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for people who care about the West

Knowledge, a wrecking ball

 

Until I was 18, I lived in the same house, in the same town, just a handful of blocks from the hospital where I was born. Ours was a neighborhood of unremarkable ranch houses on a mesa in Boulder, Colorado. My friends and I knew every backyard shortcut and nook, including a tiny pink house tucked back from the street on a sprawling, overgrown lot that we thought was haunted. Once, when we went there to pick irises, we peeked inside to see a TV turned on to snow in a dark, deserted room — and fled in terror.

Now, when I visit my folks, three megahouses stand on that once-haunted lot. A wall of palatial abodes with price tags in the millions rings the mesa’s edge, part of an endless wave of gentrification. Sometimes, filled with quiet vengeance on night walks, I’m tempted to leave my dog’s offerings on the manicured landscaping.

The gift of staying in any place long enough to learn it well is that it shapes your way of seeing the world, becomes mortar with which you assemble the pieces of yourself. And the grief is that it inevitably becomes something else beneath your feet.

In this issue’s cover story, contributing editor Sierra Crane-Murdoch profiles a man grappling with the transformation of one of the grandest spaces of all: North Dakota’s prairie and badlands. Over the last few years, the Bakken oil boom has chewed through private land and the Little Missouri National Grasslands all the way to the edge of Theodore Roosevelt National Park. John Heiser, the park’s backcountry ranger, has lived near it his whole life and worked there longer than anyone. Arbitrarily drawn borders can do only so much to protect any landscape, so Heiser has watched with rising fury as drilling noise and lights diminish the park’s sense of sanctuary, and an invasion of new visitors — mostly transient workers — brings in the crime and chaos that are de rigueur in Bakken boomtowns.

This erosion of peace has set off a deeper erosion of trust, cutting into the bedrock of those communities. Residents have turned inward and bunkered down; many have left. These are no longer places, Crane-Murdoch writes, where everybody knows everybody. Heiser, the boom’s most vocal critic, is unusual for pointing these things out loudly and often. But he articulates a feeling many North Dakotans share: Something timeless has been changed forever. And when that happens, what’s left for those who stay?

The kids growing up in my old neighborhood today don’t know a cougar once killed a deer in the vacant lot down the hill where a church and condos now stand; I don’t know what the mesa looked like before houses were there at all. It is hard to grieve what you never saw or understood. Ignorance can be shelter; knowledge can turn from mortar to wrecking ball.