GRAND FORKS — In another dry spring not so many years ago, while the wind howled and the dust blew, I expressed alarm to my farmer neighbor. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Plant in the dust and the bins will bust.”
I laughed then, but as I’ve mulled those words through the years, I come to respect their profound message of resignation and of hope.
So, on Saturday, I planted potatoes.
In her column on Saturday, the Grand Forks Herald's Ann Bailey described the Irish tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday. I was a day late this year. Nevertheless, the potatoes are in the ground. As protection against potential frost, I mulched them well.
That’s the second message in my neighbor’s adage. Hope alone is not enough. There’s no harvest without work.
In retirement these days, when I am not a gardener, I am a reader, and this empty year left a lot of time for reading. Last week I wrote about Catherine McNichol Stock’s “Nuclear Country,” a provocative alternative explanation of the rightward lurch in Great Plains politics. In the meantime, I picked up “Franklin and Washington: The Founding Partnership,” by Edward J. Larson, who won the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1998.
Washington and Franklin had a long and productive friendship. Washington presided at the constitutional convention in 1787, where Franklin was one of the “essential members,” in Larson’s view. In the end, they could not agree on a fundamental issue of the day, human slavery. Washington controlled several hundred slaves; Franklin had owned slaves but became president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society. He reluctantly accepted the compromise that allowed slavery to continue in the United States while using his new position to petition Congress to end it. Famously — or apocryphally — he pointed out the half sun on the back of the convention president’s chair. Is it a rising or a setting sun, he wondered? With the adoption of the Constitution, he concluded that it was a rising sun, and found hope.
Earlier in the year I read “The Good Hand” by Michael Patrick F. Smith. Smith, a musician and actor, found a new role for himself, first as a laborer in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field, and now as an established writer working on a second book. This is a giant book, nearly 500 pages.
Rather than reviewing it here, I’ll refer you to “Governing” magazine, which deals with matters of policy and politics. My friend Clay Jenkinson is a contributing editor. His review of “The Good Hand” appears on the magazine’s website, governing.com. It was posted Sunday. An interview with Smith was posted last week.
Jenkinson points out that the book is not about North Dakota in any essential way. North Dakota just happens to be the setting; it’s the boom’s impact on individuals who came to take advantage of it that is the real story. This could have happened elsewhere – and did – but Smith choose to come to our part of the world.
Or more precisely, to my part of the world. I grew up in Mountrail County, not quite the epicenter of the boom but very close. Stanley, my hometown, was one of the first affected; its population grew from 1,200 or so to more than 5,000, although not all of them were able to crowd into the city limits. Many were spread across the countryside. Later the boom became concentrated in Williston, where Smith turned up.
He stayed for 10 months and left with less money in his pocket than he had when he arrived in mid-2013. Smith found the work satisfying, the human company engaging, if reckless, and the landscape captivating. His descriptions of the wide-open country, the crystalline nights, the terrible cold, are spot on, as Jenkinson acknowledges in his review.
As for the workers, Smith chronicles a stunning diversity of them, from local brawlers to immigrants. He presents the men he worked with as damaged, including Smith himself, and suffering what he calls “father wounds.” Having grown up in abusive households, these men busted away from the restraints of family life and took up working, drinking, fighting and whoring in the oil field.
All this against a background of “extraction,” as Jenkinson insightfully suggests. The oil industry exists on extraction, of the oil itself and the gas associated with it, as well as the materials needed to draw it from the ground and to move it to refineries where it become the stuff that runs the modern world, and will, probably, until it’s used up, or perhaps sooner when the associated pollution and resulting global warming put us out of our misery.
Or the best-case scenario, until we find ways to mitigate the impacts of our addiction to oil.
This is the other side of hope in another dry spring.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.