Art

Holding onto home in rural North Dakota

A new documentary explores progress and place in fracking country.

 

My Country No More chronicles the tensions rippling through a small North Dakota oil town at the height of the fracking boom. The documentary opens with a quote from South Dakota writer Kathleen Norris: “To be an American is to move on, as if we could outrun change. To attach oneself to a place is to surrender to it, and suffer with it.”

The film explores the tension between flight and surrender in the face of change, asking what it means to be attached to a place, and what it means to leave it behind.

“When I was younger, I was connected to land and didn’t realize it,” Kalie Jo Rider, the film’s protagonist, told me over the phone a few weeks after I watched the film. “Being able to live the life I had growing up, where you’re just coexisting with open space, it feels like you have to be rich to afford that now. Which is weird, because we were just poor farm people.”

Rider’s parents lost their farm to foreclosure during the farm crisis of the 1980s, when she was a kid. But home to her has always meant open space. When the fracking boom came to Trenton, North Dakota, around 2011, it spurred the resale and rezoning of agricultural land at a pace that made it impossible for residents to keep up with the changes. Rider described it as “mass chaos.”

Once surrounded by farmland, Trinity Lutheran Church is now at the center of a controversial refinery project and industrial park.
Film still courtesy of My Country No More
My Country No More follows Rider’s family as they grapple with their choices. Do they stay — and resist the inevitable industrialization of their small community — or leave their home forever? Surrender and suffer, or move on?

A proposed oil refinery provides the scaffolding for the plot. Powerful themes hang from it — of home, place, movement, attachment, surrender. But the film lacks a clear chronological structure. Filmmakers Rita Baghdadi and Jeremiah Hammerling spent six years gathering material in North Dakota, and the finished product suggests a struggle to narrow the focus. A character named Ruben, for example, who comes to Trenton to work the oilfields, makes a cheerfully pragmatic foil to the distraught Riders, an example of someone embracing the possibility for reinvention. But because we never see him interacting with any of the other characters, or taking part in the film’s central drama — the battle over the refinery — his storyline feels like a subplot that never quite finds its groove.

The film’s emotional impact comes from its characters’ meditations on belonging, their feelings of helplessness in the face of rapid change. Interviews are underscored by scenes of family and country life — Rider singing and playing guitar (her original songs provide some of the soundtrack); her brother Jed, a rancher, riding horseback with his sons against a dramatic prairie sky.

From the interior of his new home as it’s under construction, Jed Rider looks out across the field where he moves cattle.
Film still courtesy of My Country No More

“This is just a blip in history,” Jed says. “It’s going bust eventually. There’s only so much down there we can take. That’s why this bothers me so much: This little blip is destroying this area.”

Dwight Aune, who sold his land for the refinery, has a different perspective. “That little chunk of ground is worth $2 million to my kids,” he says. “What would you do?” My Country No More ends with the Riders and their neighbors scoring a small victory: The county commissioners denied the refinery proposal, thanks in part to Rider’s outspoken testimony at public meetings.

But the ongoing changes still weigh her down. “You feel like you’re worthless and your land is worthless,” Rider told me. “Like the only point of this land now is for the oil at whatever cost.”

I grew up in Seattle. But watching My Country No More, I felt an unexpected affinity with Rider, as she wrestled with the meaning of progress and its effect on the place she loved and thought she knew. I empathized, having watched my hometown transform through unchecked development that completely devalues the emotional connection to place.

Kalie Rider runs through a field in Trenton, North Dakota.
Film still courtesy of My Country No More

Rider eventually left Trenton, because, she said, “I couldn’t handle it. I felt like I was bringing other people down.” When she returned to North Dakota, after two years on the other side of the Montana line (a hiatus depicted in the film but never fully explained), the boom had slowed a little, and she’d had time to process the changes, even embrace some of the benefits: the influx of diversity, as oil workers poured in from all corners of the country; the additional income for cash-strapped farmers; the fact that, in a reversal of demographic trends, most of her high school class had returned instead of fleeing their hometown forever.

American history, and especially Western history, has been defined by booms and busts. The booms of the past decade — from fracking on the High Plains to tech takeovers of coastal cities — may feel bigger and more irreversible than any we’ve experienced in our lifetime. But after watching My Country No More and talking to Rider, I wondered if our relationship to place can be more flexible than Kathleen Norris suggests. Moving on from a place doesn’t mean losing your attachment to it, and staying doesn’t have to mean surrender. Instead of struggling against the tide of change, or letting it wash us away, we can try to stay afloat by swimming parallel to shore.

“You don’t want to fight it because you feel like a hypocrite,” Rider said. “This is the new reality. How do we find a way to coexist?”

Claire Thompson is a freelance writer based in Montana. 

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