by Glenn Reed
(Swans - May 6, 2013) The road curves upward through the eroded clay hills, their colors muted under the white a couple of inches of snow. Suddenly, on the left, I see the furry head of a huge bison as it stares at our car from just about twenty feet away.
I think of the days when native people bravely hunted these beasts from horseback. I try to imagine massive herds of bison trampling across the prairies in their thousands. It's been said that it could take days for them to pass.
Native people and bison, of course, were not ruled by the free market or its boom-bust cycles. This scene in North Dakota's Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the United States, though, is dependent on its whims.
I think of Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt, who sought refuge in this area back in 1884. He was, at that time, dealing with the grief of losing both his first wife and his mother on the very same day. He came to these badlands of North Dakota to hunt these bison, recharge his soul in the quiet of the landscape, connect with the sounds of the meadowlark song and trickling of snow melt off the roof of his tiny, three-room cabin.
Now, like all presidents, Theodore Roosevelt was no saint. However, in addition to clamping down on corporate power in true, progressive fashion, he is also considered this country's first conservation president.
He was also a Republican. I wonder how he would feel about the current state of his party and its kowtowing to big corporations; its contempt for the environment and every regulation in the book. I wonder what he would think about the natural gas and oil boom that is rapidly, and radically, altering the area around this landscape that he loved so much. The bison turns his head. So do I.
On a distant ridge I see four more of these magnificent animals silhouetted against sun-reflecting snow and deep blue sky. For a moment I can forget that I'm safely encased in manufactured metal and plastic, powered by a fossil fuel sucked out of the earth's bowels. However, if I turn my head the other way I can still spy the four-lanes of Route 85 and the string of fence line that runs along it. This is all that separates these great beasts and the teaming hordes of gasoline-burning monsters speeding at 85 mph between Billings, Montana, and Bismarck, North Dakota, and all points between. It helps prevent further collisions that would be disastrous for the bison. At least visibly.
Most spots in the national park named after the US's 26th president would still seem very familiar to him. However, who knows how long that will last.
Driving cross-country from Washington State to Vermont this past April, my partner and I opted to avoid a spring snowstorm slamming South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado and take Route 85 through North Dakota. This was one of the few states in which I've never been. I figured we could break up the expected monotony with a short visit to the "badlands" of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. I was also curious to see any effects that the oil and natural gas boom has had on what is still the 3rd least populous state in the United States.
People from the heartland of the United States often feel slighted by those living on the east and west coasts. They think that this part of the country is perceived as something just to fly over on the way from San Francisco or Seattle to New York or Washington, D.C. It's an area without any real culture or any appealing scenery or significant population. Hence, terms like The Big Empty are often applied to America's Great Plains region.
It's true that from the air, states like Nebraska and Kansas appear mostly featureless and flat, except for the geometric square patterns marking farmland and different crops, the occasional green circles amidst brown or yellow where sprinklers suck water from the deep and vast Ogallala aquifer, the wide, lazy rivers that meander down the imperceptible slope that begins far to the west in the Rockies and tilts to the Missouri and Mississippi rivers a thousand miles to the east.
From the ground, however, it's quite a different story.
Okay, I admit that in traveling from Vermont to Colorado or Washington State and back again, a part of me dreads the Midwest and the Great Plains states. It is a damned long drive on interstates teaming with endless, speeding truckers. And every single exit is like a photocopy of the last one, which is a phenomenon common to every state in the country these days. Here's another Motel 6 and Quality Inn, there's another McDonald's, Taco Bell, or Subway. And look! We can pull our RV into a Walmart parking lot for the night and not have to even deal with looking for a place to stay on Main Street, USA!
Americans like everything so...predictable...So bland...So Wonder Bread...So supersized. Diversity is frightening, even in breakfast food off an interstate exit.
So I guess it's little surprise that a New Yorker who can always catch the latest Broadway shows any night of the week would be anxious to skip the plains for the drama of the Rockies or the Grand Canyon landscapes. They wouldn't have time for the subtleties of the prairie. They wouldn't even be looking, in fact. And why torture yourself with a few days of driving the hinterlands when you can skip right over its perceived tedium in an airplane? Most choose to snooze or read a book when flying over the landscape between the Appalachians and the Rockies.
For those that choose to look, however, it's a different picture.
The prairie in North Dakota and in other states has a haunted feeling.
Its skies weigh down on you with uninterrupted cloud formations and blue in the daytime. At night, the sea of stars makes you feel microscopic. Vast v-formations of birds fly overhead.
The land there is reduced to basics. Layers of sediment from distant, eroding mountains. The slow, relentless shaping from wind, rain, freeze, and thaw. The eye is drawn to the basics, like the convergence of fence with sky or the lone silo from an abandoned farm in the middle of a grassy field.
Compared to other parts of the world, it may not seem old in terms of human habitation. Of course, that's a cultural bias. The bones of native people are everywhere in its soil. Their tools lie hidden in the grasslands. The sounds of the massive herds of bison are still carried on the unobstructed winds if you are able to really listen. The trauma of the rapid sweep of white/European settlement still reverberates.
The bison herds were wiped out. The native people were massacred and forced onto reservations that kept contracting in size. The natural grasslands were upturned in favor of crops to feed the growing masses on the coasts. The railroads were spiked into the skin of the prairies, the fence lines strung into its heart.
In the never-ending boom-bust cycle of our parasitic economic system, the family farmers were bought out and the Monsantos sprayed chemicals across the land. Tracts of true prairie vegetation are now few on the Great Plains. Then the oil and gas fields in the so-called Bakken Formation were discovered in North Dakota, Montana, and Saskatchewan, Canada. Oil wells and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) towers began to sprout like weeds to get at the fossil fuel goldmines hidden in the shale under the prairie's sweeping surface.
An educational program is shown at the south unit visitor center at the entrance to Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It makes an indirect reference to the development occurring all around the park's borders and suggests how important it is to preserve such places.
Of course, polluted aquifers and dirtied air do not recognize man's borders. And the hungry maw of the fossil fuel behemoth couldn't care less about the quiet places that so nourish people like Theodore Roosevelt.
The Town of Dickinson, North Dakota, lies about 25 miles to the east of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. It might as well be 2,500 miles.
Route 85 is loaded with one big rig after another, carrying various pieces of fossil fuel extraction equipment. If it's not an 18-wheeler on this highway, then it's usually a pick-up that passes us by. We pull off in Dickinson for gas and a snack. It's quite an eye-opener after our quiet visit to the badlands.
The quick-stop attendants' eyes follow us the second we enter the store. They're safely sequestered behind assault-proof partitions. There are numerous other men in the store whose dress and demeanor uniformly say that they are oil workers. The parking lot is full of trucks. We find it ironic that in Dickinson, in the midst of oil-boom country, we pay the most for gasoline of anywhere on our trip cross-country.
A local newspaper speaks of oil companies buying up local housing, booting out the native inhabitants, and using it for their workers. I've read about the massive increases in crime in North Dakota towns affected by the oil boom, particularly sexual assaults and theft. The same chain motels and fast-food joints sprout up along highway exit ramps like fungi on hard rocks. The natives seem divided by the money flowing in and the radical effect on their way of life and culture.
Boom or bust? You pick. Churchgoers or brawlers? Your choice. Mellow sound of meadowlark or flare of natural gas burning? You can't have both. That's the free market way! Boom and fly high, bust and let someone else deal with the devastation.
The approach to North Dakota's badlands was subtle. The rolling prairie keeps its secrets well. There were some odd-shaped hillocks hinting of the malleable land underneath the snow and grasses. The snow itself whispered of its slow, methodical sculpting of the land.
Then it opened up, like a giant hand had gotten a foothold on the landscape and dragged its fingers through the clay. Canyons and hills. Bands of color, red, black, and bluish. A river lined with cottonwoods snaking through the bottom lands.
The prairie's ghosts still watch and whisper, whether there be a teepee, bison herd, grain elevator, or fracking tower. Inevitably, they'll soon be joined by others.
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About the Author
Glenn Reed is a freelance writer who has worked in the non-profit world for nearly 30 years, both as paid staff and volunteer. He is also a lifelong activist for social, economic, and environmental justice. Originally from Vermont he is currently residing in Washington State and working in the non-profit world. (back)