This week I watched the documentary film “My Country No More” on PBS. It follows the story of a proposed oil refinery in Trenton, N.D.
In some ways, the film perfectly showcases two aspects of North Dakota — the beautiful wide open spaces and the reserved, thoughtful, hardworking people who live there. It also addresses the tensions brought on by the discovery of oil in the Bakken formation.
Ultimately, the film tries to approach the subject of how a place is defined by the people who live there, and how those people are defined by the place where they live.
Kalie Rider, a Trenton resident, makes this amazing statement near the very beginning of the documentary: “I guess I never realized how much land defined a person. When I left home and realized that most people didn’t have land, it was kind of surprising to me. I had no idea how much a part of me it was. And it sucks.”
If you don’t know the context for that statement, it might seem kind of odd. Rider is unhappy with the growing industrial development in and around her town. She seems to feel trapped between wanting to stay in her home that she loves and not wanting to live in a small town dominated by the oil industry.
Rider’s view of the town is tied closely to the fields of grain surrounding it and the people living in it who don’t want a refinery for a next door neighbor. Her view is colored by her family history. Her father is a farmer who was hammered by the 1980s farm crisis. Her brother is a rancher. Her uncle is a farmer. Their ancestors homesteaded in the area. For Rider and her family, the way of life enjoyed by the town’s residents is more important than the money industrial development in the area might bring.
The film is careful to show another view of the town through the eyes of Ruben Valdez, an itinerant worker who has been given a new chance to succeed in life by the oil boom. He’s good at his job and earns promotions. So when he looks at the town, he’s less concerned about the beauty of the area or the people who may have to move due to the refinery. He’s more concerned about the economic opportunity the oil provides.
The issue is further complicated by yet another point of view from a local landowner who, after two tough weather years on the farm, was having a hard time supporting his kids’ hopes for future education. With the potential oil refinery, his land is suddenly worth a lot more. Should he pass up the opportunity to sell his land and provide his kids with a future to preserve the town’s way of life?
So whose vision of the town is the correct one? Should the town exist as the locals have always known it, or should it change to allow new opportunities for people?
We might be tempted to say that the families who have lived so long in the town have a greater right to decide its future, but it’s not that easy. Some families who have lived there for generations want to sell.
The film doesn’t offer any easy answers, and that’s because there aren’t any. I think we all know which side we’d choose, but we couldn’t choose one side or the other without affecting someone else.
Change or preservation? I know which one always seems to win. Even in areas where agriculture has remained dominant, our rural landscape and population doesn’t look like it did a generation ago, much less two or three generations ago.
Whenever I return home, the farm I see doesn’t look like the farm of my youth, and that’s always a little painful for me.
The Amish, fighting change with all their might, still farm with horses, but they are surrounded by a world moving ever onward without them.
My father now wishes we’d never invented agriculture equipment wider than four rows, but his preferred farming methods are quickly growing obsolete.
I know I’d love to fight certain changes and preserve a rural way of life, but I also know that I’d lose that fight. Today’s rural lifestyle is already very different from the one I knew as a kid. Today’s farms are so different, and it’s changing our landscape. I can see the advances in technology quickly approaching the market, and I can foresee how it will change rural life even more. I can’t stop it from happening and neither can you.
The refinery in Trenton, N.D., hasn’t been built, probably due to the efforts of Rider and her neighbors. Yet the town still has a rail port for oil. It’s still surrounded by oil wells. It’s still one of the heads of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The oil industry is already a large part of the town. And the refinery will most likely become reality at some point.
The film opens with a quote from poet Kathleen Norris who has close ties to South Dakota: “To be an American is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.”
Maybe that’s the best way to describe what Rider means in her statement about the land being a part of her. Maybe it’s the best way to describe what happens to all of us who are defined by a place and live long enough to see it change as we try to remain the same.