Lease Hound

In the beginning, most of our work was speculative. We chipped away, six acres here, ten acres there. We picked up a lot of twos and threes the way a child might scoop up a penny from the sidewalk. Back in those days you could get ten-year leases for only a one-eighth royalty. The up-front money was almost nothing. Nobody in those Alabama hills thought there was oil beneath them; they hardly knew what oil was. The hill people were ancient, barely hanging on, and they almost always took what we offered without argument. Their children had long ago moved to Birmingham to work in the steel mills. It was 1980, and the country was on fire with hunger.

Even as a kid, just out of Utah Mormon whitebread college, I knew there were two worlds. My time spent in Utah had been like years bathing in a vat of milk and honey. I knew my world was small and clean, but now it was time to move out into the larger, mysterious world.

My degree was in church history, but the jobs were in oil. The shah had been overthrown, and we were driving big muscle cars fast. Some grads were going to Saudi Arabia, being paid two hundred dollars an hour to stuff envelopes, sweep floors, teach English to the sons and daughters of sultans. There was a frenzy that pulled you in.

I worked the uranium play in southern Utah for a few months, learning to do courthouse work, mostly title searches. I learned all I needed, then took a job in Mississippi, where I was assigned to map an unknown province three hours to the north in Alabama, called the Black Warrior Basin: shallow Paleozoic sands, only half a mile down, beneath the dense forests and rumpled foothills of the Appalachians.

Underground, the Black Warrior was the bowl of an old ocean, but up above it was red-clay woodland, stippled with hilltop farms where clodhoppers scratched at fields of stunted corn. Gaunt cattle stood clay-gripped to their hocks in ruts sun-hardened as if to bronze.When it rained it did so for days at a time, transforming the clay hills into slaughterous sheets of red, as though they were the flayed carcasses of animals.

Beneath those hills and hollows was the true basin, where the Gulf of Mexico had once reached. White sand beaches, great toothy dinosaur-fish roiling just offshore. In this place, humankind was still several hundred millions of years distant, as if the table had been set but then someone had stepped away and forgotten us.

In Utah, Brother Janssen had told us hell was nothing but an estrangement from God, an acknowledgment of what some, he said, thought of as a curse—the innate, inescapable, and beautiful loneliness of man—but his sermons were often puzzling to the point of apostasy.

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