nothing to keep it from silting in and weeding up. Still, they might name it. Put it on the map.
# # #
Rural people carry a map in their heads. They consult it when they meet you, to figure out where you’re at, if you’re “from here” or not. It’s probably our most important map since it tells us whom to trust. But it is also changeable, and uncertain. Our most difficult to read. And your place on it can be in dispute. You might leave and discover that you cannot come back.
Among a core group of twenty people or so who fought against the mine, maybe half are not “from here,” in one way or another. And among those who are, only a few were willing to state their opposition publicly. Everyone else – small business owners, private contractors, neighbors, cousins, church friends – feared that taking a stand might cost them. Their livelihoods. Their friendships. Their place. I’ve resented them for this at times. But I’ve also understood.
# # #
That’s what Kelly Norton said to me. We were standing outside the town hall the night we met the representative from Waupaca Foundry, the short one who sparkled with delight.
“You people all think this is frac sand,” Kelly said. “But it’s not frac sand. It’s foundry sand. Not the same thing.”
Kelly isn’t from here. She came in the early nineties, moved with her family from Colorado to run a bar in a near-by town. Her family left. She stayed. She and her boyfriend are members of the antique tractor club. If our township has a tribe, the members of this club are it. And Kelly, large and childless, bright – Kelly is one of their queens. Our social circles overlapped briefly, when I was dating another tractor-club guy. She’s good friends with my youngest sister. I grabbed her after the meeting to ask her what she was thinking. In her mind it was pretty clear.
She got her information “from the horse’s mouth,” she said. Directly from Tom Petke. He’d been around the township for months, handing out donations to some of the local clubs. He promised that Gelhar would give lots of support.
“All of your information,” she said. “It’s from the internet. Garbage in, garbage out.”
“But these are studies,” I remember saying. “By scientists. Professors. They stake their reputations on this.”
“But they don’t know,” she said. “They aren’t in the business.”
And, besides. More importantly than any of our objections: “These are jobs. Good jobs.”
I was ready for this argument, too. I said, “But we’ll lose jobs. We’ll lose jobs in ag.” I tried to explain how agricultural money circulates, that the dollars stay local and multiply each time they are touched. Money from extraction just goes away.
She cut me off. “You cannot tell me that a farm will make as many jobs as that mine’s gonna make. You can’t tell me that. Thirty jobs they’re talking about. Or more.”
“Most of them temporary,” I reminded her.
“But those are jobs. And the jobs that stay. Ten jobs. Or five jobs. No farm makes that many jobs.”
She was growing visibly upset, so I said, “For you, it’s really about the jobs.”
She said yes. And then, suddenly, there were tears, her lovely blue eyes turning to glass.
Life of the party and queen of the tribe, she said to me, “I’ve been unemployed for eight months. My boyfriend took a trucking job to make enough money to support us. He’s gone fifteen days in a row.”
She didn’t blink her tears away. She simply refused to let them fall.
“He says he doesn’t mind, but I do,” she continued. “I do. I mind. I need to contribute to our family. I need him home.”
“I’m so sorry,” I said. “That’s so hard.”
And I thought, This right here. This is where it is.
And I thought, Tom Petke. He had promised her the one thing she needed more than seventy years’ clean water. More than breathable air. Lying Tom Petke had promised her a job.
# # #
You have to zoom pretty close with the satellite view to find my tiny spot of dirt: five acres in the south east corner of a seventy-acre plot of cropland about five miles from the house where I grew up. My parents purchased the seventy after I had already left for college. We have a pretty site, fronted by a ditch-full of cattails to the east and a stony fence line, overgrown with boxelder trees and the remains of a hawthorn grove, to the south. I was still single, in my late twenties, when my parents decided I should build my house here. My father said that when he was done farming and I was ready, he would cut me a deal on few acres of land.
It was how he would take care of me, the daughter he thought would never marry. Of course, things never work out as they are planned. I was engaged when I went to him again, two years later, checkbook in hand, looking to finalize our deal. Not that my husband and I thought we would live out here, at least not right away. But we wanted the land.
I sat with my dad at the kitchen table. At the time, I was looking to buy only three acres. When he hesitated on my first offer, I raised it. He talked me back down, and we settled on a price. But he said it again: he was still farming; he was not ready to sell. When he was, though, that land would be mine.
A year or so later he was dead. My mother sold me that land, and we built our house.
# # #
I try to take an aerial view – think about the “political landscape,” imagine that if we had staked out a compromise position in our fight against the mine – conceded the land for the foundry, for example, and maybe traded that for stronger regulations and protections against future mining activities – maybe, if we had done that, we might have come out further ahead. As it is, after not months but years of bickering, a provision was added to the permit that prohibited the selling of the sand to the hydraulic fracturing industry. My geologist friend tells me that this is a huge victory and puts us in a good position to prevent a sand mining boom in Waupaca County. I like to think that’s true. Especially now, with the industry poised under a new administration to pick back up again. I like to think it. But I don’t believe it’s true.
# # #
Nine months passed between the filing of the initial mining application and the final township vote. When the vote was taken – after a dramatic and very close local election – it came to a draw. The chair had recused himself, since it was his land in question. A newly elected board member voted against granting the permit. Supervisor Gary Schoen voted for.
A split vote is a “no.” But in Waupaca County, a township vote is non-binding. Still, only once in local memory had the county overturned a township vote. Apparently, there was hell to pay for it, too. The chairman of the county planning and zoning committee, which would have the final say, was visibly upset by the split. He saw it as an unnecessary complication. He called the split results “Union’s mess.”
After the vote by the township, the application had an official hearing at the county level. It lasted for more than eight hours. Mining company representatives – paid representatives, not citizens – spoke for six. The committee chairman dozed.
No one from the foundry spoke that night, but we heard a lot about it. Waupaca County’s UW-Extension agent talked for almost an hour, raining numbers down on us. Not a cost-benefit analysis, he said. Just information so that we would know how important the foundry is to the county’s economy. Not to sway us. Just so we would know.
The mining company lawyer, wearing an argyle sweater and a ninety-watt smile, spoke, too. His job was to make sure we understood that the A F Gelhar Company belonged in our county. He vouched personally for the company’s neighborliness.
In his concluding remarks, he said, “I believe that God put that sand in that hill. He put it there for us to find.”
Some people snorted at that. But a lot of people nodded along.
# # #
That question of frac sand would not quite go away, though.
The county planning and zoning committee did not vote the night of the hearing. They called a special meeting, a few months later, and gave each side one last chance to speak.
The mining company lawyer called the foundry representative as witness, the same one who had visited us in Union. No lavender shirt and sparkling smile this time. Gone was talk of happy coincidences. There was no congratulatory shaking of hands. Here he stood before the county, and he had taken the oath. Sworn to tell the truth, he was not nearly so cheerful. He wore a suit. He spoke clearly. Under oath, he put to rest the question about the sand – if it was for foundry or if it was frac, and if the distinction mattered.
“Sand comes out of the ground raw and is filtered based on its intended use,” he explained. “The sand from this mine could be filtered to be used in the fracking industry, but Gelhar will have a contract to sell it to the foundry, and that is how the equipment will be calibrated, to make foundry sand. To sell this sand for frac would require a huge equipment change-over. To sell both foundry and frac sand is not cost effective.”
Then the mining company’s lawyer explained further. “We thought about making this a frac sand mine. But it’s too far from a rail line. We looked into bringing rail in. But it just wouldn’t be cost effective. The sand from this mine is for Waupaca Foundry.”
It’s a funny thing about the truth: if you’ve gone along far enough with a story, it no longer matters what the truth is. It certainly didn’t matter to the men about to vote; they’d made up their minds months ago. And it wouldn’t matter, either, to the people in the Township of Union, to the ones who’d been paid for putting up their pro-mine signs, or to clubs who’d already spent their donations.
After a while, you start to wonder if the truth ever mattered at all.
# # #
It’s not this mine we are fighting, is what I’ve always told people. It’s the next. And the next.
I stood on the deck, holding the map. Four miles as the crow flies between us and the site of the proposed mine, but my sense of direction is terrible, so although I understood the map and even knew how to drive there, I was never exactly sure where it was.
And now, I did.
I’d put off these questions for a long time. I did not want to be the person who breathed easy and spoke out of general concern instead of solidarity. I did not want to be told again “it’s not even by you.” I did not want to admit how much I still hoped that the distance might protect us.
So I resisted. Until I didn’t.
It was not hard to find the maps I needed to answer my questions: one that marked the general flow of groundwater, another to measure the prevailing winds. And I went to my husband to tell him: we are up-stream and mostly up-wind, which will help.
Then I stood out on my deck with the plat book, the site of the mine outlined in red. I held the map in front of me. I lined it up to the match the road. I looked.
There is a forest. There is a ridge. Between here and the site of the mine is a river. We will not see the mine from here. Any noise will likely be blocked by trees. We might hear the truck traffic, on clear nights, but it goes past, not down, our road.
If this is the only mine, I tell my husband, we can live with it. We’re far enough away.
But there, to our south and east. The corner of Highway 161 and Stoney Ridge Road. Another huge hill. I can see it from where I stand. Just over the crest on the other side is where my father overturned his tractor and died.
Back when our town supervisors were still speaking to me, Gary Schoen told me that he doesn’t think that the hill on 161 is sand. When he was young, he hunted up there, and the trees are different. Hardwood. Up on Tellocks Hill, the hill they want to mine, you can tell it’s sand. The trees up there are all pine and scrub.
I like Gary. When I first introduced myself, he said to me, “I know who you are.” Then he told me that he was there the night of my father’s accident. He called it “terrible.” And something else, something I’ve tried not to see: there are things that people have not told us. Gary knows these things. I am almost sure of this. The sensation is of air touching live bone.
There is something childlike about the ageing Gary Schoen, a sweetness he showed when he gave us advice on our snow fences or asked me about my sons. He’s educated – went to school in Madison, had a career as an engineer, and moved back for his retirement. But it’s easiest for me to imagine him as a boy – small and sharp. A little bit odd, but quick. The kind of kid who would be awed by a dinosaur bone, who would touch it. Would feel time with his hand.
I want to believe Gary. Even to mother him a bit. I want to agree with him, tell him that there is nothing to worry about, that his childhood memories are safe up there on that hill. That we are safe. I want to tell him this.
But the maps: Waupaca County’s hills and the stated intentions of the new president’s administration. Lay one map across the other, like those transparent films you found in textbooks years ago. Look closely. Read.