Yesterday I wrote a bit about solitude, the need to sometimes just go where we can be completely alone with nature, and how troubling it has become in western North Dakota that it is harder and harder to find such a place. Ed Abbey, hero to everyone who cares deeply for the land, and inspiration to those who pursue Wilderness, said in an interview once:

            “At some point we must draw a line across the ground of our home and our being, drive a spear into the land and say to the bulldozers, earthmovers, government and corporations, ‘thus far and no further.’ If we do not, we shall later feel, instead of pride, the regret of Thoreau, that good but overly-bookish man, who wrote, near the end of his life, “If I repent of anything it is likely to be my good behaviour.”

            I was pleased to see a notice in this morning’s New York Times that Abbey’s most notorious work, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” is finally being made into a movie. Shooting should start this year.  I wish I had known Ed Abbey.

Someone who did know Abbey is Jim Stiles, editor of the Canyon Country Zephyr in Moab, Utah.  In a wonderful essay about solitude a couple of weeks ago (you can read the whole essay here), Stiles wrote:

            “Nowhere has solitude been more keenly felt than in the enormous emptiness of the American West.  The naturalist John Muir first articulated the feeling that so many of us would pursue in the next century. He wrote:

            ‘Walk away quietly in any direction and taste the freedom of the mountaineer. Camp out among the grasses and gentians of glacial meadows, in craggy garden nooks full of nature’s darlings. Climb the mountains and get their good tidings, Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees.’”

            Muir, or course, founded the Sierra Club and spent his life saving wild places. In their wonderful documentary on our national parks, Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan wrote:

            Muir’s three-night camping trip with President Theodore Roosevelt could be considered the most significant camping trip in conservation history. He was able to persuade Roosevelt to return Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to federal protection as part of Yosemite National Park. The trip would have a lasting impact on the president.”

            Stiles often laments, as he does in this article, the changing of Moab from “a place once known for its scenic beauty and as a place to seek solitude and tranquility continues to transform itself, like a Ray Bradbury Martian, trying to please its new guests. Almost overnight it became the “Mountain Bike Capital of the World” and the competition between them and the slow-moving hikers has become a point of contention ever since.”

Stiles goes on:

Many decades ago, the Sons of the Pioneers wailed… 

            “This ain’t the same old range.
Everything seems so strange.
Where are the pals I used to ride with?
Gone…to a land…so strange.”

            It’s a cowboy’s lament. And I realize that this ain’t the same old range either.  The world keeps turning over, again and again, faster than any of us dreamed possible. As technology continues to shrink the world, its newer citizens embrace the collective over the solitary. Solitude feels like isolation for many of us in 2013 and it has no place in the Brave New West. We all cherish the shared experience, but there was always a need for the empty room. Now the need recedes. “Rugged Individualism” has been in decline for decades. Now it’s in its death throes.

            And so, a lament and a longing for the quiet moment, passed along from generation to generation, from the old to the young, for more than a century, from Thoreau to Muir to Leopold to Abbey ends. The solitude is there, if you know where to look for it, but who’s looking? And who would notice or care if it went away?

            Is that a bad thing? Who knows? Maybe not. But Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience.”

            The world has lost patience with solitude these days. They’ll never know what they threw away.

            Stiles laments turning the Utah wilderness over to mountain bikers. In North Dakota, our lament is over turning everything over to the bulldozers who level the ground for oil well drilling pads.

But I was pleased to read this morning what the North Dakota Democratic-NPL Legislators have done this week. Here’s a note from today’s Forum:


            North Dakota Democrats have donned lapel pins in the past week with an image of Arthur Link, a former North Dakota governor, congressman and longtime state legislator known for environmental stewardship. Link died in 2010 at the age of 96.

Link was elected to the state House of Representatives from McKenzie County in 1946 and served as a legislator for 23 years. He was elected to the U.S. House in 1970 and served one term before North Dakota lost a seat due to reapportionment.

He became governor in 1973 and served for two four-year terms.

            In the North Dakota House, Link wanted oil-producing counties to keep some tax revenues for road repairs. As governor, Link insisted on strong regulations for reclaiming land that had been mined for coal and collecting tax revenue from companies that were reaping a one-time harvest of minerals.

            Democrats, who are selling the lapel pins for $5, said the pins are an effort to keep Link’s legacy of environmental stewardship and conservation at the forefront in the midst of North Dakota’s unprecedented oil boom.

            Wow. That’s cool. I have to go get one when they get back here tomorrow.

And speaking of the oil boom, you‘ll remember the article in Harper’s magazine a couple months ago by Richard Manning about what’s going on here. Manning’s article sparked a couple of letters to the editor of Harper’s in this month’s issue. Apparently Manning’s article got a little too close to the bone, prompting a letter to the editor form Lynn Helms, North Dakota’s top oil regulator, and Dave Glatt,, our state’s environmental health officer, which read, in part:

            Last April, the North Dakota Department of Mineral Resources put into effect twenty six changes to the rules regulating oil activity, addressing some the concerns the Wildlife Society raised in its report (a report Manning cited in his article), and the state legislature is considering bills focusing on other environmental concerns this session.”

            Well, la de da. We wrote about those 26 new regulations last year. I hope that Lynn and Dave will write a report after the legislature telling us about all the new environmental regulations passed by this session of the Legislature. Shouldn’t take more than half a cup of coffee to get through that.

Another letter writer in Harper’s this month called attention to a study done on the Bakken and other energy plays in this country by the Canadian geoscientist David Hughes. Hughes, the letter writer says, gives the Bakken bubble ten years before it bursts. Here’s part of the executive summary of Hughes’ report.

Tight oil (shale oil)
Tight oil production has grown impressively and now makes up about 20 percent of U.S. oil production. This has helped U.S. crude oil production reverse years of decline and grow 16 percent above its all-time post-1970 low in 2008. More than 80 percent of tight oil production is from two unique plays: the Bakken in North Dakota and Montana and the Eagle Ford in southern Texas. The remaining nineteen tight oil plays amount to less than 20 percent of total production, illustrating the fact that high-productivity tight oil plays are in fact quite rare.
Tight oil plays are characterized by high decline rates, and it is estimated that more than 6,000 wells (at a cost of $35 billion annually) are required to maintain production, of which 1,542 wells annually (at a cost of $14 billion) are needed in the Eagle Ford and Bakken plays alone to offset declines. As some shale wells produce substantial amounts of both gas and liquids, taken together shale gas and tight oil require about 8,600 wells per year at a cost of over $48 billion to offset declines. Tight oil production is projected to grow substantially from current levels to a peak in 2017 at 2.3 million barrels per day. At that point, all drilling locations will have been used in the two largest plays (Bakken and Eagle Ford) and production will collapse back to 2012 levels by 2019, and to 0.7 million barrels per day by 2025. In short, tight oil production from these plays will be a bubble of about ten years’ duration.

            Here’s a link to the executive summary of the study. It will get you the full report if you’re up for that. I’m not sure I know who to believe these days, but if this is even close to accurate, we’re going to find places for some solitude in western North Dakota again a lot sooner than we thought. Like, in a lot of empty motel rooms.

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