Upton Sinclair’s Oil and John Sayles’s Yellow Earth

It took me a while to figure it out, but now that I’ve (finally) finished reading Upton Sinclair’s Oil!, my understanding of John Sayles’s novel Yellow Earth is much better. 

For folks who lack the Wikipedias, Oil! was published in 1926-1927 and today is perhaps more famous for controversy surrounding a rather chaste sex scene which got the book banned in some cities than its plot or its message. The book loosely follows the life of Bunny Arnold who is the son of an increasingly wealthy oilman in California. It is set against the backdrop of the early-20th century oil boom in Southern California and the  corruption, exploitation, radicalism, and glamour of early 20th century America.  Over the course of the book Bunny grows up and become more and more “woke” through his interaction with workers in the California oil fields, his university education, and his friendship with Paul Watkins, a labor organizer and eventual communist. Despite Bunny’s wealth, he becomes a radical social justice warrior who by the end of the book dedicates his life and what’s left of his father’s fortune to the founding of a socialist labor college.  

The charm of the book largely comes from the characters that conform to the rigid stereotypes. The corrupt businessmen are rabidly corrupt; the beautiful actresses are extraordinarily beautiful; the pious and idealistic communists, socialists, and labor union organizers are delightfully rigorous. Even when Sinclair draws on real characters he manages to preserve a sense of satire which is nowhere more visible as in his thinly veiled depiction of “Sister Amee” in the character of hypocritical evangelist Eli Watkins. A gently fictionalized reference to the Teapot Dome scandal offers another historical anchor for the novel.

Sinclair’s satirical novel leans upon these stereotypes as a way to critique both capitalists and radicals alike. Yellow Earth is its sequel. Like Oil!Yellow Earth similarly relies on a cast of stereotypical characters whose interactions are anchored loosing in a muder-for-hire scandal surrounding Tex Hall, one time chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes in North Dakota’s Bakken Oil patch who encouraged oil development on reservation lands. In fact, on my first read, I was not a little offended by Sayles’s cartoonish depictions of Native Americans, Bakken oil workers, opportunistic grifters and the like.

A series of oblique references to Sinclair’s Oil! however makes Sayles intent clear. Bunny Skiles, for example, is the scheming con-man Brent Skiles’s wife. At the end of the novel she boards a train headed for Southern California to meet with a lawyer not only to arrange for a divorce from the steroid-raging Skiles, but also to secure her share of his is assets. Undoubtedly this lawyer is the same individual who represented the Arnold family after the death of the patriarch at the end of Oil! Other references abound. Brent Skiles, for example, is clearly a reference to the shadowy Ben Skutt who in Oil! who helped the oil companies break strikes by infiltrating unions, inciting violence, and, at one point, pretending to be a communist in order to have the unions declared illegal. Similarly the real estate agent J.C. Hardacre in Oil! Reappears as the petroleum geologist Randy Hardacre in Yellow Earth. In one of the more painful efforts to connect the two books, the exotic dancer with a good heart Jewelle alludes to the Jewish radical Rachel Menzies who Bunny marries toward the end of Oil! The characters do not map neatly onto one another, of course, but enough cross references exist to make clear that two books are in dialogue with one another.

Sayles replaces the loping, leisurely pace of Oil! with the frantic, compressed time of the Bakken oil boom. Yellow Earth takes place over just one year marked the pregnancy of Fawn over her senior year in high school. Sayles swaps out the painfully earnest radicalism of Paul Watkins for the Ayn Rand and steroid-fueled hyper capitalism of Brent Skiles. Some of the power of Yellow Earth comes not through the story and characters but as a commentary on how far the Bakken oil boom and our 21st century attitudes toward capital, profits, wealth, extractive industries, and speed have come from from the days of Sinclair’s Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s novel, where the lines between the radicals and the oil industry are drawn in blood and violence, Sayles blurs morality throughout Yellow Earth.  There are characters who appear to be good and characters who are undoubtedly evil, but they don’t align. There is no confrontation here and, as a result, no real resolution. As oil prices decline at the end of the boom, the profiteers get increasingly desperate and the characters who have come to make their money slowly disperse in search of the next opportunity.

It may be that by foregrounding this indeterminacy, driven as much by the complexities of the global oil market as the doings of any individual or the corruption of their business, Sayles’s work responds most clearly to Sinclair’s novel. Sinclair located his characters at the center of the oil industry and largely in control of their own fates. For Sayles, the characters in his novel wrestle as much with the oil itself and the vagaries of a global market as they did one another. There is a constant sense of the Bakken as periphery and no matter how much Ayn Rand Brent Skiles read and despite Harleigh Killdeer’s claims of “sovereignty by the barrel” the oil itself controlled the outcome of events. 

Leia Nilsson is a wildlife biologist in Yellow Earth, who has come to study a prairie dog coterie. She gives the critters classical names: Odysseus, Ajax, Niobe, Hera. A drilling platform ultimately displaces this little community of prairie dogs and Leia contracts Jett to suck the rodents from their burrows so she can relocate them across the road. Despite this displacement, the prairie dogs continue to play out their daily lives, struggle with one another for dominance, and mate. Even the most superficial reader will catch that the story of the prairie dogs is the story of Yellow Earth. The prairie dogs might, at best, be the Watkins family in Oil! Unlike Sinclair’s Watkins family, who find their own way and ultimately negotiate their own fate against the backdrop of capitalism, oil, and world events, Sayles’s prairie dogs and characters are simply actors on a stage for whom choice only appears to matter. 

Three Thing Thursday: Greeks, Roads, and Oil

For whatever reason, I’m having trouble getting myself into gear over spring break and have been jumping from one thing to the next all week. It’s predictable, then, that today blog post will be a dreaded “three things” rather than a more sustained consideration of one issue, topic, question, or publication. What’s the biggest bummer is that I wanted to write more about each of these three things. Maybe I can next week, but for now, here’s a sampling of what I’ve been up to.

Thing The First

If I had all the time and energy into the world, I’d publish a little volume featuring the work of Byzantine and Late Antique archaeologist outside of the Mediterranean basin. David Pettegrew and Kostis Kourelis would appear in it, of course. This week, I was really happy to receive a copy of Pennsylvania History 87.1 (2020) which is co-edited by Pettegrew and includes an article by Kourelis and Pettegrew on the Greek communities of Harrisburg and Lancaster, Pennsylvania in the early 20th century. 

The article draws primarily from census data to paint a picture of the changing Greek communities in those towns and their divergent trajectories. The broader argument is that the tendency to emphasize Greek communities in major urban areas (Chicago, New York, et c.) obscures the fact that most Greek communities were small. More than that, these small Greek communities developed according the vagaries of these locales. The city of Harrisburg with its higher rents and involvement in the City Beautiful movement saw a very different kind of Greek community than the city of Lancaster. The Greek community in Harrisburg was more male-dominated and slower to include families although perhaps slightly more affluent, and these features most likely delayed the organization of a Greek church in the city which further slowed the development of this community.

Pettegrew and Kourelis construct their images of these two communities from the scrappy evidence provided by the census and their broad understanding of trends in these two cities. Their ability to paint vivid pictures from fragmentary evidence almost certainly derives from their years of patient work with the fragments of the Late Roman and Byzantine periods in Greece. 

(I couldn’t find the article online yet, but a few of the articles from the special issue are available here for free!).

Thing the Second

A good bit of our work on the Western Argolid Regional Project has focused on roads through our region. As a result, I’ve been trying to digest anything that drifts across my desk about roads in the Eastern Mediterranean. A couple of weeks ago, I spied Peri Johnson and Ömür Harmanşah’s “The Political Ecology of Roads And Movement: The Yalburt Yaylası Archaeological Landscape Research Project 2018 Season” from The Archaeology of Anatolia, Volume III (2019). Ömür Harmanşah has quietly established himself as one of the most insightful readers of the Mediterranean landscape and this article with Peri Johnson reflects his careful sophistication.

Johnson and Harmanşah consider the roads through their survey area in Central Anatolia from both a diachronic and decentralized perspective. In other words, they were not as concerned with the well-known roads through their area in particularly well documented periods and more interested in the ways in which local communities in their area interacted with one another and the wide region. By decentering their research and engaging with local communities, they were not only able to discover neglected roads and routes, but also associated sites. 

Their work and the situation in their survey area has close parallels with ours in the Western Argolid where in the Inachos valley formed the major route through our area throughout the ancient and into the modern period. At the same time, it has become clear that a number of significant routes linked sites in our survey area in ways that did not follow the dominant interregional road along the valley bottom. 

Thing the Third

I read John Sayles’ new book Yellow Earth this weekend. I really want to write a more substantive review of it, in part, because I really wanted to like it more than I did. Here are a few quick observations.

First, a colleague of mine mentioned once that most novels these days are really just short stories cobbled together. This book is that with plots and characters that come and go, intersect obliquely, and sometimes just fade away.

Second, Sayles does some interesting things with time. The book begins in the early days of the Bakken boom and ends just as the bust begins. For the characters, however, time passes at different rates. For two of the characters, their final year in high school traces the trajectory of the boom. For another, it occurs over the course of her pregnancy. For another still, it follow the construction of a house, the life span of a strip club, or the travels of a Mexican migrant from the border to North Dakota. The varying times at play during a boom is fascinating.

Third, the book navigates a difficult space in that one of the main characters is modeled after Tex Hall, the well-known and controversial former chairman of the Three Affiliated Tribes. This means Sayles spends much of the novel writing a number of Native American characters. While I don’t necessarily want to imply that his depiction of these characters was somehow inappropriate, instead, I’d like to acknowledge the ethical complications associated with this move and with depicting and understanding the complex attitudes among the Native American community to the oil boom.

Fourth and finally, for now, I still rankle at the depiction of the Bakken as the Wild West. I understand and appreciate the drama and the moral ambiguity latent in the concept of the Wild West, but I worry that this depiction somehow naturalizes the situation in the Bakken and undermines a reading that recognizes a series of very deliberate choices that allowed corrupt practices to prevail. 

Bakken, the Anthropocene, and Climate Change: An Abstract

A few months ago, an old friend Ömür Harmanşah nudged me to submit an abstract to a workshop panel he was organizing at next year’s annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research titled “Archaeology and Climate Change: New Challenges to Fieldwork in the Middle East”. I wrote up a little speculative blog post on it a few weeks ago. 

Now, after some conversations with my colleague Bret Weber and a draft abstract, I concocted something. The title is not very good, but I have until the end of the week to get that straight. More than that, this is for a workshop session so the paper will be very brief and mostly serve as a an initial point of departure for a larger conversation.

The Bakken, the Contemporary, and the Global. 

Many scholars have argued that the “oil crises” of the 1970s initiated a new period in global capitalism. Deregulation, privatization, and a deepening faith in the market as the arbiter of meaningful policy produced an environment in which goods, people, and capital flowed and pooled at a global scale. While today it remains possible to talk about nation states, the “Global” North and South, the Middle East and the “West,” and various other regional, ideological, political, and economic identifiers, these often terms reveal as much about global systems as they do local situations. Indeed, the interplay between the local and global anticipates an archaeology of the anthropocene, climate change, and the 21st century.

From 2013-2018, the North Dakota Man Camp project has studied temporary workforce housing and the industrial landscape of the Bakken Oil Patch in Western North Dakota. Our research in the Bakken traced the flow of capital, technology, oil, and most importantly people through the landscape of Western North Dakota. This paper makes a speculative comparison between the Bakken and the archaeology of the contemporary Middle East as a way to reconsider the spatial and temporal scales necessary to understand global capitalism, an archaeology of the contemporary, and the anthropocene.

Three Quick Things on a Snowy Monday

The sound of snowblowers woke me this morning because despite everything in town being closed someone just had to remove the snow at 6 am. 

Since I’m up and at my laptop, here are a few quick things for over the new year holiday.

First, I’ve finished the paper for the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting next week on legacy data. I struggled with this paper a good bit because I tried to wed my practical experience of working with legacy data to my somewhat underdeveloped interest in time. The results were predictably messy, but I feel instinctively like this line of thinking is heading somewhere. Here’s the paperHere’s the abstract to the paper. I’ve posted ideas (with a little help from my friends) here, here, and here and a draft here.

Second, I’ve started to do layout on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in
North Dakota, 1958–2018 edited by Kyle Conway. A few years ago, I had this idea of a “Bakken Bookshelf” which would include links to significant books on the Bakken. At the center of the “bookshelf” would be a trilogy of books: The Bakken Goes Boom, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (from our friends at NDSU Press), and, now, Sixty Years of Boom and Bust. I’d like to think that these three books – whatever their limitations – form the cornerstone for any academic engagement with the Bakken oil boom.

More than that, these three books provide a nice testimony for why regional presses matter. As far as I can tell, there has been no book length academic publications on the social conditions, history, and experience of the Bakken oil boom published outside the Northern Plains. Without NDSU Press and The Digital Press (and it’s predecessor, The University of North Dakota Press), the Bakken would have received far less scholarly attention. For a bit more on Sixty Years of Boom and Bust go here.

Finally, a few weeks ago, I took a flyer and bought a novella published by a small press, Soft Cartel Press. The book, Craig Rodger’s The Ghost of Mile 43 is bizarrely wonderful, and if you have the time to read its 80 some-odd pages, you should. The narrator writes with the stilted diction of film noire voice over (which for better or for worse, serves the plot just fine), but the descriptions of abandonment are really quite remarkable. In fact, the entire book stands more as a meditation on the abject and the archaeological than as a vehicle for a narrative (much less a plot).  

The Bakken Hundreds (Almost Final)

Over the last few weeks, Bret Weber and I have been working to refine our “Bakken Hundreds” piece for a volume called Archaeology Out-of-the-Box. 

Since our invitation to be part of the volume was pretty vague, we took advantage of the freedom to do something a bit different. We previewed an earlier draft here a couple of weeks ago, here’s the final draft.

This introduction is below followed by a link to download the entire paper.  

The Bakken Hundreds

The Bakken Hundreds describe seven seasons of archaeological fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch (2012-2018). The North Dakota Man Camp Project focused on workforce housing through archaeological documentation and authorized interviews. Here, the co-authors alternate 100-word statements from project notebooks, interviews, and publications loosely following Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart’s composition style in, The Hundreds (2019). Our assemblage reveals the material and social conditions of the Bakken by emphasizing the frenetic, dreamlike, precarity of boom times. For entries with specific dates, we also include the West Texas Intermediate Crude oil price per barrel as a rough indicator of Bakken prosperity.

Here’s a link to the entire paper.

The Bakken, Petroculture, and Climate Change

A year or so ago, I was reading a good bit on petroculture and the Anthropocene. I had begun – in a back of my napkin kind of way – to trace a research trajectory that led from our work in the Bakken a larger discussion of petroculture and climate change. At some point, other projects encroached on this work and before too long, like so many ideas, this one slipped into the background.

Last week, an old friend asked whether I might consider contributing a paper to a panel on archaeology and climate change in the Middle East. As I was saying that I didn’t really have anything on that particular topic, he nudged me to consider something that connects my work in the Bakken to the larger issue of climate change.  A dim light bulb flickered to life.

I don’t have a paper yet (to be clear, the panel hasn’t been accepted!). In fact, I don’t even have an abstract, but I do have a few ideas.

1. Movement. It seems like many of the situations present in the Bakken anticipate the challenges posed by climate change. The arrival of temporary workers in a fragile and sparsely populated landscape anticipates, at least in form, the movement of climate refugees from settlements made vulnerable from changing and volatile weather patterns, rising sea levels, and the redistribution of resources.  

2. Logistics and Scarcity. The presence of oil workers in the Bakken also anticipates the paradox of logistics that is so essential to understanding the future of human society on a changing Earth. European settlement in Western North Dakota is fundamentally the product of petroculture. It was driven by the expanded reach of rail and facilitated by gasoline-powered cars and trucks. The Bakken became a place for large scale agricultural practices before it became a place defined by the sustainable extraction of oil.

Today, the challenge facing oil extraction regularly face the difficulties of moving this oil to refining and the market. The investment in infrastructure, from pipelines to additional rail capacity, defines the Bakken boom as much as the number of barrels per day. Our networked world, then, depends upon petroleum driven logistics. As climate change increasingly challenges and compromises the logistic networks that constitute our modern world, how will a world “after oil” support resilient communities in what appears to be a far more volatile climate regime? How will concepts of the local and global shift? 

3. The Present, the Past, and the Future. Readers of this blog know that I’m inordinately fond o Amitav Ghosh’s observation that in the 21st century, the poor are experiencing the future first. In my time working the Bakken, it seems to me that the model of hypermobility and precarity offered by work in the oil patch anticipates a less stable economic, political, and climactic future. This isn’t to suggest that workers in the Bakken are poor by any global standard, but to suggest that the lifestyle demanded of the workers in extractive industries foreshadows a less stable world.  

The workers in the Bakken (and in any community defined by the precarity and instability of extractive, seasonal, and “just in time” work) have begun to redefine domesticity and the material character of social life. The response to this adaptation from many outside those working in the oil fields has been complex and largely negative. In fact, much of the response from both permanent communities in Western North Dakota and the national media remains shaped by nostalgic views of middle class aspirations from land and home ownership to the nuclear family defining a place of residence. In many ways, the economic status of the oil workers – many of whom earn middle class salaries for their work – maps onto critiques of the global poor and historical working class.  

~

In short, a paper on the Bakken and climate change might extend my interest in petroculture to a social critique of the culture of climate change. I realize that my observations today are rough around the edges, but I have time and can’t escape the feeling that there is something here, if I just keep playing with ideas enough.

The Bakken Hundreds (A Draft)

Over the last week or so, Bret Weber and I have been working on a little article for an edited collection called “Archaeology Out of the Box.” Our work has been inspired by Lauren Berlant’s and Kathleen Stewart’s book, The Hundreds and, as I blogged about last week, it involves 100 word insights into our field work drawn from our field notes, interviews, published pieces, and photographs.

The piece isn’t done, but it’s far enough along to share, I think. To my mind, this piece is among the most compelling that we’ve put together. At the same time, I suspect we’ll work to balance the sensational with the everyday as we add a few more “hundreds” to assemblage, but the rhythm of encounters presented here feel quite authentic to me.

 

The Bakken Hundreds

The Bakken Hundreds is an experiment in understanding six seasons of archaeological fieldwork in North Dakota’s Bakken oil patch (2012-2018). Our study focused in particular on workforce housing during the Bakken boom and involved both archaeological documentation and hundreds of hours of interviews. The authors alternated presenting 100 word statements from our notebooks, interviews, and publications loosely following the method of composition used by Lauren Berlant and Kathleen Stewart in their book, The Hundreds (2019). The passages offer a window into the material and social conditions of the Bakken as well as the authors’ reading of these conditions. 

(MC 65) Riker Brown, Camp Owner, August 21, 2013, ($106.42–West Texan Intermediate Crude Price per Barrel at that time)

RB :Right. So we went with the RVs and actually, this is like a family park. We have kids on bikes and dogs. We promote families, dogs, kids. So it’s temporary housing but some of these people bring their families for the summer and they’ll go back for the winter, but they’ll stay here.

Bret Weber (BW): Mom and the kids are here when school’s out?

RB: Right.

~

(MC 40) Camp Manager, July 31, 2015 ($47.12)

The owner was interested in transitioning the RV park to a more permanent mobile home park. This involved fixing significant code violations – especially the water and sewage pipes being in the same trench – and installing a $500,000 septic system. Camp makes no money. Despite the optimism, the camp appears rather rough with abandoned RVs, lots of abandoned equipment, and a run down playground. Some trash. Owner noted the difficulties in keeping the camp clean. Thinking of installing wind breaks, trees, and snow fences. – Caraher Notes on Blaisdell RV Park 

~

(MC 75) Diane Skillman, camp resident, October 4, 2014 ($89.74)

DS: Well I think everybody keeps a bit of water running just to keep it from freezing. Although, they did freeze up there at the other end.

BW: Is that the water tank over there?

DS: No, that’s the poop tank. [laughs]

BW: Oh, so where do you get your water from then … it’s ground water?

DS: Yeah, he has a well and everybody is pumped into that, and then he’s got, well last year that froze 

~

To enter Stanley proper, turn left from old US 2 onto MainStreet. About a half mile south, Main Street passes beneath the Highline, which is carried on a deck-girder concrete bridge dating to the 1930s. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, reflecting the importance of rail to this part of the state. Today, Amtrak’s Empire Builder continues to serve Stanley from a small, modern railway station on the east side of Main Street. Farther south on Main Street is the Two Way Inn and Bar, which offers a delicious patty melt in authentic surroundings for the oil patch.

Caraher and Weber 2017, 41.

~

(MC 14) William Nelson, camp resident and ‘fisherman,’ Aug 11 2012 ($85.38)

WN:  I’m a consultant and my specialty is fishing. When they lose things in holes, I fish

it out. It’s not everybody’s favorite but… people on rigs don’t want to see me coming but when they need me, then there it is.

~

(MC 14) Don Ashton, owner of the land under the camp, Oct 28 2016 ($48.70). 

Well, I bought the land in ’85. I’ve been living here since ’81. All the investors come out of

South Dakota, Rapid City, to see if I wanted to do kind of trailers … they said they were gonna put in water and sewer for ‘em, and that never happened … They had big dreams and everything. I gave them a longer term lease, cause they said, oh they wanted long, you know, maybe do it a motel or a hotel, so they figured maybe 10 acres or so … Then I found out they were trying to sell this 110 acres out from underneath me and I got pissed off and took them to court. 

 ~

(MC 77) Juan Gonzales, camp resident, May 3, 2015 ($59.15) : 

It’s not easy, you know, living out here, but, I mean it is a good way- me, for example, I’m

young, I started out at a young year, it’s a good way so I can get a good start at life and then, invest in a home where I’m going to be able to live and move on later as soon as everything calms down here. I think a lot of people are taking advantage of it and making the best of all this stuff and they’re gonna-whoever’s taking good advantage of it is gonna be making- is gonna have a good future.

 ~

P1090664

MC 77, March 6, 2015 ($49.61) Photo W. Caraher.

~

(MC 10) Eugenio & Adelina, Camp residents, Feb 9, 2013 ($95.72)

Eliseo- For people that want to just work and come home and sleep, you know it’s a nice little place to stay at, but you know, there’s, you have to watch out who you live around, you know, you can’t trust a lot of people— 

Ariel- It’s good money but everything else is so dang expensive that you can make the same anywhere else—

~

(MC 10) David Donaldson, camp resident July 11, 2015 ($52.74). 

I heard there used to be a lot of meth out here, but you know, nothing that I ever really had a problem with [it], so. But yeah, you know, just a million different personalities and people living with their kids and family, and a lot of drinking and fighting, just, I’ve seen pretty much everything you can possibly think of out here, that just random stuff. You come home and everybody’s just got chairs set up around your camper having a fire outside your camper, and you can’t get any sleep and, blowing flames out of their mouth with alcohol in front of the little kids… 

~

Gene Veeder, Executive-Director McKenzie County, Jobs Development Authority, August 11, 2014 ($97.65)

your law enforcement and your sheriff’s department are all transporting so it’s pretty hard for them to, if they have to go to even Bismarck, you know, it’s an all-day trip and their entire trip is spent transporting prisoners so it’s way more costly than we originally thought.

BW: What’s the local police force, the size?

GV: We have city and county. We have gone from 6 sheriff deputies to 19. Police force went from 2 to 9. We’ve always got openings of course too.

~

(MC 40) Donny Bringwatt, camp resident–just arrived from Texas, January 16, 2016 ($29.42)

BW: Right. So when the work starts what will the work cycle be? How many days on, how many days off?

DB: [inaudible] 

BW: I don’t know what that means.

DB: It means you start in the mornings, and you work till, however many hours a day you can work … seven days a week

BW: Yeah

DB: We’re here to work, we’re not here to, you know

BW: … well right now, you’re not working, so you’re cooking a ham, what else do you do when you-?

DB: [inaudible] [laughs] I’m just cookin’ a ham, I’m gonna eat it [laughs] Play dominos, play poker.

~

(MC 28) Will Oldman & his roomate, Feb 19 2013 ($93.13) 

WO: As long as you don’t go to the strip clubs from what I hear (laughs) I’ve heard some pretty horrible stories about some strip club, I think it was in Watford, closed it down because guys were getting raped in the bathroom, viscously I mean— 

Roomate: Crime has gone up almost 100% around here, compared to what it ever was, just a quiet town where you could leave your keys in your door open, keys in your car and stuff like that, nowadays you can’t do that and uh not only that but the women that are here fear for their lives …

~

(MC 11) Description of the material outside two units, August 10, 2012 ($92.87).

Massive built deck, grill, plants, fence, dog run. stone, satellite tv, ramp leading to deck, potted plants, hanging plants, plywood around the base of a planted tree. Scrap wood underneath various garden features, propane tanks, table set on cinderblocks, outdoor bed, tarp, pallets, trashcan.

Pallet deck, kids toys, wading pool, small table, camp chairs (some kids sized), potted plants, plywood, small fence between unit and road, toy truck, strange tubs, propane tanks, water jugs, grill, cooler, satellite TV.

~

(MC 11) Angela & Bob Williams, December 13, 2014 ($57.81) 

AW: Lots of insulation. That, you’ll find a ton throughout the park. Any insulation, any wood. If you can get their hands on it they’ll take it. So many people skirting and mudrooms are built from recycled materials. You know, it’s just used over and over and over.

Ben W: It’s like, ‘well I’m moving if you want it, and make a little modifications,’ you know.

AW: If it’s coveted, everyone wants a mudroom. If you leave behind a mudroom…

Ben W: But now they knock the mudrooms down, they don’t give people opportunity to take them anymore.

~

Mudroom Guidelines

1. Mudrooms require plans be submitted to Park Management.
2. Mudrooms smaller than 5×10 may be made and will require no deposit.
3. Any Mudrooms larger than 5×10 will require an additional $300 clean-up deposit.
4. Maximum Mudroom size is 20×8.
5. Maximum height of Mudroom is no higher than the RV.
6. No Mudroom additions may fully enclose the trailer (may not extend over the top).
7. RV must be able to be removed from lots without obstructions (no part of any mudroom may extend behind or in front of RV).

Posted at MC 11, dated November 7, 2012 ($86.07)

~

Barb Bendle, Aug 10, 2012 ($92.87) MC11

Mudrooms yeah. We do check them out and make sure they meet the fire code and that they’re not built shoddily, so that if the wind comes up 80 mph, it’s not going to blow away. That’s what we do. Right. So it’s safe for people. So it’s not blowing down and hitting the next trailer or anything. My husband looks at their plot plans that we have them draw. Little plan telling us what they want to do and then we usually okay it because you know, we want them to have a little piece of land.  (trying to light a lighter/cigarette in the wind)

~

MC0902CROPPED

~

Roy Harrison & Garfield Washington, July 11, 2015 ($52.74), the RV Graveyard

BW: So you’re bringing trailers when people abandon them?

RH: Yeah, when people abandon their vehicles and whatnot… We had other things we were doing, but this was the most cost effective way. We were taking an excavator and we were crushing them and cycling the metal and the wood out and putting them in different dumpsters and just having them hauled off that way, just picking them all up at once and just shoving them in a dumpster and trashing it.

MW: Well during the wintertime if we are lucky we burn them.

BW: Who- Does the county allow you to do that?

MW: They did let you burn, when you know, when you can, with the snow, and (when) the wind’s not gonna affect it, and the land around it…

~

IMG 2951

Battery tank explosion near Alexander, ND from March 7, 2015 ($49.61).

~

Bret Weber, first trip to the Bakken, Jan 31, 2012 ($99.56)

We drove west out of town on Hwy 23, went south on 22, and then looped back west (probably on hwy 73), then north eventually turning east again on hwy 23.  We seemed to pass a number of smaller, ad hoc ‘man camp’ areas with various vehicles and RVs. The main thing that we witnessed was the night sky illuminated by dozens of flares—15-20 foot flames that burst straight into the air to burn off the natural gas that wells produce.

~

P1140668Photo of a memorial set up to Brendan Wegner who died in a well blow out in September 14, 2011 ($87.96) (photo from August 1, 2015 ($47.12)).

~

Clark Brewsman Feb 2013 ($95.72)  MC4 “The longest I ever worked was 57 hours, with a two hour nap. You don’t want to do it, but when the oil’s coming out of the ground it won’t stop and it needs to be tended to.”

~

(MC 16) Sally Burnick, camp resident October 28th, 2016 ($48.70)

SB: When the oil, when the oil tanked up there, and the oil went away, I lost my job, his overtime got cut, so our primary home, we couldn’t afford the big mortgage on it anymore, so that got foreclosed on, and we had another little rental house that we sold at a huge loss.

BW: So, how much stuff did you bring with you?

SB: We got rid of a lot of our stuff, like almost, we had a 3,000 square foot house, we got rid of almost all the furniture, almost all the artwork … Most of our stuff is in a storage shed packed into our horse trailer, um, we kept a couch, TV, entertainment center, DVDs, you know, knick knacks we were really fond of, family heirlooms … Everything else went, so we’re down to what’s in the horse trailer, our storage shed, our boat, and our camper [laughs]

~

Mark, Aug 9, 2012 ($92.87), MC8

M: They guaranteed 60 hours a week and holiday pay. 

BW: You’ve been here a month, have you ever worked 60 hours a week?

M: No. I’ve only worked 1 week so far. One full week.  I can’t stay much longer because I’m going broke. When I show up every morning, they give me 2 hours for showing up. And this week, so far, I have 6 hours. So I can’t make it. I’m buying my own food and paying rent and trying to pay bills at home … I’m getting the hell out of North Dakota.

~

Camp 8 August 2012 aerial  72 of 232

A kite photograph of MC8 outside Tioga, North Dakota. Note the regular arrangement of units, the elevated walkways between units, and the small common building with a flat roof in the center right of the image. (Photo by R. Rothaus, 2012.) 

~

Claudia Nielsen Aug 10 2012 ($92.87) MC10

CN: He’s from San Antonio, Texas. I met him while I was bartending, of course, I wasn’t drinking but I was working. What else do you do out here besides work and drink? So we just hung out a couple times and actually he proposed to me after about a week so, it happened really really fast. But when you know, you know.  We’re both out of 6-year marriages and I have actually, my kids are in Helena, Montana. Yeah he’s a very successful man so it’s going really well. He was in a mancamp actually so he’s enjoying the freedom of sharing my camper with me now.

~

(MC 65) Riker Brown, Camp Owner near Watford City, August 2, 2015 ($41.80)

BW: Are you seeing changes in the people who are living here now from a couple years ago?

RB: I’d say a lot of change. A lot more families, a lot more couples. 

BW: More permanent?

RB: More permanent. Or there’s, like the guys been out here so the next time he can bring his wife out, he’s kind of got it figured out, he’s got it like, he’s got an RV park, so then they bring, or have their wives come on out. Yeah. But first it was way more, you know, single guys, three guys living in a trailer, you know, but now, we’re seeing way more families.

~

Sue Christiansen Aug 9 2012 ($93.36) MC6

SC: Like the living conditions are terrible here. Like people are shitting behind, in the trees, past the trees right there. There’s flies everywhere… We’re like brothers, like a family, brothers and sisters out here, like a family. We’re close, tight-knit family. Like all my men, like I owned, I own a construction company called Christianson Construction so we were working, we were all contracted in Idaho but a bunch of just got together. My husband and his boss decided to uh come up here by themselves in the winter last year. It was terrible in the winter too. Terrible fricking conditions.

~

(MC 10) Richard Scrum, Camp Owner in Wheelock, ND, August 10, 2012 ($92.87)

RS: Well I had to put in power and water and sewer. The campers had full hookups here. It took me a while. I did it all by cash. I don’t use credit so I did everything in cash. Anything you do is really expensive out here. They want, for example, my well is bad here. They messed it up, the previous owners messed it up one night and I uh put $6,000 into fixing it and didn’t get it fixed yet. They said I have to put another $10,000 into just drilling a new well. I haven’t done it. I just put in a holding tank and I haul my water from Ray. It’s uh, there’s no city services here. The power’s the only city service and gas, I guess, we do have natural gas which is nice. But as far as water and sewer, you’re on your own.

~

With the collapse of oil prices in 2014, our work in the Bakken has come to focus increasingly on various forms of abandonment, as the number of temporary workers in the Bakken declined concurrently with the oil-rig count. Numerous coffee-makers in an abandoned RV revealed signs of methamphetamine use, trashed trailers smeared with human feces showed frustration and anger, and squatters’ occupying empty rooms at defunct crew camps reflect a shifting reality.

Caraher, Weber, Rothaus 2017, 200.

~

(MC 16) Shana Berritt, newcomer and camp resident, October 28, 2016 ($49.72)

SB: Um, don’t count on the oil field.

BW: Don’t count on an oil field?

SB: Don’t count on it, um, when it’s good it’s great, but when it tanks, it affects an entire community, if you haven’t been smart about it, you haven’t squirreled any money away, you’re going to be in trouble when it all drops off. [laughs] we learned the hard way, um, you know, my dad has seen the oil field rise and fall a couple times, and he kinda tried to warn us, but, you know, we said the oil field is so big, it’s going to last forever [laughs]

~

Our approach to documenting workforce housing drew on recent directions in archaeology and architectural history. First, archaeology of the contemporary world informed our work, and particularly this subfield’s interest in sites of short-term or ephemeral occupation. Zimmerman’s (2010) archaeology of homelessness, the archaeology of contemporary protest sites, photographic documentation of graffiti, and the archaeology of tourism collectively demonstrate how archaeological approaches to contemporary sites of contingency have the potential to inform issues of immediate social and political concern (Schofield and Anderton 2000; Graves-Brown and Schofield 2011; Kiddey and Schofield 2011, 2014).

Caraher, et al. 2017.

Slag

I read over the weekend Michael Given’s article titled “The materiality, monumentality and biography of copper slag on Cyprus” in the relatively recently publish festschrift for Anthony Snograss.  

Given explores the materiality of slag which is ubiquitous on Cyprus. Slag preserves in a tactile way the history of its production with the bubbles and rivulets on its surface reproducing the flow of molten metal from the furnace. The orderly deposition of slag near production sites created platforms for the superimposition of smelting kilns atop one another.  These form of slag and surfaces capture the work of producing copper from the rich ores of the Troodos mountains.

The article inspired me to think about two things.

First, slag is very common across the excavations at Polis-Chrysochous. This summer, in fact, we studied a layer of slag deposited below a floor surface and apparently used as a leveling fill. The presence of a slag heap dated by early archaeologists in the region to the Roman period likely served as a useful deposit of building material. The same slag may have also been used to pave the roads around our sites and accounts, in part, for the presence of slag in upper levels throughout the area. 

Second, I got to thinking a bit about how Given’s study of slag might inform of my thoughts about the production of refined oil in the Bakken oil patch in North Dakota. Given’s emphasis on flow as physically manifest in the form of slag, has obvious parallels with the flow of oil not only from the depths of the Bakken and Three Forks formation, but also through pipes onto trucks and through pipelines to refineries. If flow is the quintessential metaphor for modern understandings of productivity and capital, oil is the physical manifestation of this metaphor. It not only produces so much of the wealth necessary for the expansion of the modern economy (and ideas of prosperity, democracy, and social equality), but it also represents the flow of populations, wealth, and capital.  

Three Things Thursday

It’s Thursday and the week is racing toward its inevitable conclusion. I have three quick things on my mind as I struggle to get focused enough to push through teaching and a writing day tomorrow before a weekend full of layout for The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota

There’s a lot going on in the world, and most of it seems bad (or frankly terrifying). From the Kavanaugh hearings to Presidential alert buzzing my phone yesterday, it feel like all I can do is bury myself in either esoteric nonsense or projects that I feel like I can control. These introduce enough clutter to my brain to keep me from becoming too preoccupied, demoralized, or panicked. Maybe this kind of escapism, when recognized at scale, is part of the problem with society; maybe, for some of us, it’s the only way to stay sane. I worry that my own inability to deal effectively with what’s going on in society today is symptomatic of the problem.   

That being said, I will keep doing even if it looks more and more like I’m fiddling while Rome burns…

1. NDQ Volume 85. I am excited that the first volume of North Dakota Quarterly under my term as “Editor-in-Chief” has gone off to the copy editor. This will be a interstitial volume between NDQ publishing as an independent publisher and as an independent “little magazine” published by the University of Nebraska Press (UNP) (this is an open secret still and there hasn’t been an official announcement yet). In other words, NDQ is out of the publishing business, but still in the content producing business. This is good for us financially and in terms of workload. University of Nebraska Press has production capacity and economies of scale in terms of printing and distribution. It means that I can focus my attention on working with our genre editors on content and with Nebraska to expand our readership, contributors, and subscribers. 

The publication date for this, if we can get it into UNP’s hands by November 1, will be early 2019, which isn’t too far from the 2018 date for the volume.  

2. Digital Ephemera and the Archive. One of the interesting things that has come out of the conversation with University of Nebraska Press is the digital future for NDQ. As a public humanities and literary journal (as if these two things were really different), I always have felt that it was more than ephemera. As such, I pushed for the digital archive of NDQ to be made available via the HathiTrust and had always seen both paper and digital distribution and archiving to be part of the journal’s future. In fact, I had imagined that digital subscriptions, particularly for our institutional subscribers, might be more appealing and easier to manage. In effect, I had imagined that the digital form of NDQ would be the archival format and the paper format would be more ephemeral.

This, of course, represents a pretty significant inversion of how I’ve seen publishing. It used to be that paper versions of books and journals were for the archive because the material nature of paper made it relatively easy to preserve when compared to the changing nature of bits and bytes. Today, however, paper appears more and more as a novelty or for the sake of nostalgia or for reasons completely separate from its traditional place as an archival medium. People discuss the feeling of a book, its scent, and even the way in which paper helps us engage the text in a less distracted way.

The digital form is the archive, which I suppose makes some sense, as most of our publications today are born digital.  

3. Bakken and The Digital Press. One of the little things that have vexed me about Amazon.com (among the many, but this was a little one), is that it never connected my two books on the Bakken through it’s “Frequently bought together” feature. 

It was pleasant surprise this week, then, when I noticed that The Bakken and The Bakken Goes Boom were finally connected. It is now possible to buy both The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (2017) and The Bakken Goes Boom (2016) together for less then $30. That’s less than ONE DOLLAR a day or less than your favorite coffee at Starbucks.

I was sort of bummed to hear that The Bakken wasn’t selling very well (or it was selling well, but in very low numbers). I think of it as a kind of accessible experiment in understanding complex, industrial landscapes. Even if you aren’t super interested in the Bakken, maybe you’ll be interested in my approach:

IMG A908BF4B5F47 1

 

 

Sixty Years of Boom and Bust: The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018

Over the last year, I’ve been whispering about this project a bit. Kyle Conway is editing an updated version of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (1958), and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota will republish both original report and an updated slate of essays. The updated version will be titled Sixty Years of Boom and Bust The Impact of Oil in North Dakota, 1958–2018, and it will become a contributing volume to the Bakken Bookshelf and sit nice alongside The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016). 

Campbell et al 1958 dragged

If you’re interested in the original report, which anyone interested in North Dakota history should read. There’s a digital copy of the book available from The Digital Press’s page on the Internet Archive here (and if you’re interested in a paper copy one is available from Re-Ink Books in Delhi, India). 

Kyle Conway has sent me a little peek at the table of contents for the new version of the book. It looks fantastic:

I. INTRODUCTION

1. Introduction: Sixty Years of Boom and Bust (2018), by Kyle Conway
2. Introduction and Summary (1958), by Bernt L. Wills, Ross B. Talbot, Samuel C. Kelley, Jr., and Robert B. Campbell

II. PHYSICAL GEOGRAPHY
3. Physical Attributes of the Area (1958), by Bernt L. Wills
4. The Geographic Setting of the Bakken Oil Shale Play (2018), by Bradley C. Rundquist and Gregory S. Vandeberg 

III. POLITICS
5. Political Impact (1958), by Ross B. Talbot
6. Political Impacts (2018), by Andrea Olive

IV. ECONOMY
7. The Economic Impact of Oil Development (1958), by Samuel C. Kelley, Jr.
8. The Economic Consequences of Oil Development (2018), by David Flynn

V. SOCIAL CHANGE
9. Social Change in the Basin (1958), by Robert B. Campbell
10. Social Impacts of Oil Development (2018), by Rick Ruddell and Heather Ray
11. Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch (2018), by William Caraher and Bret Weber
12. Drinking, Drugs, and Long Waits: Community Members’ Perceptions of Living in a North Dakotan Boomtown (2018), by Karin L. Becker
13. Boomtown Bias: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of North Dakota’s Commercial Sex Laws (2018), by Nikki Berg Burin

VI. APPENDICES
Appendix A: Methodology Note (1958)
Appendix B: Supplementary Tables (1958)

Kyle has also been playing around with the cover and grabbed a great photograph of Williston on his last visit to the area.

SixtyYearsCoverDraft

Ideally the book will drop toward the end of this year, but we’re probably dealing with the “long 2018” for this volume with an early 2019 publication date, but judging by the table of contents, I’m pretty sure that this book will be worth the wait.