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Nicole Walker

Oil and Water

Transformation is a two part process: a combination of substitution and disappearance. The first element, the original, on its way to becoming something else, is no longer itself. The new element fully replaces the first. The first element: you can’t find it anywhere.

Imagine a planet thick with ferns, with trees that grew sideways where moss hung to the floor. Picture great seas of rain hooking ground cover to canopy. Imagine this place is neither the Pacific Northwest nor the Amazon. Imagine that between the drops of rain and connecting flora, gigantic eyes peer. So much water makes everything gigantic: trees, eyes, scales, legs, tails, sloths. Makes you wonder if the carbon atoms themselves are larger—if you could hold one in your hand and look at each of the eight electrons. Carbon, like water, connects. Its atoms are strangely able to bond with themselves, making them particularly strong. They’re also willing to bond to many other elements, particularly hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and the halogens, making them kind of slutty with their willingness to interact with almost anyone.

Diamond is one allotrope of carbon. In the diamond structure, each carbon atom is covalently bonded to four others and has a tetrahedal geometry. In essence, a diamond is one large molecule. And yet, what can you really know about elemental essence? Is the carbon a piece of black coal a substitute for diamond? Is a fiddlehead’s frond, crushed by millennia, a watery diamond or a molecule of thick water? Things are more slippery than they are solid, more like open bonds outstretched like arms always reaching to slide into or onto something, always willing to morph into something else.


There was a snake lying across one of the lanes of the four-lane road that connected to the city’s suburbs via only dirt and rock. The four-lane’s beginning was nothing but scrub oak and, apparently, snake habitat. The end was the edge of the foothills, the end of the city, the beginning of orchards and horses. A road that wound, snakelike, and then disappeared into some pastoral landscape we pretended had something to do with nature but was really irrigated farmland.

There wasn’t much we could do for the snake—Mark’s Volkswagen Fastback had run right over it. Mark got out to look at it. The thing was flattened in two parts. The blood is dry, Mark called as he bent over the snake, looking at the tires of his car and then back to what was left of the body. Some heavier automobile had already pressed most of this snake into the ground, tucking its energy into the dirt for future generations’ resource needs.  I didn’t kill it, Mark noted happily. He liked animals—even snakes. He was glad he hadn’t hurt anything.

The idea that this place was our secret though had been damaged. Evidence of another vehicle driving beyond the suburbs to our four-lane broke our belief that only we knew this road. A belief in singularity, in possession, is the protection of youth. Old age must be the sad realizations that someone has been here before and that all roads have somewhere to go.

To get to the four -lane you have to turn off 94th South, toward Draper where all the horse properties were being turned into small castles and pretend-lodges—each house a one-time forest of its own now siding, now balcony—some with redwood, some cedar—all wood, all imported to this alpine-desert city where scrub oak and junipers and a few Doug-firs made up the green specks in the otherwise mostly ochre landscape. Follow along Dimple Dell road—the same one my mom’s step-dad, the only grandfather I’d known, used to take us to see the horses when I was younger—turn left, and then take a right on the road that curves back toward the mountains, into the foothills. And then that curve stops. You’re at the end of the road. You have to cross the dirt road to move toward something entirely different.

The Fastback always took the ending of the pavement hard—the all-metal dashboard clicked and clanged for the two hundred feet or so until we were back on new asphalt, freshly paved, and onto the unnamed, four-lanes going nowhere. This road started somewhere suburban and dead-ended up here—in the foothills, flanked by scrub-oak, at the edge of a flattened snake.  Metal and rubber trump dirt and scale.

Utah has seen substantial oil and gas exploration since natural gas was first discovered in 1891. Oil and gas production took off in earnest during the mid 1940s [1]. Since production first started, over 13,500 wells have been drilled, covering much of the state, as shown in Figure 1. Total oil production as of October 2003 has been 1.24 billion barrels (BBO); total gas production has been 7.65 trillion cubic feet (TCF). The United States presently uses approximately 19.6 million barrels of oil (MMBO) a day and 62 billion cubic feet (BCF) of natural gas a day [2]. Thus, over the past 65 years, enough resources have been produced to supply the U.S. with oil for just over two months and gas for about four months at today's rate of consumption.

My dad drove a VW Karmann Ghia when he was in college. In my mind it was purple, the shade I swore he told me he dyed his hair. But purple hair would have been far too wild even for his hundred-mile-an hour-driving ways and I don’t think they, even these days, paint cars purple. When I’m thirteen, my dad drives a Cadillac even though his mother’s side of the family has always been committed to the Buick. In the most suburban of ways, my dad is still rebelling.

My twin sisters, Paige and Val, and our mom and dad are sitting around the kitchen table for dinner like we do most nights. We are eating stir-fry. My mom, when she cooks with water chestnuts and thin strips of steak and soy sauce, is a more adventurous cook than most of my friends’ moms. She also recycles.

My dad is trying to convince us that it would be a good idea to take a new job and to move to Houston. We, my twin sisters and I, do not want to go. We’d lose our friends. Our school. Our house with its many good-for-hiding closets.

“It’s hot there, dad,” we respond. “It’s humid,” we complain. “I’ve heard there are snakes all over there,” I argue. I picture a backyard, green like our over-watered lawn here but, if you look closely, it moves, undulates. The Houston backyard is a seething mass of green-backed snakes and soft lawns. My dad tells us that he would be the president of a company—no longer the vice-president of research, not the VP of sales, but the president. He would tell the buyers what kind of drill bits to look for. He would decide whether or not to pursue extracting oil from shale rock. He would decide if it was wise to wring crude from beneath the twisted Colorado River.

I give him a stone-cold look and tell him that there is no way that I am going to Houston, Texas to live with all the green and rain and snakes.

He tells me I’ll go where he tells me to go.

But we don’t end up moving to Houston even though the oil industry was booming for the first time since my dad had become a geological engineer. The job would have let him be a star—president of his own drilling research lab. He’d be home more, travel less to Venezuela and France. He could get out from under the shadow of Christensen Diamond, his family’s diamond-drill bit business where my dad’s job was as much thanks to nepotism as his cousin’s even though my dad had a Master’s in geology from Columbia and his cousin barely had his high-school diploma.

Instead of moving, he continued to go to work every day with a sandwich, topped with unusual condiments like horseradish and red bell peppers, my mom made him. His office had chalkboards on three walls. He’d work some math problems in the morning detailing some exercise in force and mass and pounds per square inch. He’d walk down the hall for coffee. His great-uncle Frank, the president of the company, would invite him in, pour some bourbon in my dad’s mug and tell him to get on the phone with some clients, to bring him some buyers and stop wasting his time with all that chalk. That’s for drilling. We sell diamonds, he told my dad. Ugly and big diamonds. The only science you need to know is that the bigger, the better.


Once the site has been selected, it must be surveyed to determine its boundaries, and environmental impact studies may be done. Lease agreements, titles and right-of way accesses for the land must be obtained and evaluated legally. For off-shore sites, legal jurisdiction must be determined.

Once the legal issues have been settled, the crew goes about preparing the land:

1.          The land is cleared and leveled, and access roads may be built.
2.          Because water is used in drilling, there must be a source of water nearby. If there is no natural source, they drill a water well.
3.          They dig a reserve pit, which is used to dispose of rock cuttings and drilling mud during the drilling process, and line it with plastic to protect the environment. If the site is an ecologically sensitive area, such as a marsh or wilderness, then the cuttings and mud must be disposed offsite -- trucked away instead of placed in a pit.


Mark’s hand was on my knee. No pressure. It was just a gesture. A friend of the Bishopric, his role, had been appointed to drive me home. I was just a Mormon girl, my role, with a shocking inability to call my parents for a ride. That’s the kind of girl I could learn how to be. Don’t we turn here? I asked with pretend innocence. Oh, let’s take the back-way, Mark-the-Elder suggested.

It wasn’t enough that he was seventeen and I was fourteen and he was teaching me to drive—telling me about the power of first gear, reminding me to let go the pressure with my left while applying pressure with my right. It wasn’t illicit enough for the bark of the scrub oak to rub against my naked back. I had to become the Mormon girl I never had been. The one who didn’t occasionally smoke one of Mark’s Camels, except now here, he’s offering me one suggesting that while the Joseph Smith’s Words of Wisdom prohibited some kinds of smoking, smoking with a girl who’s pretending to be a virgin, nonsmoker, in a VW Fastback was an exception to the rule. If you’re a member of the priesthood, there are rules that, subject to interpretation, can allow for all kinds of things. The priesthood—a cabal of men who know just what’s good for you—play many roles: interpreter of God’s will, emissary to the prophet, instructor of women, father to the children, especially the girl-children who need so much guidance. Mark asked me if he was crushing me. He was. They always are. But it’s the thin ones who don’t bother to ask.


Role-playing is a bit about pressure—the way you have to not giggle, have to stay in character, have to pretend you’re wearing a modest dress rather than a pair of shorts that your boyfriend gave to you back when he was playing the role of your boyfriend instead of the role of your Bishop. The way the hand on your leg can’t move too quickly to your thigh. The way the roles constrict and confine you so much that you almost can’t move, and if you do, the hand grips your thigh a little more tightly. When he stops the Fastback by the ring of scrub oak, I pretend to ask him why I should get out although I know there’s already a blanket laid out under the ring of trees. As the good girl I’m pretending to be, I obey my Bishop when he suggests I lie down, when he suggests that perhaps I should unbutton my shirt to cool down. The Bishop, you know, has already baptized me, laid my whole body down in the water. He’s seen my body through the sheer white of my christening gown. Why not look at it through the gauzy filter of the too-bright sunlight. When he lies down upon me—all 200 hundred of his pretend Bishop-like body, hairy as a Bishop, tall as a Bishop, as practiced as a Bishop suggesting that the parting of the legs is like Moses parting the sea and if God didn’t want it to happen, then the legs wouldn’t part. Obviously, the Mormon girl and God are in cahoots. The legs and seas are parted for the Bishops and the Moseses of the world. I lie still and try to feel soft though I can feel my body hardening under the weight and the pressure and the metaphors begin to mix: how much disappearance is required for transformation? Where did the innocent Mormon girl I pretended to be go? She was just around here—her grandmother took her to Sunday school. She drank the sacrament from the little paper cups. She ate the cubed Wonder bread as it came down the aisle. Sometimes she took two pieces. Sometimes she thought she was more Mormon than her own mother or her own father who was baptized in this religion, who had grown up thinking there was no substitute for the one right church. Of course, they didn’t consider the nature of the church tended toward plurality with its polygamy and multi-tiered heaven. Perhaps Mormonism is the religion of metaphor, transference, and transformation. It may well also be the church of fathers who are Bishops, unpaid lay-priests who sometimes forget who are their daughters and who are their wives or have a unique capacity to let their women be both, simultaneously.

Once the land has been prepared, several holes must be dug to make way for the rig and the main hole. A rectangular pit, called a cellar, is dug around the location of the actual drilling hole. The cellar provides a work space around the hole, for the workers and drilling accessories. The crew then begins drilling the main hole, often with a small drill truck rather than the main rig. The first part of the hole is larger and shallower than the main portion, and is lined with a large-diameter conductor pipe. Additional holes are dug off to the side to temporarily store equipment -- when these holes are finished, the rig equipment can be brought in and set up.

We go to the four-lane because it’s the end of the road. Because there are no cars on it. There will be, of course, when the ground is dug out from the hillside and the snakes are baited and the scrub oak is torn from its hardy roots and they build their cedar mini-lodges there. But for now we’re here because there’s a road—except for that one bit that’s nearly impassable for a 1967 Volkswagen, and the privacy provided by scrub oak. Scrub oak grows in a circle. It surrounds you like a wreath or a maze. Its provenance is distinctly western although what it exactly is is hard to discern. On the internet there is little information. There’s a disambiguated Wikipedia entry. There’s a paper by Tom Chester who discovered that Quercus berberidifolia, the best-known species of scrub oak, is not as widespread throughout the west as he once thought. There are other kinds of scrub oak mixing in with berberidifolia—it’s hard to pick out what’s scrub and what’s oak.

But the genus name, same as all oak, sounds like query, sounds like question, sounds like open, come in here and hide, come into my closet and I’ll take you to another world a Lion, A Witch and A Wardrobe-style, come into this species that is undefinable, unfindable, unwikipediable, and lie on the ground. Quercus sounds quirky and odd and isn’t it better to be odd than normal, those short little stubbies, scrubbing the foothills with their bristle-brush leaf-heads.  Quercus berberidifolia, Quercus acutidens, you are all things teenage—carpet and correct, flowers and Accutane. Your side effects are usually dermis-related—rashes and blotches, eczema and acne, but sometimes you open up, let in to feed the woodpecker. Let in a western snake—a rattler, a yellow-bellied racer, or, most likely, a rubber boa mound in the V between root and trunk. Take care, rubber boa. Four lanes are a lot of lane to cross. Even when traffic is light.

Quercus sounds like want but sometimes you should get everything you query.


Scrub oaks are not the kind of trees that become diamonds. You need a rainforest for that—the kind where the ground is so wet and the leaves are so thick they give off as much moisture as the clouds that rain down do. In the temperate rainforest in December, it’s cold enough that the earth is sending up its water and you can’t tell if it’s raining from above or below. In December in the temperate rainforest, your shoes have drenched your socks and even your Gortex has begun to seep. You step from fallen tree to fallen tree until one decays into dirt right under your foot and you fall into a fern and your pants that were just damp before are fully wet thanks to the leaves shaking their spores and rain onto you. In the rainforest, all this water lets the trees grow fast. It lets the ground absorb the fallen trees. The mushrooms dig in and break up solid matter—cleaving a red cedar trunk with its hard conch shell or moving moss this way and a fern that with the fluted edges of a chanterelle. Things go up fast—or fast for tree time—and for a long time. All that tree sucking up all that carbon, pumping out the oxygen back into the sky. The carbon builds thick trunks and wide branches. It builds canopy and systems of roots. The carbon is pumped up by rain and then put down into the ground by more rain and mushroom, by time and the weight of a thousand pounds of water tucking it deep into the ground. Dig with your hand deep into the dust. You’ll find the carbon remnants of a thousand old tree that fell a thousand years ago. Sit on it. Fell another tree upon it. Let broken branches and dusty lichen, fern spore and ash leaf crush. Bring down an ice age upon it. Bear upon it all the weight of your fathers and their father’s fathers. Tamp it down like the moist tobacco in a pipe. Be patient. Let the tectonic plates shift. Let a mountain or two rise and begin to fall. Then begin to dig—first you’ll need a machine to dig the diamond. Then take that diamond and dig deeper until all that water has turned into a buried sea of unreflecting memory.  The forest relieved of pressure spews.


The drilling of oil is not as romantic as all that. Press the collar firmly into the cool desert sand. Tuck of metal digs into the ground like you would attach the parchment of a lamp shade to its metal cast—somehow the marrying of pliable surface to unbending alloy makes the coupling secure. Ease your drill bit and the pipe in the hole. Attach the kelly—the pipe that transfers rotary motion to the turntable wand to the turntable itself and begin drilling. Turn on the motors, powered by diesel engines. Don’t forget to attach the bit—use a diamond if you have one. You’re going through rock here. Through sludge and shale. This is the past you’re digging through. You’ll need to circulate mud through the pipe and out of the bit to float the rock cuttings out of the hole. There’s a lot of stuff in there and no way for it to get out if you don’t flush it out. Something got to disappear before something new can appear. Add new joints as the sections get deeper. Yell something loud when you’ve found what you were looking for.


Sometimes Mark played the father-figure role: I was only fourteen but he was teaching me to drive on the four-lane. The fastback had a manual transmission. I was short and the seat’s tracks, worn out from twenty years of slipping back and forth, were stuck back so I had to scoot to the end of the seat to reach the pedals. We didn’t worry about the cops. As soon as we crossed from the pavement of subdivision and onto the stretch of rock and bare dirt, we were moving into our own land with our own laws. The laws of drivers’ ed, along with a few other laws, simply evaporated. If you discover a road that seemingly goes nowhere, doesn’t it mean it’s meant for you?  Nowhere doesn’t have many rules and there, you can pretend to be whomever you want to be.

Later, my dad helped to teach me to drive too. He gave me driving hints and cautionary tales from the time I was ten. “Always check your blind spot.” “In the time it takes to sneeze, an oncoming car could slam into you.” I never knew if I should take this to mean that I should not sneeze or not close my eyes when I sneeze or not drive during allergy season. I would nod my head rather than ask. He said it with such authority, like he was the president of a company or at least the driver with the best insurance rating. Unlike when Mark was teaching me to drive, far out on the flat four-lane, my dad took me to the subdivision dug high-up into the foothills. But like Mark, he made me brake with my right, keep my left on the clutch and, then quickly move brake foot to accelerator foot, letting out the clutch so slowly that an ant might well have been pushing the car. I stalled the car a couple of times but I made it up the hill. My dad was impressed with my quick study and the fact that I never let the car roll backwards. Teaching was not a role my dad was particularly good at. He lost his patience quickly, taking the hammer out of my hands when I pounded the nail crooked, erasing the math steps I’d scribbled down wrong, clipping the transistor into the right wires of the radio I was making. But since I already mostly knew how to drive, dad was pleased with his pedagogy.

The press and release I had learned from Mark but the timing, I learned from my dad. He let me drive all the way home meaning I had to cross four lanes of traffic, stop and start and make it up one more hill. I wanted to be a good driver like my dad. I kept my hands at ten and two. I tried not to sneeze.


Gasoline engines work a lot like a sneeze. Well, not really so much, but a little. A sneeze is, according to the Bendryl spokesperson Patti Wood, a sudden, violent, spasmodic, audible expiration of breath through the nose and mouth. According to HowStuffWorks.Com, the internal combustion engine is more like a potato cannon:

The potato cannon uses the basic principle behind any reciprocating internal combustion engine: If you put a tiny amount of high-energy fuel (like gasoline) in a small, enclosed space and ignite it, an incredible amount of energy is released in the form of expanding gas. You can use that energy to propel a potato 500 feet. In this case, the energy is translated into potato motion. You can also use it for more interesting purposes. For example, if you can create a cycle that allows you to set off explosions like this hundreds of times per minute, and if you can harness that energy in a useful way, what you have is the core of a car engine!

But, if you think the irritants of the planet—allergens, air, itch-causing viruses—tickling the membrane like so many spark plugs, and the energy of the lungs compressed into that small interior space of the nostril, you can see the connection.

Hydrocarbons ( HCs ) are any molecules that just contain hydrogen and carbon, both of which are fuel molecules that can be burnt ( oxidised ) to form water ( H2O) or carbon dioxide ( CO2 ). If the combustion is not complete, carbon monoxide (CO ) may be formed. As CO can be burnt to produce CO2, it is also a fuel.

The way the hydrogen and carbons hold hands determines which hydrocarbon family they belong to. If they only hold one hand they are called "saturated hydrocarbons" because they can not absorb additional hydrogen. If the carbons hold two hands they are called "unsaturated hydrocarbons" because they can be converted into "saturated hydrocarbons" by the addition of hydrogen to the double bond.

It is important to note that the theoretical energy content of gasoline when burned in air is only related to the hydrogen and carbon contents. Octane rating is not fundamentally related to the energy content, and the actual hydrocarbon and oxygenate components used in the gasoline will determine both the energy release and the anti-knock rating.

Two important reactions are:-

1.          C + O2 = CO2
H + O2 = H2O

There are tiny bombs going off in your car. The reason for the anti-knocking devices? To reduce the percussive explosions created by the mad mixture of gas, air, and fire. The spark plug fires. The gas responds appropriately. Additional chemicals and the fine art of modern-day computer-monitored fuel injectors that keep the amount of oxygen just so to prevent the cracking of the engine block, the loosening of the bolts and gaskets, or, in worst case scenarios, the entire blowing up of the car. It’s a tricky balance, packing the past into the small interior of your tank and using the smallest amount of immediate fire to propel your automobile ever so slightly into the future.


Mark smoked Camels. My dad smoked Benson & Hedges. Each brand tells something about what each man thought he wanted to be. The same tobacco, for the most part, goes in between the paper although the Benson & Hedges filter matches white unlike the flecked-gold paper of the Camel. B & Hs are also thinner and therefore, more refined, or perhaps effete, looking. Cowboy versus sophisticate is how those signs read supposedly differently. And yet it is still dried leaf and dry paper burning into so much nothing. If it wasn’t for the smoke and the butt, you’d never know that sign existed at all. If Mark and dad had exchanged cigarette brands, would Mark have started wearing cufflinks and learning French via book tape on the drive to work? Would dad have started riding a moped and wearing jeans ripped wide with holes.

Carbon plus oxygen turns cigarettes to smoke, gasoline to air, men into metaphors. A sea of cars during rush hour is propelled by pressed plankton never seen by human eyes. Only the polar bears seem to notice the heat from tailpipes rising along with the sky-bound plants

It’s hard to see my dad at all through the haze of smoke and memory. When I google Bruce H Walker, the searches return only a link for an ophthalmologist and one for a hotel management company. Nothing about a geologist who smoked Benson & Hedges, who knew a lot about diamonds, who had introduced his kids to the internet as early as 1985.  As far as the internet is concerned, my dad has completely disappeared. Sometimes though, the sight of a single, narrow cigarette brings the history, if not the man himself, back.


Mark and I spent most of our time together driving around in the Fastback. Leaded gas was eighty-five cents a gallon and, while the black stuff that puffed out the muffler didn’t seem particularly healthy, no one had even suggested that the invisible stuff we were pumping out the back of the exhaust pipe was layering itself against the atmosphere, glazing the sky in sheets of glass that could build so thick and reflect back only so much light and grow so heavy, that all that glass might shatter, raining in hot sluices all that pressed forest back down upon our heads. The heat that was in the ground was converted in the car. Laws of conversion should have warned us but we were convinced only by what we could see. The gas smelled so much like old fire going in and like nothing when it came out. We had no need to think of it again.

So we drove, down by the Old Mill where the Big Cottonwood River drained and the mill’s walls and fences made of river stones were collapsing back into the river, we drove downtown and turned the car toward our suburb way out south and watched the lights warm the valley, we drove by the four-way and we drove down 7th East—the six-lane road that connected the suburb to the downtown and where I imagine I have spent the bulk of my driving-life. It was on the freeway exit onto 7th East where the policeman pulled us over. Mark’s car had expired plates. So expired that they made us get out of the car. That they put us in the back of the police car. That I sat on the blue vinyl seats and looked at the place where locks should have been but where none were, and waited while they called Mark’s mom. Mark’s dad showed up unexpectedly with Mark’s mom in his boat of a Ford Galaxy. We squished into the back with his brothers. Mark’s dad, who drank as much as my dad but came home far less often and punched holes in walls a lot more often, went off alternately about being responsible enough to getting the emissions fixed so his damn car would register and that he was lucky to not be hauled off to jail for driving a fourteen year-old girl around.

Who was this guy pretending to be a father, blown in as if on the wind, figuring only as father as he drove the boat of a car down the road? I pretended I wasn’t there. Mark pretended I wasn’t there. His mom gave me a short smile and I turned to look at Mark’s car as the tow-truck’s hook dug under the front panel. I watched as the truck towed the car down 7th East and made a left on 21st and drove out of sight, disappearing like all the oil in the world.

Nicole Walker

Nicole Walker’s first book of poems is forthcoming from Barrow Street Press. Her work has most appeared in  Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Bellingham Review, Fence, Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, Ninth Letter, and Crazyhorse. She has been granted an award from the National Endowment for the Arts. A graduate of the University of Utah’s doctoral program in English with an emphasis in creative writing, she is now an assistant professor of poetry and creative nonfiction at Northern Arizona University.

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