Musings, North Dakota Living

The Irony of Empty

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “empty” as “containing nothing; not occupied or inhabited.” In 2008, National Geographic printed an article titled “The Emptied Prairie” by Charles Bowden, who discourses poetically on the fall of the wide North Dakota plains into decay, deserted by its human inhabitants. It opens: “In the early 20th century, railroads lured settlers into North Dakota with promises of homesteads. Towns were planted everywhere. Houses rose from the sweep of the plains, many, like this one, with a story no one can trace. People believed rain would follow the plow. But they were wrong.” The sub-heading reads, “North Dakota ghost towns speak of an irreversible decline.”


In the article, Bowden elaborates on the population decline that had plagued North Dakota for years, especially in its rural areas. It describes the state of the prairie, mentioning towns that “fall one by one like autumn leaves in the chill of October.” He paints a chilling and lonely picture, describing deer bones, rusting cars, and scattered remnants of human life. Of course, the photography accompanying the article just has to include a creepy picture of an abandoned doll staring through glass eyes covered with dirt and spider webs. There is nothing that speaks “despair” like a broken doll. It reminds me of Titanic documentaries I’ve seen.

The article also mentions Epping, a tiny town in western North Dakota, which then had a population of 75 according to the article. Ironically, Epping is located only about 20 miles northeast of Williston, placing it right near the hub of the Bakken oil field. Today, I bet the residents of Epping would have something different to discuss besides the emptiness of the prairie around them.

An especially interesting quote in the article reads, “That’s the rub of rural North Dakota, a sense of things ebbing, of churches being abandoned, schools shutting down, towns becoming ruins.” I look at the new students entering my high school weekly and new buildings popping up in Watford City daily, and realize just how ironic this article really is. The article does mention oil resources, but it was printed before our oil boom really took off, so author Bowden could not have realized just how wrong he was about to be. It’s not even that he was “wrong.” There are abandoned farmsteads scattered across the prairie across the Midwest – they are one of my favorite photography subjects. I’ve always been fascinated with the dreams left behind by homesteaders. It’s also true that our population was on the decline for years, especially among young people entering the work force. But I just love the irony of this article: our area of North Dakota, a state barely on the map until recently, is not exactly empty anymore.

In fact, western North Dakota has made it onto a much bigger map: the famous satellite light map. Some of you may have seen this before. It’s a pretty cool satellite illustration of urban areas at night. The area in and around North Dakota used to be quite dark, considering it was, well, rather empty. Fargo had a sort-of bright spot. Minneapolis-St. Paul was probably the closest thing to an actual bright spot. But NPR’s website recently published a piece called “A Mysterious Patch of Light Shows Up in the North Dakota Dark.” The satellite light map now shows a noticeable bright spot right in western North Dakota. Unlike other light patches, this one is made not of city lights but oil activity, particularly rigs and flares.

Look below:

Illustration by NPR/NASA
Illustration by NPR/NASA

An excerpt from the accompanying article reads, “Six years ago, this region was close to empty. The few ranchers who lived here produced wheat, alfalfa, oats, and corn. The U.S. Geological Survey knew there were oil deposits under ground, but deep down, 2 miles below the surface… There are now so many gas wells burning flares in the North Dakota night, the fracking fields can be seen from deep space.”

Here is a closer view:

Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory
Suomi NPP Satellite/NASA Earth Observatory

These two articles show two very opposite sides of western North Dakota: the first, the fearful isolation of a deserted prairie, and the second, the overwhelming activity created by progress. The most ironic thing is, these articles are only a few years apart. Who would have known that “empty” could change so fast?

If I had to be honest, sometimes I kind of miss empty. I miss the dark. I miss the lonely openness. But a wise five-year-old once told me, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” So rather than throw a fit, I try to remember the good that is happening here and still appreciate the irony of “empty.”

You can find the original National Geographic article here.

And the original NPR blog here.

4 thoughts on “The Irony of Empty”

  1. In 2004, the state champion speaker in speech to persuade spoke to the young people of North Dakota and bid them to stay. I remember this article and the legitimate concerns people had for the outmigration of the state’s youth. Last year, when I assigned a research paper to my junior highers about whether the oil was/is ultimately more positive or negative to the state, I recounted this concern. My students all looked at me as if I had told them I was an alien. It is truly amazing how so much can change in such small pockets of time.

    1. Hi Virginia! Yes you should be able to find a black “follow” button on the bottom right hand corner of the screen. This will allow you to subscribe by email! Thanks for reading! 🙂

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