Episode 1: Preservation and Motherhood on the Northern Great Plains
Kim Rudningen: When the boom happened, the oil boom, in the early 2000s and continued it just opened up so many opportunities and then when that opportunity presented, you kind of jumped at the chance.
Megan Torgerson (narrating): This is Reframing Rural, the original podcast series that elevates unexplored stories from rural America. I’m Megan Torgerson and our first season, Coming Home, is set in Sheridan County, Montana the extreme Northeast corner of the state, where I grew up, that borders Canada and North Dakota.
That was Kim Rudningen you heard at the top of the episode and the Bakken Oil Boom she was referring to has brought with it a bit of change for the ol’ Mon Dak Region of the Northern Great Plains, but as Kim eluded, it’s also brought with it opportunity. I left this area just as the boom was getting started, but Kim is in it and will uncover for us a bit about what it’s like to work in environmental compliance within the oil and gas industry. She’ll also tell us what it’s like to raise a family in a county where there are two people per square mile and how her and her family are helping to reinvigorate the community surrounding Dagmar, Montana.
One of the ways Kim’s family gives back to the community is by being a part of the church. It had been awhile, but I attended a service when I was home last summer. Churches play a big part in keeping rural communities alive. In Dagmar, the church is one of only two public spaces where people can congregate. Volunteer lay ministers and a dedicated congregation help keep Nathanael and Volmer, the area’s two, century-old sister churches going. Surrounded by wheat fields and a grid of gravel roads, their steeples stick out in a sky that is otherwise free of tall buildings. Growing up, my favorite part about church was the cake and conversation we shared afterwards. It’s a Sunday ritual that helps people feel less isolated and that many look forward to, especially if you work in the field, or the household, without a lot of human interaction. But it takes people and commitment to keep a church’s doors open.
Rudningen: And if you want it to continue to be there, then you will participate in it. In such a small town if you don’t work hardy yourself to be a member of that, there’s so few people who are willing to, that it just will dry up, and then what do you have left? Your house and your kids and then your job wherever that’s located. But what makes it feel like home? Well it’s some of these things that we do to entertain ourselves, or to make ourselves feel fulfilled, you know. So you make sure that the church continues to go.
Torgerson (narrating): Kim brings up a great question. What makes a place feel like home? Is it a landmark, the landscape, the culture, or are people the governing factor?
Rudningen: Nathanael, the congregation and Volmer, they’re just so happy to have the people to contribute to the congregation. Anyone who comes to church is just “Agh, welcome, we’re so happy you’re here.” And that’s a genuine feeling and I think every human wants to feel wanted and welcome.
Torgerson (narrating): The first order of business for the immigrants who established Dagmar in 1906 was to build a church, and over a century later, keeping its Scandinavian traditions alive, is still a priority.
Rudningen: Thinking that I grew up in this church and how long it’s been around, and just the congregation itself and not so much the building, but just the people. Thinking back fondly on the memories you had and wanting to get my kids involved in that feeling of just community. This church is just so founded in the Danish thought and it’s really interesting to think of the history with it, but growing up there were some Danish traditions that we always kept. Dancing around the Christmas tree is a big one and for me I think it’s the most fun tradition that we have at all, you know. And our kids love it too and they love singing the Danish song at the end even if they don’t know all the words, or what they mean. One year there were so few of us at Christmas at our house, to dance we couldn’t reach all the way around the tree, so we used a broom stick or whatever it was just to make sure our circle could be completed so that we could still do it.
Torgerson (singing): Is it “Nu har vi jul igen?”
Rudningen (singing): Yeah, “Nu har vi jul igen, og nu har vi jul igen, og julen varer ved til påske.”
Torgerson (singing): “jul igen, og nu har vi jul igen, og julen varer ved til påske. Ey!”
Torgerson (narrating): Dancing around the tree was also a fan favorite at my house as a kid and I’m glad to know that Kim is keeping the tradition alive. I wanted to know though how life has changed and how it’s stayed the same for children and their families in Big Sky Country.
Torgerson: Yeah what is it like to raise a family here?
Rudningen: It’s tricky, but it’s really nice too. And it’s tricky because you live so far from everything, so if you want your kids to be involved in things you have to be willing to put the miles on. But they have the opportunity to juts explore and be free with their life. It teaches them how to be self-sufficient and it teaches them to have an imagination, so they lack opportunities perhaps. They don’t get to go to ballet, or soccer, or some of those sports that maybe you only get opportunities in town. But they also get to have animals and learn what it’s like to have to do chores and be responsible. They also get to learn to drive a lot earlier than some other kids would, and so they kind of get some freedom.
Torgerson (narrating): Before Kim moved back to Dagmar about 6 years ago her and her family lived in Center, North Dakota, population 584, which is more than five times bigger than the town of Dagmar. One of the perks to moving back to Montana was the proximity to her Mom and Grandma who help look after the kids. The immediate access to land where her family enjoys riding horses, hunting and spending time outside, was also what drove them to move back to Sheridan County, which by the way, neighbors one the most rural counties in the entire United States.
Rudningen: Sometimes they complain because their friends don’t live close, but we have four kids and it’s really cool to see them all play together and come up with something to do. One time a day they’ll be like “I miss my friends, there’s nothing to do.” And if you kind of just ignore it within like an hour they’re all doing something together and for the most part, as long as it’s safe and they’re not going to hurt each other, you kind of just let it go and let them enjoy and entertain. That just doesn’t happen everywhere, so it’s very reminiscent of my childhood and I kind of think about the things that I did as a kid and survived through and try to give the kids more freedom to do that and not worry so much about them getting hurt. You want them to be safe and provide a safe environment, but there’s so many things that we worry about in life that if we’re always worried about then we just don’t get to enjoy it.
Torgerson (narrating): One of the things I admire greatly about agricultural communities, is that people’s greatest worries are often about things that have an immediate impact on their lives. They’re worried about keeping their livestock alive. They’re worried about their crops getting hailed out, or their house weathering a storm. The stakes can be another animal’s life, or your own. And higher stakes, equals higher reward. So, when I emphasize how rural it is at home, it’s not to show how much we lack because of our limited population. It’s out of appreciate for space, and the freedom that grants, as well as the proximity to Mother Nature who has a way of putting human strife into perspective.
What’s great about talking to Kim, is how she embodies the spaciousness of her surroundings, while maintaining an active life. Not only do Kim and her husband, lead services at church, they are volunteer EMTs and they’re active in 4H. Kim travels 83 miles to her job where she works to reduce the environmental impact of oil and gas production. Aaron is a beloved superintendent at the nearest school in Grenora, North Dakota. And they’re raising four personable and compassionate children, who are involved in their own activities. Their country life is anything but mundane.
Rudningen: Sometimes I say to my husband, why do we work so hard do you think? It would be really easy to not have any animals, and not have a big yard, and just have a little house and you just do because that’s what makes life interesting I guess. Somedays you get a little tired and you think, why am I making life so difficult, and at the same time if life was easy you would find something else to make it difficult, you would find some other struggle in your life.
Torgerson (narrating): No matter what Kim has going on, she has an unwaveringly comfortable presence. I can’t help but think all that time on the prairie has something to do with it.
Rudningen: What did I love about growing up here?
It’s funny I always say, you know when I was a kid, my Dad he used to take me and we go and do all these things and he’d say, “don’t tell your Mom I let you drive that, or don’t tell Mom I lifted you that high in the tractor.” You know my Dad and I had a really close relationship but the only way I could really spend that much time with him was to do the things he was doing.
This horse is so smart, this white one. He’s too smart.
But I also really enjoyed the outside and working with your hands aspect as a kid.
Gigi, you [horse snickers].
And I actually find myself saying “don’t tell Grandma, that I let you do this.”
If you went to a place where you felt like you could see forever, so much so you could see the curvature of the Earth, that feels like home.
I always think why did the Danes come to settle here. Don't you think after one winter, they would have turned around and been like, I'm out of here. Half my family is dead, you know, cause of this weather.
If I worked from home every day that it was 30 below, I would never go to work in the wintertime.
A couple years ago, the kids were messing around in the corrals and she turned sharp around where these metal posts are, just laid her side wide open. I was like “oh my gosh!”
When the wind blows the snow, you think man if I was on a ship in the middle of the water with some white caps, it would look just like this. You wouldn’t even know the difference.
You always kind of long to get back to the wide open spaces if you grew up here. Even the winds at time can be calming and peaceful because you know it’s gonna be there.
Torgerson (narrating): So, let’s circle back for a moment to the oil boom that enabled Kim and her family to move home.
Rudningen: Even in the ‘50s they started finding oil in this area. And then in the ’70s there was that initial boom, our parents would have been much more involved with. Those formations were more shallow and easier to get to with vertical drilling. In the early 2000s they found that this Bakken Formation was there and one thing about the geography of this area, is that bedrock is really deep down and there is just a huge layer of sedimentary rock on top and it was all covered in water at one point or another and that’s why the badlands formed in a way because you have all the sedimentary layers there and water and glaciers started washing some of that away. So you can see all these layers and to get to bedrock you have to go down, say maybe 5,000 feet. But with that develops the organic layers and then oil forms, and then over many years, metamorphosis and things like that, so anyways, they found in the early 2000s, new technologies and new ways to access this formation that they found and so they can drill horizontally now and gain that oil.
Torgerson (narrating): People have mixed feelings about the boom. On one hand, it’s revitalized the economy and created jobs. On the other, fracking has been known to cause man-made earthquakes and contaminate water. And some people are upset about the rapid growth of Williston, North Dakota. That’s the epicenter of the Bakken and destination many Montanans and North Dakotans travel to for groceries, medical care and the movies. Others don’t mind that the town has grown and are grateful a job in the industry has enabled them to move back home.
But I haven’t lived there since the boom happened and I don’t work in the industry. So I wanted to hear more about it from Kim.
Rudningen: I came over to do environmental compliance for these companies. So I actually work for a midstream natural gas company and we collect the natural gas coming off of these well heads. Because not only do you drill down for oil, and you collect the oil to utilize, but a biproduct of that is gas. The gasses coming off the well head include things like methane and ethane, butane, propane. My company ONEOK gathers the natural gas, and they have gathering lines in the ground, and they connect right at the well head, gather that gas and they compress it in the field, put it at a higher pressure and bring it to a gas processing plant which they’ve also built in this area, to process out the products that can be used by humans.
So the biggest thing that we do out here is we fractionate out the methane and some of the ethane, and that’s basically what goes into your house if you’re on a natural gas service for heat. We also utilize propane, so I actually have propane in my backyard because we’re not on natural gas service. But my role is, because we also want to be as environmentally sound as we can, knowing that we’re so in tuned to using fossil fuels, the human race has relied so heavily on that, that to get away from that is tough, but we need to do it as environmentally friendly as possible, so that’s my role is to make sure that we’re following all the regulations that are set forth, trying to minimize the impact and footprint that we have on the world by all this process that we’re doing.
Torgerson: So if you weren’t piping in that gas, is that when people have flares?
Rudningen: Yep that’s right. And I failed to mention on that, but that is a huge part of ONEOK’s business is to reduce the flaring. So working with the state of North Dakota to say hey we want to process this gas for beneficial use, that will reduce the flaring which will reduce the impact on the environment, because when you can process that gas into the purity products, you aren’t flaring that real rich gas. And that real rich gas has a lot of adverse effects to the environment but if you’re able to process through, and even if you have to flare at the plant, you might only be flaring methane which yes, you’re going to be putting off a greenhouse gas, which isn’t necessarily good, but carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxide, is a lot better than benzyne and toluene and things like that going into the atmosphere, so it reduces some of the negative impacts, but then as long as you aren’t flaring at the plant for an emergency, all that gas is processed for beneficial use.
Rudningen: So hopefully reducing some of the impact that we’re gonna have.
Torgerson (narrating): The more I speak to people for Reframing Rural, the more I’m convinced that things are rarely as black and white as they first appear. It’s easy to write off an entire industry as bad, but then what about the work that Kim is doing? Breaking down stereotypes about people, places and industries not fully represented in the larger cultural narrative is at the heart of Reframing Rural’s mission. And storytelling is a tool that this podcast uses to embrace the value in understanding other people’s viewpoints. Kim tells us how she navigates this in her work.
Rudningen: So you’ve got a group of people who are very anti-industry and all that and then you’ve got the group that is so for it that they can’t see the forest through the trees and they can’t see the effect that they might be having. So you’re going to have people who don’t want to have any regulation. You’re going to want some people who want to regulate everything. And my role is to be in the middle. My company still wants to make money, but you also have to understand everyone else’s belief systems, so you’re going to have people who don’t want to use these at all and people who are gung ho about using every fossil fuel possible, and so you have to have a good perception for everybody and be seen to be doing to right thing. That’s the only way you’re going to make money, and money right now is what runs the world, right? So that’s the industry that I’m in. So my goal is to do everything as right as possible and make sure that we have as least impact as we possibly can while still running a business.
Torgerson (narrating): I love how Kim’s example highlights how necessary it is to try and understand other’s belief systems. Back to the Sunday service I attended on a hot morning last July, Kim’s husband Aaron eloquently highlighted in a sermon about the Good Samaritan, how important it is to show everyone compassion.
Aaron Rudningen: We are all naked, vulnerable and in the need of help. In order to love your neighbor, you have to let your neighbor love you. It’s one thing to put ourselves in the role of the Samaritan and hope that we would model his behavior. It’s another thing to put ourselves in the role of the man in the ditch and hope that we would receive help form the person we see as our enemy. The point of the story isn’t, what do I have to do to be good with God. This is more than just a story about morality and being nice to people. Anybody can be good, but a Samaritan, a member of PETA, a member of the NRA, a kid in a hoody buying Skittles, a neighborhood watchman, a Catholic, a Protestant, a Jew, a Hindu, a Muslim, a Democrat, a Republican – wait who again is my neighbor? If Jesus wanted us to take home a golden rule from this message, it would have probably been titled the good person, but it’s titled the Good Samaritan.
Congregation (singing): What a fellowship, what a joy divine, leaning on the everlasting heart, what a blessedness, what a peace of mind, leaning on the everlasting heart.
Torgerson (narrating): The town of Dagmar is truly fortunate to have Kim and her family rejoin the community. My hope for all the families that remain in this placid corner of Montana, is that the area maintains a big enough population to sustain the institutions and the traditions that have kept me curious about my hometown in the 10 years since I’ve left. It was a little early to ask the question, but I wondered if Kim and Aaron’s kids have considered whether they want to make Sheridan County their home in the future.
Kim Rudningen: You know I’ve actually asked them, because I think as a parent, you want your kids to do what they want, but you love your kids and you want to have them around and I remember saying, “do you think you’ll ever live close to, close to me?” And there’s a couple of them who are like “yeah, I want to, I want to be your next door neighbor,” or whatever, and I guess that’s good because your kids want to be with you. And that’s kind of my goal, is that they don’t have to live with me but if they don’t have to move away from me just because they don’t like me that much, that would be a bummer.
Torgerson: So what are your hopes for the community and is there anything that makes you despair?
Rudningen: I think the hope for the community is that people will still want to be involved and they will see the benefit of participating in certain things because it’s good for everyone and not just for you, and I don’t necessarily care that this community grows much, but just that it keeps on going and that the traditions continue and people don’t forget about Dagmar, Montana 50 years from now, that people still have those fond memories because there’s still certain things that continue to live on. Just like I said if I don’t got to church, who’s going to go to church. You know, wanting to do things because you have a sense of relationship and that’s part of your sense of self. Like that’s part of you to keep that going, and if you lose that aspect then maybe part of you isn’t there anymore. And if the little town dried up and withered away, it’s kind of like, man, that’s a lot of history that went down the road, and people are going to forget about that and just keeping to pass that on and create a sense of this is still a great place to be.
Torgerson (narrating): It’s my greatest hope that Reframing Rural’s first season, Coming Home, is a gift to people past and present who’ve lived in this remote region of Montana.
In the next episode we’ll hear from two playwrights and lovers of literature, Margaret Hoven and David Anderson, [clip] Margaret grew up in Sheridan County, and for the majority of her adult life, lived with her husband David in Washington D.C.
Margaret Hoven (singing): Here I am on the Prairie, what am I doing here.
Torgerson (narrating): Thank you to Kim and Aaron Rudningen, and the congregation at the Nathanael Lutheran Church in Dagmar, Montana. Reframing Rural was recorded on the ancestral lands of the Sioux and Assiniboines peoples and produced on Duwamish aboriginal territory. Thank you to Andrew Drinnan, Ryan Manthey and Dan Sodomka for creating music for this podcast and Seattle University, and the Guest House Cultural Capital Residency for supporting this project’s launch.
Congregation (singing): Leaning, leaning, Safe and secure from all alarms; Leaning, leaning, Leaning on the everlasting arms.