Let’s play the License Plate Game: Alaska, Texas, Florida, Montana, Georgia, South Dakota, Michigan, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, Louisiana. In the last several days, traveling around North Dakota teaching writing workshops for the North Dakota Humanities Council's Our People. Our Places. Our Stories program, I’ve seen all these license plates and met people from most of these states and more.
I’ve met and talked with longtime residents of North Dakota, people whose families emigrated here, whose history in the region goes back three and four generations, and I’ve met people whose ancestors were on this land for countless generations before Europeans arrived.
This state is in flux, having found itself in the middle of an oil boom. Especially while driving Highway 2 from Minot to Williston, one can see the multi-layered evidence of habitation and the multiple uses of the land--harvesters and other farm equipment in fields alongside oil wells pumping; new construction sites being dozed beside old silos and grain elevators; the steeples of beautiful country churches now sharing the horizon with tall, vertical fracking rigs. At night, around six o’clock, the intersection of Hwy. 85 and Main in Watford City looks as busy as Lake Shore Drive in Chicago--a line of cars, trucks, and semis snaking through the stoplight, an unbroken line of headlights shining into the distance for as far as the eye can see. Just regular people trying to get home or to work, trying to get groceries or pick up a kid from the babysitter, or trying to deliver a load of water or oil to some appointed site. Only, everything is a little more complicated now.
In the last few days, I’ve thought a great deal about my own ancestors, the first of whom arrived in this territory in 1886 having left their German-Russian villages along the Black Sea to escape changing political conditions that they sensed would not be good for their future safety. They arrived in a state of desperation; there was no turning back. They found the land welcoming but also inhospitable. Slowly, over time and seasons, they fell in love with the place. The beauty won them over, just as I have been won over in the last few weeks traveling these roads, watching rolling moraines open to luxurious plains of farmland, watching snow geese resting in their migration beside a slough. Last week, I saw a coyote standing stock still on a frozen pond, just looking around. I’ve felt a bit like that coyote recently--just looking around, trying to understand what is happening, what will happen, wondering how all this change will be absorbed and accommodated.
The Pioneer Museum of MacKenzie County, located on that busy intersection of Highway 85 and Main Street in Watford City, houses an impressive array of artifacts from the history of the region--a Buffalo fur coat, a display of photographs of threshing machines, and a new display with a small scale model of an oil rig with a video explaining how fracking works.
As I drive, I think of how much patience it will take on all parts to understand how all these layers of land use and history are going to come together into something that will last, something that will be sustainable. I’m keeping my eyes on the horizon and my ears open, listening for those stories.