2nd Place: Return to the Mountain

SAGE Magazine is thrilled to award David Johnson’s “Return to the Mountain” second place in our 2013 Environmental Writing Contest. 

[Note: Names in this story have been changed.]

The Southern Ozarks, Van Buren County, Arkansas

I look up the steep, red-clay mountain road – a road like a parched streambed. Oil pan-busting boulders protrude and car-swallowing gullies linger. When I was a kid, the city would occasionally run a motor grader and smooth the road. Typically this was just before a rain torrent that would create new lingering gullies. We told people to bring a four-wheel drive or a helicopter if they wanted to visit us; but my family learned to navigate it in a 1978 Ford Fairmont station wagon. Busted oil pans and all. Today, I see a motor grader hasn’t been here for years. The road is impassable except for maybe high-water army trucks. Or me, on foot.

I left this mountain as a teenager and return, 20 years later, as a scientist.

I was reared on this mountain. Reared among the pignut hickories, the blackjack oaks, the lonestar ticks, the copperheads and the star-canopied nights of rural life. The sandy, clayey soil is dry and is nutrient poor. Only the toughest specimens of life grow here, including a working-poor family planted here thirty years ago. A family grown in a shack insulated with newspapers and bread bags and heated with firewood cut from our forty acres of wilderness. A family that bathed in water from a catfish pond. Drank water from milk jugs filled from a faucet outside the Kerr McGee gas station. Drank powdered milk and ate government cheese given by government welfare. Growing up on the mountain, food stamps calmed my body’s hunger while the mountain aroused my appetite for nature.

My youthful summers were spent as a hillbilly vagabond roaming this mountainside. I slept in caves. I free-climbed the sandstone bluffs. I journeyed with a .22 rifle over my shoulder, often barefoot and shirtless. Many squirrels did not return to their families because of my keen shot. Rabbits and turkeys were luckier.

Without frequent maintenance, dirt roads on the mountain rapidly become impassible to most vehicles.

My favorite place was below the mountain, in the creek that ribbons between the sandstone bluffs in the valley. Armed with one of Mama’s red shortening buckets and a green aquarium dip net, I walked the creek chasing creek chubs, darters, crawdads, and snapping turtles. I used large algae-slick rocks as slides. I ate lunch perched on boulders, overseeing my kingdom. The creek wasn’t part of our land, but no other human roamed these woods, not even during deer season.

The shack remains; detritus of a former life. No one has lived here for six years. Today, the sumac and greenbriers have taken over the goat and horse pastures. The goat pen still stands, but at a lean. The chicken shack is gone, replaced by a trailer. The ticks are still here, in legions. So are the memories.

When I was a kid, the land was disconnected from and inaccessible to the rest of the world; the shack a tiny island in an ocean of trees. My sister and I rode horses to the bus stop one mile away. We rarely had company on the mountain. I could roam the woods for days and not find another human being. But today the land is more exposed and connected to the world.

Many of the oaks and hickories and pines of my childhood are not here. The usable timber has been felled. My step-dad sold some of the timber to friends when he was still alive. He needed the money, but he was selective in what they could cut. After he died, there was no one on my mountain to guard the trees and they were felled indiscriminately. While money doesn’t grow on trees, trees are money.

For generations people have hauled logs in the area. Log trucks oozed down deep-rutted log roads that snaked out of the woods onto small two lane paved roads to the mill. Logging made the land ugly, but it was always someone else’s land so it didn’t bother me. Now that the land of my youth is stripped and overgrown with briers, weeds, and bushes, it bothers me. My environmental self can be fickle.

Near the shack, I lean against the large-canopied white oak whose arms held my tire swings. This oak was somehow spared the indignity of becoming wood pulp.

From across the valley, I hear it. Like a freight train forever approaching and never arriving, I hear it. These are not chainsaws or log trucks. This is something new.


Some 320 million years before I roamed my mountainside barefoot and 100 million years before dinosaurs (also barefoot) roamed Arkansas, my mountain was under a shallow sea. This was the Mississippian Era. A time when the African plate collided with the North American plate, buckling the continent and uplifting the Appalachian Mountains. In the shallow seas of my mountain, there was not yet the sandstone and red clay that I stand on today. That would arrive during the next era, the Pennsylvanian. In the shallow seas of the Mississippian, fine clays and muds settled out of the slow-moving water. The weight of future rocks and time turned the clayey mud into a rich, dark shale known as the Fayetteville Shale, which extends like a beauty-pageant sash across Arkansas from western border to the Mississippi River at the eastern border. Today the shale sits 1000 to 6500 feet below the surface of Arkansas. At the same time that the fine mud and clay settled to the ocean floor of ancient Arkansas, so too did microscopic algae. And as clay turned to shale, algae turned to gas. What we call natural gas.

The sound that carries across the mountain is from the machinery of modern technologies reaching back in time. Reaching back to harvest energy collected from the sun by microscopic, marine plants millions of years ago. The process is hydraulic fracturing (a.k.a. fracking). A pipe inserted into the shale some thousands of feet below the surface reaches back 320 million years. Pressurized fluid is forced into the brittle shale to create meandering fissures that allow the natural gas, which is trapped in small pockets in the impermeable shale, to escape. An innovation that has made this technology successful is the ability to drill horizontally once the shale is reached. Unlike “conventional” oil or “conventional” natural gas, which is found and collected in large underground wells or reservoirs, shale gas is trapped in tiny pockets. So drilling straight down, even with fracturing, yields little gas because the shale layer may not be that thick (say, a few hundred feet). However, horizontal drilling allows one drilling pad access to tens of thousands of feet of shale, further exploiting the dimensions of the Mississippian Era.

Today, the shale beneath my feet is one of the longest-producing shales for natural gas in the United States. The first well permits were issued in 2001, and in 2004 a surge began. 97 percent of the 4600 active natural gas wells in the Fayetteville Shale are in five counties whose names read off like figures of American history: Van Buren, Faulkner, White, Conway, and Cleburne. Of the active wells, 99 percent are operated by three companies: XTO Energy (subsidiary of ExxonMobil; Irving, TX), BHP Billiton (Melbourne, Australia), and SEECO (a subsidiary of Southwest Energy; Houston, TX).

As early as 2005, energy companies were contacting my step-dad to persuade him to lease his mineral rights. He didn’t at the time, though he considered it. Before he died in 2007, he deeded the land to my sister. My sister was hesitant but eventually leased the mineral rights to Petrohawk Energy who then sold the lease to Chesapeake Energy. Her grandparents, who had bought land adjacent to ours, did the same. The land would be tapped for natural gas using the horizontal drilling technology. There would be no impact on our land except for the assessment drilling to see if gas was there; everything else was happening underground. My sister had hoped to earn enough off the natural-gas royalties to quit her job and focus on her family. Her grandparents hoped to earn enough to pay medical bills and buy a new house after theirs had burned.

My sister still has her job and the grandparents are still struggling with medical bills and living in a small trailer. They have received no royalty checks.

2005 through 2008, energy companies swept through the land like a flood: canvassing residents, holding town-hall meetings, mailing leaflets, and making phone calls in the poor, rural communities of north central Arkansas. Local politicians supported the energy companies; they saw jobs and re-elections. The people saw money in new jobs or in leasing their land. Economically, no one saw a downside. Environmentally, residents were reassured that the new technology was safe. It was going to be a boom.

And it was at first. People were put to work. The counties were flush with jobs and money as construction of roads and equipment materialized. Log trucks gave way to gas trucks.

Then the bottom fell out of the economy. Natural gas prices dropped to as low as one third the peak price within a year As gas prices lowered, so did the number of people working in Van Buren County.


The freight train stops.

To escape the heat, I walk down the east side of the mountain through the woods to the creek below. I wade in the cool waters. My bare-handed crawdad-catching skill has softened. The sycamores and ironwoods at the creek edge would snicker if they could; they know it’s been a long time. But I hear no snickers. All I hear are birds and the murmur of water over knee-high waterfalls. It’s hot and I’m covered in chigger bites. I am also alone. I strip down to what I was born with and ease into the cold, soothing water. After a while the water striders that skate along the surface are brave enough to investigate me. I’m not food so they move on. A fly lands in the water. He is food and they pounce.

After half an hour I dress and walk upstream. Before long, I hear the freight train again. I’m not alone in these mountains. As I get closer to where the creek joins the dirt road, I notice more red sediment in the creek. This is unusual because the creek bottom is typically dark without much  sediment; a lot of exposed sandstone rock. Eventually I find the reason for the sediment: a 20-foot section of black fabric silt fence. Such fences are used to prevent erosion from areas where the topsoil has been removed, such as construction sites. When a natural gas pad is built, there is a lot of erosion as the land is cleared to accommodate the machinery and the movement of large gas trucks. Erosion fencing is supposed to keep the dirt from leaving the area.

Most of the mountain is free of people.

When I reach the road, I walk until I reach the well pad. This is where the freight train lives. The compressors, separators, storage tanks, and trucks are cordoned off with a chain-link fence and intermittent black fabric silt fence. Red dirt streaks down the mountain. I sigh because the erosion and the noise make me uneasy. But creek-choking sediment and tranquility-shattering noise are not the only things that make me uneasy.

The fracking fluid used to extract the gas is toxic. The exact constituency of the fluid is known only to the companies that use them. The formula is proprietary, like Coca-Cola®. The fluid is known to contain up to 750 different constituent chemicals including ethylene glycol (anti-freeze), toluene (paint thinner), formaldehyde (animal preservative), and lead. Federal laws provided under the Safe Drinking Water Act are designed to protect surface waters and groundwaters. Fluid waste from hydraulic fracturing, however, is exempt in what is sometimes called the “Haliburton Loophole” as a result of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. Thus, state governments are responsible for regulating environmental issues related to fracking fluid. An immediate concern for Van Buren County, which is largely rural, is well-water contamination from leaking drilling pipes. Fortunately, according the U.S. Geological Survey, no tested wells have been contaminated by fracking fluid in the area.

Other concerns linger. In the process of fracking, up to 90 percent of the fracking fluid remains behind in the fractured shale. This is considered safe because it’s at a depth well below aquifers and wells. The fluid that is recovered has three fates: 1) to be reused, 2) disposed of in deep-well injections, or 3) treated by municipal wastewater treatment plants. Some municipalities refuse to treat the fluid, while those facilities that do treat it may not be able to do so adequately.

In Arkansas, the fracking waste was initially injected into deep wells of sandstone, a porous rock. During this time a spate of earthquakes was detected in the north-central Arkansas area. Despite protestations from the natural gas companies citing that “correlation is not causation,” the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission enacted a permanent moratorium on these disposal wells.

Today, the ground beneath my feet is quiet except for the rumble of trucks.

Though I am concerned about fracking fluid, I should be more comfortable with the use gas itself. The gas extracted from my mountain is largely methane and is supposed to be a bridge energy as we move from a carbon-based energy economy towards one of renewable energies such as wind and sun. The impetus to switch to renewable energies is at least two-fold. One, the mountain will not produce forever. Two, renewable energies are cleaner. In the sky above me, the insulating blanket of the atmosphere is thickening as we add more greenhouse gases. Carbon dioxide is the typical culprit. Methane is considered a cleaner-burning fuel because it releases less carbon dioxide than oil and gas when burned. One molecule of methane itself, however, is equivalent to one hundred molecules of carbon dioxide in terms of climate warming. It has been suggested that the greenhouse gas footprint of methane, which can escape during its extraction, is larger than previously thought. Is the sky above me really better off because of the machinery in front of me?

I wonder if I consider natural gas bad for the environment or just its extraction. The well-pad in front of me has denuded the land of my childhood trees and the loud machinery steals my forest tranquility. I don’t like that. But am I too quick to judge the fracking fluid or the use of natural gas? Even with my education, it’s difficult to wade through the chaff and find the answers. The environmental impact of hydraulic fracturing is debated between industry and non-industry scientists, each with their own studies to support their conflicting arguments. Ultimately, it’s difficult to know the impacts because scientists don’t always have the information, which may or may not be held by the energy companies. Further, we often don’t have pre-existing data on the conditions of the streams and lakes and forests that surround the extraction sites. I may have been the only one to walk my stream for a decade. As a kid, the creek chubs, crawdads, and insects I caught were collected as pets and bait, not samples. Regardless of potential impacts, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that over 50 percent of natural gas production will come from shale fracking by the year 2040.

I sigh, too, because environmental science can be frustrating. It is often rife with gloom and doom scenarios without always offering solutions. But I’m a scientist. My position is supposed to be clear. But it’s not. Science doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It is a supporting strand in a web of society, economy, and politics, with the pluck of each strand reverberating throughout the others. This was apparent as a kid when I had to use my piggy bank to buy gas. Or Mama would drive across the street to buy 75 cent-a-gallon gas instead of 76 cent-a-gallon gas. Or we sold aluminum cans not because we wanted to recycle, but because we needed the money to buy groceries. These were not environmental decisions. A welfare-economy superseded my childhood environmentalism, and as a kid I might have said, “Drill, Baby, Drill.”

I return to the shack and say my good-byes to the remaining oaks and hickories. I walk down to my car, which is half a mile down the road at neighbor Tim’s trailer. Tim is a 70-year-old, one-armed man who answers the door shirtless. Out here, you don’t expect company often. But I called him ahead of time; it’s not polite and can be dangerous to show up on the mountain unannounced. Tim hates Democrats and environmentalists. He knows I went off to college and became both. But he still answers the door and shakes my hand. Our kinship was forged in the mountain.

Like many in the area, he doesn’t trust the government, especially President Obama. When I mention the recent oil pipeline spill in Mayflower, 45 minutes away, he says, “Now we’ll never get that Keystone [pipeline] in.” He laughs, “That’s a progressive Democrat for you.”

Then he complains about gas prices. I’m in a land where gas prices are discussed as frequently as the weather. A nickel increase in a gallon of gas might mean one fewer loaf of bread a month for some.

I emphasize efficiency with a nod to the Prius I’m driving. He harrumphs. He shows off his newly bought Chevrolet Impala. He likes its powerful V6 engine and its comfortable ride. I don’t begrudge him for it. He’s 70 and deserves to be comfortable. I’m not an engineer, but if we can stick a straw into 6000 feet of rock, turn it sideways, and pulverize ancient rock to get once-impossible gas from underground, then surely we can figure out how to make a powerful, efficient and comfortable vehicle.

I ask him about his gas lease. His trust for the energy companies is a hair higher than his trust of the government. Like my sister and her grandparents, his land has yielded little money. “They came in making all kinds of promises, ‘We’ll fix the roads, you’ll have more money than you know what to do with.’” I doubt those are the words the companies used, but it’s certainly the impression left behind. “Bunch of damn liars,” Tim finishes. Another impression left behind.

I say good-bye to Tim and tell him it’s good to see him, because it is.

At the bottom of the mountain, I stop by John and Betty’s, longtime family friends. They feed me as they always have. Smoke swirls from cigarettes. The tea is sweet and Ms. Betty’s pork chops are just as I remember. Their son, Ben, stops by. It was at this dinner table 5 years ago that Ben told me, excitedly, about fracking. He knew, in detail, how the process worked. I questioned him about the safety of it. He said it was fine. At the time, he was driving trucks for the gas companies. He still is today. His dad, John, worked for a natural gas company five years ago too. He and a lot of other local men. That is, until after 2008, when the economy and gas prices crashed. John tells me of a month where a crew of thirty sat around doing nothing because the wells were idle. And then slowly, the idle crew was whittled to a handful of men. John was eventually let go. Today, he is unemployed.

(Later, when I try to get a motel room in town, all the rooms are taken. And have been for months. They are full of out-of-town workers of energy companies. Why is John sitting unemployed, replaced by an importation of skillsets not being developed in the town?)

I thank Ms. Betty for the pork chops and sweet tea and say good bye to Ben and John.

As I leave the mountain and drive down Highway 16, I see a hand-painted sign for eggs. $3 a dozen. That’s more than white store-brand eggs, but these are yard birds and I like brown eggs better than white ones. It’s

psychological; there’s no nutritional difference. But the eggs from our land, from our chickens, were brown. The difference is the chicken’s lifestyle. Bugs and seeds for food, exercise outside instead of processed feed and no exercise in a cage. Yard chicken eggs do taste richer. The yolks a deeper yellow. I open a carton and there is poop on one of the soft-brown shells. These are the eggs I know. These eggs are also cheaper than the $6 a dozen eggs that I find at the local natural food store that come from supposedly happy, free-roaming chickens.  Fifty cents per egg? That’s a middle class luxury, not a working-poor one.

These roadside egg-sellers are not selling eggs because they consider themselves environmentally friendly and want to support locavores. They sell them for the same reason my family used to sell eggs and firewood: $3 a dozen is supplemental income. It’s two loaves of bread or almost a gallon of milk. Or a gallon of gas. I buy a dozen eggs and chat about the weather. And gas prices. (It’s $3.54 in town now. Can you believe it?)

I leave town with my eggs and head south to find a bed in Conway. My mountain is quickly swallowed by the landscape of the other mountains.


When my sister said she was leasing the land for fracking, I was uncomfortable with the decision. As a scientist, I wanted to know more about the impacts of fracking. In 2007, I couldn’t find any environmental studies. Nor could I find much information about the process. I didn’t want her to do it, but it wasn’t my land anymore and I kept quiet. I did, however, sincerely hope that the royalty checks would start pouring in. That she could have a more relaxed life – she works incredibly hard to hold down a job, raise a kid and be a wife to husband who also works. I was willing to sacrifice potential environmental degradation in exchange for a more precious commodity for my sister: time.

My sister’s land, the land of my childhood, is no longer leased for gas extraction. There’s not enough money in it for the energy companies. I would have liked my sister to enjoy a reality of quitting her job to focus on raising her son and having chickens and eggs of her own. But I’m relieved the land is safe for now.

The word ‘environmentalism’ is often viewed as at odds with the word ‘economy.’ But the people here are tied to the land and have their own version of environmentalism, even if they call don’t it that. They are hunters. Fishers. Dirt bikers. Ranchers. Timbermen. Coffee-drinkers on back porches. They value their land. Land that was supposed to increase their quality of life during the natural gas boom. They were supposed to be financially better off because they owned land.

But as far as I can tell, financially they aren’t. The average household income for Van Buren County today is $24,000, up from $18,000 ten years ago. The federal government sets the poverty level for a family of four at $23,000. No one seems to have gotten rich off their land. Except for the people who don’t own the land. ExxonMobil’s profits rose from $21 billion to $45 billion in ten years due in part to natural gas production from land they don’t own.

My environmentalism emerged from the land my family owned. But like me, it emerged from more than the oaks and the creek chubs and the sandstone bluffs. It emerged among my neighbors, my family, and my friends. As an environmentalist, I am concerned for the welfare of the land; but welfare is more than the quality of the land, it is also the care of the people.

David Johnson

David spent his youth as a hillbilly vagabond wandering the Ozark Mountains of central Arkansas. Today he wanders the coastlines as a marine ecologist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. How he wandered so far north, he’s not so sure. You can learn about his wanderings and wonderings at his blog New Leaf where he writes about science, writing and family.

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  2. An intelligent, compassionate look at an extremely complex environmental issue, and a poignant reminder that you can’t go home again, even if you can walk the road that led there.

  3. Elizabeth Busbea Baker says:


    This is an amazing story. You are so talented in many ways, but putting into words the perfect thing to say is the best one, next to your great hugs! I was so proud when you spoke at Mom’s (Marty’s) funeral. You had the sincere mixed in with plenty of laughter to make it a celebration.


  4. David, this is such a moving, layered essay. I so enjoyed reading it and equally enjoyed meeting you here in Sewanee. Happy travels to you, wherever life takes you.

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