Change on the Prairies

March 2021

I grew up in a place made of change.

Alberta, and my hometown of Calgary, have long been at the heart of Canada's oil and gas industry and deeply reliant on it, the whole city rising and falling with its booms and busts. It is undeniable that with the rising costs of natural resource extraction, regulatory and social pressure regarding climate change, and the rapidly decreasing cost of green energy, something there will have to change. But what of the people? Regardless of our best efforts to enable some kind of shift, there are nearly two hundred thousand people in this province who have some kind of specialized training or certification in the industry who will certainly face a loss of income and a reduction of earning potential should they start over in a new industry, affecting not only them but their families as well.

This former oil well near the town of Rosebud, Alberta, tells the larger story of my home province as I have seen it. Formerly a hub of activity and grand hopes and dreams, it failed to produce enough oil to pay for its upkeep and was sold on several times and then abandoned. When I arrived at the well site I did not arrive alone, my father came with me armed with a set of binoculars and a bird identification guide. I came armed with a camera and a file of much older photographs, ones he had taken when the well was first under construction. The place looks very, very different today from the hustle and bustle he documented many years ago. Though the well itself was properly sealed and taken out of service by its last known operator, they never finished the process of dismantling the site. Instead, a pumpjack stands frozen against the prairie sky, the pressure gauge on the tank beside it rusted in place at zero. All around it stretches the vast beauty of southern Alberta as our famously long bitter winter at last begins to thaw. On one side of a narrow farm road, the plains abruptly fall off into a deep coulee, protected from human development by the precariousness of its steep sides and instead grown over by brush. On the other, the remains of last year's harvest march line by line toward the horizon, waiting for the ground to thaw enough for new crops to be planted.

Standing as a monument to what once was, the site still gradually gives way to nature and human intervention. The farmer on whose land the well was constructed has planted crops flush to the edge of the drilling site, starting to peak through the thinning snow in tidy rows. Several forms of wildlife have found refuge there from the open farmland. A coyote has left tracks in the untouched snow of the once-busy access road. A snowy owl has decided that a SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) array, no longer serving its purpose of beaming back live updates on well function back to some office building in Calgary, can instead be put to use as a high and isolated perch from which to scan the fields for the rustling of small rodents.

I set out to photograph this place, to photograph the beauty of the oft-underappreciated Alberta prairies and to photograph an allegory of the social and economic factors that made my home what it is today. I have hope for change and progress and growth. For the Albertan farmers who work the land that their parents and their parents' parents have worked, still taking pride in it even in the face of the relentless tide of urbanization. For the turbines and solar panels that sprout where our dry, sunny climate and intense wind offer new ideas for what we might mean when we talk about Alberta's abundant natural resources. And for the hundreds of thousands of people left, in spite of it all, feeling a bit like a pumpjack abandoned in a field: a relic of a bygone era, a monument to entropy, a useless cast-off that stands stark and impossible to ignore in the path of the slowly crawling planter-tractor of human progress.

Change is an inevitable part of human existence. The oil and gas industry is dying, and only in death can it leave space for a more sustainable future for our home. And yet, as with any death, there will be many who mourn. I am one of them.

This work was exhibited in the Creig Gallery in October 2021