Alexandra Fuller: A fine line between protest and profession

  • Author Alexandra Fuller, during a protest of irresponsible oil and gas development in Pinedale, Wyoming.

    Ted Wood

Listen to an exclusive, web-only interview with Alexandra Fuller.

On a chilly Sunday morning in August, a group of protesters gathers outside the new Bureau of Land Management office at the north end of town. ExxonMobil has just announced the biggest quarterly profits in U.S. history, and heads are shaking unhappily over the rapid pace of nearby oil and gas development. Pinedale has become a hub of energy production, and many locals mourn the loss of community, open landscape and clean air. "NO O3ZO3NE" stickers protest higher-than-acceptable ozone levels recently measured here.

Last month, the BLM recommended that another 4,400 tightly spaced wells be drilled into the gas-rich Pinedale Anticline  -- more than four times the existing number. The protesters want gas development to be done responsibly, to preserve clean air and water and wildlife habitat. They plan to travel down the main street and out onto the Anticline on foot, on bicycle and on horseback.

Among the group are a Burmese monk (who was visiting nearby Jackson Hole), several cowboys, some environmental activists and an aspiring Republican county commissioner. And leading the pack is Alexandra Fuller, a stunning, tomboyish 39-year-old author who's written two best-selling books about Africa and The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, her account of a tragedy on the Wyoming oil patch. She was raised in Zimbabwe (known as Rhodesia until she was 11), but has put down roots in Wyoming as sturdy as those of the toughest weed on the range. Fuller sits upon her Arabian horse in full confidence that she can move cattle, drink and swear with the best of cowboys.

Many others helped put together this protest, including a rancher and a retired schoolteacher, but it's Fuller who gives voice to the spirit of the day: "You cannot buy clean air, clean water, migration corridors or a community that has been built up over a hundred years," she proclaims in her high-speed Zimbabwean lilt, guiding her black-maned mount into the sunlight. "This truly is the land of the free and the brave. Not just the rich."

Raised on a string of ranches, Fuller grew up close to the land. As a child, she felt like an outsider, chafing against Rhodesia's backward white-dominated policies. Desegregation came when she was 11, and Fuller became a minority in her Shona public school: "Our stupid little safe writing just got creamed. From then on, I learned to write and tell stories from people for whom it is a tradition of excellence  -- brilliant writers who had been prevented from writing by the whites. I realized how many lies I'd been told." It instilled in her a passion beyond mere storytelling. According to her husband, real estate broker Charlie Ross, Fuller often lets characters and landscapes consume her life.

The raw honesty of Fuller's childhood memoir, Don't Let's Go To the Dogs Tonight, leaves an indelible image of revolution and wild bush adventures. She moved from Africa to the Pinedale area in 1994 with Ross and their eight-month-old daughter. The vastness of the Wyoming landscape and the strength she saw in the local cowboys, rednecks and roughnecks reminded her of what she loves about Africa.

Fuller has two words to explain how the high desert sage found a place in her heart: "John Fandek."

"Falling in love with this landscape took a bit of doing, but I fell in love with John first," says Fuller, speaking of Fandek, an earnest, aging ranch manager from Cora, Wyo. When they met in early 2007, she'd just written a story for The New Yorker about methamphetamine abuse in the oil patch. Local reaction to the piece was mixed, to say the least: Six women told her that they wanted to kill her for writing it. Fandek, however, had made a dozen copies to distribute, and he told her it was the best thing he'd ever read about his valley.

A deep friendship was born. "I started looking at the landscape through his eyes," she says. "He would start coming out on the oil patch with me and he would say this is how it used to be. Just his passion and his love for the landscape were astounding. We spent a lot of time being very quiet together, which was a new experience for me."

Inspired by Wyoming's landscape and its people, Fuller wrote The Legend of Colton H. Bryant, her profile of a young oil field worker who died on the job. In recreating Bryant, whom she never met, she spent countless hours hanging out with his friends and family, watching them walk and listening to them talk, learning their cadence ("because it's not my language," she says) and their beloved country music. "The land is vast and you just need to take your time to just slow down and cover it," she says. Stop at cemeteries, and little towns and bars. Visit fishing holes. Go to the strip club and chat up the bouncer.

And stand up to defend the things that you love. At least 50 protesters have turned out to join Fuller today, waving to the church-goers driving through town and the Halliburton trucks headed for the Anticline. For the most part, they've garnered cheers  -- perhaps as much for their pluck, protesting in an oil town, as for their message.

After the protest, we drive the Anticline on a spider's web of dusty roads, past countless roadkills, squealing drills and screaming compressors. Fuller is visibly upset. At a reclaimed pipeline cut, she blurts, "It's not sagebrush. It's not edible landscape. It's a strip of horror." At the spot where Bryant fell, she's dumbfounded: "Look, they're drilling right on Colton's grave." A new well sits at the opposite edge of the evaporation pond. " 'Just get 'er done'," she says. "They didn't even pause for a breath after Colton died."

Fuller, who now has three children, can't imagine living anywhere but Wyoming. "This is it. I'll stay here and fight for this for sure, I think because I hear such an overwhelming silence around me. It just shocks me, such lack of courage."

The Pinedale protest provided at least a momentary sense of victory  -- certainly the Sunday evening dinners were abuzz with the day's activity. Fuller says her work won't stray far from the oil patch and its characters any time soon. But, she adds, "I'm feeling a wolf come on." Her next book? "I don't know. I'm writing from a very personal space. The story isn't so much about the wolves. It's about why are we so afraid, and why do we lie so much, and what's at stake for us as humans living in a world populated by other predators."

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