Three Things Thursday: Survey, Oil, and Mild Anarchism

Every now and then, life happens in threes and that makes me wonder whether I’m blogging about my life or I’m simply living out a series of blog posts. In some ways, I suppose, it doesn’t matter, but it sure makes three things Thursday a bit easier.

My next few days will be focused (such as I can at all these days) on these three things:

Thing the First

My old survey buddy David Pettegrew has put together an article that offers a preliminary analysis of the Medieval material from the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey. This is a pretty exciting piece for two reasons. First, at some point in the distant past, it was originally intended to be a chapter of his soon to be completed book on the material from EKAS. When it dropped out of that volume, it wandered a bit in the wilderness before he found a home for it. 

Because these are hectic times for all of us, and writing about archaeology in the best of situations often takes a village, I offered to help get this article into final shape. One of the things that I’m working on is adding hyperlinks to the EKAS data in Open Context. This will allow the reader to drill down into the data from the article text, validate David’s arguments, and ask new questions from the raw material. This could mean looking at the data spatially in new ways, aggregating new assemblages based on material fro the same survey unit, or even connecting this data to other publicly available data sets. 

With David’s permission, I’ll share some of the linked assemblages new week.

Thing the Second

Last year, I wrote a short piece on the archaeology of petroleum production. My buddy Kostis Kourelis is pretty sure that the archaeology of oil will be next big thing. Oil is not only the quintessential modern hyper object, but also represents a type fossil for supermodernity. My article mostly just scratched the surface of the potential of an archaeology of oil as a key component of archaeology of the contemporary world as well as the kind of critical archaeology that offers new ways of understanding the modern age.

Part of the reason for this is because the article is destined for some kind of handbook of the archaeology of plastics. In fact, the editors and reviewers patiently pointed out, my article needed to connect oil and petroleum production to plastic more explicitly throughout. This was a fair point and I’ve been nibbling away at their helpful comments. 

In many ways, their urging that I connect petroleum production to plastics was more than just appropriate for the volume, but also useful for reconsidering oil and petroleum production as the definitive phenomenon of the supermodern world. The ubiquity of plastics in our everyday life is just one example of oil’s central place in our contemporary society. That said, plastic manufacturing and petroleum production rely on shared spatial footprints. The profoundly toxic sites of petroleum refineries attract similarly toxic petrochemical manufacturing plants that churn out the stock from which most new plastics are made. These plastic pellets then find their way into the world through some of the same infrastructure as our gasoline, heating oil, and other forms of petroleum that we use as fuel. In other words, plastic and oil share more than chemical DNA, but also leverage the same infrastructure that allows both to be always at hand in the contemporary world. Stay tuned for a plasticized draft.

Thing the Third

The third thing that I’m working on with a mid-February deadline is the revision of an article on a class that I taught as the centerpiece of the Wesley College Documentation Project. The article celebrated (I admit) the prospects of a “mildly anarchist” pedagogy that undermined the increasingly bureaucratized nature of both the modern university and archaeology as an industry. It attempted to embrace many aspects of slow, punk, and anarchist archaeology. Unfortunately, it also appears to have captured some of the more traditional elements of writing about archaeology as well. Namely the congratulatory nature of so many fieldwork publications that elevates the archaeologist from the deeply collaborative space of archaeological knowledge making to the august heights of heroic truth teller. 

This, of course, was the opposite of what my paper was intending to accomplish. I was hoping to celebrate the remarkable creativity that occurred over the course of a spontaneous, place-based, research program freed from much of the administrative oversight that can stifle the simply joy of wandering an abandoned place, thinking about the past, and working together to make sense of a building and its history.

That all said, the reviewers were probably doing me a favor by telling me to temper my congratulatory tone and do what I can to ground my excitement for the project in the dusty and incomplete world of reality. The last thing I want to do is to alienate a reader or conform to some kind of stereotype of ego-driven, tenured, middle aged, truth teller. Stay tuned for an updated and tempered draft. 

The Bakken Buzz: Settler Colonialism, Uncertainty, and Dominion

Last week, I mentioned a growing buzz about the Bakken in academic works. Perhaps this is the lag between the Bakken boom and scholarly output. 

This weekend, I read Nestor L. Silva’s very recent Stanford dissertation, “Bakken Ecology: The Culture and Space of Fracked Farmland in North Dakota” (2022). It’s good and thought provoking as any dissertation should be.

He argues that settler colonialism created and relies upon the belief that the uncertainty of living in the Bakken (or western North Dakota more broadly) is manageable by controlling human and material variables. Thus Silva located “dominion” associated with settler conquests as the by-product of efforts to manage the uncertain landscape by controlling independent population, adapting to new ecologies, and ultimately balancing between local knowledge (and control) and non-local sources of authority and power. Silva’s dissertation draws on interviews and his personal experiences in Bakken and offers deep perspectives on how companies, local residents, and visiting researchers encountered the boom-time landscape.

There are five things that caught my attention.  

1. Soil. One of the most interesting chapters of the dissertation deals with the Pedersen family whose farm near Tioga was the site of one of the largest terrestrial oil spills in US history when a Tesoro pipeline dumped millions of gallons of oil on the land. Tesoro funded a massive clean up that involved literally cleaning the topsoil of the farm and redepositing it. The Pedersen family recognized that it would be difficult to discern the outcome of this process until long after the cleanup was complete. That said, they have confidence that the productivity of their fields would be restored either through technology or through some kind of financial settlement.

Silva does a great job of locating dominion not in some kind of abstract conceptual space of territories or law, but in the actual soil itself.  

2. Pipelines. Silva’s discussion of the role of soil as the location for settler dominion in the Bakken extends beyond spill sites. He was particularly sensitive to the role that pipelines play in creating networks of dominion through the Bakken. He notes the tension between the claims that oil companies make the use of pipelines is a “greener” alternative to using trucks and even rail to transport Bakken crude. Silva didn’t overstate and lovely irony of this claim, nor did he overstate the role that pipelines play in making the vagaries of rail traffic more certain for oil producers.

He does note that the construction of pipelines requires the careful removal and replacement of soil. In the semi-arid climate of western North Dakota where soil chemistry is a fragile and inexact science. Even the removal and return of the same soil can cause dramatic decreases in productivity for these areas. This uncertainty requires constant attention on the part of the pipeline builders and farmers. It is not, however, seen as a liability of pipeline building, but as a technical problem that can be solved to ensure that movement of oil and the continued productivity of the soil. 

3. Management and Safety. The third chapter of Silva’s dissertation dealt with the way in which companies operating in the Bakken sought to manage the risk and uncertainty present on job sites. He examines his own experiences with OSHA training and his visit to an “active” (although paused for their visit) fracking site with students and faculty from UND.

He examines how OSHA training transferred the responsibility for on-site safety from OSHA or even the company, to the individual who was responsible for not only keeping themself safe but also making sure that the work site remained in compliance with safety standards. Silva might have even gone a step further in understanding that unlike earlier forms of extractive industries, such as mining, where organized labor sought to manage uncertainty for workers (and potentially companies alike), oil companies shunned unions and instead managed the uncertainty associated with potential litigation or even legal penalties associated with accidents by creating an almost impossibly obscure network of subcontractors which isolated the oil companies themselves from the workplace.

At the same time, Silva notes that by making the individual responsible for their own safety, they recognize that individuals introduce unmanageable levels of uncertainty into the system. The response of oil companies to this uncertainty is to isolate responsibility within the worker and then insulating the worker within complex layers of bureaucratized authority.   

4. Uncertainty and Bakktimism. When Bret Weber and I were talking to folks in the Bakken, we coined a phrase called Bakktimism which represents the unwavering optimism that we encountered across the Bakken even when the boom itself started to falter. We never, as far as I remember, connected this to settler colonialism. Silva’s dissertation proposed that a belief in the ability of settler society to manage uncertainty was at the heart of this Bakktimism. In other words, Bakktimism isn’t the confidence that things would improve, but rather that economic, demographic, and social paroxysm that characterized a boom-time environment would somehow be normalized.

If we ever get to thinking more about Bakktimism, it would be great to look at our interviews through the lens that Silva established. My feeling is that we’ll find plenty of material to support Silva’s view of settler dominion.    

5. Ecologies, Environments, and Ontologies. As an archaeologist, I tend to get preoccupied with the so-called “ontological turn” and efforts to obviate the historical boundaries between human and the material, the social and the natural, and the environmental and political (among many others). Silva’s dissertation dispensed with this academic parlor game by simply assuming that humans, the soil, territory, oil, and institutions exist within the same space. More than that, settler colonialism relied and relies on the continuous negotiation and hybridization of these blurry concepts in the name of managing uncertainty.


One last thing about this dissertation, it has a CC-By-NC license which hopefully means that it finds its ways into the hands of scholars and communities who appreciate it critique with as little friction as possible!

More on Rivers

This weekend, I read and enjoyed Donald Worster’s classic Rivers of Empire: Water, Aridity, and the Growth of the American West (1985). I read this as part of my effort to become a bit more familiar with American environmental history, but also get to understand the larger conversations surrounding “hydraulic society” in the American West. In many ways, Worster provides a key formative statement in how we understand the environmental manifestations of the United States’s quest for empire. By tracing the changing attitudes toward water and rivers in the American West from the 19th century to the mid-20th, we get to see the interplay between small farmers, wealth landowners, local communities, state governments, and the federal government in creating a new hydraulic society with both democratic potential and the capacity for exacerbating economic and social inequalities at a nationwide scale.

Some of this is also relevant for my growing interest in the flood mitigation efforts made along the Red River of the North. To be clear, Worster’s main focus was not only managing floods. In fact, flood management and navigation fell under the domain of the Army Corps of Engineers and Worster’s main focus was on the Bureau of Reclamation which sought to transform the rivers of the American west into a source of water for agricultural prosperity both in the region and nationally.

Worster’s understanding of American attitudes toward nature and to the flow of rivers, however, emphasized the desire of Americans to project their imperial yearnings not simply over the Indigenous people and territory of this vast region, but also of the rivers and natural resources. The earliest efforts were small scale and directed immediately toward the needs of communities struggling with the aridity of the region and the need to adapt their eastern crops and practices to irrigated farming.

By the early 20th-century, however, these limited and pragmatic approach quickly gave way to more expansive plans driven by competition and profit. At this stage the control of water and the ability to irrigate represented a pathway to wealth and wealthier landowners found ways to contravene efforts to preserve equality (or at very least fair) access to water in the West. As a result, control over water in the West soon took on the form of an ironic tragedy as the rhetoric used to champion increasingly bold and costly hydraulic interventions became increasingly detached from the outcomes of these intervention which rather than fortifying an idealized agricultural democracy, created more wealthy and powerful landowning class. The only commonality between rhetorical posturing of Bureau of Reclamation and the avarice of landowners was the desire to control the rivers of the West. 

How this all applies to my work here in the Red River of the North is bit unclear right now. Certainly there is reason to suspect that flood control along the Red River of the North is part of a larger effort to control western rivers in the name of stable settlement. The flooding of the river in the 19th century had revealed its destructive potential and floods in the 1950s, 1970s, and 1990s promoted increasingly monumental and ambitious interventions.

All this was done against the backdrop of the Pick-Sloan plan along the Missouri River which sought to control and harness the flow of the Big Muddy to irrigate farms, mitigate floods, and provide recreational opportunities. The destructive ambition behind the Garrison Dam, which led to the flooding of thousands of acres of the Fort Berthold Indian Reservation made clear that North Dakota was part of the larger mid-century hydraulic landscape of the American West punctuated by massive dams and large scale diversions. Even today, massive diversions of the Red River around Fargo-Moorhead and around Winnipeg reflect a persistent willingness to transform the region by controlling the flow of rivers. 

My interest in reading Worster’s book, then, is less to discern whether the particular conditions that shape the Red River of the North appear in his analysis. For most of the time that this book covers, the Red River is both too far east (climatically speaking) and relatively untapped for irrigation. At the same time, I suspect that areas on the margins of the American West found themselves particularly susceptible to the mentalities that developed in the wider region. If we see Worster’s book as much a commentary on shifting attitudes toward empire building in North America as it is a specific technocratic, bureaucratic, or even economic response to certain environmental conditions (and the claim that Worster’s work smacks of a healthy dose of environmental determinism have been greatly exaggerated), then the work to control the Red River of the North fits into wider pattern that by the middle years of the 20th century had largely become unhinged from any particular justification. This ensured that the broader Western mindset that guided the continued damming of western rivers to provide irrigation for crops that would not sell, electricity for towns that did not exist, and solutions to problems that did not exist, could be applied to marginal cases because there was no longer a tight connection between the problem, the solution, and the justification for the approach.

This is not to suggest that the flood mitigation efforts imposed on the Red River of the North weren’t adequate or technically appropriate. Instead, I’m hypothesizing that the approach by the Army Corps of Engineers to the Red River in Grand Forks reflects attitudes developed in very different circumstances elsewhere in the American West. 

Whether this proves to be the case will involve some deeper digging!

Teaching Thursday: Practicum Priorities

Once again, this semester I’m lucky enough to be allowed to teach a practicum in editing and publishing for my friends in the English Department. Since I’m not faculty in that department (and haven’t had an English class since high school, as this blog undoubtedly attests), it’s always a privilege to be able to teach there. 

This privilege comes at a bit of a cost, though, in that I need to plan something for the class, and this means establishing some priorities for students who will work on North Dakota Quarterly as well as some projects associated with The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

This semester we have a range of projects and priorities that might appeal to the students who want to get some experience in both the editing and publishing aspects of “the industry.” Here’s what I proposed last semester. I think my priorities this semester are a bit more clear and well developed.

Some priorities are more pressing than others. 

1. NDQ 90.1/2. On March 1, NDQ 90.1/2 is due to our publisher. This means that we need to send essays, reviews, and poems to the copy editor. Collect the accepted fiction from the fiction editor. Identify cover art. And most importantly, put the issue in order. This latter step is as much of an art as a science and involves understanding which works we must publish in 90.1/2 (and which works can wait until 90.3/4) and how various works fit together to provide a well-considered experience for the reader.

2. NDQat90. This spring we also plan to start our celebrations of the 90th volume of NDQ. Last semester the practicum in editing and publishing prepared a manuscript for an innovative window into the Quarterly archive. This class produced reflections on a collection of 90 works from the last 90 issues of NDQ. This winter and spring our goal is to turn this into a digital and paper book that invites readers to return to the archive through a fresh set of eyes.

There are a couple of mid-range projects that need consistent attention.

3. The Blog. As part of our effort to increase readers, subscribers, and contributors to NDQ, we post weekly to the NDQ Blog. Usually after we publish an issue, we feature content from that issue on the blog. Now, for example, we’re featuring content from 89.3/4. This means that we need to identify content that might attract readers to the issue and reflects the kind of content that we want to encourage in NDQ submissions. This isn’t a lot of work, but is constant work. 

4. Prairie Voices. I had a crazy idea a few weeks ago to re-publish some early-20th century prairie poetry. I was motivated in part by reading Molly Rozum’s Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairie (Nebraska 2021) and reading a bit of Clell Gannon’s poetry and, in particular, his Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres (1924) which entered the public domain this year. Maybe the students would be interested in republishing this book with some expanded content (say a biographic introduction and some critical commentary from someone versed in prairie poetry)?

5. Building Campus. This spring The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will publish a book marking the renovation of Merrifield Hall. The book is almost complete, but will require a bit of copy editing, production, and marketing work. It would be fantastic to get the students involved in this book’s “end game,” in part because it emerged from another class that I taught for the English Department in the spring of 2022.

There are some longer-range projects that also would benefit from attention.

6. Tartar Utopia. Some time this semester, I should receive a manuscript that is the translation of Ismail Gaspıralı’s Darürrahat Müslümanlanı (Muslims of the Peaceful Country) by Ciğdem Pala Mull. It will include essays by a number of scholars exploring the potential of this text to invite new ways of utopian thinking some 100 years after its publication. You can read excerpts of it that appeared in NDQ 84.1/2 here. The plan is to desk review this book and then circulate it for peer review this spring.

7. The Archive. Last semester, we completed digitizing the back issues of NDQ and have made all but the last 5 years available in our archive. The issues live at both the HathiTrust and (gulp) WordPress. We certainly need to migrate all this content to our institutional repository. The downside of this is that our institutional repository does not allow us to link to a specific page within the PDF and because of various permission issues, we can’t separate out specific articles from their respective issues. We can do this with PDFs served via WordPress and HathiTrust. That said, we can at least separate out the issues from the scanned volumes in HathiTrust and upload those volumes to the NDQ pages in our institutional repository

This feels like a hectic semester for the practicum class and it is unlikely that all these things get completed, but it will give the students a sense for all the moving parts that involve editing and publishing even at a relatively small scale!

More on the Grand Forks Greenway

One of the down sides of struggling with work/life balance issues is that even the most mundane things that I do have the potential to slide from “life” to “work.” For example, volunteering on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission as the Commission’s archaeologist has fueled my interest in the history and materiality of the city. Walking my dogs along the Grand Forks Greenway, has spurred me to think more carefully about how the Greenway and the Red River of the North shapes not only the city’s past, but also its present relationship with its surroundings.

Sometimes these two interests coincide, such as when I find myself collaborating with another commission member, Paul Conlon, on an integrity survey of the 1950s era flood mitigation features in the city. It appears that most of these features were removed during the construction of the far more substantial post-1997 flood walls. Despite this disappointing discovery, Paul’s research and my rumination have led made it hard for me to shake a potential paper idea especially as I walk the dogs on the Greenways scenic paths.

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Right now, the paper is still at the “slowly crystalizing idea stage” which means that I have a title: “Cold War, Consumer Culture, and Climate Change in a North Dakota City.”

If I had to start to write the paper today, rather than, say, work on my syllabi for the spring semester, I’d start the paper with an overview of recent work on the environmental history of rivers with special attention to the goals of mid-century hydraulic programs such as the Pick-Sloan as well as more local initiatives designed to both protect communities and to provide water for recreation and irrigation. For the local situation, Kathleen Brokke’s dissertation will be an invaluable guide. She touches on the role of suburban sprawl and the growing desire for burgeoning urban communities to harness local rivers for recreation, but her work remains an expansive view of Red River region rather than an intensive one. Moreover, it appears that she doesn’t connect suburban sprawl of the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s to the region’s growing role in the Cold War. 

My goal with this imagined research wouldn’t be to re-produce Brokke’s expansive environmental history of the Red River, but to zero in on the relationship between the river and the city of Grand Forks. In particular, I’d be interested in understanding how efforts to control the Red River in Grand Forks in the 1950s emerged alongside the transformation of the city itself as it grew into its post-war form and its growing role as an important regional “front” in the Cold War. The vulnerability of Grand Forks to flooding should be understood in the context of the construction of the Grand Forks Air Force base in the 1950s, the expansion of the University of North Dakota in part due to its capacity to harness federal grants and to serve military veterans, and the influx of new residents drawn to the city by its post-war amenities and opportunities.

The Cold War, post-war consumer culture, and the long-term, geological history of the Red River provides three key vectors for understanding not only the history of Grand Forks, but also the form that this investment in controlling the flow of the Red River took. As I’ve noted a few times in the past, the form of the post-1997 flood walls themselves speak both to long-standing attitudes toward natural forces especially on the Great Plains and the role that the Army Corps of Engineers plays in attempting to exert control over “nature” in these contexts. 

This opens our work to a fourth vector that I would love for our article to explore. This vector would foreground the role of landscapes of control in the “late-modern” world. I have this idea that it might be a way to interrogate attitudes toward the Anthropocene. This is immediately relevant to the situation of the Grand Forks on the Red River of the North as six of the ten worst floods in history have occurred in the 21st century. More than that, the flood control systems put in place after the 1997-flood offer a visible, daily reminder of the separation, or even alienation, of humans from their natural environment. A subtle paper might observe that the flood walls, which evoke military fortifications, offer only on perspective on the relationship between the town and the river. Less visible, but every bit as important is the network of pipes and pumping stations that not only connect the city to the river for drinking water and the disposal of run off, but also prevent the river from reclaiming these same connections to flood the city. In other words, the very landscape of flood control in the city emphasizes the need to protect the community from the river itself while hiding away the deeply interconnected relationship between the city and the water. 

The flood walls, of course, contribute in strikingly visible ways to the modern ontological distinctions that locate in separate categories the “natural” and the “cultural,” “human,” or “man-made.” Scholars who have engaged with the Anthropocene as not only a term useful for defining a new geological epoch shaped by human actions, but also an ontological challenge to the view that human activities represent a separate category from the affairs of nature. The challenge of contemporary, anthropogenic climate change, then, is a direct critique of the Grand Forks flood walls themselves and their militarized station dividing the unruly power of the Red River of the North, for the neatly organized settlement of Grand Forks.

It strikes me, then, that post-war efforts to harness rivers and to control the flooding in Grand Forks offers a particularly compelling example of the way in which mid-century consumer culture created new landscapes that sought to reify the division between humans and nature by making visible the power of humanity to bring it under control. To be clear, the post-war generation was not the first to do this—gardens culture, for example, long celebrated the ability of individuals to present nature in aesthetically, economically, and politically productive ways— but the mid-20th century marked the first time that humans could manipulate the landscape on such a massive scale. Archaeologists of these decades refer to this capacity as a hallmark of supermodernity in which nowhere on earth escapes the human intervention. No expression of this is more dramatic than the ability to spit the atom. This capability plays a key role in the creation of Cold War landscapes in the American West. These landscapes not only relied on the atomic power of the post-war “military-industrial-academic” complex for its national relevance, but also demonstrated how the confidence unleashed by the atomic age could introduce new levels of prosperity and security for at least some Americans and some of their allies.

Of course, the promises of prosperity and security appear increasingly illusory in light of growing evidence for climate change. Perhaps here is where the efforts to control the flow of the Red River through Grand Forks offer the most poignant or even useful metaphor. The division between the town and the natural spaces of the Greenway, while compelling in our daily lives where it is easy (and even necessary) to imagine nature held at arm’s length, is no more absolute than the collapsing ontological division between humanity and the wider relational network in which we live on Earth. 

Snowmobiles on the Greenway

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been thinking about some kind of paper, article, or intervention involving the area known as The Greenway in my hometown of Grand Forks, ND.

The Greenway came into its current form in the aftermath of the 1997 flood when the Army Corps of Engineers removed the housing and other buildings close to the Red River of the North to create a flood zone. This work paralleled the construction of a massive flood wall and a vastly improved pumping system designed to upgrade the structures installed in the 1950s and 1970s to keep the Red River at bay during its unruly springtime floods. This intervention has been spectacularly successful even as the annual floods have increased in magnitude and frequency (6 of the highest flood levels recorded in Grand Forks have occurred since the 1997 flood).

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The construction of this Greenway created a massive park system which the city proudly proclaims is larger than Central Park in New York. The Greenway is set off from the city of Grand Forks (and East Grand Forks) by earthen and concrete flood walls complete with a gates that drop into place when flood waters exceed a certain stage. As denizens of the Northern Plains will immediately recognize the system of earthen walls evokes earlier forms of boundary marking in the region: namely the Plain Village sites such as Double Ditch which featured earthen fortifications. The concrete walls deliberate evokes coursed masonry vaguely reminiscent of those from around the Roman world. 

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There is little doubt that the evocation of military fortifications serves to remind denizens of Grand Forks and visitors to the Greenway alike of the role of the Army Corps of Engineers in protecting the city from the wild waters of the Red River. As a result, the boundary between the settled neighborhoods of the cities of Grand Forks and East Grand Forks and the banks of the Red River is, at least symbolically, militarized.

The decision to militarize the boundary between the town and river also reminds the residents of the cities of the role that the National Guard played during and after the 1997 Flood. In this way, it echoes the increasing militarization of national borders which serve to mark out the “civilized” space of the nation from the uncontrolled lands beyond. In fact, much like the formalities of national borders, the flood walls do more than protect the cities from floods. They also serve to tame the Red River by delineating its course through town. Despite the term “Red River Valley,” the Red does not flow through a valley, but meanders along the bottom of a glacial lake bed creating new channels wherever it wants unless some authority external to the local topography brings brings it to heel. Just as our world is created through national boundaries, so concrete and earthen walls create the Red River.

The Greenway, then, is a manifestation of our desire to create order upon which we can construct the foundations for our settlement and community. The capacity of the Greenway to define the Red River’s course and to absorb its unruly waters reifies our efforts to create a clearly delimited space for nature (or space of nature) in clear relation to the space for and of human settlement. This is all the more significant in a region characterized by landscapes devoid of the kinds of stable features — mountains, hills, forests, and even predictable river valleys — that European settlers historically found meaningful for describing (and thereby controlling) their surroundings. The border between Minnesota and North Dakota has moved significantly over the past century owing to the untamed character of the Red River and required legislative intervention.

What the hell does this have to do with snowmobiles?

Well, recently some snow mobile club has asked for permission to create snow mobile tracks in the Greenway. Folks seem generally opposed to this for a series of predictable if poorly considered reasons. 

Some have argued that there shouldn’t be motorized traffic on the Greenway, despite the fact that there are literally roads and parking lots on the Greenway not to mention a golf course with golf carts. In other words, this involves a silly selectivity in how folks understand the use of this space even in the present.

Some have argued that snowmobiles are noisy and this would be a nuisance to folks whose homes back onto the Greenway. This is fair, I suppose, but right now, the snowmobiles zip up and down the Red River on a regular basis (and in the summer months, fishing boats zip up and down the Red River). Maybe snowmobile paths will cause more snowmobilers to use the Greenway creating more noise? This seems possible. 

More interesting, however, is the argument that parks are places set aside for nature. This is undoubtedly true, even if the goal of Greenway is control or even create the natural world or, perhaps better, to protect our desire for stability and predictability from the vagaries of the river. There is no doubt that the Greenway serves as a wildlife corridor and it may be that snowmobiles would upset the deer who bed down along the river’s wooded banks and maybe fluster the fishers, foxes, bunnies, beavers, mice, owls, eagles, hawks, and various other critters that make the Greenway home. On this matter, I remain a bit skeptical mostly because I figure these animals are as drawn to the opportunities of living close to town as they are protected from its vices by the constructed nature of the Greenway itself. 

A bit more interesting still is the idea that people like the idea of the Greenway as natural. The 1997 flood walls created a bit of nature in our backyards. But it’s the GOOD kind of nature. It’s tame, it’s largely peaceful and non-violent, and, most importantly, it is predictable. It’s close to home, but also outside the walls.

(In fact, it’s a bit like parking. We all want parking, but we want the Good Kind of Parking. And no one wants parking lots. We want the Good Kind of Nature. Not the kind of nature that involves floods that trash the entire town.)

I’m sympathetic to the idea that the Greenway provides some of the benefits of nature, especially the kind of nature that European settlers brought with them from more densely populated areas further east. There are trees, for example, marking the course of the river and evoking arborist fantasies of primordial European woods. Like many enclosed parks frequented by leisure seeking settlers, there are also well-kept lawns and enough landscaping to let folks know that this area is safe for children and pets. The lawns and woods are a nice reminder that there are opportunities for chance encounters with a range of critters, but also clearly established rules. Similarly, paths, groomed trails, and pavement pierce the reconstituted patches of prairie grasses and the tangles of riverine undergrowth making it possible to encounter some vestige of the earlier landscape, but even this is safely contained behind the formidable floodwalls.  

Is it reasonable to want to preserve the illusion of nature along the Greenway by maintaining a set of rules and policies that conform to our Romantic expectation?

Yes, it is.

In fact, the Greenway represents in both practical and ideational an effort to bring order to our lived space. This means both defining where were live from places where we don’t or can’t live and ensuring that the places where we don’t or can’t live are available to absorb the vagaries of a world that we cannot (or chose not to control). The Greenway represents the anti-city and despite the sometimes clumsy or exaggerated arguments for its bucolic character, the need to define the city and to preserve civility will always result in the creation of the anti-city.  

Do I care whether there are snowmobiles on the Greenway?

No. I do not.

Finding Home in Grassland Grown

Over the weekend, I read the first of a little gaggle of books on the environmental history of the Northern Plains and the West that have been staring at me from my shelf. Molly Rozum’s Grasslands Grown: Creating Place on the U.S. Northern Plains and Canadian Prairie (Nebraska 2021) was a pleasant read. Rozum argues that the first generation of settlers born on the grassland plains of the Dakotas and Prairie Provinces played a vital role in creating a sense of place and identity for this the white settler society of this region. In fact, she argues that the creation of this settler identity was part of a larger colonial process that involved the overwriting of Native American understandings of the landscape and replacing it with a view deeply embedded in settler experiences on the land. 

There are any number of things that made this book particularly compelling to me, but one of the key arguments Rozum makes is the role of childhood experiences with animals, in nature, and at home that shaped the distinctive character of settler identity in this place at the turn of the 19th century. In other words, this first generation of prairie born settlers experienced the landscape not as adults who grew up in points east or Europe, but as individuals who only knew this country as their home. By examining dairies, journals, and published accounts of growing up on the Northern Plains, Rozum was able to trace how individual experiences (even if filtered through nostalgia of adulthood) constructed a real sense of identity, priorities, and regional character. Her use of a diverse range of sources from both sides of the US-Canadian border was fascinating to me (unfamiliar as I have tended to be with literature that treated this area as a transnational zone). Her use of Era Bell Thompson’s 1946 memoir was another revelation. It was remarkable to see the prairie (and Grand Forks) through the eyes of a black girl and woman.   

Rozum goes on the show how the various ecologies, experiences, and environments encountered by settlers shape their efforts even after they’ve left the Northern Plains to construct a sense of regionalism and regional identity.

The book is far enough from my professional bailiwick that I’ll refrain from even attempting a review, but three things did strike me as interesting.

First, over the last few years, I’ve made a more serious effort to get out into the landscape of the Red River Valley. At first, I did this by walking along the banks of the Red in our local park and then I did this by riding my gravel bike outside of town. As I did this, I think that I’ve become a more careful observer of the countryside, come to appreciate local animals (especially birds!), and even have come to understand the path of the rivers and creeks throughout the intensely flat plains that surround Grand Forks.

I had never really thought about my efforts to develop a greater sense of place in the area as part of a process of settler colonialism. In fact, I had vaguely considered my growing appreciation of the local landscape as part of my effort to connect with a world that extended far beyond my limited sense of self. Whatever my intellectual (and not a little arrogant) assumptions about locating myself in the landscape, my developing sense of home represented the transposing my views of countryside over those that had gone before (whether Native American or white settler). Making Grand Forks “my home” represented a sense of possession.

Second, Rozum did a wonderful job connecting the developing sense of regional identity to both global and local trends in literature. This led me to start to root around in early 20th century literature from folks who grew up on the Northern Plains. For example, I discovered the work of Robert McAlmon whose book of poems, Explorations (London 1921), interlaces his travels (after his marriage of convenience to the writer Annie Winifred Ellerman [pen name Bryher] which provided him with a significant source of income) with images of the grassland prairies. He went on the live in New York and then Paris where he founded the literary magazine Contact with William Carlos Williams (which is now available via the HathiTrust), started a small press of the same name, and publish poetry, short stories, and the novel Village: As It Happened Through a Fifteen Year Period (Contact 1924). Despite this galavanting, he continued to recognize the value of grounding critical voices in a sense of place and regionalism. Perhaps because of his travels, he recognized this as a tonic for the dreadful character of the modern world. 

I also was introduced to Clell Gannon another prairie poet and also a painter whose art contributed to the cover of North Dakota Quarterly in 1950s. If McAlmon’s work had all the literary pretensions of Modernism in interwar Paris, Gannon’s work was more homespun, but no less accomplished. In fact, there’s something about Gannon’s work that makes me want to republish his 1924 collection, Songs of the Bunch Grass Acres which features his endearing sketches and even more endearing poetry.

Finally, the penultimate chapter discusses the definition of a region by interrogating the terms used to describe the Great Plains, Northern Plains, the Northwest, the West and myriad variants. And, Rozum unpacks its borders (and the borders of the arid west from its sub-humid neighbors to the east). Debates centering on the 100th, 98th, and even 96th Meridien reminded me that despite the everyday colonialism of my effort to make this landscape home, I inhabited a borderland characterized by constant hybridity, cultural interaction, and movement both to the north-south and to the east-west.  

Reading the debates about naming and defining this region struck me a bit a hard than I expected. Rozum doesn’t delve back into how the acts of defining (much less describing) a region once again traced the contours of colonialism across the region, but perhaps at this point the book, this understanding is tacit. 

First Snow

I’ve posted a photo of the first snow (or what I considered the first snow…) pretty regularly since 2007. Here they are: 2021 (November 11)2020 (October 17)2019 (October 1)2018 (October 4)2017 (October 26)2016 (November 22)2015 (Nov. 5), 2014 (Nov. 8), 2013 (Oct. 20), 2012 (Oct. 4), 2011 (Nov. 10), 2010 (Nov. 21), 2008 (Oct. 28), and in 2007 (Sept. 11).

This year, we haven’t really had a solid first snow, but today we got a dusting which stuck a bit and we’re under a high wind warning which adds to the wintery vibe.

Bakken Babylon: Complete Draft

As readers of this blog know, I’ve been working on a more casual paper for a special section in an issue of Near Eastern Archaeology on the relationship between the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota and Babylon in Mesopotamia. 

I now have a completed draft of this paper. 

At the risk of jinxing everything, I suspect that this paper is essentially unpublishable in its current state, but it is also one of the most fun papers that I’ve ever invest the time to write.

I’ve included a number of almost random photos that rank among my favorite from my years of work in the Bakken. 

Check out the paper and, if you can’t make sense of it, stay for the photos at the end.

As per usual, any and all feedback is appreciated! 

Thomas Barger and the Archaeology of Oil

This past week, I was doing some light research at UND Chester Fritz Library’s Department of Special Collections and for various, almost random reasons, was scrolling through the finding aid for John Barger’s papers.

In those papers, I noticed an entry for Box 1, Folder 31: “Greek Inscriptions Deciphered” by Thomas Barger. I knew Thomas Barger, John’s brother, from my Bakken Babylon paper. Thomas Barger was the North Dakota born and educated CEO of Aramco (Arab-American Oil Company). I knew something about from Wallace Stegner’s book Discovery! The Search for Arabian Oil where he appears as one of the first American “petro-nomads” who helped discover the massive Ghawar oil field in the 1950s. By the 1960s he had become the CEO of Aramco and helped the company develop into one of the largest oil companies in the world. 

He was well-known in the industry as a hands-on leader who understood the discovery, extraction, and processing of oil and the men, women, and families who did this work. He was recognized both for his possibly misguided efforts to encourage home ownership among his Saudi employees as well as his ability to speak Arabic and respect for Arabian history and culture. I was not, however, aware of his interest in archaeology.

The publication that appeared in John Barger’s papers was a short update about finds from the Nabatean outpost of Meda’in Salih in northwestern Saudi Arabia which appeared in 1969 in Archaeology magazine. Barger had published an earlier report on this site in Archaeology in 1966. The 1969 article revealed the decipherment of a Greek inscription by Glen Bowersock associated with the Third Cyrenaican Legion traditionally stationed at Bosra, but in this case standing guard over the trade routes at the very edges of the Roman world. This inscription found its way into Thomas Barger’s personal collection and which in 1969, he turned over to the Harvard Semitic Museum which, in turn, transferred it to the T.C. Barger Collection at the National Museum in Riyadh in 2001. The inscription’s nomadic route from Meda’in Salih to Boston and back to the Arabian peninsula reversed the route of Barger’s own travels to the Arabian desert.

This is a nice example of how contemporary petronomadism, a term coined, I think, by Reza Negarstani in his Cyclonopedia (or perhaps Gilles Chatelet in his To Think and Live Like Pigs [1998]) traces both the economic landscape of the Middle East and the archaeological. This is similar to an observation offered by Rachel Havrelock in her “The Ancient Past that Oil Built” in the context of the Iraq Petroleum Company’s Kirkuk to Haifa pipeline in the 1930s. 

On a more local level, one imagines that the work done to support extractive industries here in North Dakota has contributed to the discovery of similarly interesting archaeological landscapes. In that sense, the work of Barger in Saudi Arabia has parallels in his home state of North Dakota where pipelines, roads, rail projects, and refineries have created a contemporary window into both a modern present and historical past.