Reality and Myth in North Dakota’s Oil Fields

Recently the contemporary Herodotus of the Northern Plains and the contemporary Herodotus of the Eastern Med took to investigating a list of cultural and social grievances that came out of the oil fields of central and western North Dakota. Drawing from this, I couldn’t help but thinking how both North Dakota State University’s Tom Isern and University of North Dakota’s William Caraher carry on a scholarly tradition that seeks to extract a variety of meaning from one particular data set.

In the late-19th century Andrew Lang said “Tales, at first, told of ‘Somebody,’ get new names attached to them, and obtain a new local habitation, wherever they wander.” In “On Fairy-Stories,” John Ronald Reuel Tolkein remarked how truth is reflected in fiction, if not an external reality than most certainly a psychological one. Other writers and scholars come to mind, including Jonathan Swift and his Gulliver’s Travels, or Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s Frankenstein. The former Swift brought the reader into a new world through otherwise fictional accounts (much in the way the Rennaissance Physician François Rabelais did with his Gargantua and Pantagruel), and through this fiction readers could begin to empathize with a number of individuals and scenarios that they normally would not encounter in their day-to-day lives. In the latter case of Shelley, the mid-19th century conflict between the possibilities and real or perceived horrors of science and humanity manifested themselves in the monster created and brought together by Dr. Frankenstein — perhaps the monster is a prologue description of the modern day corporation, a cobbling together of different human parts that is brought to life through the science of electricity and rationality, and a monster/corporation that acts predictably in some ways, but starts doing strange things in many other ways. Or perhaps it’s a story about how local villagers cannot accept change and modernity, mistakenly thinking that things have been one way and one way only, and by golly they are going to stay that way if I have anything to say about it.

The point how all of this relates to circulated e-lists from North Dakota’s oil field is made, though. Fiction, or what is perceived as fiction, is a powerful window into reality. The rumors circulating in North Dakota’s Bakken oil field say just as much about the oil field as they do about the individuals who 1) composed the list(s); 2) of individuals who find components of the list agreeable or disagreeable; and 3) of individuals who circulate and forward the list (and individuals who blog the list on-line). We all carry cultural baggage — aka, value judgments — where ever we go, and this cultural baggage is what makes us human. This is why it is so necessary to have Iserns, Carahers and others of the world examine that evidence. They do so for a variety of reasons, and not necessarily to demonstrate who is Right and who is Wrong. Rather, it is to see just what kind of information can be extracted and squeezed from a particular data set, in this case a purported list that purportedly purports to describe the purported happenings taking place in the North Dakota oil field.

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