‘Oil was, and is, everywhere. I could not escape it’ - OUR LAND & (S)OIL by Martin Eberlen - whynow

‘Oil was, and is, everywhere. I could not escape it’ – OUR LAND & (S)OIL by Martin Eberlen

Ever since plans for the $3.78 billion oil pipeline project emerged, it has been met with fierce opposition. In 2016 in North Dakota, a protest at Standing Rock Indian Reservation drew up to 15,000 people from around the world, staging a sit-in that lasted for months.

Having watched the events unfold from afar, British photographer Martin Eberlen decided to travel to the US and cycle along the route of the 1,172-mile-long pipeline in an attempt to gauge how the pipeline would affect both the land and communities.

With nothing but the clothes on his back, a stove, a camera and a small one-man tent, Martin cycled through through the towns directly in the pipeline’s path and surrounding areas, encountering people along the way and hearing their experiences first-hand. What he discovered was a far more complex and nuanced issue than he imagined. 

Martin, tell us about your project OUR LAND & (S)OIL… 

In July, 2017, I began what would end up being a 1,600 mile journey by bicycle following the route of the Dakota Access Pipeline. Starting in North Dakota, I travelled to Stanley, heading west to Williston, then through South Dakota and Iowa, eventually ending in Patoka, Illinois. OUR LAND & (S)OIL documents the individuals, communities, towns and land surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline. Through photography, publicly available documents, interviews and material collected along the way, the project tells the stories of those directly affected by the pipeline (for better or for worse), whilst subtly observing Midwest American culture from an outsider’s perspective.

OUR LAND & (S)OIL documents the individuals, communities, towns and land surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline.

But really, it all started for me on 24th January 2017, when Donald Trump signed several memoranda concerning pipelines in the USA, promising “a lot of jobs, 28,000 jobs…” in construction. One memorandum, signed by the President within his first week of office, gave approval for the completion of a 1,170-mile long pipeline, allowing oil to flow from North Dakota to Illinois, otherwise known as the Dakota Access Pipeline. I needed to understand why Donald Trump was so eager to sign this particular memorandum, and how completion would affect the communities living within close proximity to the pipe.

Given the distance that you had to cover and the fact that there must’ve been long, uninhabited stretches of road between towns, why did you decide to travel by bike? Do you think the project would have turned out differently if you had travelled by car?

There were many reasons why I travelled by bike. Firstly – but not most importantly – it was the cheapest option. But the real reason was that it slowed the entire journey down. In a car, not only would I have been using vast amounts of petrol (not ideal when making a project about an oil pipeline), but there would have been moments that would have passed me by behind the safety of a windscreen. 

When you travel by bike, you notice everything, and because cyclists are so rarely seen in the areas that I visited, everyone notices you too. There were definitely times that were so much more difficult because I was cycling. Thunderstorms, for example, were very hard to avoid and I did get caught a few times, taking refuge under church porches, entrances to banks, park shelters, as well as (ironically) petrol stations. 

When you travel by bike, you notice everything, and because cyclists are so rarely seen in the areas that I visited, everyone notices you too.

The other advantage of cycling meant I was welcomed by the cycling community. Local bike stores were very welcoming, often giving me gifts and shelter, or allowing me to leave my bike with them whilst I explored small towns or stocked up on food. Also, being part of the cycling community gave me access to a service called Warm Showers. Fellow cyclists sign up and offer a place to sleep, and a warm shower in the morning – all for free. I met some amazing people through this service, and many interview and photography opportunities came about because of it. I’m still in touch with some of my hosts from the journey, from Tom and Janice in North Dakota, to Susan in Ames, Iowa.

Describe a typical day during your trip.

The day would always start by packing up the tent, just in case I needed to make a quick run for cover. The weather changed so quickly, it was best to be dressed and ready to leave rather than getting drenched. Then I’d find a good spot for breakfast. I had a small stove that I used to cook porridge (stolen from motel breakfast bars on the occasions I needed power to charge batteries, or couldn’t find suitable places to camp). Then I’d set off, with music on my headphones, and the open road ahead. Firstly, I would explore the town I’d stayed in, taking any photographs I’d missed the previous afternoon, and then I’d begin the planned journey for the day. Unless I had planned to stay with someone (Warm Showers host, or Motel) then most days were similar, simply following a planned route staying as close to the pipeline as possible, and taking pictures of anything I thought was appropriate.

I can imagine it must’ve been difficult to balance planning (ie. setting clear goals of the distance you wanted to cover each day) with wanting to be open to chance encounters and spontaneity. Was this a problem for you? Did you find yourself wishing you had more time in certain places?

I did plan the entire trip, daily routes and distances prior to my arrival, which was very time consuming. This was really important to me, mainly because I was self-funding the project and couldn’t afford to extend it. I initially flew into Minneapolis, connecting to Bismarck, and my return flight was 6 weeks later from Chicago. As it was my first major solo cycling trip I didn’t want to be over ambitious in terms of cycling distance, and I also wanted a contingency plan should it take longer than expected. 

I’d planned to reach the end of the pipeline after 5 weeks, and then gave myself 4 days to get back to Chicago to catch my flight. Because I was cycling at a slow pace I was really able to soak up every part of the journey from North Dakota all the way to the fence line in Patoka Illinois. Of course I would have loved a lot more time in each location, and if I was given the chance I would definitely head back, but I was pleased with the amount of material I was able to collect for the project in the time I was given. The whole experience was completely life- changing for me. It is surprising how resilient you become when you have nothing but the clothes on your back, some porridge oats and stove, and a small one-man tent. 

The whole experience was completely life- changing for me. It is surprising how resilient you become when you have nothing but the clothes on your back…

Having no choice but to continue onwards, despite any challenges that are presented to you changes your perspective on things. If I was given the chance, I would return to spend more time in places like North Dakota, with Tom and Janice – exploring the Standing Rock Reservation. I’d also love to head back to Ames in Iowa. That place was so welcoming and friendly, and my host – Susan – really helped to connect me to lots of amazing people who were willing to contribute towards the project in some way, either through retelling stories about how they protested against the construction, or through giving me information on how pipeline infrastructure affects the soil and crops yields.

As an outsider, did you face any challenges or hostility from people at any point?

Looking back, there are definitely moments that could’ve been dangerous, and I was definitely very vulnerable on the roads and in my tent, but overall I felt very safe. There are some moments that make me laugh when I retell them. One day in South Dakota, I stopped at a fast food restaurant and pulled up at the drive-thru window in the hope that they could fill up my water bottle. I bought an ice cream and tried to pass her my bottle. She refused, and told me she couldn’t take anything in through the window as my bottle could be a bomb, or have anthrax in it.

Another time – again in South Dakota – a man pulled over and stood in the middle of the road hoping that I’d stop. I nearly rode past, but something told me I shouldn’t. He started with “don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you,” which was reassuring. He then went on to explain that he’d seen me earlier in the day, at around 9am, and that seeing me again had been a sign that he needed to stop me and thank me for what I was doing. He explained that as a child, he’d always wanted to cycle across America, but sadly he’d never found the time to do so. At the end he passed me 20 dollars, and thanked me once more, before returning to his truck and driving off.

In South Dakota a man pulled over and started with ‘don’t worry, I’m not going to shoot you,’ which was reassuring.

Lastly, through the Warm Showers website, I’d arranged to stay with someone (again, in South Dakota). Upon arrival there was nobody home. I messaged the guy and he explained that he had gone away, but that I was welcome to stay anyway. The front door was unlocked, so I crept in. The place felt abandoned, with piles of washing up in the sink, and plates of uneaten food on the kitchen counter. The basement light was on and there was music playing on the radio in the back room. I started to make my way upstairs, but something spooked me and I left immediately. I ended up booking a hotel that night…

Can you talk a bit about how the Dakota Access Pipeline is impacting the communities you visited?

The pipeline has had a negative impact on a variety of communities across the four states that I visited. Most notably the residents of the Standing Rock Reservation have been battling against the pipeline for years. You may remember the news headlines about the clashes a few years ago. This was mostly due to the fact that the pipe crosses the river that provides the residents with a fresh water supply. It is an environmental hazard, but also a huge humanitarian issue. The residents have felt completely let down by the big corporations, who have bulldozed their entire belief system to ensure their company makes a profit, to the detriment of the communities in North and South Dakota.

In other places, private residents who rejected any financial offers from the pipeline (compensation so that they could install the pipeline through their land), ended up having the pipeline installed on their land regardless. The company used a process called eminent domain, which gives companies the right to install utilities on private land if it will benefit the immediate local community. Things like high speed broadband and phone cables are an example. Eminent domain was never designed for use by private companies, whose sole purpose is financial gain. Some families have lost years of crops, and thousands of dollars of income since the pipeline was installed.

Lastly, the environmental impact that the oil industry has had, is catastrophic. In North Dakota, a campsite host told how she’d lived in North Dakota all her life, and that gradually she’d seen a steady decline in bird populations – mainly due to the destruction of their natural habitats. She told me that she would once wake up to birdsong, but now all she hears is the constant noise of burning fracking flames, from the oil drills.

Were people open to share their opinions about it? What was the general feeling towards the pipeline?

Most people were very keen to share their stories and general thoughts about the project. Overall, there was a real mix of feelings depending on your location. In North Dakota, most people who live in ND work in the oil fields, so they see it as a source of income, with many not knowing where they’d work if the oil dried up. Further afield, in South Dakota and Iowa, feelings were very much negative. The oil company who owned the pipeline did face a lot of opposition when applying for rights to build. So much so, that they employed the help of local schoolchildren, who all wrote letters (as part of a school project) in favour of the pipeline.

The oil company who owned the pipeline employed local schoolchildren who all wrote letters in favour of the pipeline.

In Iowa, one evening, I was able to arrange a meeting with local residents. We all sat around and talked about our feelings towards the pipeline, fossil fuels, and solutions for the future. It was incredibly supportive. Some people, despite being against the pipeline, didn’t see any other way of feeling the US economy, but also wanted cleaner air, water and energy. It was amazing to hear the debates happening right in front of me. I recorded the audio of that evening, and occasionally I listen to it, and hear something new that I hadn’t picked up the first time around.

Are you able to select one photo from the series and tell us the story behind it?

The picture I have chosen is not the most celebrated in terms of being a photographic triumph. I’ve chosen it for the message behind it. The picture is of my bike, propped up against the fence of the Patoka Terminal, Illinois, at the point where the pipe enters underground. It marks the end of my journey, but it also means so much more to me than that. Here’s the story behind it…

At the end of August 2017, I stood at the fence line to the Patoka Terminal, in Illinois, facing the familiar yellow sign that I’d followed along the entire route. After a total of approximately 1,600 miles of cycling, and 32 days on the road, sleeping under the stars, the feeling of standing just feet from the end of the pipeline was relieving. At the same time I couldn’t help but feel slightly underwhelmed too. Although this was the end point of the pipeline, the project didn’t seem to have concluded. After propping up my bike against the fence, and ensuring I’d documented enough of the area, the decision was made to head north to the town of Vandalia for a well earned rest. The next day I had to get from Vandalia to Effingham, along US Highway 40, an old road that connects the two towns. It is an area of significant historical value, made famous due to Abraham Lincoln’s time in Vandalia studying law. The highway, too, once served as the cross-state road, used by Lincoln, as well as an agricultural route for farms transporting goods to market in larger towns. But, in terms of the oil trail, it wasn’t until I reached a town called St Elmo that everything started to fall into place.

As I coasted along the quiet road, to my surprise I heard that familiar sound of a pumpjack, slowly rising and falling. I spotted it ticking away in a field next to me. Then I saw another. And another. Without realising it, I was back in oil country. These pumpjacks were much smaller than those in North Dakota, and there was no security or high-tech monitoring devices attached to these ones. They looked old and tired, and reminded me of a draught horse, coming to the end of its working life, struggling to pull the wagon, ready to collapse. The pumpjacks squeaked, groaned and scratched, almost as if the maintenance crew had applied the last coating of oil to the working parts and now expected them to seize up in the coming months, as the harsh winter storms froze the land and anything else that was left exposed. Further on I discovered an oil junkyard, full of tanks, pumpjacks and barrels. Next to this was a row of abandoned homes with overgrown gardens.

The pumpjacks squeaked, groaned and scratched, almost as if the maintenance crew had applied the last coating of oil to the working parts and now expected them to seize up…

A few miles down the road I pulled over at a fruit stand where I chatted to the owners, who kept passing me huge, freshly cut, juicy slices of watermelon. There was another man present there too. Steve was his name. He was intrigued by my bike, and wanted to know where I was heading. I told him that I was about 10 miles away from the end and that I was catching a train to Chicago for my flight home. I proceeded to tell him about the project, the journey I’d been on, the people I’d met and the things I’d learned. It was then that he told me the history of the oil industry in the surrounding area.

“My father moved here in the 30s,” he said. “He owned a trucking company, which eventually we ran together. When the town was booming from the oil production, in the 40s, Illinois was one of the highest producers in the country. I ended up servicing pumps and staying out here. But the oil didn’t last long and the wells have been on the decline ever since.”

He told me how some of the pumps still run, but there’s not a huge quantity of oil produced in Illinois anymore. Most pumps in the area are now going through a period of decommissioning, and abandonment. When a well doesn’t produce enough oil to cover its costs, they close it, using cement to fill the bore holes, welding the top, and burying what’s left.

Patoka and the adjoining terminals began to make sense. At one point they would have needed to store much of the oil and gas that was discovered in southern Illinois, ready for transporting or refining. Patoka gradually became a central hub for gas and oil pipelines as oil was discovered in other areas of the US. There needed to be somewhere in the middle of the country for many pipelines to meet, before heading south to the Gulf of Mexico for refining and exporting. With the Illinois basin providing the introductory infrastructure the industry needed, Patoka seemed to fit the bill – and so it has grown and grown ever since.

I couldn’t help but worry though, as I cycled on to Effingham to catch my train. The oil industry is in full swing in North Dakota. People’s lives depend on the work it provides, and some people’s lives had been ruined by the oil pads and pipelines it builds, whilst everyone else seems to rely on whatever byproduct it produces.

People’s lives depend on the work it provides, and some people’s lives had been ruined by the oil pads and pipelines it builds…

The oil flowing through the Dakota Access Pipeline isn’t going to last forever, that is a fact. Wells will dry up, just like in Illinois. Maybe not today, or next week, but at some point they will no longer be economically viable. I couldn’t help but think of the towns I’d been through that were bustling with life; Williston, Watford City, Dickinson. The people there were proud of the industry that allowed them to live the “American Dream.” For many, these places provided a place to work and a place to call home. It was difficult not to imagine those same houses, this time with boarded up windows, restaurants and shops closed down, and huge patches of land scarred where the pumpjacks once rocked. They would become much like the vast rural areas I cycled through in South Dakota and Iowa, whose dwindling population means many towns have begun to decay, where a thriving farming community would have once brought life.

Lastly, what was your aim with this project? What were you hoping to capture?

At the time, I wanted this journey to document the damaging impacts of the oil industry and catastrophic effects on the environment that this industry creates. I wanted to photograph the communities and individuals who have been most affected by the construction of the DAPL, at the hands of multi-billion dollar companies and wealthy investors.

It is very sad that, for now, our commitment to fossil fuels is still very much alive. We are addicted to the oil we, as a world, produce. It fuels our cars and planes; we use it to manufacture fabrics, clothes, plastics, pesticides. It is in our homes, our bathrooms, our kitchens, our supermarkets, schools and hospitals. As much as I tried not to use an ounce of petrol on my trip, I took for granted the fact that oil was used to lay the very roads I rolled along, as well as in the production of the plastic straws that were involuntarily handed to me on planes and at drive-thru windows, where I stopped for water. It protected my camera gear, my food and clothes in my waterproof panniers during thunderstorms, and in my tent at night. I’d bought a wooden toothbrush, and my entire wash-kit was made up of organic and environmentally friendly products. But truthfully oil was, and is, everywhere. I could not escape it.


Rampa  They Will Be