Oil Patch Patina

I generally don’t blog about a book until I’m done reading it, but I am pretty excited about Shannon Lee Dawdy’s recent book, Patina: A Profane Archaeology (Chicago 2015). There are some good reviews on the interwebs for anyone interested in getting a broader sense of the book.

What drew me into this book was Dawdy’s exploration of the concept of patina in the first chapter or so. In New Orleans, patina has long described the slightly thread-worn, faded, and polished character of the city. The patina is maintained, Dawdy argues intentionally and after Katrina, an additional and significant layer of “Katrina Patina” has linked places and objects explicitly to the storm and recovery.

These ideas fascinated me on two levels. First – and most whimsically – I’ve been interested in the conversations around vintage watch collecting. What’s drawn me to these conversations is the combination of technical details (and remarkable craft) and signs of wear. It appears, for example, that collectors have rather strict criteria for the development of patina on the watch. For example, evidence for interventions – such as polishing or re-applying lume to the face – are generally seen as negative, but the gradual fading of the face and the lume, particularly if it is uniform and reveals colors or patterns less visible in the original colors and design of the watch. The more interesting and uniform the patina, the more appealing (and generally pricey) they watch. For example here and here and here.

What drew me to Dawdy’s book, other than recommendations from some trusted colleagues, is that she thinks about the tension between the past and present in New Orleans, in a way reminiscent of Michael Herzfeld’s treatment Rhethmenos on Crete. I have started to wonder a bit about how things will play out in the Bakken oil patch now that it has well and truly entered the bust cycle. My experience out west is that the Bakken towns had accumulated patina during the boom. The signs of habitual wear, in Dawdy’s definition, mark the roads, buildings, and landscapes of the Bakken leaving it with a patina that lacked the romance of the old New Orleans, but is clearly visible. The worn boot scrapers at hotel and restaurant doors, the rutted roads, and the bruised and burnished tables and bars at local watering holes all carry forward evidence for the boom. This Oil Patch Patina becomes the persistent reminder of the cycle of boom and bust and the wear exerted on communities, objects, and buildings during the boom lingers on as the resources to overwrite the patinated landscape dissipates with the end of the boom. 

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