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:

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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.

Making Home in the Bakken Oil Patch

This summer Bret Weber and I have been working on a very overdue contribution to a pretty unique volume edited by my collaborator Kyle Conway. The book will be a reprint of The Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota by Robert Cambell and colleagues and published by The University of North Dakota Press in 1958. It will include a wide range of essays including updated treatments of the North Dakota economy, politics, and, as you can see in our contribution, housing and is scheduled to appear this fall from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota as part of its soon-to-be-inaugurated Bakken Bookshelf Series which will include the volume edited by me and Kyle Conway, The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota (2016), the volume that Bret Weber and I wrote on the Bakken, The Bakken: An Archaeology of An Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), the forthcoming digital publication of The BeastThe Williston Report at 60, and, in preparation, Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken

While this article was written for a very specific context, the article is really the first to really emphasize the voices of residents of the Bakken oil patch alongside our treatment of the material culture. We still have a ways to go in bringing out the “voices of the Bakken,” from my perspective, this short article is a good first step. 

The introduction is below. To download the entire paper from my Humanities Commons site, go here.

If not for the dated photographs, the 1958 Williston Report‘s treatment of housing could apply to the early 21st century Bakken Boom. During both times, a mobile and rapidly changing workforce marked the onset of the boom for older communities in the region, and the arrival of new workers had at least as significant an impact, in the short term, as the rig-counts and the barrels of oil sent to market. In both the 1950s and the 2010s, the influx of new workers in the region produced high rents, limited housing options, and created a sense of social disruption.

During the Bakken’s most recent boom, we led the North Dakota Man Camp Project, which, like the authors of the Williston Report, brought a multi-disciplinary team to the Bakken oil patch (for a review of this project see Caraher et al. 2017; Caraher and Weber 2017; Caraher et al. 2016; Barkdull at al. 2016). Our project focused on documenting the material and social lives of the workers living in the wide range of workforce housing sites across the region. The North Dakota Man Camp Project and the Williston Report both captured a moment in the everchanging space of the Bakken. Indeed, the rapid pace of change, and the resulting housing crisis and social disruption, appear to be a common feature to resource booms around the world. Booms can create collisions when they bring the needs and capital of the center to rural peripheries (Caraher 2016) and “outside” workers arrive in the region and interact with longer-term, more established residents. Despite these structural similarities, there are differences in terms of the scope of the two Bakken booms with each involving distinct policy reactions and economic and political contexts. As a result, we located the 21st-century Bakken boom within its particular historical context with our attention to workforce housing framed by the growing concern for housing in the late modern world.

This chapter provides a critique of the 1958 Report’s treatment of housing, a consideration of the emergent perspectives on workforce housing in the present, and an overview of our research of temporary workforce housing. It concludes with a consideration of how economic booms and busts manifest and accelerate changing ideals about domesticity, and the political ramifications of these changes for community in a global, neoliberal context.

Housing and the 1958 Williston Report

Yesterday was may day off from my work at Polis on Cyprus and while I spent a little time just relaxing, I spent most of the day writing up an overdue submission to a forthcoming reprint to the Robert B. Campbell, Samuel C. Kelley, Ross B. Talbot, and Bernt L. Wills’s Williston Report: The Impact of Oil on the Williston Area of North Dakota (Grand Forks, UND Press 1958). Kyle Conway will edit the volume and it will appear from The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota and as part of the larger Bakken Bookshelf project.

Campbell et al 1958  dragged

Our essay will focus on housing in the 1958 report and in the 21st-century boom. I’ll emphasize that what I’ve written below was very much composed on the fly. This isn’t my usual method of writing. 

The Williston Report provided an invaluable snapshot of the 1950s oil boom. The statistics presented offers a window into the scale of the boom, as well as the challenge of counting and documenting a mobile and temporary workforce and measuring the impact of social change. In the absence of consistent and high-resolution data, the authors of the Williston Report supplemented their study with interviews and more impressionistic readings of the situation.

The Williston Report is very much a report, in that it approached various different aspects of the 1950s oil boom largely on their own terms. There is little effort to locate the 1950s Bakken boom within the history of the state, the region, or larger conversations on extractive industries or changes in the mobility of the American workforce in the post war era. As the author notes, this report is a case study rather than a policy brief or an argument for understanding the broader causes and patterns of social change.

That being said, Campbell and his colleagues’ observations are not without judgment or coherence. In terms of housing, they assert that some of the housing in the Bakken, particularly around Tioga was, indeed, “substandard,” including tarpaper shacks moved from farms, structures rough enough to be thought of as “grain bins” by some observers, and closely-placed trailers. In fact, the photos in the volume showed light-weight, closely-spaced buildings that the owner could move two at a time with a farm truck (pp. 33-34). Interviews with a resident of these buildings, who had come to the region from the south, confirmed their unsuitability. At the same time, they observe that communities like Ray and Tioga also subdivided more substantial, existing structures to accommodate workers. Some oil companies also provided mobile housing units to accommodate their employees in the oil patch.

Second, they noted the tight housing market caused by the boom had motivated communities and developers to invest in high quality housing. This housing tended to attract individuals who already enjoyed stable housing in the region and enjoyed higher incomes. As a result, the construction of this housing did little to alleviate the challenges facing new and temporary residents of the region. Pressures to limit the extent and impact of temporary housing, however, accompanied the new construction and communities and developers reduced the options available to the temporary residents.

Finally, there were clear similarities in the settlement structure of the 1950s oil boom and that of the 21st century. The cluster of camps between US Route 2 and Tioga and on Route 85 on the northern side of Williston neatly parallel the clusters of camps in the recent boom. Campbell also noted, however, that the divide between housing for new arrivals and housing for pre-boom residents is more varied than the stark social divide between the groups would suggest. Ray, Tioga, and Williston demonstrate both new neighborhoods occupied largely by new arrivals in the Bakken and infilling of older neighborhoods with new residences.

Campbell remained reluctant to argue that housing represented a genuine “social problem” in the Bakken. Some of this might be a semantic issue as he distinguished between issues that he regarded as “personal problems,” which implied a greater significance of a particular problem for a single individual than the community at large, and larger social problems, which had an impact across the entire community and region. In this regard, the 1958 Williston report echoed many of the sentiments found in our own research in the Bakken. Housing, while “disturbing to the researcher” (p. 131) was only rarely articulated clearly as problem by the residents. At the same time, Campbell’s report and our own work, has demonstrated that housing in the Bakken remained a general concern for existing communities in the region. The tensions between the scale and significance of housing as an issue represent a key element in understanding the trajectory of housing on individual and regional level in the 21st century Bakken.

 

Historiography of Short-Term Housing and Home

Campbell’s interest in housing in the Williston Report reflects a long-standing interest in short-term, boom-time housing and anticipates the 21st century considerations of a global housing crisis. Scholars have long had a strong interest in housing and settlement associated with extractive industries and large scale construction projects in the American West. John Bickerstaff Jackson’s 1953 study of the “westward moving house,” and his late 1950s research on housing in the Four Corners area of the Southwest recognized housing in the American West as a distinct phenomenon adapted both to the identity of the owner and to the economic needs of a region. More recent studies on temporary worker housing during World War II and in the rise of the mobile homes and RVs as expressions of the tension between mobility and stability in the American suburbs likewise saw the middle of the 20th century as a period during which housing and the concept of domesticity came to intersect with new materials, plans, and social roles. Set against this backdrop, Campbell’s ambivalent attitude toward the housing problem in the 1950s Bakken reflected the significant changes taking place within American attitudes toward the house and domesticity in the same decade (see Hayden 1984 for the classic treatment of this period).

In recent years, housing has emerged as a global concern with the expansion of ad hoc housing around urban areas in the global south, the challenges associated housing the growing number of refugees and migrants, and growing workforce of laborers engaged in precarious manufacturing jobs, construction projects, and other short-term ventures fueled by the increased mobility of global capital.  Activists and scholars alike have come to recognize that the housing needs of workers, migrants, refugees, and urban dwellers is more than simply a practical concern, but involves issues of social, economic, and environment justice. Recent critiques have made clear, for example, that Williston Report’s recognition of the tendency for developers to invest in high cost and high profit units at the expense of affordable housing has contributed to the global housing crisis (e.g. Madden and Marcuse 2016).

These trends in the historiography give the observations on housing in the 1958 Williston Report offer an almost uncanny relevance for anyone interested in the challenges facing 21st-century society. Even Campbell’s observation that housing in the 1950s Bakken representing more of a “personal problem,” than a social one, offers useful reminder that temporary housing often represents a negotiation between the denizens of these dwellings and global ideals of domesticity, material and environmental limits, and the perspective of surrounding residents who often seek to balance the pressure of global and national capital with their own access to local and regional political and social capital. In this context, the temporary housing in the Bakken and the conditions that produced its appearance emerge as less an exceptional response to an unexpected boom and more of a grim model for housing the growing class of precarious workers.

Surfaces in the Bakken

This week, I’ve been sneaking in some time to finish Maya Rao’s Great American Outpost: Dreamers, Mavericks, and the Making of an Oil Frontier (2018). It is a familiar book and echos many of the themes and characters present in Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (2017). They’re both good reads.

But both books also bother me. Some of my complaints are the standard kind. Briody and Rao tend to focus on a particular cross section of the Bakken: people with troubled pasts who came to North Dakota during the boom either to strike it rich or, at least, to escape from their previous lives. Many deal with issues of addiction, violence, poverty, or other social ills, but their willingness to come to the Bakken offers a glimmer of redemption for these characters. Whatever difficulties that they have faced in life, Briody and Rao emphasize that individuals who trekked to the Bakken made their own decisions and retained their own agency. This agency, however, is a bit toxic in that it only establishes these figures as tragic heroes who cannot escape their own past despite their efforts. 

The tragic figures who populate these two books create a kind of tension. On the one hand, reading about the lives of these individuals is sufficiently removed from a kind of imagined suburban norm to represent some kind of economically, socially, or morally compromised “other.” On the other hand, their inability to escape their past remains us of destruction wrought by the Bakken boom on communities and the landscape. In other words, both authors push us to consider whether we can dismiss these individuals as damaged dreamers who came to the Bakken in an effort to redeem compromised lives or whether we are fundamentally similar to these individuals. Perhaps our thirst for fossil fuels, material things, and wealth has made us complicit in the both the social and environmental ruin that the Bakken seems to promise. 

If this argument runs through each of these book, it’s implicit. (Especially in comparison to Matt Hern, Am Johal, and Joe Sacco’s remarkable Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017)).

There is a superficiality to Briody’s and Rao’s books. That is not to say that they are not well-researched, well-written, or carefully arranged, but that their main interest is the surface. The descriptions Rao’s book are particularly intriguing. They trace the contours of the Bakken in great detail from the rugged badlands of McKenzie County to the featureless prairies of the US-Canadian border. The characters are likewise drawn in careful detail with drug dealing ex-strippers, struggling fathers, wealthy tricksters, and wary locals rubbing shoulders and weaving tales. The work of the oil fields also received sustained attention with drilling, fracking, wastewater disposal, driving trucks, and even “stacking” drill rigs described in detail. Truck stops, watering holes, restaurants, and RVs served as interview rooms and background for much of the book.  

The fascinating thing about Rao’s richly drawn landscapes and figures is that they were so gently superimposed on one another. They spaces and people produce exotic places that are as ephemeral as the boom itself. The surfaces glided seamlessly beneath each other without the creation of depth or substance like diaphanous drapery that only hints at its existence while leaving what it covers exposed. 

The expansiveness of these transparent – or at least translucent – surfaces eliminates any space for the kind of ironic revelations that are so familiar in academic writing. What you see is literally what you see. It does not stand in for something else. It does not craftily allude to its opposite. It barely trades in implicitness beyond the simple notion that in the 21st century we’re all tragic characters in the fight against environmental degradation, precarity, and exploitative practices inherent to capitalism and extractive industries.

I tend to think that the daily confrontation with the seemingly intractable challenges of capital, precarity, and climate change has revealed the variegated surfaces that these phenomena have produced. There is no larger lesson, there is not reality that lurks beneath these “structures,” and there is little to brook any deeper interpretation that goes beyond nuanced description. Even history itself succumbs to the expansiveness of this surface. The California Gold Rush, the Alaska pipeline rush, and the first boom are simply variations on the theme of booms, busts, and opportunism. For Rao, dreams and dreamers are just that. They don’t reveal some long suppressed wish, injury, or hope. Rao’s Bakken dreamers ARE these hopes, wishes, and scars. Interpretation is unnecessary and probably futile.  

In this way, Rao’s and Briody’s books stand as an explicit and familiar monuments that tells a well-known tale. The surfaces prepared by these authors offers the kind of complicated reflection that makes the possibility of othering the denizens of the Bakken impossible. We are what we see in the Borgesian surface that extends in all directions. There’s no need to dig any deeper because it’s just surface, all the way down. 

Cyprus is Everywhere

Last week, Annemarie Weyl Carr asked if anyone could offer a summary of a recent publication that they might share with the Cyprus American Archaeological Research Institute’s newsletter.  I thought it would be fun to share my most recent book on the Bakken, which in very real ways had its origins in the Eastern Mediterranean and on Cyprus, in particular.

So here’s my little write-up. It’s another attempt at writing in a more breezy and accessible style.

The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape
Or Cyprus is Everywhere.

My first season excacating on Cyprus was in 2008. At that time, I had completed four seasons of intensive pedestrian survey at the site of Pyla-Koutsopetria, a coastal site located some 10 km east of Larnaka and just inside the British Base at Dhekelia. I was carrying the controller of a differential GPS unit across slopes of loose soil at the coastal height of Vigla while an unlikely colleague, Bret Weber, dutifully held the rover in place and leveled it as I recorded the point. We did this thousands of times on our way to making a high-resolution DEM of our site. It was boring work but gave us plenty of time for conversation.

Bret Weber was the project’s cook and camp manager, and he’d help out in the field almost every day. He also had a PhD in Western History and had almost completed his Masters in Social Work. He was deeply active in issues surrounding housing both in our home town of Grand Forks, North Dakota and in his scholarship in 20th century urbanism and social welfare. As we took point after point, we discussed the Bakken Oil Boom that had just started to rumble in western North Dakota and the growing rumors of life in the temporary “man camps” that had popped up across “the patch” to accommodate the influx of works. Those who couldn’t find room in a hotel or in a man camp ended up squatting in the Williston Walmart parking lot, and in various make-shift camps across the Bakken counties. At the same time, our work at the site of of Vigla where we clicked off point after point, revealed what we thought was probably a 4th-century mercenary camp, housing soldiers who occupied this prominent fortified height on the Cypriot coast during the tumultuous early Hellenistic era. We wondered about life in an ancient camp and whether the mercenary camp was similar to the encampments and short-term settlements that for millennial served miners in the Troodos mountains. Our field work, the history of settlement and extractive industries on Cyprus, and important work of archaeologists and historians to unpack the relationship between the two, framed our discussion of what was going with settlement and extractive industries in western North Dakota.

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When Bret and I returned home we continued to reflect on our fieldwork conversations, we read extensively on the organization of settlement and extractive industries in a global context, we recruited a range of colleagues to our project, many of whom were Mediterranean archaeologists, and, finally, in 2012, we inaugurated the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (Fargo, ND: North Dakota State University Press 2017) is the first book-length publication from this project.

This book used the genre of the tourist guide to present the bustling and sometimes ephemeral landscape of the Bakken oil patch. The decision to frame our work as a tourist guide once again drew on my experience as a tourist in Greece in the 1990s and then Cyprus in early 21st century which indelibly shaped my view of the landscape. The language of my trusty Rough and Blue Guide for Greece and Cyprus suffused the language of The Bakken, which, like these handy guides, is divided into routes and sites. Our goal was to evoke the modern experience of tourism created, in part, by such iconic guidebooks as Baedeker’s and the Blue Guide which became synecdoches for the informed tourist. More importantly, my summers in Greece and Cyprus as both an informed tourist and an archaeologist reinforced the parallels between these two deeply modern experiences of landscapes. The spaces and places defined and described by both tourism and archaeology are profoundly modern. In short, my time on Cyprus made me aware of my modern way of seeing the world.

In a 1982 essay, the poet Tom McGrath used the phrase, “North Dakota is Everywhere” to reflect on the influence of the prairie state on writers, artists, and readers around the world. In writing The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape, I hope readers familiar with my other archaeological work will see in its pages that maybe “Cyprus is Everywhere” as well.

Voices of the Bakken (and some other cool stuff)

Last weekend, the night before the Eagles punched their ticket to the Super Bowl, a group of us got together to talk punk rock in the Trump era at Ojata Records in Grand Forks.

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As part of that event, I put together a little grab bag of music, books, and documents donated by punk rockers, interested fellow travelers, and The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota. Thanks to Andrew Reinhard, Chris Matthews and Quiz Show, June Panic, Brian Schill, Bret Weber, and everyone else who made this possible and contributed something fun to the little handout.

Here’s a link to that packet.

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The part of this little packet that excites me the most is the first little glimpse of a huge project brewing at The Digital Press: Bret Weber’s Voices of the Bakken. Over the half-decade life of the North Dakota Man Camp Project, Bret Weber and his colleagues have interviewed dozens of people in the Bakken. The plan has been to publish all of these interviews with commentary. At present, we’re offer a sample of six of them to give a taste of the range and character of the interviews. 

Here’s a link to that book.

Weber Voices of the Bakken Cover

Bruder’s Nomadland and Briody’s The New Wild West: Mobility and the End of the Suburban Dream

I grew up in a house on Wheatfield Drive in a northern suburb of Wilmington, Delaware. I lived there until I was 18 and then on-and-off during the next few summers while I attended college. Growing up, I never moved.

My experience growing up on a suburban street named after the rural vision of the Wheatfield may be one of the quintessential expressions of 20th century, middle-class. In this context, the RV, the mobile home, and the camper represented a respite from the banal conformity of suburban living. While my family never camped or had an RV, we nevertheless recognized the freedom to travel and live untethered to a single place – even the idyllic wheat field – as an appealing fantasy. My dad long talked about getting an RV and rolling across the American West, stopping wherever the spirit moved him, and seeing the sights and sites of the country. As recently as this summer, as my wife and I saw the campers lining the route of the Tour de France, we fantasized about renting a camper-van in Europe and touring. In fact, my wife did just this on a walkabout year in Australia when she and a friend cruised the Australian coast finding seasonal work when money ran low or opportunity presented. Life in a camper van was a temporary departure from the conventions of middle and upper class life. Life in the suburbs represented being part of the establishment – the modern equivalent of the yoeman farmer – who connection to a place demonstrated economically, physically, and socially his or her connection to a community.

Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century (W.W. Norton 2017) and The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017) tell a different story. These two books tell the story of people who live in RVs, mobile homes, camper vans, their trucks and cars between short stints on the couches of friends and relatives. If Mathew Desmond’s Evicted sketched out the persistent challenges of housing for the urban poor whose constant struggles against eviction thwart their efforts to climb out of urban poverty and garner the social, economic, and political benefits of a stable life and address, Briody and Bruder present a group who have slipped downward from the stability of middle class life in suburban and rural homes in the U.S. and are living in vehicles designed for occasional and recreational uses or the transport of good or people.

Briody’s book explores life around Williston, North Dakota, during the most recent Bakken oil boom in The New Wild West. The cost of housing in boom time Williston made apartments and homes prohibitive for most people who came to the region to reap the benefits of the boom. As a result, Briody’s characters live in RV parks, public parks, camp grounds or most famously, the Williston Walmart parking lot. She joined them living in an RV while doing the research for her book. This paralleled the experience of our research team when we first visited the Bakken at the height of the boom in 2012. We had to plan well in advance and found that accommodations a modular man camp outside bustling Tioga, a more affordable and convenient alternative to a hotel. 

The characters in the New Wild West lived in their RVs on a less voluntary basis and often without the security of a home somewhere else. They had come to the Bakken as a result of troubled lives, desperate circumstances, and, in many cases, the economic and mortgage crisis of 2008 which led to millions of foreclosures and contributed to the growing group of workers who lived in RV and other forms of temporary housing. For some of Briody’s characters, the Bakken was a chance to recover what they had lost. At the same time, the struggle to make a living in the Bakken is always present and optimism is a commodity far more precious and rare that the oil that fueled the Bakken boom. This doesn’t necessarily square with our research in the Bakken, where the optimism was so ubiquitous even as late as 2016 when the boom was well in decline that we called it Bakktimism. For Briody’s denizens of the Bakken, no matter how good the money, the American dream appeared increasingly fragile.

Bruder’s Nomadland tracks the fates of a group of older Americans who likewise lost the fixity of the suburban home and took to life on the road. Bruder’s work is a more subtle book than Briody’s The New Wild West. Her sensitive reading of the modern nomads is particularly evident in the tensions between kind of optimistic adaptability of these RV dwellers and the rough realities of life on the road. Many of Bruder’s character had lost their jobs and, then, savings in the financial collapse of 2008. They experienced the reality of the “jobless recovery” in the unforgiving job market for experienced and well-educated adults in their 50s and 60s. Then, they lost their homes. To adapt, they became nomads living in RVs, modified vans, cars and trucks and supplemented their social security benefits by traveling the U.S. managing campsites, staffing amusement parks, working at Amazon’s distribution facilities during the Christmas rush, and retreating to Quartzsite, Arizona each year winter to escape the cold and recharge.

Bruder describes this loose tribe brought together by circumstances who form communities through social media and share both philosophical and practical tips on the nomadic life through blogs, discussion boards, and listserves. Many of her characters maintain a fragile optimism about their golden years, and draw upon an anti-consumerist philosophy that sees their material losses as an opportunity to experience true freedom. Ironically, these modern nomads often survive by working for the ultimate purveyor of American materialism, Amazon, as well as other short term employers across the U.S. who value the optimism, adaptability, experience, and mobility of these modern nomads. The irony of this situation is further driven home by the practice of these nomad maintaining campsites for people who continued to see RV, campers, and tents as escapes from the fixity of everyday life.

One of the things that Bruder’s book helped me to see more clearly is the deep irony of my little book. Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape. By intentionally ignoring the traditional tourist sites in the Bakken – for example, the Theodore Roosevelt National Park –  and privileging RV parks and man camps, I transformed the temporary settlements in landscape of Western North Dakota and tourism from the space and experience of leisure to the space and experience of work. In the same way, Briody and, especially Bruder, demonstrate how the suburban dream is giving way to a more mobile reality. 

Both authors recognize that the quiet growth of this mobile population represents a seismic shift in the structure of American democracy. It seems hardly ironic that the growing anxiety concerning “voter fraud” (as just one example) has led to policies and practices that will make it more difficult for mobile voters to have political representation. The anxiety about refugees and migrants represents the recognition of these same trends in a global context. I wish I had developed this connection a bit more in my little article in the most recent Journal of Contemporary Archaeology. (I’ve made a preprint available here.)

The Bakken and the Body

Our panel last week at the Northern Great Plains History Conference was really exciting. The four papers presented in our panel, titled “Boom Goes the Bakken,” each explored a different aspect of ongoing research in the history of the state and western North Dakota. The papers by Nikki Burg Burin, Richard Rothaus, and Bret Weber opened up some new lines of thinking for me and will contribute to a new project that’s been gnawing at the back of my head for several months now. Go here for the panel’s line up and here for a draft of my paper.

Nikki’s and Richard’s paper, in particular, got me thinking about the body in the Bakken. Nikki’s paper continued her important work on human trafficking in North Dakota and how women’s bodies came under different legal definitions over the course of North Dakota legal history. The most significant changes in these laws recognized trafficked individuals as victims even if they engaged in activities such as sex work prohibited by existing statutes. While Berg Burin stressed that there is still significant work to do to protect women who turned to sex work out of economic desperation, immigration status, or as a result of childhood or adult trauma, it was also clear that attitudes toward the female body in North Dakota had undergone significant change over the 100 year history of the state. Moreover, recent changes in the law hint at more subtle understanding in agency when it comes to exploited women that recognized the limits of bodily control even in cases when both the victims and the crime have a profoundly physical and bodily aspect.

Rothaus’s paper likewise focuses on the individual and the body in his discussion of a series of grizzly murders in Williams and McKenzie counties in the early 20th century. The crimes were all committed by “outsiders” who came to the area as itinerate laborers on local farms during the the rapid growth of settlement across the western part of the state. In two of his case studies, the murderers themselves were murdered by mobs of men who pulled them from their jail cells when their convictions seemed less than assured and took justice into their own hands (in the other case the murderer committed suicide). Like in Nikki’s paper, the bodies, quite literally, became the nexus for the definition of community as alienated outsiders both committed and received physical violence that confirmed their outsider status.

Bret Weber’s paper was a bit more sweeping and engaged Guy Standing’s idea of the “precariat” to understand the Bakken in the broader context of neoliberal employment trends around the world. At the same time, his understanding of the the Bakken precariat is grounded in individual stories drawn from his hours of interviews. While he did not articulate the experience of being precarious in strict bodily terms, his commitment to the individual ensured that the risks, opportunities, and experiences of the Bakken were not generalized into a state of anonymity.

Finally, my paper, completely missed the boat in an explicit way (I felt like I had been invited to a costume party but showed up in khakis and an Oxford shirt!), but I think that my emphasis on the experience of modernity through tourism and movement in the Bakken demonstrated more than a passing interest in the impact of this space on bodies. 

My point with this overview of recent work in Bakken research is that we have become increasingly drawn to the individual as the locus for the experience of the Bakken oil boom. In fact, the panel last week got me thinking about the character of Bakken bodies exposed to the pressures, vagaries, dangers, and sensations of global capital in a distinct (but not unique) way.

I have this fantasy project where I explore the history of the Bakken boom using the kind of deep mapping techniques that guys like William Least Heat-Moon used for his book PrairyErth. The project would start with the large-scale historical, economic, and cultural impact of global petroculture and end with the analysis of a singe (or a small group) of individual bodies in the Bakken with intermediate steps considering the intersection of petroculture with national politics, the economy and culture of the state, and the Bakken landscape. The papers on Thursday was the first time that I became attuned to the idea of Bakken bodies in a way that made it appear as the natural conclusion for my proposed project.

Final Draft: The Bakken Gaze

Last week, I posted a serialized (actually in process) version of my paper, “The Bakken Gaze: Tourism, Petroculture, and Modern Views of an Industrial Landscape,” for the Northern Great Plains History Conference. On Friday, I tightened it up some and cut some words (although it’s probably still too long). 

The paper explains my interest in using tourism as lens to understand the Bakken oil patch and is written to support the release of a book that Bret Weber and I co-authored titled, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape and published by NDSU Press this month (!). You can preorder the book now.

Or, better still, you can read, download, or comment on the paper via the Hypothes.is plug in here. Or you can join us at the Northern Great Plains History conference on Thursday from 2-4 at the Ramada Inn in beautiful Grand Forks, North Dakota!

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