This weekend we’re heading back to the Bakken oil patch to look at some of our long-term study sites. As folks know, the Bakken has seen a steady decline in activity over the last two years with oil production slipping to under 1 million barrels per day this month, for the first time since 2014 (this is an interesting table (pdf)) and has only 36 active rigs this month down from 194 in 2014. We already know that many of the temporary workforce housing sites in this region which supported the massive influx of workers needed at the height of the boom are now closed, abandoned, or well below capacity. We anticipate a Bakken landscape that has preserved irregular traces of its bustling (and recent) past.
As a fortuitous coincidence, Kostis Kourelis has been posting about slightly more distant, but still modern abandonments over at his blog and reflecting on the traces left behind by the massively disruptive, but ultimately short-lived military activities associated with World War Two and the Greek Civil War. He cites the work of Dimitris Papadopoulos on the region of Prespa lakes in Macedonia. Papadopoulos documented the abandoned villages preserved in a the large, transnational nature preserve that extends into Greece, Albania, and Macedonia. These villages were abandoned as part of the final stages of nation building in this region as beginning with the transfer of the areas Turkish-speaking Muslim population in the 1920s and concluding with the departure of the Slavic speaking population during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).
[As a digression, the Prespa lakes area of Greece is one of the most stunning parts of the country and the region. I had the great fortune of scouting this area at a leisurely pace for an American School of Classical Studies trip in September of 2007. I guess I was writing my blog back then, because I have some great photos (who took them? me? is that even possible?) from my travels including a freak mini-blizzard while crossing the mountains west of Florina! Check it out here. I wish I had known of Papadopoulos’s work then.]
For Papadopoulos, the work of abandonment was embedded in a complex process of nation building, demarcation of borders, and internal colonialization which led to acts of erasure across the dynamic landscape. This may seem quite remote from the processes at play in the Bakken, but I’d argue that economic practices – particularly those associated with large scale and industrialized resource extraction – create similar landscapes of abandonment and erasure. The desire to render processes invisible to history (and archaeology) by disguising or removing the physical manifestation of the work. In most cases, the removal of temporary equipment, housing, and the workforce reflects the pressures of efficiency and economy, but this should not diminish the visual and ideological value of these actions. Temporary housing is only remarkable, for example, because we expect housing (or the home) to represent a permanent investment in a place. The arrival and departure of specialized equipment and workforce reflects the centralized nature of both capital and technology and the peripheral or even marginal nature of many (but certainly not all) extractive practices in the global landscape.
At the same time, they scar the landscape in indelible ways that preserve the absent presence of the past. My soon to be published tourist Guide to the Bakken is filled with chimerical images that will blink in and out of the viewers gaze when, book in hand, they transit the Bakken region. This weekend, I’m going to be particularly attuned to the present-absences in the Bakken and the ways that these traces mark and define the landscape.