OUR LAND & (S)OIL
Looking out of the window, 35,000ft up in the air, far below I saw the blue shimmering sea and the coastline of Greenland dusted with snow. I enjoy flying, mainly for this reason. I love to peer out of the window on long-haul flights, and often do so for hours, taking advantage of the uninterrupted views of our blue planet. Gazing down onto parts of the world that look untouched and undisturbed, where human activity does not rule. To understand and appreciate the vastness of this wilderness there is no other way to view it than from above. Then, I refocus my attention from what I see in the distance and look a little closer. My seat is just behind the wing of the plane, and in the foreground of my view are the engines. We can take flying for granted, quite easily, I think, because everything is done for you. All we have to do is turn up on time, sit in a seat, watch a few films, read a book, eat some food off our laps, and get off at the other end. I cannot recall a time, on a flight previous to this one, when I boarded a plane and considered, or wanted to calculate, how much jet fuel is burnt on a trans-atlantic flight. But that is exactly what I did on this journey. I must have stared at those engines for hours.
I was heading for Minneapolis, where I would catch a connecting flight another few hundred miles to Bismarck, in North Dakota. From there I began my project along an oil pipeline, which started in Stanley, another 180 miles north. It was an unconventional journey. One that took me to parts of the USA that tourists rarely visit, through North and South Dakota, Iowa, and ending in Illinois 1,600 miles later. I travelled by bicycle, and, when I reached the end, I was able to claim being the only person in the world to have ever cycled from the start to the end of the Dakota Access Pipeline, documenting people's stories as I went. The end result came together as a book titled OUR LAND & (S)OIL.
Natural gas burns continuously in North Dakota, on many of the oil pads. I was fortunate enough not to have been downwind of this one. The smell of rotten fish was overwhelming at some locations. Though you could not escape the heat.
Rand Olson, a resident of Stanley, is now retired. He worked for an oil company in North Dakota for almost 11 years. He now spends his time collecting relics from the automobile industry and creating sculptures from leftover scrap metal. His back garden was full of flower displays constructed from old cogs and mechanical working parts, and large carbon-fibre animals. His pride and joy, however, was his penny-farthing, which he had placed on his front lawn, where he proudly posed for a portrait.
Roadkill became a common sight along the highways. Most often you would smell it before you saw it. The truckers in the oil fields are paid for every journey they complete, so to make as many deliveries as possible most do not abide by the speed limits. Anything that steps out in front of a truck has a slim chance of survival. Here, the carcass of a large, female mule deer lies by the road.
Jessica Fears is a waitress and political activist, who lives in Ames, Iowa. After making several appearances at demonstrations around the local area, she was arrested on one occasion after stopping a truck from entering a pipeline holding area and construction site, near Pilot Mound, just west of Ames. “I was put in a cell for 10-12 hours. They took my photograph, which was later bought for me as a present by a friend of mine.” She kindly sat for a portrait, and brought along her mugshot too.
Residents of rural American towns heavily rely on their own transportation to get around. But when cars begin to break down it is often cheaper to abandon them, and acquire a cheap replacement, than go searching for spare parts.
Gary is a farmer, from Jolley, Iowa. He and his wife battled against the pipeline company for several months, before their land was taken by eminent domain. They lost approximately 5 acres during the construction process. The area of land has never fully recovered, and no compensation for the crop damage has ever been paid to Gary and his wife Linda. They welcomed me in to their home, and after spending several hours listening to their story we drove out to the field to see, first-hand, the damage that had been caused.
A home in Iowa displays the confederate flag proudly in the window. This was a common sight in many towns I visited.
Elder Memmot (left) and Elder McDougal (right), missionaries from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. In Illinois I was fortunate enough to stay with a Mormon family for the night, learning all about their religion, as well as getting a guided tour of their church, high up on the hill overlooking the Mississippi River. Any Mormons I met from then on were thrilled that I had visited one of their founding churches.
Three miles north of Humboldt, South Dakota, on US Highway 19, I noticed a dog running alongside me. It was not until I reached the centre of town that I realised he was lost. I back-tracked up the highway, eventually finding a local utility engineer, who offered to assist me in finding the dog's home. After around two hours of searching we discovered the leash he’d broken free from. With a bowl of fresh water, and his chain secured, I bid him fairwell. But not before getting his portrait.
At dusk one evening, I was in my sleeping bag in my tent at Little Missouri State Park, when the campsite host came over. Her name was RuthMarie. She persuaded me to head out that evening for a tour of the oil pads, to see the flames lighting up the night sky. Whilst out Ruth explained that the oil companies are able to do what they’re doing because many landowners sold their mineral, or oil rights, back in the 70’s. “If they detect oil under your land there’s little you can do to stop them putting in another drill and extracting what they call black gold,” she says.
Ruth stood for this portrait in front of an oil pad that was only a few hundred yards from the campsite pitches.
I had a long chat with Breeze in the car park of the Roosevelt Inn, Watford City. He works in the oil fields as part of a fracking team. He told me about his life, and the commitments he makes for the job. “I’m on $130,000 and I’ve only got a high school education,” he says. I was shocked at how much he earned. I knew there was money in big oil, but I also learnt that Breeze had only been in North Dakota for three months. His life revolves around the job, starting with 4am breakfasts, followed by the 90-minute bus ride out to the oil wells, 12-hour working days and then the journey home.
Finally, I asked him how long it’d been since he’d seen his family. “Nearly five weeks. I go home in two days. I can’t wait,” he said.
“Where’s home?” I asked.
“Mississippi.” He paused for a moment, then went inside.
A small chapel alongside the highway, for those spending time on the road.
Many rural towns I passed through were deserted, as most populations continue to decline as younger generations move to the cities and farmland becomes industrialised. These quiet towns make ideal locations for small-scale, low budget movies. These guys burst out of the local pharmacy just as I arrived. Supervised by one local police officer, they strolled around with their very realistic looking semi-automatic rifles on full display.
A welcome break on the long, hot, country roads. I developed mixed feelings about motels. They became a place of comfort for a good night's rest, but that feeling could quickly descend into isolation and loneliness.
Saheed had just finished a 16-hour long shift in the Bakken Oil fields, where he works as part of a fracking team. He was walking back to his hotel, lunch in hand from the local Chinese takeaway, when I approached him for a chat and a portrait. Originally from Texas, Saheed lives in a hotel for up to two weeks at a time, working every day. He then takes six days off, using the time to travel back to Houston to be with his family.
The only real glimpse of the pipeline was these huge, imposing valve stations. They dominated the landscape, usually sitting in a farmer's field. They have been targets for vandalism by many protestors along the route, so now, some are guarded by private security firms. It is also not unusual for the occasional helicopter to pass by, keeping an eye on those below.
Mary has a garage sale every single day. Her home, in Fairfield, Iowa, has been in her family for the last 150 years. She is now the sole occupant, and she makes her living selling items she finds around the house.
When we are sleeping, the flares still burn. At night you can see them for miles around. Although the beauty of the natural landscape remains, the oil industry continues to infiltrate the land, extracting the bones of the Earth for the financial gain, regardless of the global environmental impact.
I am currently seeking a suitable publisher for the book OUR LAND & (S)OIL. Currently 3 dummy hard-copies exist and can be viewed upon request. Likewise, a PDF of the current version can be emailed at your request. Please use the contact page for any enquiries.