The High Broken Ash — Part I
Before leaving for our first trip to Williston, epicenter of the North Dakota oil boom, I find a book-length poem by Thomas McGrath, “Letter to an Imaginary Friend,” to use as a charm against friends and family who disparage the state as boring, fly-over country. “There’s nothing up there,” some have said. “Why not drill for oil?”
North Dakota has produced some good writers, but for me, the poetry of McGrath answers that question best.
For a different sort of guide, I search North Dakota websites and discover an advertisement for an auction of registered Black Angus bulls on Scott Davis’s Ash Coulee Ranch in White Earth, about an hour east of Williston. The name catches my eye. I had just read a McGrath poem mentioning a “high broken ash.”
In Norse mythology, a broken ash, the tree of life, would signal a fractured world.
I call Scott Davis on the telephone. Even after years of reporting, the first call on a story makes me nervous.
“You don’t know me,” I say, “but please don’t hang up.”
A few weeks later, photographer Terry Evans (flying from Chicago) and I (from San Francisco) meet at Minot International Airport and begin our exploration of a modern day oil boom. We rent an all-wheel drive SUV and head west through the 300,000 square-mile Williston Basin, where buffalo, beaver, and elk were once so tame and plentiful that Lewis and Clark struggled to find words to describe them. Beneath us lie multiple layers of entrapped petroleum, the product of 75 million years of geologic history. We see sandstone and shale on bluffs and stream banks, evidence of ancient inland seas. This is land where buffalo trails carved over centuries are still visible from the air.
Alongside us: grasslands green as Killarney, fields planted in spring wheat, drilling rigs, pumpjacks, and water tanks the size of small buildings on raised platforms of dirt and clinker – the red gravel also called scoria. 75,000-pound oil trucks dominate the highway, especially near Stanley, a railroad town. Twenty miles beyond, we turn north into the White Earth Valley.
Scott Davis had described what to expect, and Terry and I – both originally from Kansas – are familiar with such places. But now we’re struck dumb by the beauty of coulees and native prairie climbing from the White Earth River to bluffs high above. We roll down windows, get distracted by birdsong and breeze, and drive too far, past the ranch into a town that seems on the cusp of change. Lilac bushes bloom beside abandoned houses and a new RV park for oil workers fills the playground of a long-closed school.
It’s White Earth, once the western terminus of the Great Northern Railroad, where tens of thousands of settlers stepped down from trains and headed into the unknown.
We turn back again until we see someone.
“Where’s the Davis Place?”
“Just south – second house.”
And there it is – a two-bedroom modular home surrounded by machinery and vehicles in need of repair. If it’s true – as some say in these parts – that a man’s worth is judged by the number of his pistons, this is a real man’s home. Weaving through trucks and decrepit cars, we bump over ruts in the driveway and park below the house, which is small and fairly new. Front and side decks are still under construction. Scott Davis’s father and brother live here; Scott resides in Tioga with his wife and youngest son but spends most days on the ranch. Beside us, muddy paddocks surround a couple of large metal barns. We’re on a slight rise above the White Earth River. Just beyond us, prairie hills dotted with berry bushes and freshly leaved trees reach to the western rim of the valley.
Scott’s brother Steve – dressed in an old grey sweatshirt and jeans – comes out to greet us. He says his brother is delivering bulls and will arrive home soon. We make our way through carpentry tools to the deck, and Steve begins to talk. Terry gets up from time to time to take photographs – she calls them “notes” – with her digital camera.
This is far north country where it’s almost supper time but feels like early afternoon. Crickets and frogs sing in the coulee; ash leaves rustle in the breeze.
Steve’s soft, urgent voice: “Oil is changing how we live. Before the boom, we’d leave for two weeks without locking the door. We can’t drive now on some roads – they’re ruined by truck traffic. Grocery stores can’t stock enough food; people who’ve moved here for jobs have no place to live. In White Earth, an oil company put in its own power for workers’ RV homes.
“The well on our land has been nothing but trouble. Before dirt was moved, the site was supposed to be fenced to protect our animals. It wasn’t. Cows got out, and I had to go up and build the fence myself.
“The oil companies treat us like a bothersome fly. We’re a nuisance for them.”
Steve returned home in 2008 from Washington State, where he taught physical education and coached high school football. He came back to help his handicapped father and work with Scott on the ranch. He had missed North Dakota but says, “The place I loved isn’t here anymore.”
When Scott arrives, he joins us on the deck. He’s taller than Steve and thinner. It seems to me the two of them communicate without words. Scott explains that he worked for 20 years in oil fields in the 1980s and ‘90s.
“Oil has done a lot for us. Without it, we wouldn’t have been able to hold onto the land in hard times. My children would have taken off to work in other states, but now they’ve got good jobs here.”
In the coming 18 months of exploring northwestern North Dakota, we will learn that the Davis family’s experience with oil is fairly common, embodying the promise and peril of the industrial transformation of this place.
As shadows lengthen, Scott loads us into his pickup truck, bumps up an old highway, and turns north on a dirt road running alongside the upper pastures of the ranch. His father, who taught school for many years in Tioga, borrowed money to buy the land when Scott and Steve were young and then almost lost it in the late ‘70s when interest rates rose and commodity prices fell. Scott took a job insulating pipes for an oil company, made the loan payments, and saved the land. Now he owns 1,100 acres and leases about 700 more. He and Steve raise registered Black Angus cattle. Their herd had produced 90 calves earlier in the year, but coyotes killed four, and a pair of twin calves also died.
“You don’t get over losing a calf,” Scott tells us. “In 2010, we saved three sets of twins who went on to raise their own calves.
“What I’m best at is breeding cattle. In my opinion, we have some of the best in the world. We’re selling grass, you know, in the cows. I think people would value prairie more if they understood they’re eating grass when they eat the cows. Grass, like oil, is stored energy.”
We turn onto a new oil road gouged crudely from prairie, drive 200 feet, and get out to walk, trying not to trip on deep ruts as we go. (Later in the week, Steve’s truck will get stuck on this road, and an oil worker will refuse to push him out, a sharp violation of the prairie tradition of lending a hand.) We’re walking downhill towards the White Earth River. Scott points with pride to his virgin prairie. 800 of the ranch’s 1,100 acres have never been plowed. He keeps cattle completely off some land and moves them frequently on the rest to prevent overgrazing. Terry, who has spent a lifetime photographing prairie, says she’s seldom seen such healthy grasslands on an active cattle ranch.
We come around a bend and suddenly see a 16-acre oil pad surrounded by huge tanks holding hundreds of thousands of tons of chemicals, sand, and water. In coming days they’ll be pumped at high pressure through a wellhead into the Bakken formation two miles under the surface of the earth with enough force to free oil from shale. Big signs with red letters warn, “Danger! No Trespassing! Combustible Chemicals!”
“It broke my heart when they tore up our virgin prairie,” Scott says. “But we couldn’t stop them. You can’t prevent an oil company from getting access to what they own.”