The High Broken Ash — Part II
June 2011 (continued)
Terry and I stand in silence above the oil pad cut from native prairie on the Ash Coulee Ranch in the White Earth Valley of North Dakota.
It’s our first close look at the industrialization of sparsely populated, rural land caused by the oil boom. The industry – drilling, fracking, transporting, pumping, and piping oil – poses a serious threat to irreplaceable prairie like that on the Ash Coulee Ranch.
As we walk back up the road, Scott Davis says, “The well tore a chunk out of me. That land was a birthright for my children.”
Though he owns the surface of his land, Scott doesn’t own all the mineral rights underneath, and he couldn’t stop the oil company from drilling. This seeming anomaly – that he can’t keep an oil well off of his property – will be explored in our next post.
Now he opens a ranch gate, and we walk through rain-wet blue grama grass to visit his Appaloosa horses, including a mother and colt, recently born. They trot towards us, eager to see Scott. We scratch ears and get nuzzled in return.
The 360 degree landscape is more varied than I first thought – not only virgin prairie but farm fields, a few ranch houses, and, here and there, raised, red oil pads with drilling rigs or pumpjacks. We’re looking over broad grasslands watered by springs flowing from these heights to a valley below. The White Earth River runs south through the valley to join the Missouri, 20 miles away, not far above where Lewis and Clark spent the winter of 1804-1805.
After a while, we drive a little farther north and pass through another gate into a pasture to see the ranch’s teepee stones. Steve leads the way, pointing to white stones the size of soccer balls in the grass. Most are scattered, but in a few places circles of stones remain. For centuries, Native Americans living along the Missouri moved to higher land in summer to escape heat and mosquitoes, and the Davis brothers believe the stones anchored those summer visitors’ homes. Ranchers in this part of North Dakota often find haunting reminders of earlier lives on their land.
Terry photographs Steve as he walks from circle to circle in the late afternoon sun. From where I stand, the stones seem to glow.
Healthy prairie like we’re seeing is precious partly because of the great variety of species it contains. In severe flood or drought, some species will survive, providing food for animals and securing the soil underneath. On a later visit, prairie biologist Alexey Shipunov drives up from Minot State University to explore the ranch with us. In two hours he points out more than 50 species, including liatris, aster, sage, echinacea, yarrow, wild asparagus, and hemlock. We follow him down a coulee alongside a natural spring, where the temperature is 10 degrees cooler and we’re surrounded by most every shade of green. I hear Alexey gasp as he finds a native thistle and other species he’s never seen in the grasslands of Russia (where he’s from) or anywhere else. Scott is also seeing species for the first time. “Some go dormant when it’s dry,” he tells me, “but this year we’ve had a lot of rain.”
Alexey turns to us and exclaims, “This community looks almost untouched!”
It’s a treasure the Davises are determined to protect. They’ve lost part of their prairie to oil and don’t want to lose any more.
* * *
When we first arrived in North Dakota, on June 1, the Mouse River was flooding, forcing Scott Davis’s sister and her husband out of their Minot home. Scott and his wife Joanne had hooked a 24 foot-long cattle trailer to their truck and rushed to Minot to save family heirlooms. Now, on the final day of this visit, Terry and I return to the ranch to help move furniture into the trailer again. Scott’s sister will place it in storage for now.
Among the pieces is a pew from a Methodist church in Tioga where Scott’s family worshiped when he was young. The church became a pioneer museum after the Davis family was one of only two families attending. We carry the pew into the trailer and then begin to move antiques that had traveled from Sweden with Scott’s great-grandmother more than a century ago – an oak organ, several tables, a rocking chair. Scott’s son’s puppy darts among us. Soon daughter Sarah arrives with her husband and three-week old baby girl. There’s a lot of ribbing and joking as we work.
After a while, someone removes a protective blanket from a wooden dressmaker’s mannequin – also originally from Sweden. It seems almost alive, and I can’t take my eyes off it. Scott steps forward, lifts it gently, and carries it into the cattle trailer, where he ties it securely in place with an old scarf. He stands for a while considering it and the rocking chair.
I watch until he turns around.
“I can still see my grandmother in that chair,” he says to himself and goes back to work.
Later I wonder if the rocking chair, mannequin, and prairie represent something timeless in Scott’s otherwise all-too-temporal life. He suffered and almost died during the 1990s from a rare liver disease, survived because of a last-minute transplant, and then lost part of his colon to ulcerative colitis. Yet, he still bales hay, delivers calves, and brands cattle, among other ranch chores. Terry describes Scott as “masked.” His surface appearance belies devastation inside.
“How will I capture it in a photograph?” she wonders. “He’s like the fracked prairie. The surface contains the visible wounds of the pads, but the greater injury lies underneath.”