A Poem for the Marcellus

In honor of both National Poetry Month and Earth Day, I offer below a love song to the bedrock: the methane-suffused shale that geologists call the Marcellus, which now lies in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry.
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In praise of unfractured rock.

Everywhere is holy.
-- Allen Ginsberg, "Footnote to Howl," Howl, and Other Poems

In honor of both National Poetry Month and Earth Day -- and with thanks to the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, who continues to inspire me -- I offer below a love song to the bedrock: the methane-suffused shale that geologists call the Marcellus, which now lies in the crosshairs of the oil and gas industry.

By way of prelude: The Marcellus Shale is the geological foundation of upstate New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. The namesake for this underground layer of rock is the village of Marcellus, New York. The village, in turn, is named for the ancient Roman general, Marcus Claudius Marcellus. Renowned for his cunning military strategies, General Marcellus ultimately perished on the battlefield, run through by a spear. Marcellus reappears as a character in Hamlet (where being run through is a not uncommon cause of death). In Shakespeare's telling, Marcellus is a career officer who utters the memorable line about Denmark.

Geologically speaking, the Marcellus Shale represents an ancient seafloor. The bubbles of natural gas trapped within it are the remains of marine organisms. The Marcellus also contains heavy metals, radioactive elements, sea salt, and carcinogenic vapors, including benzene. When the shale is run through -- fractured, fracked -- for natural gas extraction, these substances are liberated and brought to the earth's surface.

Carbon-rich geological formations are also living ecosystems. They are the home to relic organisms collectively called "deep life." Some of these microbes form complex colonies, sending nanowires out into the surrounding rock for purposes of electron transfer. Deep-life organisms are ubiquitous and almost certainly play a role in the Earth's carbon cycle. They may, in ways we do not yet understand, contribute to climate stability.

Living organisms also interfere with the flow of gas through pipelines. To prevent this biofouling, gas companies send powerful biocides into the shale, killing everything that inhabits it. The use of biocides, among other factors, makes fracking a highly toxic form of energy extraction.

As a biologist, I've written extensively about the toxicity of fracking. As a poet, I'm interested in it, too. I'm often asked what biology and poetry have in common. The answer for me is that both biology and poetry are about the mystery of being alive. But whereas biology wants to solve the mystery, poetry simply says, behold.

If you like this poem, take it with you. Read it aloud at public hearings, at rallies, in church. Perform it at Earth Day celebrations. Consider this as permission to reprint. Send copies to your elected officials. Set it to music. Add some images and make a video. Whatever we can do to express our belief that the integrity of life on the sunlit surface of this planet depends on the integrity of the bedrock beneath us, we must do. Now.


-- for Allen Ginsberg, who reminded us that the worship of Moloch required the sacrifice of children.


Marcellus below us. Marcellus below us.
Marcellus, tell us, who are you?
Older than fishes. Older than spinal cord and bone
and the green day of trees. Older than pollen dust,
than seeds. Bedrock of grief.
Subterranean coral reef. Microbe and nanowire.
Electrically conductive, hypersaline fire.


Marcellus our cellar. Marcellus unlike us.
Fissured and fossilled sarcophagus
of sea lilies and squid, ego and id.
The whole periodic table in you.
Uranium. Radium. Barium. Lead.
Marcellus, home of the dead.
Toluene. Mercury. Benzene. Brine.
Arsenic. The River Styx.
Five hundred million years thick.

In you Euridice.

Hades. Moloch. Charon's boat.
Hades. Moloch. Ransom note.


Marcellus deserved the name given him
who waged war and gained fame for the sacking
of Syracuse, for the battle of Gaul, only to lose
to the enemy at home. And fall. No exit plan.
Some say your success was embellished,
General Marcellus, tell us: who called you
Sword of Rome?

Saudi Arabia below our feet. A prolific monster
says Wall Street. A sure thing. A shale play.
Play. Play. Place your bet.

Marcellus: a minor character who guides
Hamlet away from his father's ghost.
What, has this thing appear'd again to-night?
Something is rotten in the state of. . . .

Here, sign this lease and let's make the most
of it.

Enters now Marc Antony breaking bread
with Bobby Kennedy. Jealous?

Et tu, Marcellus.

O pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth,
that I am meek and gentle with these butchers.


Hades. Moloch. Charon's boat.
Hades. Moloch. Ransom note.

Marcellus, who are we? Drill. Syringe.
Derrick. Vein. Two junkies argue how many
atoms of carbon dance on the head of a pin.

Marcellus, quick. Tell us. I hear the trucks.
They're not far. The plan is reduce you to rubble.
There is no Hubble telescope for you.
No 24-hour spill cam for us.

Are you a box inscribed with name Pandora? Or a
scroll on which are written the names of us all?


Holy the rock
and the fissure,
the salt and the diatom's fall.
Holy the unfractured.
Holy the wall
between you
and us, Marcellus.
Holy the cave.
Holy the soluble.
Holy the hall.
Holy the unmapped
and abandoned


I know you're down there.

Mom always said,
don't blow up the basement.

Hades. Moloch. Charon's boat.
Hades. Moloch. Ransom note.

Let me love you
from a long way up.
Holy the water.
Holy the cup.

Sandra Steingraber is the author of Living Downstream, published in second edition by Merloyd Lawrence Books/Da Capo Press to coincide with the release of the documentary film adaptation. This essay is one in a weekly series by Sandra exploring how the environment is within us.

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