I’ve seen a lot of you lately, although not the parts that are commonly viewed. I took a solo driving trip, which I dubbed a photographic walkabout, across Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, and then back across Nebraska home to Kansas. You have a lot of time to think on a trip like that (who knew that North Dakota has more highway miles per capita than any other state?), and a lot of stuff to see, and ponder.
One of the striking aspects of the western Dakotas is an abundance of piles of large rocks, in the corners and in the middle of the fields; there are often several in sight from any vantage point on this sky- and grass-filled plain. They resemble the Neolithic tombs that I saw in the Outer Hebrides a few years back, jumbled heaps of boulders with little obvious internal or external organization. In fact some of them are ancient burial sites, but most are more recent and more mundane. The rocks, ranging from several feet across to a few inches, are glacial erratics—boulders which migrated south during the Ice Age and stayed behind when the ice retreated. Folks who first wanted to farm these prairies had to remove the rocks before they could plow, and still have to do that regularly. Winter cold and spring thaws heave buried boulders to the surface every year, and “picking rocks” is an ongoing pastime for Dakota and Montana farmers. Mechanized pickers with inspired names like Rock-o-matic, hauled behind tractors, replacing the horses, wagons, and manual labor of the pioneer era, make this task easier nowadays. But I imagine it is still hard work, and not something that teenage farm kids look forward to every spring. It might be Making America Great Again, or it might just be a Sisyphean effort to keep running in place, like we all seem to be doing.
Other ancient items are emerging from this ground as well. The most jarring sight in the plains of western North Dakota is the abundance of fracking pads and oil well pumps, slogging away like mechanical grasshoppers every mile or so along every road. Many of these installations are embellished with tall pipes, spouting massive gas flames at the top. The Bakken oil field here has a lot of natural gas as well as petroleum, but this region is too far from most gas pipelines to allow the drillers to make money from much of the gas, so some of it is just burned off, 24/7, across this vast landscape. Nighttime satellite photos of the continental U.S. are usually images of cities and towns connected by glowing spiderweb threads of interstate highways, but in recent years a very large bright spot also shows up in western North Dakota, far from any city, and entirely due to the gas flares which now populate the landscape like miniature Isengards. No one seems to pay them any attention; it seems that they are part of the literal and cultural landscape now.
But maybe not for long. The oil boom in the Bakken fields has probably peaked, and both oil and gas production have started to decline over the past year. Like all natural resources—with the exception of glacial erratics, I suppose—extraction starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. In this case it will leave thousands of wells, pumps, pads, hotel rooms, and cheap housing, along with miles of roads in an otherwise agrarian landscape. And maybe, as is the case in Oklahoma and Kansas, there will be another legacy: earthquakes. The fracking process produces contaminated water, and that is typically discarded by re-injecting the vile brew into the earth via very deep wells. These deep injection wells are almost certainly the cause of recent dramatic increases in seismic activity in Oklahoma and Kansas. North Dakota (like Oklahoma) is not usually a place that one associates with earthquakes, and some experts believe that the underlying geology of the Bakken basin is less prone to injection-induced seismic activity than the Oklahoma region. But perhaps Making America Great Again will also include Making America’s Ground Agitated, even in this remote corner of the lower 48. Progress, for certain.
Another aspect of this landscape is more subtle, and takes some noticing. The region was (and is) dotted with hundreds of missile silos, some decommissioned relics of the Cold War, and some still poised for Mutually Assured Destruction. Missiles were designed to emerge from the earth, quickly and even more destructively than the oil and the gas. At Lostwood National Wildlife Refuge north of Stanley, North Dakota, I was looking for Baird’s sparrows, a formerly abundant inhabitant of these prairies, now declining due to habitat loss and climate change. I stopped in at the refuge headquarters and signed the log book; the last visitor, according to that book, was two days earlier. I inquired about recent Baird’s sparrow sightings, and the friendly refuge staffer gave me several suggestions, some of which I had already visited earlier in the morning. But one other place to see them, she pointed out on the map, was at a missile silo site, on the refuge and just off the highway a few miles south of her headquarters building. I thanked her and headed down the road. Indeed, the sparrows were there, bustling about in the grasses along with meadowlarks, kingbirds, and a couple of other sparrow species, totally oblivious to the fact that planetary death machines lurk underground at that very place.
Maybe those older silos will be recommissioned when we Make America Great Again, as one oddly-coiffed manchild rattles his plutonium-tipped sabers at another in Pyongyang, rather than at the Russian enemies of Minutemen past. Perhaps that reconstruction boom will be timed to help offset the decline in oil and gas production, replacing extractive industry with something that has even more destructive potential. Good news for the Dakotas, unless earthquakes become more frequent, making missile silo shifts a bit more precarious for one and all.
But mostly what is impressive about this part of America is what has always been so, at least since the glaciers receded 12,000 years ago. The sweep of the horizon, the awe of a 360-degree view of a cloud-dappled sky, the birds, the antelope, and the grasses rippling in the omnipresent wind. Certainly there are changes, and most are not for the better. The bison are gone, the Lakota are sequestered on reservations.
But the land and the sky remain, sublime reminders of an America that we will not see again, but which is resilient and beautiful and ever-changing. We know MAGA is a myth; we really can’t go back again to whatever era any of us would have preferred. We have to understand and accept change, continually adjusting to it. The Baird’s sparrows will continue to shift their range to Canada as a warming climate advances. The oil and gas drillers will move on as well, seeking other regions and other continents to plunder. The boulders will remain, and re-emerge every season, scarred and shaped by their journeys. We might benefit from their long view, as we poke our heads up daily into an America that is ever-changing, but always resilient. And still beautiful.
Dave Rintoul is a biologist, recently attaining emeritus status in the Division of Biology at Kansas State University. He is the author or coauthor of dozens of scientific articles, where he adhered to E. O. Wilson’s axiom, “In science, metaphor is best administered in homeopathic doses,” plus multiple volumes of books and lab manuals for biology instructors (including a free online textbook for introductory college biology), and one memoir.
Header photo of a gas flare in western North Dakota by Dave Rintoul.