Three Things Wednesday: Fake News, Grass Kings, and NDQ

This week has ended up being a bit more hectic than I wanted, but it’s a good kind of hectic — a dry hectic, and when better for a good kind of hectic than the weeks running into the start of the academic year. So, today will just be three quick things that are hanging about my head as I gain momentum heading into the new semester.

1. Scale-Up and “Fake News.” One of the things that I’ll miss this fall (and this year) is teaching in UND’s large “Scale-Up” style classroom. I’m starting to work on ways to scale-down my large History 101 survey classes from 150-180 students to closer to 40 or 50 students. At the same time, I’m starting to think a little about how recent concerns about “fake news” could offer an interesting critical foil to how we think about the past. This could be further fueled by the reissue of James Loewen’s modern classical Lies My Teacher Told Me this fall.

There seems increasingly to be two views of the past: one is true and the other is fake. Anyone who knows anything about studying history realizes, of course, that our reading of the past is rarely (I’d contend never) black and white, and always shades of grey. This realization, however, isn’t really the problem. The problem is how do we arrange our shades of grey into a coherent image of the past. Any given issue might be fake or true, but the onus on the critic should always be oriented toward the relationship between a given point (or points) and our larger image of the past. 

Approaching the past in this way does two things. First, it shifts the conversation from authority (i.e. we know this thing because we trust this person) to argument (i.e. we know this thing because it makes sense). And, secondly, it emphasizes the causal relationship between events in the past and perspectives from the present. We’re constantly aware as historians how our own view of the past requires cohesion that is grounded in present understanding. Historians (and archaeologists) know this, of course, but I think that we sometimes forget to teach this to our students. 

2. Grass Kings. My buddy Kostis Kourelis sent my a copy of Matt Kindt’s and Tyler Jenkins’s graphic novel Grass Kings (2018) this past week. I’ve only started it, but one thing stands out to me. The plot revolves around the tension between the denizens of an autonomy trailer park kingdom (the Grass Kingdom) and the nearby town of Cargill. So far, the book has been a meditation on what it means to be free and what day-to-day conveniences are worth sacrificing for freedom.

The most striking thing to me about the book, though, is that the Grass Kingdom consists largely of refitted trailers, RVs, and at least one houseboat (as well as some old houses). This setting should be familiar to anyone interested in near future science fiction: William Gibson’s The Peripheral is set in and about an elaborately modified Mercedes RV and a heavily insulated 1970s airstream camper. Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One (2011) similarly sets part of the action in “the stacks” which is a landscape of old RVs and trailers stacked in metal frames.

This view of the future has eerie echoes of some of the conversations and experiences that I had on the North Dakota Man Camp Project. The rows of RVs set up on the North Dakotan prairie represented relative freedom for the residents especially compared to the more corporate “work force housing facilities” because they could live more as they pleased enjoying company, beers, and opportunities for self expression. They also could up and leave moving their dwelling and possessions with them if greener pastures presented themselves. On the other hand, life in the cold prairie winter in an small RV designed for short-term summer excursions seems like quite a sacrifice compared to the comforts offered by housing designed for more long-term or even permanent occupation.

What is clear is that in the near future (and perhaps today) housing and freedom are intimately related.    

3. Moving NDQ. I got the email last night and it would appear this week is moving week for North Dakota Quarterly. Over the past few months things have been slowly churning forward with NDQ as we move to a new publisher, prepare volume 85 for publication, and issue 86.1 (2019). The wolf closest to the sled these days is moving NDQ to a new office down the hall from our current digs in historic Merrifield Hall on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota. The new offices are a bit smaller, but we hope to put them to good use with a pretty vigorous publication schedule planned and a revived internship program in collaboration with UND’s program in writing and editing. 

As I’ve quipped on the Twitters, most of my responsibilities at NDQ editor involve putting books in boxes and taking them out! But sometimes, I do get to celebrate the successes of our authors (and by extension, our editors)

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.

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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.

The Abandoned Bakken

This past weekend, Bret Weber, Richard Rothaus, and I headed out West to promote our new book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017) and to visit some of the sites that we documented over the course of the North Dakota Man Camp Project. 

As usual, we spent a good bit of time riding around in Richard Rothaus’s truck and talking about what we saw and what it meant. As importantly, for me, this trip through the Bakken focused on what we should do next (if anything) and how and whether to end a project that has tracked the boom of workforce housing in the Bakken (from around 2012) to its decline in 2018.

Here are my thoughts:

1. Abandonment. I’ve been observing various forms of abandonment in the Bakken since as early as August 2015. This spring’s trip was no exception, but instead of seeing evidence for abandonment that we could use to reconstruct a sites earlier history, we’re now seeing sites that we’ve documented – or even stayed in – for years being dismantled or abandoned. For example, Capital Lodge, which served as our home base in the Bakken for the first few trips to the region, is now being dismantled and the modular units being sold off, bit-by-bit. 

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Near Alexander, two large workforce housing sites have been removed and relocated. The MSpace camp which stood on a rural road outside of Alexander, ND has been completely removed. In fact, we found most of the buildings from the camp in a lot just off the side of Route 85 north of Alexander. 

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The site of the settlement itself, which opened in 2013, is now abandoned.P1010964

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The rough camp outside the old school in Ross, ND is now abandoned as well, and the stackable units in Egan Township are being prepared to be moved to Midlands, Texas.

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2. Methods for Documenting Abandoned Camps. We discussed how to approach documenting abandonment in the Bakken. We both agreed that some kind of survey project could capture the material left behind at the sites if we could receive permission from landowners. It seems likely that the communities would also have an interest in our efforts to document the material left behind after a camp departs. Documenting these sites would have to include collecting movable objects, fixed assets like electrical and sewage hooks up, and changes to the landscape like leveling, scoria roads, and gravel for sites.    

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We also acknowledged the need dig into the various official records of the settlement sites to determine their legal status, property ownership, and any requirements for clean-up and restoration of the sites as well as their prior history.

Finally, we began to discuss how many sites would for a useful sample to say something meaningful about abandonment in our study area. As importantly, we discussed what we mean by abandonment. Do we mean that the sites have to be completely closed or that they’re in the process of being closed? Is our goal to document the remains of the use assemblage or post-abandonment site formation (understanding, of course, that both will be visible and documented).   

3. Settlement Patterns. I was intrigued to notice that some areas seem to have experienced a bit less abandonment than others. For example, the camps around the town of Alexander appear to be largely abandoned and removed, whereas the sites to the west of Watford City, tucked into the hill between the town and the Watford City Gas Plant, appear to still be occupied and the camps around the intersection of US 85 and Route 200 appear to be in rough shape but occupied as well (although the Bakken Buffet building has been removed). The ongoing use of these sites perhaps reflects the distribution of activity in the Bakken and their locations outside of the jurisdiction of local towns which have worked to eliminate temporary settlements – man camps, RV parks, and the like – in their jurisdiction and to transition workers to more permanent housing and hotels. 

4. The Temporary and the Permanent in the Bakken. We drove through the Watford City and admired the growing ring of new building around the town. As I noted a couple of years before, some of the apartments look similar to the mobile and modular housing that they served to replace suggesting that certain elements of industrial and residential design have started to overlap.

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What was equally striking this time through the Bakken was that many of these new constructions were occupied by the same assemblage of trucks and equipment that we saw at camps indicating that they served as worker housing (as well as family housing). A banner advertising four-bedrooms with four-and-a-half baths hint that some of these apartments are designed to accommodate groups of workers and to provide them with their own spaces. More than that, the buildings themselves showed sign of wear that suggested rather low-quality construction. 

In other words, both the residents of the housing may well be temporary. Of course, the permanence of an apartment buildings or even a hotel is relative as the image below of an abandoned modular home site with the closed “Shut-Eye Motel” in the background. 

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While I understand that permanent housing is as much defined by its tax status as anything else (and this has attendant benefits to the local communities), it still leaves to my mind a interesting tension between how our ideals of community and settlement have become increasingly defined by economic relationships that stand in as proxies for social values.

5. What’s next? So far, the North Dakota Man Camp Project has published a few articles and a book, but we’ve barely scratched the surface of the data that we’ve collected or the arguments that we can or want to make. We have another book in the pipeline (scheduled for 2019) and contributions to some other projects in the works, but I can’t shake the feeling that we need to do something a bit more sweeping and general.

In fact, I had a bit of a crisis on the trip as I read Hern, Johal, and Sacco’s Global Warming and the Sweetness of Life: A Tar Sands Tale (MIT 2017). The book reminded me that our work on the Bakken is really a contribution to a global story of petroculture. At the same time, petroculture is an expansive and dynamic body of thought that stretches from climate science to literature. Framing our work in the Bakken around these conversations is a daunting task, but I’m increasingly thinking that this is the most valuable contribution that our work can make (and by making our work visible to the current discussion of petroculture, we’re making our work visible to other scholars as well). 

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.)

Book Notes for a Travel Day

For reasons that remain a bit hard to understand entirely, I’m heading to Boston this afternoon to spend a day at whatever is left of the Archaeological Institute of America’s annual meeting. I’ll get to see some old friends, have a couple business meetings, and be in a place where its safe to for exposed flesh to be outdoors for more than 5 minutes. 

For those of you who didn’t catch it, one of the two papers that I was scheduled to present is posted here.

Along the way, I have a few books that I started with the vague hope that I could have them read by the end of winter break. Part of the reason I’m still willing to trek out to Boston today is that it gives me some time to finish one of two of these book en route.

First, the finished book: Blaire Briody’s The New Wild West: Black Gold, Fracking, and Life in a North Dakota Boomtown (St. Martin’s 2017). While this book certainly represents another volume for the Bakken Bookshelf, I’m not entire sure that I enjoyed it. The book lacked a certain sense of irony. The author clearly positioned herself as a coastal elite by starting the book in her apartment in Brooklyn, and then traveling with her parents to North Dakota from California. The subjects of the book who have come to the Bakken to try their luck in the boom, all hail from broken homes, troubled relationships, and hard places and times in rural America. Briody tells the story of their struggle with both personal demons and the precarity of the boom (and the 21st century American economy).  Their stories are compelling, but I’d hate for these stories to be read as representative of all the newcomers to the Bakken during the boom. They run the risk of confirming the long-held (but rarely articulated) belief that being a part of the working class involves some kind of personal tragedy or flawed character. Briody’s book seems to tell us that people end up working in the Bakken because they had no other choice.

I’m tempted to write a review comparing Briody’s book to Jessica Bruder’s Nomadland: Surviving America in the 21st century. (W.W. Norton 2017).  While I’m only about 40 pages into the book, it seems to describe the experience of precarity among older adults in the U.S. The individuals Bruder follows move around the U.S. living in mobile homes taking season or occasional work. The juxtaposition between retirement-aged Americans living their “golden years” in mobile homes out of economic necessity and those who enjoy the freedom of a mobile home for leisure evoke certain connections that we made during our research in the North Dakota Man Camp project.

I’m also reading Dietmar Offenhuber, Waste is Information: Infrastructure Legibility and Governance (MIT Press 2017).  While working on my book, The Bakken: An Archaeology of an Industrial Landscape (NDSU Press 2017), I became fascinated by infrastructure. So much of the activity in the Bakken over the past five years has focused on infrastructure. The Bakken boom has been as much about improving roads, building pipelines, creating oil storage capacity, drilling produced-water wells, adding rail yards, and building permanent and short-term housing. Of particular interest is the unseen infrastructure of pipelines and wastewater disposal wells. Offenhuber’s book analyzes the movement of waste – essentially trash – in U.S., in part, through the use of GPS trackers places in various kinds of trash discarded in Seattle. Offenhuber argues that making the movement of trash visible and legible allows communities to make more informed decisions in how they organize the hidden infrastructure that is every bit as vital for their social, economic, and physical well-being. 

So many recent debates about the Bakken center on moments when the hidden infrastructure suddenly becomes visible in a moment of crisis or controversy. The controversy surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline and both recorded and undocumented waste-water and oil spills demonstrates these moments when the literally buried infrastructure became visible and compelled the world to take notice.

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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