I’ve been coding photographs from the August 2012 field season of the North Dakota Man Camp Project and found these three photos with the file name “Bad_Choices.”
That kind of made my day:
I’ve been coding photographs from the August 2012 field season of the North Dakota Man Camp Project and found these three photos with the file name “Bad_Choices.”
That kind of made my day:
For the past few years, I’ve been fretting about how to begin to analyze the large body of relatively unstructured data collected from our research in the Bakken oil patch. This includes thousands of photographs, hours of video, interviews, and various notes. Most of our preliminary analysis has drawn upon our field notes and selective and impressionistic readings of the data that we collected. This is not to suggest that our analysis is wrong, but it lacked a certain amount of nuance in part because we were overwhelmed by the quantity of data that our methods produced.
The issue is partly because we decided early on to collect data at the regional level largely because we we were not entirely sure what our sites would look like and how to best document them. After a few trips, however, we had identified over 50 workforce housing sites across the region that clearly housed workers associated with the oil boom, had a diversity of units (generally RVs) and approaches to life in “the patch,” and showed signs of change through time. We then used photography and video to document these sites over the course of numerous short field seasons of only a few days. The resulting archive captured the dynamism of the Bakken oil patch through time and a remarkable level of detail about individual workforce housing sites and units.
Over the summer, I had a few fascinating conversations with a Colorado Ph.D. student, Erin Baxter, whose dissertation research used Atlas.ti to organize and analyze photographs that formed the only historical record of a century-old excavation by Earl Morris in the American southwest. She explained to me how she used the software to track various features of the excavation through multiple photographs. Atlas.ti also made it easier for her to organize and analyze the photographs including certain features or chronological indicators that would allow her to reconstruct the history of the excavation. (I’m sure it much more complex than what I described, but that was my take away!)
This prompted me to write a little grant and get a copy of Atlas.ti (which isn’t cheap!) and to begin to use it to code my photographs from the Bakken. This week, I ran a pretty basic trial of 70 photos taken in October 2014. These photos produce the following list of codes which correspond either to features or conditions visible in the photographs:
The code list is still in a bit of flux and will undoubtedly be expanded, but after even just 70 photos, it is a pretty good summary of objects and conditions associated with workforce housing in the Bakken.
The photographs that produced this code list are group according to date and camp number and when possible by unit in a camp. This will allow me to consider changes through time and across different camps while also controlling for our tendency to take more photographs of particularly interesting units or units with substantial number of associated features and objects. While we are not coding images to produce explicitly quantifiable data, it looks like we can use the grouping function in Atlas.ti to allow us to document the distribution of features proportionately across our study sites.
Finally, Atlas.ti will also allow us to code video and text which we can also group according to site. With any luck this allows us to connect more explicitly our evidence from interviews and systematic video with our photographic documentation.
So, stay tuned as I explore how Atlas.ti can create a more nuanced image of workforce housing during the Bakken boom.
This past week my colleague Richard Rothaus presented a paper for the North Dakota Man Camp project on a session dedicated to “An Archaeology of Care” at the Society for Historical Archaeology Annual Meeting in Ft. Worth, Texas. We’re still working through the idea, but each iteration and conversation gets us closer to distinguishing the concept from the range of similar frameworks already at play in archaeology (e.g. ethical archaeology, public archaeology, et c.) and weaving together a recognizable body of theory and practice.
By all accounts, the paper and the panel went well, and Richard graciously allowed me to share the final draft of the paper here (although I’ve found that the final draft of a paper for Richard may only have a passing resemblance to what he presents at the conference!):
An Archaeology of Care in the Bakken Oil Patch (North Dakota, USA)
A Paper Presented at the Society for Historical Archaeology
Ft. Worth, Texas
Richard Rothaus (North Dakota University System)
William Caraher (University of North Dakota)
Bret Weber (University of North Dakota)
I think I coined the term of “archaeology of care” impromptu during a podcast. I was searching for a descriptor of archaeological practice that intersects with living people in a way that they find positive and relevant; an archaeological practice that leaves subjects feeling valued and worthy of study, not gawked at, not as descendants of lost or vanishing lifeways. In this sense, “archaeology of care” is a contribution to conversations emphasizing the production of a more ethical archaeology that avoids the occasional anti-humanistic tendencies of the discipline. Such projects have surfaced across a wide range of both theoretical perspective and practices with particularly productive developments around community archaeology, indigenous archaeology, and public archaeology. These developments look to create common ground between archeologists and the communities in which they work, and to find shared values in archaeological practice and knowledge.
For the University of North Dakota Mancamp Project, an archaeology of care emerged at the intersection of archaeology of the contemporary world and historical research in the Bakken oil patch. We began the project as citizens of North Dakota using an academic toolkit to response to the massive influx of population that came with the Bakken unconventional shale play. In this context, our archaeology of care developed two-fold: first, by regular and sustained interactions with the residents of the Bakken living amidst the material culture that we were studying and second, by immersing ourselves in research that, out of the myriad of possible questions, chose some relevant to the lifeways of the residents of this region. We were valued in the field because we came not to fix anything, but rather to understand what was happening.
As we travelled, invariably residents of the workforce housing sites inquired about our work. During these informal interactions with the residents of the Bakke, we became aware that our research interest in the lives of these people constituted a meaningful form of interaction for all parties. The residents of the area appreciated that scholars from the regional university considered their experiences worthy of study. Investigators and residents recognized a shared understanding of the significance of the boom historically, and this revealed an intersection of our research goals with the experiences of individuals. The Man Camp project was an archaeology of care not just because we treated individuals with respect and involved them, but more deeply, because our academic approach to lifeways, economics, and material culture eschewed ironic and counterintuitive hypothesis building and instead found significant overlap with the experiences and expectations of residents of the Bakken.
While we would express it in different ways, the members of the academic North Dakota Man Camp Project and the residents of the region share many of the same concerns and expectations for how a range of social actors conceptualized the labor of the boom. Central to these overlapping sensibilities is the issue of agency: while the vast majority of workers viewed themselves as free agents making rational choices, the reality was far more varied. Many of the workers in the Bakken are trained professionals for whom life in crew camps and long periods of absence from home are common parts of their trade. Distinct from that population are the large numbers of individuals who lost jobs or otherwise had their lives disrupted by the Great Recession. There is a continuum stretching from those for whom the erratic boom/bust cycle is a regular part of their careers, to those for whom seeking employment in the oil patch was the best, worst option available during a period of great social and economic unsettlement. Our presence and interest in the lives of the workers and residents of the Bakken oil patch is part of a totalizing discourse of the modern world. We appeared not as omniscient outsiders looking in, ready to pass judgment or solve the problems of others, but as co-residents of a world created, crafted, and interpreted by corporate and extractive industries. In distinction to certain expressions of indigenous archaeology or public archaeology, the archaeology of care subverts the paradigm that construes archaeological outreach or collaboration as between disciplinary archaeologists and “others”.
The Bakken Oil Boom, and the influx of temporary labor into the Bakken in the aftermath of the “Great Recession” of 2007-2009 reflects global trends that Saskia Sassen has summarized as expulsions (2014). Displaced from their homes on account of the mortgage crisis, untethered from the historical fixity of middle-class life, caught up in dynamics of just-in-time manufacturing and contingent labor, and buffeted by the increased speed of an industrial boom-bust cycle, many of the migrant Bakken workers manifest the deterritorialized politics and the overlapping economy of the 21st-century world. The Bakken reflects the expulsions that shape a disrupted world and the tense emergence of new forms of settlement designed to accommodate and normalize the experience of the migrant, the refugee, the modern worker, and in some real ways the archaeologist and the academic. Archaeology is still developing the tools to understand what Cresswell has termed diasporic public spheres, a form without the arbitration of the nation-state, where “no place is privileged, no place is better than another, as from no place the horizon is nearer than from any other” (Cresswell 2006). Short-term settlement and movement in the landscape trace faint lines in the archaeological record and form a basis for the shared significance of the Bakken boom to archaeologists documenting the ephemeral and workers seeking a place within the unsettled modern world.
The North Dakota Man Camp Project identified 50 workforce housing sites in the Bakken region of North Dakota for systematic investigation. Our research sites were visited regularly over a four-year period and documented through video, photography, sketches, and text descriptions. We complemented the material culture documentation with oral interview. The open-ended sampling method captured not just the stories of workers, but also of spouses and children, of camp managers, and even long-term residents of Western North Dakota. People were almost always eager to share their stories, and seemed to quickly comprehend the intention of the study: they told their unique tales about lives lived during this specific historical moment of resource extraction. Despite the hardships, people were generally optimistic, dogged, even indomitable.
The interviews captured a thick description of life in temporary worker housing. Beyond basic demographic data, interview subjects were always asked where they came from, how long they had been in the patch, what brought them there, and what sort of work and fortunes they had found or failed to find. They were also asked about where ‘home’ was. After responses that were often emphatic (home is here in the Bakken! Or home is back where I make mortgage payments), follow-up questions generally provided interview subjects with an opportunity to produce more nuanced and complicated descriptions of what they meant by home.
To deal with the variations among the mancamps in the region, we developed a typology of three classes of camps, all of which are defined by the level of formal organization visible to outsiders and which reflect both historical and contemporary understandings by residents of the camps and their surrounding communities. The ethos, but maybe not the reality, of the Bakken Boom was not that of a worker ending up at the predestined factory job, but the cowboy-entrepreneur, fully cognizant of his own commodification and choosing his own path. These are the denizens of the 21st-century “wage earner’s frontier.” For many the choice of where to live was part of a rational decision to join the boom. For many others, life was ‘hell’ and living in the man camps was an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice, and one that disproportionately consumed a large portion of their earnings. Nonetheless, interviewees had commonly not only thought about this, they could articulate it, and our interest in their choices and articulations was a large part of the archaeology of care.
The type I camps, run by large providers, are the most highly organized both externally and internally, and inhabited primarily by skilled employees of the major oil companies. An individual lives in a type I camp by virtue of employment arrangement, although it must be noted that the choice to live there is almost always optional. The Type I camps typify the depersonalized non-place, and outside visitors frequently describe them as “sterile” and “prisons”. The camps are organized as identical living spaces arranged either axially or on a grid. The function of the camps is defined by the interchangeability of parts and people. The profitability of the housing arrangement for the provider depends on its modularity, mobility, and temporal flexibility; the camp can move to where it is needed, when it is needed, and changes are easy as all parts are the same.
Typically, type I inhabitants are individuals who come in for 21 day stints, working 12 or more hours a day in hard and dangerous working conditions. They are physically and temporally committed exclusively to work during their stay, and thus have minimum need for living space beyond eating, bathing, and sleeping. The Type I camps are a non-place, and the workers are in a window of non-life with no sense of community and certainly no political involvement in the area or processes where they earn their living. They do not personalize their living space, because their life is not here, it is elsewhere, and it is the flow back to their real-world that punctuates time. So it is not that these are people who do not care about domestic space (although there are some such folks among them); rather the Type I camps are inhabited by people who have organized their life around the optimized, maximally efficient deployment of their labor. While we found people in Type I camps who were nonplussed by the arrangements, and reasonably happy to accumulating capital to spend at their other place, we also found other people who had turned themselves ‘off’ to become temporary cogs, waiting to return to actual lives—lives that were ‘generally’ disrupted in damaging ways.
Type III camps are at the opposite end of spectrum: ephemeral, chaotic places that primarily existed in the earlier days of the boom. Like the Type I camps, the organization of the Type III camps reflects the labor of those within them. The Type III camps are inhabited by semi-skilled people who had wandered to the Bakken to find jobs and careers outside of the orderly movement of skilled labor. Where the Type I camps are uniform and undifferentiated, the Type III camps were individualized conglomerations of tents, trailers, shipping containers, and piles of stuff left in shelter belts. The Type I camps were ephemeral at the discretion of the company, the Type III camps are ephemeral at the discretion of the individuals or local law enforcement. At Type III camps, individuals piece together an extralegal existence that they fully expect to be temporary. The individualization does not, for the most part, represent an intent to define personality and space, but rather an ad hoc, highly independent period of existence.
Type II camps are akin to RV parks. These camps, like much that one sees in the patch, are often owned by outside interests, investment groups who have sometimes never set foot in North Dakota. Within the camps, housing units are often individually owned trailers, situated in ways that most closely replicate the sense of community found in working-class suburbs. As a result, units that are only meant for temporary living have increasingly become near permanent housing structures operating independent of building and safety codes. The Type II camps occupied most of our time and effort, because within these we were able to see the complexity of individual organization and choices. Such complexity certainly was contained in Type I and III camps as well, but there it was obscured by uniformity or chaos.
We were drawn to the Type II camps because of the diversity and visibility of material culture. Type II camps facilitate study of the spaces between the trailers. There we are able to observe individuals adapting material culture manufactured for impermanence into at least a simulacrum of permanence. The hyper-abundance of wooden pallets, insulation, fences, gardens, grills, freezers and miscellanea opened the door to the study of personal, temporal and seasonal variations. We found our window to engage fully in an archaeology of care by not asking about the boom, but by asking the question “how have you chosen to live within a boom.” The answers, alas, do not fit within our time limits, so we refer you to our forthcoming papers in Historical Archaeology and the Journal of Contemporary Archaeology.
What makes the UND Mancamp project truly an archaeology of care is our relentless focus not on external economic and organizational structures, but on the organizational structures developed by the workers whose time and bodies have been commoditized in a late-capitalist 24/7 globalized extractive industry (Crary 2014). Our shared investment in understanding the modern world has caused us to arrive, to our own surprise, at a somewhat radical intellectual space, and interestingly, while we did not get there by chance, we also did not get there on purpose. Like many of those living and working in the Bakken, our study entered the stream of what British Economist Guy Standing refers to as a global reality of precariousness in which people from across a multitude of racial, educational, and income categories strive to make sense of the present neo-liberal driven uncertainties that disrupt both our social and economic lives. While superficially our work drew upon many different disciplines to understand what was happening in the Bakken, we discovered that common ground between the workforce in the Bakken and our work as researchers at a micro-level has proved the most beneficial. How interesting that we arrived at an archaeology of care by focusing on the lifeways of commoditized labor, and in turn we found an archaeology that helps us understand ourselves, our neighbors, and the worlds we work in. We are pleased to bring humanistic tools to bear on the changing nature of labor , and our experiences in the Bakken illustrate that many non-academics are surprisingly in agreement (McKenzie Wark).
Caraher, W., K. Kourellis, R. Rothaus and B. Weber. “The Archaeology of Home in the Bakken Oil Fields.” Historical Archaeology, forthcoming.
Caraher, W., R. Rothaus, B. Weber. “Lessons from the Bakken Oil Patch.” Journal of Contemporary Archaeology, forthcoming.
Crary, Jonathan. 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep. Verso, 2014.
Cresswell, Tim. On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World. Taylor & Francis, 2006.
Sassen, Saskia. Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy. Harvard University Press, 2014.
Standing, Guy. The Precariat: The New Dangerous Class. Bloomsbury Academic, 2011.
Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. Verso, 2015.
This weekend, I binge read Tim Cresswell’s On the Move: Mobility in the Modern Western World (Routledge 2006). I was familiar with his Place: A Short Introduction which I read a few years back alongside Raymond Williams’ Border Country. The book is as good an introduction to mobility as I’ve ever read, and it should be required reading for anyone living in North Dakota.
The introduction is particularly useful for understanding the social issues facing the state of North Dakota. He makes clear that mobility is both a product of modernity, but also something that – for both historical and political reasons – seen as a threat. For example, the tourist or the mobile worker is expected element of the modern world where travel for work or pleasure is common. At the same time, there persists a distrust of certain kinds of mobility. Refugees, vagrants, and “drifters” continue to be stigmatized as individuals who lack commitment to a place. Cresswell recognizes mobility then as a central and politically charged element in the discourse of modernity and explores its intersection with such diverse expressions as dance, photography, airport architecture, and women’s suffrage. Mobility becomes a way of talking about the contradictions that core of modern experience and the impetus to move embodies both the pace of modern capital (and Marx’s (and David Harvey’s) that time obliterates space) and the growth of what many critics have called the carceral landscape (riffing as it were on Foucault’s carceral state).
Cresswell could have just as easily considered the role of fossil fuels in the construction of modern mobility. They both make travel and the shrinking of the world possible and require a kind of urgent globalization as extractive industries relentlessly search for new resources. The need to move fossil fuels – oil, gas, and coal – from the ground to refineries and markets has attracted attention lately. In some ways the movement of fossil fuels via pipeline, train, truck, and ship reflect another aspect of their problematic character in the modern world.
Here in North Dakota, the intersection of mobility, politics, and fossil fuels demonstrates the political uses of mobility in our modern discourse. Recently, supporters of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) have called the protestors camped at Cannon Ball river “outside agitators” and using their purported lack of connection to the place as a way of delegitimizing their protests. At the same time, the (albeit somewhat faded) vitality of the oil industry in western North Dakota relies on workers from outside the region to extract the oil, build the pipelines, and maintain the infrastructure in the Bakken oil patch. These workers, of course, are not universally embraced as the antithesis of outside agitators and often seen as threats to the stable life in the small rural communities across the western part of the state. In an effort to replace the mobile workforce with a more permanent one, community leaders have resisted and discouraged the use of crew and man camps in the region preferring to invest in the construction of houses, condominiums, and apartments. In sum, outside agitators and workers are threats even if they contribute in a meaningful way to the economic or ecological future of the state. The risk, it seems, is in their mobility tempered by political expediency.
As an aside, the media can enjoy the irony of the DAPL protesters enduring the polar vortex in their temporary protest camp which for some embodies the a fleeting nature of the protest in the face of the inevitability of the pipeline. The same media was far less attentive, smug, and ironic in their reporting of oil workers huddled in substandard housing while working to extract oil that keeps so much of the country warm.
My experience of the Bakken oil patch was one of unmitigated movement and I chose the genre of the tourist guide to represent this sense of movement in the landscape. I wish I had been more familiar with Cresswell’s book while I was working on the guide!
Nothing like an unexpected snow day to give me some time to catch up on reading (and grading). This week, I finally finished Reece Jones’s Violent Borders: Refugees and the Right to Move (Verso 2016). Richard Rothaus brought the book to my attention largely in connection to a recent, short paper that we wrote that considered the parallels between the modern European refugee crisis and Bakken oil book. You can read that paper here.
Reece’s book argues that national borders are to blame for the current crises of movement in the late modern world. He connects the plight of political and economic refugees through his attention to borders which impede the flow of people away from danger and toward economic opportunities provided by the global movement of capital. In fact, he argues that borders work to preserve low cost labor pools reinforced by uneven laws protecting workers’ rights. In Reecee’s work, borders become tools for an increasingly militarized state to preserve labor markets while, at the same time, permitting the flow of goods and capital. He goes on to note that the disjunction between national economies and global flow of capital works to make it difficult to manage, say, the environmental problems like climate change through institutions, like the United Nations, which rely upon the idea of national sovereignty to function. Here Reece makes a nice observation that border fences themselves are transformative when they impede the movement of animals, the flow of water, and the integrity of local ecosystem. In other words, there is a real (if almost symbolic in comparison to larger, global issues like climate change) impact of borders on the natural world.
The connection between economic and political refugees and the role of the nation in defining the character of modern movement has increasingly informed my thinking about workforce housing in the Bakken. Workforce housing represents the material manifestation of the movement in human capital as it ebbs and flows in a world where a “periphery” may no longer imply a core. In some of my recent works, I’ve toyed a bit ineptly with idea like Andre Gunter Frank’s “development of underdevelopment” (pdf) which argued that the core had a vested interest in preserving the underdeveloped status of the periphery (e.g. see my contribution to this volume). Reece’s work helped me understand that part of the strategy to preserve the underdeveloped status of certain “peripheries” involved the establishment of national border and restrictions on movement of human capital from these places. He is careful, though, and does not suggest that borders alone prevent movement. As the arrival of a new workforce in North Dakota demonstrates, even when people are free to move into a new area to take advantage of economic opportunities, they still consider someplace else to be home. Only time will tell whether the increasing pace of global capital will erode this sense of home as people move more and more frequently to support the contingencies of profit.
This, then, is the broader context for a broader questions that Reece and I have both flirted with a bit. If we assume that history as a discipline – at least in its modern guise – emerged alongside and in the service of the nationstate, can we envision a post-national history? In particular, if our notions of place and time are deeply indebted to national spaces and time, can the discipline as it is now constituted adapt to the speed of capital and a world without borders?
Over the long weekend, I immersed myself in William Least Heat-Moon’s PrairyErth: (a deep map). (1991). I didn’t know this book until a conversation with a few graduate students this summer after my tortured attempts to explain my tourist guide to the Bakken project. I wasn’t particularly familiar with the term “deep map,” but as I explored PrairyErth, I came to realize that Heat-Moon’s project with this work, which explores a single county in Kansas, was fundamentally similar to what I wanted to do with my tourist guide. The biggest difference was that Heat-Moon was a kind of story-teller, ethnographer, and oral historians where my speciality was in things.
So, the base map for the deep map that I want to prepare for the Bakken is the tourist guide (which should appear next year from NDUS Press). It provides a route through the space of the Bakken which runs across US Route 2 before turning south at 13-Mile Corner to trace US Route 85. This inverted L forms the main artery of the Bakken both from its origins around Tioga to its current heart in William and McKenzie Counties. Our anchors are the towns of Ray, Stanley, Tinga, Williston, and Watford City, but we recognize that the Bakken is also made of places like the abandoned town of Wheelock, the depopulated township of Manitou, the area called Johnson’s Corner, and the numerous nameless agglomerations of tanks, unit yards, mobile workforce housing, and gas plants. This is the framework for a deep map.
When we submitted the original draft of the guide to new Heritage Guide series editor at the NDSU Press, he suggested that we add more people to our work. I begrudgingly did this, thinking all the while, that tourist guides aren’t really about people but about places, monuments, and stories. If people do appear, they’re past people or individuals who make short cameos (like the kindly priest who has the keys to the historic church or the vivacious merchant who will offer you tea while you browse his wares). Complicating matters more is that our guide is not about a landscape forged in the distant past but about a dynamic contemporary space. In other words, historic personages who populate traditional tourist guides played a relatively small role in our work because our primary focus was on the present. While I don’t regret the decision of inserting a few people in our guide, I think the object-oriented approach to our guide limits how one can encounter the Bakken landscape.
Heat-Moon’s deep map is, in contrast, all about people. Most short chapters, even those with a rather more empirical bent, focus on the people from Chase County, Kansas. In fact, he uses the ugly word “countians” so many times that I am almost comfortable with it. For the Bakken, we have hundreds of pages of transcribed interviews that could populate our deep map and we received a small grant from the University of North Dakota to publish these interviews next year.
Heat-Moon’s deep map is more than just people, though. He uses people to tell the geological, the historical, the political, the cultural and the economic story of the county’s various landscapes and places. We’re fortunate for western North Dakota to have not only an outstanding (and new) geological history, but also have an intriguing (and growing) body of literature about the region and some solid historical treatments of the places.
As I continue to turn the idea of a deep map over in my head, I’m becoming increasingly convinced that guide to the Bakken is just a beginning for a deep map.
Over the last couple of years, I’ve been documenting the gradual abandonment of workforce housing across the Bakken oil patch. The reasons for abandonment of workforce housing are complex. Oil prices slipping below $40 triggered a slowdown in drilling in the region and drilling was the most workforce intensive part of the oil extraction. The growth of pipeline networks that move processed water, oil, and gas around the Bakken has reduced the need for truck drivers and the need for truck repair shops. Williston and Watford City have built (and probably overbuilt) permanent housing for workers involved in longterm work in the Bakken. These factors have combined to reduce the need and demand for workforce housing across the area.
The most visible and well-documented examples of this reduced demand have been the large workforce housing sites like Capital Lodge, outside Tioga, which have closed and currently sit waiting some future plan to either transport the units elsewhere or to redevelop the site. Myriad small RV parks also are being closed or abandoned, albeit to less fanfare and media coverage. Our trip the Bakken this past weekend focused on documenting the abandonment process at these various sites.
I can offer three observations.
1. Orderly abandonment. Despite the prevailing caricature of feral men in the Bakken, there are many signs that the abandonment of even the rougher RV parks was an orderly process. The gravel paved lots were generally clean and tidy with less trash than one might even expect from typical habitation. Occasionally one or two lots have more debris associated with them suggesting that the last RV to depart the camp was less inclined to leave things tidy. One might imagine that this was the caretaker or manager who may have even departed after regular trash collection had ended.
Despite the general cleanliness, most sites had some fragments of PVC piping, extruded polystyrene insulation, and wood – often from shipping pallets – scattered about as well considerable quantities of gravel or scoria used to level the sites and promote drainage.
2. Economic choices. Some camps that are largely abandoned provide explanations for the seemingly orderly abandonment of sites. As we have noted throughout our research in the Bakken, camps regularly maintain assemblages of provisional discard around their peripheries. The short-term nature of these settlements created a constant supply (and demand) for discarded objects.
As camps reached total abandonment, the collection of materials often showed signs of orderly arrangement that suggests formal recycling of materials. One camp near Alexander was removing around 100 mobile homes and neatly arranged skirting, stairs, gutters, and other parts of these units that could not be affixed during transport.
The piles of metal often found around the periphery of camps suggests formal recycling.
This organization of objects around the margins of camps suggests economic decisions contributed to the tidiness of camps at abandonment rather than an aesthetic ideal or a response to a municipal policy.
One of the more interesting examples of this was the Great American Lodge near Watford City. The camp closed in 2015 after the company that ran it came into financial difficulties. In fact, the entire operation may have been part of a ponzi scheme. Despite that, the camp represented millions of dollars of investment and when a company purchased its movable assets from receivership, they began the expensive and time consuming process of removing the units from the site. This will likely take most of the winter and be a deliberate process allowing the company to extract the most valuable from the camps.
3. Abandoned homes. While mobile homes can often be prepared for transport and removed from the site for use elsewhere, it is not uncommon for RVs to be abandoned in camps as the owners encountered financial difficulties or left the region without wanting to incur the expense of removing their RV.
In the past, T.J.s Salvage Yard would remove abandoned RVs for a fee, but they are so overwhelmed with units and the decline in short-term residents of the Bakken living in RVs has reduced the demand for salvage parts.
As a result, RV park owners often simply remove RVs to the margins of their parks since they have more room than residents.
The RVs are often just as residents left them with pots and pans, electronics, and even personal information sitting out.
4. Squatting. As in the past, we were able to observe some subtle hints that squatting was taking place in the Bakken. What is bizarre to us is that a number of camps made of mobile homes or mobile lodging units have unlocked doors and continue to have electricity and even heat making them inviting homes for people moving through the area looking to live off the grid at very low expense.
5. Longterm impact. Despite the tidiness of the abandoned camps, we do recognize that the sites of RV parks and more formal workforce housing camps have a longterm impact on the environment. Whether the persistence of plastic and insulation or the smear of gravel or greater density of weeds, the site will continue to be marked for future archaeologists.
Buried infrastructure, presents a particular kind of ruin that will encounter a particular kind of entropy and ruination into the future. (As a compelling example of this, the reclamation efforts associated with the Tesoro oil spill uncovered a well pad from the 1950s oil boom that had been buried and lost).
Things like the weeds that push through the gravel associated with housing sites will create lasting signatures in the landscape. The ruins of the future won’t be visible in the same way as the ruins of the past.
This weekend we’re heading back to the Bakken oil patch to look at some of our long-term study sites. As folks know, the Bakken has seen a steady decline in activity over the last two years with oil production slipping to under 1 million barrels per day this month, for the first time since 2014 (this is an interesting table (pdf)) and has only 36 active rigs this month down from 194 in 2014. We already know that many of the temporary workforce housing sites in this region which supported the massive influx of workers needed at the height of the boom are now closed, abandoned, or well below capacity. We anticipate a Bakken landscape that has preserved irregular traces of its bustling (and recent) past.
As a fortuitous coincidence, Kostis Kourelis has been posting about slightly more distant, but still modern abandonments over at his blog and reflecting on the traces left behind by the massively disruptive, but ultimately short-lived military activities associated with World War Two and the Greek Civil War. He cites the work of Dimitris Papadopoulos on the region of Prespa lakes in Macedonia. Papadopoulos documented the abandoned villages preserved in a the large, transnational nature preserve that extends into Greece, Albania, and Macedonia. These villages were abandoned as part of the final stages of nation building in this region as beginning with the transfer of the areas Turkish-speaking Muslim population in the 1920s and concluding with the departure of the Slavic speaking population during the Greek Civil War (1946-1949).
[As a digression, the Prespa lakes area of Greece is one of the most stunning parts of the country and the region. I had the great fortune of scouting this area at a leisurely pace for an American School of Classical Studies trip in September of 2007. I guess I was writing my blog back then, because I have some great photos (who took them? me? is that even possible?) from my travels including a freak mini-blizzard while crossing the mountains west of Florina! Check it out here. I wish I had known of Papadopoulos’s work then.]
For Papadopoulos, the work of abandonment was embedded in a complex process of nation building, demarcation of borders, and internal colonialization which led to acts of erasure across the dynamic landscape. This may seem quite remote from the processes at play in the Bakken, but I’d argue that economic practices – particularly those associated with large scale and industrialized resource extraction – create similar landscapes of abandonment and erasure. The desire to render processes invisible to history (and archaeology) by disguising or removing the physical manifestation of the work. In most cases, the removal of temporary equipment, housing, and the workforce reflects the pressures of efficiency and economy, but this should not diminish the visual and ideological value of these actions. Temporary housing is only remarkable, for example, because we expect housing (or the home) to represent a permanent investment in a place. The arrival and departure of specialized equipment and workforce reflects the centralized nature of both capital and technology and the peripheral or even marginal nature of many (but certainly not all) extractive practices in the global landscape.
At the same time, they scar the landscape in indelible ways that preserve the absent presence of the past. My soon to be published tourist Guide to the Bakken is filled with chimerical images that will blink in and out of the viewers gaze when, book in hand, they transit the Bakken region. This weekend, I’m going to be particularly attuned to the present-absences in the Bakken and the ways that these traces mark and define the landscape.
It’s been a hectic week here in North Dakotaland. So hectic, in fact, that I don’t have time to write about myself. The self-promotion machine has run up against the oppressive reality of … life and books and outrage!
Fortunately, when I’m too busy to promote myself, other people do pick up the slack.
I was really excited to see this article by Megan Gannon in the MIT-based UnDark Magazine. She discusses the North Dakota Man Camp Project in the context of other – frankly more established and well-known – archaeological projects that focused on the contemporary world. It’s a real honor to be discussed next to the seminal work of Bill Rathje, Larry Zimmerman, and Jason DeLeón.
The Grand Forks Herald has a short piece on the NDUS Arts and Humanities Outrage Summit that begins tomorrow. Check it out here.
Finally, on Tuesday, North Dakota Quarterly re-published my little article on the historical context for Elwyn Robinson’s History of North Dakota. It’s a nice little piece that ties together Robinson’s career as a teacher and a leader in the Department of History with his crowning achievement.
Lots going on this week!
Peter Marcuse’s and David J. Madden’s In Defense of Housing: The Politics of Crisis (Verso 2016) is a elegant survey of issues facing housing on a global scale. For the authors, the contemporary housing crisis exists in the tension between housing as home and housing as a commodity. Marcuse and Madden juxtapose the multimillion dollar luxury condominiums in New York and London with the need for basic, affordable housing in the same cities. The multimillion dollar apartments, however, were rarely occupied whereas the basic and affordable housing are a key factor in social cohesion, personal dignity, and the health of individuals and communities. The problem is that both affordable housing and luxury condominiums represent commodities, investments, and figments of complex, global financial arrangements that belie their material presence and the central role that basic housing plays in the lives of billions of people. This book argues that for our society to restore a human character to housing and to protect it as a basic right for all people, the state (on a global scale!) must transform and undermine the system of commodifying and financializing housing. The push might come from tenant and housing activists, but the change must come from the top.
My interest in housing emerged over the last five years of working on the archaeology of workforce housing in the Bakken oil patch in western North Dakota. Among better known issues that emerged during the Bakken Oil Boom was a housing crisis that was mitigated in part by a range of temporary workforce housing sites collectively called “man camps.” In keeping with Madden and Marcuse, these housing sites followed the flow of global capital into the region and distant landlords and eventually developers seeded the landscape with a range of housing options from tidy, new subdivisions to informal settlements filled with RVs and dusty roads. During the boom, the primary concern was housing the influx of workers, but as the boom has turned to bust, housing has become a financial concern for communities who have massive inventories of newly built apartments and homes and abandoned workforce housing sites whose investors have pulled their capital for greener pastures or been left with properties that will not generate income or appreciate.
While the Bakken boom and bust has made obvious the financial systems that fuel both extractive industries and the global housing market, it has also made visible the complex attitudes of individuals involved in most ephemeral aspects of the global housing market. The temporary workforce that supported the oil industry in the Bakken had distinct attitudes toward “home” that ranged from an affection for mobile RV to a nostalgia for distant (and often past) stability of farms, suburban neighborhoods, or rural communities. These individuals constantly made financial calculations that allowed them to negotiate the tension between home and the placelessness of the global market. The maintenance of a garden at an RV made a temporary vehicle into a home. Practices like “hot sheeting,” squatting, and corporate housing by global logistics companies allowed workers to separate where they lived from a sentimental concept of home. These strategies subverted and renegotiated the ways in which the fiscal realities of a commodified housing market on the ground and offered examples of resistance more subtle (and perhaps less idealistic) than the kind of tenant activism celebrated in Marcuse’s and Madden’s work.