Yellow Earth

John Sayles

February 24, 2020 
John Sayles is an author and filmmaker, who has twice been nominated for the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. His previous novel, Union Dues was a finalist for the National Book Award. Yellow Earth is his fifth novel, an eco-minded narrative about how the profit motive erodes human relationships, as well as our living planet

Forget the wooly mammoth. Let the big ice creep back where it belongs. Start with tribal people, some nomadic, some content to stick around a while if the eating is good, moving up and down what will later be known as the Missouri River and the Yellowstone that meets it. They chase elk and bison, they fish and farm, they have their enemies and alliances. The smallpox reaches them before the white men do. Then come trappers and traders from the north, men of the Hudson’s Bay Company who live with the people in their earth lodges whenever welcome. In 1804 the Lewis and Clark Corps of Discovery arrives, probing into what the Americans are still calling Louisiana all the way up to the Canadian border. Here, well north of where the tall-grass prairie gives way to stubbly, nearly treeless plains, they build a fort to take shelter from a brutally cold winter. They have relatively peaceful relations with the neighboring Mandan and Hidatsa people and impose English names on peaks and tributaries and other places of note, adding these to the names or simple descriptions the various local tribes know them by. It is on their return trip from the Pacific that moody, self-important Meriwether Lewis, mistaken for an elk by the near-sighted, fiddle-playing voyageur who serves the expedition as river guide and translator, is shot in the buttocks. Lewis is carried most of the way back to St. Louis, and a journal kept by one of his men reveals the name given to the scene of this accident.

Yellow Earth.

There is chaos in the colony. They are all popping up, males, females, even some of the bolder juveniles, and Odysseus is using the opportunity to pull a young virgin from Ajax. Blacktails, en masse and on alert, twitch their heads north, south, east, and west, not knowing which of their 15, or is it 17? distinct alarm cries to join chorus in. Leia stands by her lease car and pans the field glasses. She’s never seen them all out at once like this, a thousand-headed indignation of prairie dogs stretching back toward the scrub-and-dust horizon. She looks to the sky– not a hawk soaring. The lot of the p-dogs are so accustomed to her by now– the same Wildlife drone in the same uniform driving the same Toyota– that even the pups barely glance at her when she walks close among them from the highway.

Leia finds her coterie in the glasses, little wooden stakes from Ace Hardware, labeled A1 to A83, driven into the ground by each of the dome or rim craters. She’s been able to dye-mark 22 of the group with the Nyanzol-D, the animals such junkies for a handful of oats that they’ll stroll into a live trap suddenly parked right outside their burrow, metal 2-doors from Tomahawk Co. in Wisconsin apparently not on their instinctual checklist of things to avoid. Odysseus is hip-checking the young female toward his favorite hole while the multitude remain upright in vigilance. Ajax has been in his face several times this week, the Big Heat likely to kick in any day, and the boys (though Ajax is likely the father of Odysseus they look nearly identical) strutting their p-dog machismo, stretching their pear-shaped bodies long then hunching them low, staring at each other nose to nose for a long minute, then both spring-shooting into the air before landing already on the shuffle in opposite directions, each somehow knowing if it was win, loss, or draw. Altitude? Attitude? Hang time? The females aren’t watching, aren’t even interested yet, but every now and then something is decided, and the coterie realigns.

Odysseus has the big O sprayed on his left side, and the young female– Leia has to check her laminated chart– is Niobe, due to come into estrus with the rest in a few days. Leia is pretty sure Niobe’s mother killed her own sister’s last litter, the lactating sister suddenly pup-less and available for nursemaid duty. Intrigue and high drama in the coterie. Odysseus is not yet as husky as Ajax, still something short of three pounds, but sneaky and ambitious.

Not a tremble, exactly, more like a sudden energizing of the ground beneath her feet. Something is moving down there, and it isn’t a prairie dog.

Or Leia is so benumbed watching this passel of busy grass-munching clones that she is making it all up.

The population suddenly joins in on a strange, high-pitched chattering cry, and Leia points her phone toward them in video mode to capture the moment, then turns her head as the residents of the smaller, incest-ridden town on the other side of the highway, a scrawny couple dozen she has christened the Outcasts of Poker Flats, join in the chattering. And then she thinks she feels it.

Not a tremble, exactly, more like a sudden energizing of the ground beneath her feet. Something is moving down there, and it isn’t a prairie dog.


Will passes the Wildlife Girl, binoculars and cell phone in hand as usual, parked at the side of the highway. Poking along at sixty, he considers for a moment stopping to ask if she’s seen the Kosters’ half-wolf moping around, but figures if it was anywhere close the critters would all be in their holes instead of out taking the sun and sticking their noses in the air. Wolfie– the Kosters didn’t rupture themselves thinking up a name for the animal– has been taken with canine Alzheimer’s and can’t seem to find his way home lately. Five concerned-citizen calls so far, two in fear, one in outrage, and two worried about the mangy old thing. Problem is, it will amble up to anybody with two legs, including Busby Curtis, who has already accused Wolfie of serial chicken murder and would like nothing better than to unload his shotgun on him and then stretch the pellet-riddled half-wolf pelt on his tractor-shed door as a trophy. And then you got another Koster-Curtis revenge deal going like back in the ’30s. When what is really called for is to put the animal down or find some sort of assisted-living arrangement involving a collar and a chain.

Whatever, it’s good to get clear of the office and out in the county for a spell.

It’s still March, pretty much all yellows and browns on the seemingly endless northern plain, nothing tall enough to block Will’s view of something looming up ahead that he ought to have been told about.

Six white trucks like none he’s ever seen before, the power plants on their tail ends whining steadily, the vehicles spaced evenly and rolling slowly in single file maybe fifty yards in from the edge of the highway. Not too far off is a little square truck with antennas sticking out from it and a couple white-collar-looking fellas watching the progress of the conga line. The bareheaded one turns when he notices the patrol car has stopped and shuffles over without pulling his fingers from his ears till he is close enough to offer a hand to shake.

“Sheriff! Or is it Deputy?”– bowing slightly to read the badge– “No, Sheriff, glad to see you! I’m Sig Rushmore, Case and Crosby.”

“Law firm?” Will ignores the proffered hand and steps out of the car.

“Oh, we’ve got a whole remuda of lawyers, but I’m mostly Energy and Development.” Rushmore has a round face and a sunburned nose. He nods toward the lineup. “Geology boys throw the right charts back at us and things might start to develop real quick.”

“You get a permit for this?”

“Sure did.”

“How come I didn’t hear about it?”

Will sees Harleigh Killdeer’s pickup coming and knows the answer before the company man says it.

“We were assured this is reservation land.”

Will looks around to get his bearings as Harleigh skids to a stop in his usual cloud of dust. “You’re cutting it awful damn close.”

“If we find what we hope to, Sheriff,” Rushmore beams, “they be plenty for everybody in the deal.”

Harleigh steps out, wearing ostrich-leather boots and a couple pounds of Navajo turquoise. He adjusts his Stetson and strides up to the patrol car like he’s going to kick the tires.



“What brings you out to the Nation?”

Harleigh likes to call it that, singular, even though three different tribes, each with its own unpronounceable language, are involved in the government. Will makes a show of turning a full circle, and Harleigh narrows his eyes.

“I can walk you to the nearest boundary marker if you’d like.”

Will shakes his head. “You know A. J.’s gonna have the surveyors out once he sees this.” A. J. Niles owns a big chunk of the land to the east of the rez and has chosen to carry the white man’s burden. Another one that will shoot Wolfie on sight.

“We contacted Mr. Niles,” says the company man. “He was rather abrupt.”

“Abrupt is what the A in A. J. stands for. What’s the story here, Harleigh?”

“That remains to be seen,” says Sig Rushmore. “Right now we’re just giving the earth a friendly little hump or two, see what she’s made of.”

There’s a cab at the front of each of the machines, with an open power plant, transmission, and pumps mounted on the rear, but the middle is nothing but a big piston-looking thing, a square base plate that’s raised and lowered on four shiny steel hydraulic stilts. Another white collar fella, this one wearing a baseball cap, steps over from the front of the data collection truck. Give him a Stetson like Harleigh’s and he’d be the Marlboro Man.

“This is our PG, Randy Hardacre,” says Rushmore. “He’ll be doing the work- up on all this back at the lab. This is Sheriff– ?”


“Sheriff Crowder. And you already met Mr. Killdeer.”

“Seismic vibrology,” says Harleigh.

Will has never seen it before, but the trucks are pretty much what he imagined. “How far you mapping?”

The geologist shrugs. “Right now, everything on the reservation.”

“Got some tight oil underfoot, is what we’re hoping,” says Harleigh.

“Shale rock.”

“There’s an oil field?”

Rushmore barks out a professional laugh, then touches a finger to his lips. “Shhhhh. Don’t want to start a feeding frenzy, Sheriff. We’ve got to sound out the rest of the area, maybe punch a few test holes, see the extent of it. And then there’s inter- national price fluctuations– they can change your attitude toward a play real fast.”

“It’s all just dollars and cents, Will,” says Harleigh, quoting something he’s been told no more than a day ago. “The value of the deposit has to greatly supersede the expense of retrieval.”

“Here we go again,” says the geologist, nodding toward the line of trucks.

One by one, starting from the front, the trucks roll to a halt, shaker assemblies sliding down their metal shafts till the base plate pushes onto the ground, then keeps pushing, the bodies of the massive trucks seeming to stiffen as they’re jacked up, huge tires almost lifting off the ground. There is a brief shudder at the base of the shaft, a spurt of dust, and then the vibrator plate pulls back up, the trucks’ great mass deflating back to earth with a visible sigh. They roll slowly forward again, the entire procession no more than a half a football field long.

“Not much foreplay, is there?” winks Sig Rushmore. “We got sensors and cables laid out in a grid all around here– hired some of Mr. Killdeer’s folks to help us put and fetch. The sensors read the vibrations, give us a snapshot of the layers underneath and what they might be made of.”

The trucks stop rolling and the huge pistons slide down again.

“And all this is just to see if we’re interested,” the company man continues. “People don’t grasp the scale of the outlay that’s required.”

Will looks around at the flat, almost featureless land. When the weather permits it will be put up in feed barley or alfalfa hay, with the profit margin pretty damn slim for the work that’s required. Hell, vibrate your little hearts out. He turns to Harleigh.

“The council ordered this?”

Harleigh gives him the great stone face. Harleigh could model for whoever carved the Indian on the nickel. “It will come up for a vote,” he says, “next time I call a meeting.”

Will holds the council chairman’s eyes for a knowing moment, then turns to the geologist.

“So what’s next? Drill rigs? Or you just dig a giant pit and blast it out in chunks?”

Sig Rushmore jumps in first. “There’s any number of methods for retrieval,” he says, his smile slapped onto his face with a nail gun.

“You have to consider the economic feasibility, Will,” quotes Harleigh, not smiling at all.

“And, of course,” Rushmore adds, another wink skipping on the paper-thin surface of his words, “the ecological impact.”


Will pulls the patrol car up next to Wolfie near where the Canada road cuts off from the highway, the animal standing with a dead prairie dog in his mouth and no idea what to do with it. Will gets out and opens the rear door on the far side.

“Come on, Wolfie,” he calls gently. “Leave your friend behind and I’ll take you home.”


From Yellow Earth by John Sayles. Copyright © 2020 by John Sayles. Reprinted with permission of Haymarket Books.

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