Journal of Writing & Environment

Web Rove: Northern Exposures

Web Rove: Northern Exposures
By Meg Brown

Popular imagination regards North Dakota and the surrounding northern plains region as sparsely-populated and culturally homogeneous “flyover country,” home to little else but wheat fields and prairie dogs. However, writers and artists who visit this country have long recognized the northern plains as a place of subtle beauty and tempered grace. Shaped by an increasing demand for energy and food, the northern plains region now plays a critical role in our nation’s economic and environmental future.

The Emptied Prairie” by Charles Bowden and Eugene Richards (from National Geographic)

The northern plains region has been plagued for decades by “brain drain” – the outmigration of young educated people to large cities in other states, leaving a dwindling population and all-but-abandoned towns. In “The Emptied Prairie,” Charles Bowden takes us on a bleak tour of western North Dakota’s ghost towns. Don’t miss the gallery of chilling images from photographer Eugene Richards.

The New Oil Landscape” by Edwin Dobb and Eugene Richards (from National Geographic)

When Eugene Richards returned to photograph western North Dakota in 2012, he encountered a far different story. With the advent of the technology needed to recover an estimated seven billion barrels of crude oil in the Bakken oil shale formation, North Dakota became the #2 oil-producing state, second only to Texas. Recession refugees from across the country flocked to the region by the thousands in search of oil industry jobs. Now the fastest growing state in the nation, North Dakota’s population is projected to grow 20% by 2020, and the influx has already caused housing shortages in cities as far east as Grand Forks and Fargo. Meanwhile, the use of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) brings the looming threat of pollution and permanent, catastrophic environmental damage.

In Focus: North Dakota’s Oil Boom” by Alan Taylor, Jim Urquhart, and Shannon Stapleton (from The Atlantic)

Ironically, the outmigration of young people due to “brain drain” meant that the few residents remaining in western North Dakota were people who were happy with the way things were. All but assured of the permanence of their lifestyle, they made their homes on the rural plains only to have their landscape rendered almost unrecognizable by the oil industry. It’s hard for outsiders to appreciate the enormity of the changes wrought upon the region now called “Kuwait on the prairie.” Barring a trip to visit it in person, this series of thirty photographs from The Atlantic might be the second-best way to witness a region in the grip of an unprecedented oil boom.

The Same Cold” by Stephen Dunn (from The Writer’s Almanac)

Residents of the northern plains have a saying: “Forty below keeps the riff-raff out.” Long winters and famously brutal cold define the climate of the northern plains, and certainly influence the social “climate” as well. In this poem, Stephen Dunn offers a convincing explanation for the well-documented phenomenon called “Minnesota Nice.”

Indian Summer” by Diane Glancy (from American Life in Poetry)

The northern plains are a place of contradictions: an ever-present cycle of change coupled with a sense of retrogression and permanence. Diane Glancy, an indigenous voice and one of my favorite authors, captures these competing qualities in “Indian Summer.” She is not alone in her visualization of the prairie as “a horizon, an open sea” – at once a place of timelessness and new possibilities.