Fractured Land Author to Speak at the University of North Dakota

October 20, 2014 § Leave a comment

On Thursday, October 30th, Lisa Peters the author of Fractured Lands will speak in the East Asia Room of the Mighty Chester Fritz Library.  The book has received a positive review from the Minneapolis Star Tribune and I’ve offered my thoughts on it here.

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While making a poster for the book, I took a few minutes to think about the font used on the cover. I think it’s a version of Cochin, but it’s clearly a transitional serif font. I suspect the use of this font for book covers is designed to evoke the cover of Larry Potter books which used a version of Cochin to evoke the fantastic and anachronistic world of the young wizard (or whatever he is). As someone who wrote a fairly long dissertation and endless articles under the oppressive gaze of Times New Roman, I’m sort of over transitional serif fonts. I can vaguely grasp the point of it on the cover. I suppose it is designed to evoke tensions between her father’s fascination with North Dakota oil and her own desire to move forward into a greener, more environmentally friendly world.  

Ironically, the book is set in a modern serif font, Escrow, made famous by the Wall Street Journal. I thought that was a nice touch, considering the topic of the book! I might have dumped the Larry Potteresque title and run an old style serif font like Garamond throughout. I like the intimacy of the Classical/Old Style fonts and I think they’d be fitting for a memoire. 

Font situation aside, her talk should be good fun. I’m donating some of my time from North Dakota Humanities Council affairs to organizing this talk, so it’s sponsored by the NDHC.

Here’s the link to the live stream on the day of the talk.

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Friday Varia and Quick Hits

October 17, 2014 § Leave a comment

This week really felt like fall. Not the typical North Dakota fall, where its in the 60s for three days, the 50s for 3 days, and then is just plain cold, but the kind of fall where making piles of leaves is fun and you can talk for hours whether to put in the storm windows. This had to be one of the nicest weeks since I’ve moved to North Dakotaland.

I wish it inspired a more productive week, but I was at least able to bring together a little list of quick hits are varia.

IMG 2165It’s a dog’s life.

Memory and Place in Grand Forks

October 16, 2014 § 1 Comment

I was out for my evening “run” last night (which is actually more of a trot or a shuffle) and I had a remarkable experience.

As I was heading out Belmont Road in Grand Forks and complaining to myself about the persistent headwind, I passed an old man and said “Hi” as I usually do. He was walking with a cane, and presumably out enjoying the same lovely fall day that I was ruining for myself by running.

He said, as I ran past, “It’s been a long time since I could do that.”

I responded, “I’m just trying to hang on for as long as I can,” thinking about the fall weather.

He didn’t hear me so I doubled back to tell him what I said. When I got back to him he told me a story completely unprompted. 

He said that when he was in about second or third grade, the concrete sidewalk where we were standing had buckled a bit and had fallen apart. He and his two friends where riding their bikes down this little hill and Johnny Erikson’s front wheel grabbed on the crumbling concrete sending him over the handlebars and skinning his knees badly. He then told me that they sat there a while while he bawled because they weren’t doctors and didn’t really know what to do. When Johnny stopped crying they went on their way.

He then pointed to the massive elm tree by the side of the road and said, “This tree was there then and it was large, just as it is now…. and that must have been, well, at least 50 years ago.” 

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The Final Figure for Pyla-Koutsopetria Survey Volume

October 15, 2014 § 2 Comments

Lately I’ve been talking with friends and colleagues about the feeling that I’m wasting my sabbatical. Despite all sorts of reassurances, I feel the days slipping away. Recently, I’ve spent entire days writing grants, editing page proofs, making travel plans, having meetings, filling out Doodle polls to schedule meetings, organizing speakers, writing emails, deciding whether to italicize words in a title, conjuring press releases, and, most recently, finishing up figures for the Pyla-Koutsopetria Archaeological Project 1 manuscript.

These are not creative tasks. 

In fact, these small tasks can completely suck the energy out of a work day, a work week, or, if I’m not careful, an entire sabbatical. 

That being said, I did finish the final figure for the PKAP manuscript (now that it’s up in Amazon and all). This is important stuff. I need always to color between the lines.

Before:

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After:

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The more I try to roll on shabbos, the more I realize that gravity always wins.

Reflections on the Bakken Tourist Itinerary

October 14, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking at least as much about the Bakken as Cyprus or Greece over the last couple of months. About half of my energy involved putting the finishing touches on an academic paper submitted in September, the rest of my energy has gone into my quirky tourist guide. Bret Weber and I traveled to the Bakken with a draft of the tourist guide in hand last week. We added a good bit of meaningful detail and tried to finish off a few legs of the itinerary. Most importantly, we agreed that the guide would take a visitor from Minot to Tioga to Williston to Watford City to New Town with detours throughout. 

Here is the current table of contents:

Route 1: Minot to Ross
Route 1a: Ross to Manitou and White Earth
Route 2: Ross to Tioga
Route 3: Tioga to Williston
Route 3a: Wheelock
Route 3b: Wildrose and Crosby
Route 4: Williston to Watford City
Route 4a: Williston to Sidney, MT
Route 5: Watford City to New Town

One of the most interesting things that developed over this trip to the Bakken is a growing appreciation of the invisible infrastructure that makes the Bakken work. Pipelines, rail unit yards, and electrical substations all represent the other routes through the Bakken that makes resource extraction possible. In many cases, they are tucked out of the view, buried under ground, or coursing overhead at the periphery of our vision. On our recent drive east from Watford City, through the rolling hills and valleys inscribed by creeks draining south into the North Dakota Badlands, took us past the landmark called Johnson’s Corner near the small, unincorporated town of Keene. Like most of the North Dakota countryside in this area, there are drill rigs, pumps, gravel pits, salt water disposal sites around, and some tanks surrounded by fences. These sights are only the tip of the iceberg, however. Underground Johnson’s Corner is a hub of multiple pipelines that carry North Dakota crude to refineries, rail yards, and markets.  

I am sure that I’m attracted to these “invisible” infrastructures as a response to all the intimately human narratives that I’ve encountered lately. From guilt-wracked, middle-class oil lease holders to Ivy League-trained journalists hanging out in Williston bars, the increasingly cliche stories of triumph and tragedy in the Bakken have begun to lose their emotional impact. The stereotyped narratives of violence, greed, and loss have been increasingly set against a generic backdrop of rural idyl. What’s missing to my eye, is an appreciation for the interlaced networks of movement, objects, and economic and social relationships that extend throughout the Bakken (and the world) that shape the life of individuals in Williston, Watford City, Wheelock, and Tioga.

The routes of pipelines, the ebb and flow of traffic, the daily movements of the service industry, and the rhythm drilling, fracking, and pumping, all make the Bakken a compelling taskscape.  These things happen at a scale that offers explanations for the individual experience in ways that microcosmic studies of oil-streaked laborers cannot. As I think more and more about the tourist guide, one of the key aspects of its design is to located these individuals in the historical and industrial context of the boom. I hope to drag individuals out of their guilt-wracked reveries, out of the strip clubs and bars, our from behind the wheels of trucks, or the controls of heavy equipment and to locate them within an economically productive landscape. Perhaps by presenting the scale and complexity of the Bakken we can go beyond the attempts to invoke empathy for the human experience and move toward understanding the relationships and systems that have created the Bakken condition. 

Fracking Made Personal

October 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Over the last few weeks I’ve been reading popular treatments on fracking. While in the Bakken I read Lisa Peters’ Fractured Land in anticipation of her visit to UND at the end of the month (more on that soon!). I then, while ambling about Amazon.com admiring Punk Archaeology, I bought Alex Prud’homme’s Hydrofracking in Oxford University Press’s What Everyone Needs to Know series and picked up Russell Gold’s, The Boom as well for fun. (Ok, I also indulged my hobby of Late Antiquity and bought Jonathan Conant’s Staying Roman: Conquest and Identity in Africa and the Mediterranean, 439-700, but I won’t talk about that book in this post.)

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I really want to write about Peters’ book, because in some way it’s the most interesting in presentation and the most relevant to any stray North Dakotans who might stumble on my blog, but Prud’homme, Gold, and Peters all do something similarly in their work. They begin with first person anecdotes about the boom. Gold talks about his liberal, aging-hippy parents being offered $400,000 by Chesapeake Energy to lease the rights for the gas under their rustic retreat in central Pennsylvania. Prud’homme finds himself at a public debate over fracking in New York City. Peters is on her way to be by her oil-loving father’s side at his death bed. For some reason, popular books on the oil boom and fracking demands a kind of first person intimacy.

I got to thinking about why these authors used this particular device to introduce their treatment of fracking. It’s not like fracking has been dehumanized in the mass media. The oil-smeared faces oil workers have already offered a human face of the industry, but these books seem to substitute a different face. They have replaced the dirty hands of the laborer with the soft hands of the journalist. Appealing to middle class ambivalence about fracking, the writer takes on the confusion of information confronting someone who might have oil stocks in their portfolio and appreciate their performance, but also have a twinge of guilt that perhaps profiting from petrochemical industry is not compatible with genteel environmentalism.

One of the key aspects of this bourgeois environmentalism are the attitudes of Gold and Peters toward private property. Peters, in particular, demonstrates a delicate ambivalence. On the one hand, she recognized the homesteading claims of her grandfather who tried to make a living from the difficult North Dakota soils. She admired her grandfather’s prescience in retaining mineral rights to his land and making leases to oil companies. Her childhood and environmentalism developed, ironically, from the conversion of these oil rights to property on the scenic St. Croix river and a lovely cabin. On the other hand, Peters knowingly trespasses on the St. Croix property after it was sold to reminisce about her childhood. Elsewhere in the book she was traumatized when she encountered an overzealous security guard at a fracking sand quarry. The final encounter in the book, which involved spreading her father’s ashes at a well site, was made more sweet when an oil field technicians at the well gave an impromptu tour rather than chasing the family away from the site. Despite his generosity, Peters made clear that the risk was there and the reader could only think of the earlier encounter at the quarry. In fact, a key tension throughout the book is the complexities of ownership whether of oil, property, or mineral rights, and the benefits and (ethical and emotional) risks associated with ownership.

In a sense, then, the story of the oil boom revolves around a complicated American dream which recognizes property ownership – whether the Jeffersonian farm, the modern suburban retreat, or the urban condominium – as part of a package of rights derived from a particular reading of John Locke. Environmentalism, in contrast, appears to ask the individual property owner to resist the fullest expression of those rights for the common good. In some cases, the state intervenes as mediator between the rights of the individual and the community, but Peters’ book problematizes this relationship between the individual and property.

The first chapters of Prud’hommes and Gold’s book likewise articulates the oil dilemma facing Americans as they locate themselves between the arguing factions, competing narratives, and the conflicting myths of private property, energy independence, and progress. I’m no environmentalist, but I do worry that the emphasis on the individual story undermines the genuine power of collective action. By making the hard work to keep the oil industry safe and as environmentally and culturally sensitive as possible a distinctly middle class operation guided by a set of middle class expectations, we run the risk of minimizing the responsibilities of the state (as in the federal, state, county, and local governments) and the community (loosely construed as people who share space, resources, and social ties) to negotiate the complex interests of its stakeholders.

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Public Art, Grand Forks, and Joel Jonientz

October 12, 2014 § Leave a comment

We had a beautiful day yesterday celebrating the state of North Dakota’s 125thaversary and the art (and life) of Joel Jonientz. We hung his mural on a bizarre storage unit at the intersection of Walnut St. and S. 5th Avenue in Grand Forks. It looks great there. It got a nice story in the Grand Forks Herald. About 40 people came out to the event.

The program started at Centennial Part where we all admired City Councilor Bret Weber’s public orator and the fine broken clock that celebrates the timeless traditions of the Northern Plains.

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We then crossed the street and admired Joel’s mural. Bret told the story of how Joel and he got together on the mural project. He left out a few parts and for the historical record, I’ll clarify here.

First, when Bret began talking about public art in Grand Forks, I mentioned that Joel had painted murals with Americorp in Seattle and was (cough, cough) never all THAT busy.  So Bret and Joel and met at J.L. Beers – a local beer and burger place – to hash out details. I drank beer and Joel and Bret hashed. 

The result of that was a proposed mural by Joel. It appears to have involved sheep. I never saw this draft of the mural, but I hope they were as awesome as these sheep.

Bret was not impressed with Joel’s sheep, and told me so. 

I told Joel – probably after a beer or two – that Bret wasn’t feeling his mural. Joel laughed about it in that way that artists sometimes laugh leaving you unsure whether he was hurt or had just added Bret to his list of people who would never get it.

Bret, of course, had not communicated this to Joel, but the next time the two were in the same place, the first thing Joel said to Bret was “I hear you didn’t like my mural.” He then told Bret to go and look at his stuff. Bret later admitted that this was usually something you did before commissioning a piece of public art, but it didn’t matter because Joel was able to repurpose some of his Fatty Arbuckle work into the perfect mural to hang across from a police station and next to a rail line.

In a less public venue, it will be fun to recount the adventures involved in moving the prepared, but unpainted panels into Joel’s van late one evening…

Here are the murals, which were finished by students and colleagues in the Department of Art and Design at UND.

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It was cool to see the community embrace public art and got me thinking about what more I could do to make Grand Forks a more interesting place.

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