Short Take: The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota

Amanda Osgood Jonientz

The Bakken Goes Boom: Oil and the Changing Geographies of Western North Dakota edited by William Caraher and Kyle Conway is a collection of works by scholars, journalists, artists, and poets.

Bakken goes boom front cover

As the introduction explains, the aim of this collection is to present the “human side of the oil boom” (1). The collection achieves this through its presentation of a prose poem, fourteen essays, the complete catalogue of Fargo’s Plains Art Museum’s exhibition Bakken Boom! Artists Respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush, as well as a collection of prints and photography.

While all of the texts and visual images included in the collection make accessible the remoteness and beauty of North Dakota, they do not portray this landscape as an empty frontier space. Instead, as the essay “100 miles of Wild: North Dakota Badlands Transect” points out, North Dakota is “highly fragmented” wilderness where human touch “is not the dominant feature of the landscape.” The Bakken Goes Boom presents this wilderness in complex intersection with longtime rural communities facing the stresses created by the domestic oil industry.

Figure 17 Scoria Roads and Well pads Courtesy of EcoFlightWell Pads and Scoria (Richard Rothaus et al. Courtesy of EcoFlight)

The Bakken Goes Boom offers an important and timely contribution to the public conversation about hydraulic fracturing. As many of the contributors point out, all too often this conversation has been highly polemic or simply focused on the economic potential of this resource boom. Instead, the works in this collection consistently offer a historical context for this boom. In addition, they offer approaches for residents and policymakers of a resource rich area that help to address stress on infrastructure, increased crime, and transitions that face communities during and after a boom. For example, in his essay “Booms and Busts: Haunting Memories in the North Dakota Oil Boom,” Joshua E. Young offers a theoretical frame for stakeholders in a community to make distinctions between present and past busts and booms in an effort to “better enact civility and deliberation” (85). In “Revisited Frontiers: The Bakken, the Plain, Potential Futures, and Real Pasts,” Sebastian Braun places the Bakken boom, not just in the context of past oil booms, but in the larger context of technological change that has transformed raw commodities into resource booms ranging from the fur and land in the past to water in the future. In “Extractive Industries and Temporary Housing Policies: Man Camps in North Dakota’s Oil Patch,” Carenlee Barkdull, Bret A. Weber, and Julie C. Geigle remind us that housing, however temporary, is “an inseparable aspect of community and that community is essential to social wellbeing” (220).

Man Camp 08“Man Camp #8” (John Holmgren)

While the term “man camp” conjures images of lone roughnecks flocking to western North Dakota, The Bakken Goes Boom focuses attention on how the boom impacts the less visible but growing population of women and children in the region. In “Public Discourse on the Rise and Regulation of the Illicit Sex Trade during North Dakota’s Economic Booms,” Nikki Berg Burin examines historical and present day discourse on the illicit sex trade in North Dakota revealing the danger of the false dichotomy between prostitution and sex trafficking. In “Oil Booms and Babies! Women’s Health Professionals Explain the Challenges of Western North Dakota’s Oil Boom,” Heather Jackson explores how the influx of population coupled with a lack of funding results in limited birthing options for pregnant women. In “Nowhere to Run: Impacts of the Bakken Oil Boom on Domestic Violence Survivors and Service Providers,” Laura Tally clarifies the “connections between Bakken energy development, state and local fiscal policy, and monumental challenges” (131) facing law enforcement, victim advocates, and those suffering from domestic violence.

DSC 2121 copy“Truck, House, and Trailers in Wheelock, ND” (Kyle Cassidy)

While the editors’ choice to include the catalogue from the Plains Art Museum “Bakken Boom! Artists Respond to the North Dakota Oil Rush” exhibition in its entirety allows the artists and their works to speak for themselves, this document also gives voice to community members. In the catalogue section entitled “Community Conversations,” museum visitors were allowed to respond to the artwork.

The book is available as a downloadable PDF on The Digital Press at the University of North Dakota’s website or in paperback version through Amazon. The text and the visual images (particularly in the digital version) of this current moment in North Dakota’s history that this book offers are striking.

The last piece in the collection is Kyle Cassidy’s “Photographing the Bakken.” While his words are intended to describe his experience working as a photographer in the Bakken, I think that his words also describe the book as a whole. He writes:

“Your art, you realize, is itself just a data point in a greater collection of the truth. But if you’re doing your job right, your data points are fuzzy, you tell the stories that are happy and sad at the same time, your work is hard to quantify, but it makes people pause while looking at the data, that in the truth of science, they might, for a moment, glimpse a greater, but impossible to grasp, truth about humanity.” (376)

To use Cassidy’s language, as a collection, The Bakken Goes Boom successfully gives a glimpse into the complex human experience of a resource boom.

Amanda Osgood Jonientz is a Ph.D. student in the Department of English at the University of North Dakota. She has published fiction in North Dakota Quarterly.

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