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Jessie Veeder, Published March 22 2014

Coming Home: We’re not all reckless in oil country

The snow has thawed, slowly revealing a brown, muddy world, one littered with things forgotten under the five-month blanket. A pile of wood, a stack of leftover pallets, shingles from an unfinished garage roof sit just where we left them.

Like our home, this new world that exists out here in western North Dakota remains in a constant state of construction. And just like the beginning of spring, before the grass turns green and the crocuses open, it’s not all pretty.

In the ditches between this house and the highway, there are a few shiny things – beer cans and candy wrappers, things flung from careless men’s windows driving back home after a long shift on a drilling rig or pipeline.

The men may very well stay here forever, but they will not commit. Maybe that’s why they drive too fast, drink too much and fling their secrets out of open windows along country roads.

Not all of us are careless here, but those who are leave scars and a bitter taste on the tongues of the people who respect this place. We find ourselves shaking our heads and willing them to find a way to treat it right. They don’t have to love it, but they don’t have to be so reckless.

One neighbor has put up a sign along the county road that runs next to his barnyard: “Be courteous, please slow down.”

And many do. Some do not, even if they’re asked politely.

I suppose that’s the way it’s always been around here, around anywhere really. There are good guys, and there are bad guys. We just have more of both now. Once we could point them all out, hold them a bit more accountable. It was once hard to hide in all this open space.

Now we’ve got a bigger crowd.

Now the quiet has a hum to it.

Outside my window, on the other side of the hill, bulldozers and blades are scraping off native and non-native grasses, cutting into the thawing-out earth, pushing and

re-imagining the corner of pasture across from the grain bins to make way for what we call a “super pad.”

We knew this was coming. We’ve talked about it and negotiated it, giving it the nod of approval because having three or four pumping units together on the same pad pulling oil from several directions under our ranch and our neighbors’ will mean fewer roads and less surface damage to the rest of our homes.

“The less impact, the better” has been our motto.

For the next several months, I’ll be listening to the sound of progress. I’ll hear my dogs bark at the sound of machinery they think might be coming down our road. I’ll watch the landscape transform a bit, and then the horizon will follow: oil derrick up, reaching to the sky, then another and another.

Oil derrick down, then a pumping unit, then another and another.

And there they will be for 30 years, pumping, pulling, coaxing oil from the ground, each passing year becoming a more familiar fixture here, like the old grain bins in the fields.

I’m not scared of progress, but I know what we reap comes with a cost. For almost my entire life, my livelihood has depended on what we could help this landscape produce.

Motherly cattle, strong calves, a rich crop of alfalfa.

Oil.

We’re a nation that depends on these things.

So I pay pretty close attention to what’s going on out here, and I tell you I do not want this industry to fail. I don’t want to see my community members, old and new, pack up and leave town. I do not want to be alone out here.

I want to leave this place to my children.

Yes, it’s a new season, a muddy, frustrating, hopeful season. And as I look down on my under-construction house on our under-construction landscape, I understand we’re not all reckless here.

Then I send up a quiet plea to those who need it.

Be courteous. Be cautious. Be careful with this place.


Jessie Veeder is a musician and writer living with her husband on a ranch near Watford City, N.D. Readers can reach her at jessieveeder@gmail.com.