Some of my favorite pieces from last year:
Teaching a Stone to Fly: At the World Stone Skipping Championship (Minnesota Monthly)
The Kiwis’ Edge in America’s Cup: Drones (New York Times)
Q&A with David Grann on “Killers of the Flower Moon” (Nieman Storyboard)
Against Pessimism (The Rotarian)
A year of sunrises (Star Tribune)
Aging Gracefully: How to be wise (The Rotarian)
In the Heart and Out in the World: A profile of David Coggins (Alive Magazine)
Writing the Self: Some Thoughts on Words and Woe (Poets & Writers)
Friday Night Bikes (Bicycling)
The idea that 2016 was the worst year ever started circulating after several celebrity deaths (Prince, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen) were followed by an election that did not go the way many people wanted it to. After that, the worst-year-ever meme became unstoppable, and in 2017, the drumbeat of decline has not stopped. Offhand, I can think of a lot of things that are worse than a cold winter day: the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, the 1929 stock market crash, the Bataan Death March. But it’s true that things do feel worse than they actually are. Part of the reason lies in the 24-hour news cycle and its never-ending flow of bad news. As writer Jia Tolentino put it in The New Yorker, “There is no limit to the amount of misfortune a person can take in via the Internet, and there’s no easy way to properly calibrate it. … Our ability to change things is not increasing at the same rate as our ability to know about them.”
Whatever the reason, the downbeat trend has accelerated among people of all political stripes, and it is noteworthy because it goes directly against the strongest current in American culture: our optimism, our sense that problems are meant to be solved and that solving them is our job. Since our country’s founding, America has been a can-do place, a place of possibility. Our creed has always been a certain sometimes naive faith that things will work out for the best. And for the most part – believe it or not – they have.
Contrary to what you might think, violence is at all-time lows, as is the rate of global poverty. War deaths are fewer than ever in history. On most indicators where you might think progress is not being made, the opposite is probably true. Nicholas Kristof recently pointed out in a column in The New York Times: “2017 is likely to be the best year in the history of humanity.” He continued: “Every day, another 250,000 people graduate from extreme poverty, according to World Bank figures. About 300,000 get electricity for the first time. Some 285,000 get their first access to clean drinking water. When I was a boy, a majority of adults had always been illiterate, but now more than 85 percent can read.”
When David Coggins first moved into his studio in 1996, he thought he might keep it spare, minimalist.
“It was such a beautiful, raw space,” he says, “with all those windows and nothing in it. I was just so wowed by it
The room was part of the old warehouse for the defunct Grain Belt Brewery next door. It was massive, at 3,000 square feet. The outside walls were a beautiful, patchy brickwork with arched windows. Concrete columns ran floor to ceiling. It had an old-world, industrial feel, a remnant of another era.
But those who knew Coggins shook their heads, knowing minimalism was unlikely. And, before long, the studio started to grow over with art and worldly objects. An old Spanish cabinet, small collections of stones, a plate of dice, spools of twine huddled together on a table.
“I like to have beautiful things around,” Coggins says, “and old things, and important things and odd things that I’ve found over time that have meaning. I always love coming in, especially when I’ve been away. When I’m here, I don’t ever want to leave.”
“When you step into that studio,” says Tom Rassieur, who curates prints and drawings at the Minneapolis Institute of Art, “it’s a transformative experience. You’re in this deeply personal, expansive, mesmerizing space. Your eye just goes everywhere. You feel like you could spend all day looking at these things that are a mixture of David’s own creations and things that he loves. It’s a Gesamtkunstwerk if there ever was one—an all-encompassing art work. In a sense, it’s a modern version of a 19th-century studio. It’s the most amazing environment.”
New piece in Belt Magazine:
When Richard Florida’s new book came out earlier this year, I saw some of the reviews and was intrigued. It was called The New Urban Crisis: How Our Cities Are Increasing Inequality, Deepening Segregation, and Failing the Middle Class — and What We Can Do About It. I was interested in the subject. After the 2016 election, who wasn’t?
My interest, however, ran a little deeper than most. Some reviews billed it as Florida’s “mea culpa,” or his “act of penance” for his 2002 book, The Rise of the Creative Class, in which he argued that young, creative workers were the new engines of economic growth and that cities needed to court them in order to prosper. In the beginning, everybody wanted to believe in this “Creative Class” theory. And for a while, so did I. But by 2012 I had serious doubts, and I wrote a critique of Florida’s theory that went viral. Five years later, with the publication of his new book, I wondered if Florida had finally taken my critique to heart.
I didn’t always feel that way. When I first came across Florida’s theory, I myself was a young, creative worker, and I loved the idea that people like myself were economically significant, and that by simply moving to a city we would cause it to flourish. Not long after The Rise of the Creative Class was published, my wife and I moved to Madison, Wisconsin. According to Florida, the city needed us and somehow we were the keys to its future. Yet as a freelance writer, subject to the extreme ebb and flow of income (mostly ebb), I often found myself biking around town, too broke to even afford a cup of coffee. At these times, I wondered: How exactly was I fueling Madison’s economy?
From The Rotarian:
At Doan’s Crossing, in a remote corner of Texas near the southeastern tip of the Panhandle, the local folks hold a picnic every May. It has all the things you would expect from a small-town picnic: A few hundred people from the nearby town of Vernon and the surrounding area gather to eat barbecue and socialize. Riders on horseback cross the river from Oklahoma to attend. A Picnic King and Queen are crowned.
But the event, which claims to be the “oldest pioneer festival” in Texas, also marks a piece of American history that was nearly lost: Doan’s Crossing was a key point along the Great Western Trail, a major cattle trail that, during its 20 years of existence, was more heavily used than the better-remembered Chisholm Trail. While it was in use, some 6 million to 7 million cattle and a million horses made their way up various parts of the route.
But unlike the Oregon Trail, along which pioneer wagons left ruts that are still visible, cattle trails could be a mile wide and left few traces – except in people’s memories.
From the Star Tribune:
Dennis Robertson was visiting his wife’s hometown of Medicine Hat, in Alberta, Canada, when he picked up a brochure for the local “Heritage Tree Trail.” There were seven trees on the trail. They drove around the city tracking them down, one by one. There was giant white pine planted by a famous horticulturalist. There was the first cottonwood planted in the city (in 1888). There was a dragon spruce, native to China, that grew well in Medicine Hat’s environment. There were other trees of note.
When Robertson got home, it occurred to the retired ophthalmologist that Lake City had some pretty good trees, too, and that those trees had some history. For starters, it had a park filled with unusual species from the Jewell Nursery, which was founded in 1868 and became the largest landscape nursery in the country, if not the world. A heritage tree trail, he thought, would be a great way not only to help people learn about those trees but serve as a bridge to the past. As far as he knew, such a trail also would be a first in Minnesota.
The idea of heritage trees has been gaining in popularity around the world, even if what constitutes “heritage” is open to debate.