Expressways carve car culture into landscapes, elevating automobiles both in our consciousness and in space, over the pedestrian realm of a city or the pastoral pace of the countryside. In the same way, oil infrastructure elevates North America's revived culture of oil production throughout the continent's landscapes, changing them from urban, agricultural, and wilderness landscapes, to oil lands.
Take a look through the pretty 'oil landscape' google images in the last post. As if placed there for me, a lone photograph of a natural gas flare is hidden among the oil-on-canvas images. It even blends in, with its rainbow and pastoral background. Clicking leads to Eugene Richards' "The New Oil Landscape", a National Geographic photo gallery of fracking activity in the Dakotas.
In this gallery is another striking image, one of South Dakota's Thunder Butte, gently sloping above a borehole waste pit.
Such significant interventions in the physical landscape interrupt the stories, rituals, and beliefs that nurture our shared cultures and individual spirits. Fracking, along with oil extraction and transport activities, physically alters existing ways of life and delicate ecosystems. We know this. What might be less apparent is how the visible indicators of these activities - the flares, waste pits, pipelines, mines and tailings ponds - are also capable of muddling invisible connections, legends and beliefs that connect a people to a place.
To others, the new oil landscape is one of hope, where you can make more money than could ever be made doing the same thing elsewhere, escape unemployment, plan a future, or enjoy being part of a new culture. Instagram hosts a fine selection of the imagery created by the burgeoning culture of Canadian oil workers, often depicting the general hardcore badass-ery that is life and hard work in the tar sands. Hashtags like #oilpatchlife, #oilfieldmoney, #oilfielddreams, #oilfieldswag, and #intheoilpatch lead to collections of photos angled to capture the enormity of machines and activities, filters carefully chosen to enhance the glow of a flare or the contrast of bright lights against a darkening sky.
A 2008 Canadian Geographic feature describes the awe-inducing effect of "oil sands central" at Fort McMurray:
"The beauty of the boreal forest that surrounds Fort McMurray and covers most of northern Alberta lies in its magnitude, but once you arrive at oil-sands central, what you see is a landscape erased, a terrain stretching in a radius of many hundreds of square kilometres that is not so much negatively impacted as forcibly stripped bare and excavated. Dominating this landscape are half a dozen giant extraction and refining plants with their stacks and smoke and fire, disorientingly wide and deep mines, and tailings ponds held in check by some of the world’s largest dams. As a panoramic vision, it’s all rather heartbreaking but, if one is forced to be honest, also awe-inspiring, such is the energy and the damage produced by human ambition." - Curtis Gillespie for Canadian Geographic
In fairness, wind turbines also punctuate landscapes with their sharp and foreign form, often massed in disorientingly vast numbers. The question is, which story of human ambition do we want our culture to tell through its landscape?