I wrote this piece while travelling across North Dakota in June. It seemed important to post it here when I read the following story in today's Dickenson Press:
The Bakken crude involved in the deadly train derailment and explosion in Quebec represents only a fraction of the oil shipped by rail from North Dakota each day.
About 675,000 barrels of Bakken crude leaves North Dakota rail facilities daily, according to the most recent figures from Justin Kringstad, director of the North Dakota Pipeline Authority.
That averages to about 1,000 railcars per day, Kringstad said, and about 15 times the amount of oil shipped by rail from North Dakota three years earlier.
We left Minot, North Dakota on June 10, driving up the Mouse/Souris River toward the northwest. At first it felt like another wonderful prairie journey as we saw the way the land curls itself around the river’s necessity – water, transportation, and prairie flatness all flowing the way gravity takes it. The Mouse looks like a small river and is muddy this time of year, but in 2011 its floods took out about a fifth of Minot and it’s looking high again this year.
We'd left southern Ontario a few days earlier, caught glimpses of abandoned houses and neighbourhoods as we followed the freeway through Detroit and headed north. It’s been wet all across the Midwest this year, right into North Dakota. The ground is so saturated even a light rain pools up and runs off. Many fields are untilled; those that are, well, the furrows are shining. The road and railway ride through this flooded landscape on fragile causeways. Mirages of trees rise from vast pools reflecting the sky, barns are half-submerged, fences measure the depth of the water. Back in Wisconsin and eastern North Dakota people set up their lawn chairs along the highway and cast their fishing lines into the flooded fields. Walleye and Northern Pike, they tell us.
North of Minot, Highway 2 is busy. As we drove northwest, more and more huge mud-spattered trucks rumbled past carrying heavy equipment and big pieces of mysterious machinery. The attractive ranches tucked into the nooks and crannies of the land – always with long lilac hedges setting them off from the open prairie, maybe a white fence around a large lawn, and shining grain silos – began to be replaced by big tanks at oil collection sites. The occasional oil wells nodding their mechanical heads, yes, yes, yes, multiplied, and soon acres of modular housing appeared: containers stacked one on top the other with a couple of windows and a door plugged in; fields of trailers; vast stretches of townhouses that looked as if they had been built yesterday.
Some farms hunkered down into sections of green cultivation were surrounded, literally, by dug up earth, red dirt roads, well sites, and more work camps being built. The highway itself deteriorated into potholes and construction zones marked by miles of orange and white pylons. It shrank to two lanes and the small towns it passed through were muddied and diminished, their ‘welcome’ signs faded, their front yards and flowers splattered by the trucks trundling through from the oil fields.
As we waited at a construction halt on the highway, I remembered reading Woodie Guthrie’s account of the oil boom that came to his Oklahoma hometown when he was a boy and how it changed his community. Everyone scrambled to speculate on real estate, shoddy buildings were thrown up to house the workers – many of whom were killed in the terrible working conditions – the water was polluted and the town’s sense of itself evaporated. When it was over, and it was over pretty quickly, the town was left “tending the remnant damage” – which has a radiant kind of sound to it, but isn’t at all.
At that same traffic stop, we heard our first meadow lark. Sitting on the telephone wire just across the road from us, its beautiful song carried through the rumbling diesels. It sang the whole time we waited, a reminder to hold still and listen, to not be overwhelmed by the noise and enormity of what we’re seeing done to the landscape we’re travelling through, or of what some people want to do here in northwest BC. Indeed, the bird’s song was itself an act of resistance. This devastation, it tells us, is not what any of us needs. Slow down, it sings, slow down and listen.