When the writer Taylor Brorby was a boy, the only thing big enough to hold the pain of his darkest days was the prairie. He grew up in the oil and gas, ranching and farming lands of North Dakota, in communities that offered only narrow social boxes. As a child, Brorby knew he fell outside those boxes: he loved speech and debate, he had a disability, he was gay. So, he sought refuge in the open spaces of the prairie.
“It’s such a massive landscape that I felt I could pour whatever I was feeling into it, and it could hold it,” he says. “It was more stable and reliable than people are.” Even just talking about it, “my arms are going out and I’m feeling my back muscles relax. You can spread out.”
That openness captivates people like Brorby, and then reminds them of their smallness, of their insignificance against the endless grasses and horizon-to-horizon storms. Brorby found comfort in that insignificance, turning his focus to the little things—the animals and plants and dried creek beds—that came together to form something so enormous. That observation taught him about the interconnectedness of people and the place they live—a lesson he thinks more people could draw from the prairie.
“The human, and then the more-than-human, they’re so symbiotic. And that was such a privilege of growing up in that place. There’s not a day I’m not thinking about what we’re doing and how we’re living, not only between humans, but beyond.”
However, in his new work of nonfiction, Boys and Oil: Growing Up Gay in a Fractured Land, Brorby revisits his upbringing to explore the darkness he survived, too, and the extraction and destruction that has become interwoven with the American prairie. Where Brorby sought and found safety in the sweeping grasslands, many young people, particularly those who differed in their gender expression or sexuality, found violence in the communities dotted among the grasses. In particular, he writes about the scarring death of Matthew Shepard, and how Shepard’s death became “a signal to gay people: this will happen to you, too, if you come here.”
Along with a generation of gay people in the West, Brorby took that lesson to heart. Shepard’s death haunts the book, as Brorby meticulously details memories of seeking connection and then repressing it, for fear of being attacked. When he finally begins dating Jakub, a Polish man on a short-term work visa, even this sweet relationship is haunted by a bone-deep fear of violence. At one moment in the book, Jakub kisses Brorby on the empty, rocky slopes of Tracy Mountain. “We’re in North Dakota. We can’t do that here. We could get fucking killed,” Brorby tells him. That sentiment—that desire could lead to death—is echoed again and again as Brorby grows up and explores his sexuality.
Brorby places responsibility for this violence at the feet of extraction-focused settler society. He sees it as a byproduct of the harm and destruction the culture wreaks on its own habitat. “I grew up in a landscape where the people I lived around destroyed it,” he says. “Violence is the currency of western North Dakota, whether it’s monoculture farming or strip mining.”
He finds traces of that violence everywhere, from the singular focus on sports like football to homophobia. Men inculcated by a violent view of masculinity perceive a threat in the mere existence of a man who might find them attractive.
He also connects that violence to the isolation of so many men in prairie communities.
In narratives of White prairie culture, a Western man might find comfort in his animals, his dog, his horse, or perhaps his trusty tractor, but not in another human being. Brorby dismisses that idea. “Even when we say a man and his horse, we’re forgetting that that’s a relationship, because we still think the man is the lone thing,” he says. “That ignores that cowboys were never alone. It’s a social job.”
Brorby believes part of the path forward is in addressing the underlying economic structure that created many Western and Midwestern communities. Right now, he says, “you can only make your living by ripping apart the soil.” That’s not sustainable for the ecosystem or the people. He remembers, growing up, “it felt like every other week we were going to some pancake breakfast to help with this medical bill or things like that.” Still, many in his home state perceive critiques of fossil fuel infrastructure and industrial farming as a direct threat to their livelihood. “The hard work right now is to imagine a wide economic front of a diverse way of living on the prairie in rural communities.”
The precarity so many prairie residents live with feeds the sense that there is only one narrow, safe path, but Brorby thinks there’s hope too. The town he grew up in may have been tiny and, at times, narrow, but there were lessons to be gained from the landscape around it.
“If you and I were to drive through, let’s take the long direction south to north through the town, it’d take you all of 10 seconds. East to west, it would maybe take you two to three,” he says. “So, to be from a town that small means you are of the prairie.”
And to be of the prairie, he says, is to be connected to something enormous, to something ever changing and dynamic, something that offers a way forward when it feels like the world is falling in on itself.
“It is a place where, to me, so much happens, not in the way the wider culture thinks of a lot going on,” he says. But “if you bend down and you’re in the grass and you’re just listening or you press your ear against the earth, a lot is happening. If you’re going for a walk in the field, and a badger comes to chase you, or you can spend a whole day watching the clouds play.”
Even though he still sees threats to young gay people in the prairie, Brorby evangelizes the lessons he learned growing up there. If you watch closely, he says, its grasses and winds and storms offer a map to a different future—one interconnected with a more spacious idea of what it means to be human.
Kate Schimel is a writer and editor based in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Most recently, she was managing editor for Searchlight NM, a local investigative news organization. She also edited business, transportation, education and health coverage for Colorado Public Radio and served as deputy editor at High Country News. She began her career as an education reporter, covering underserved communities in New York and Denver. Kate is a member of NASW, NAJA, and EWA. She can be reached through her website at kateschimel.com.