Writing is dumb and beautiful

Walking composition

“Land is not land anymore. It’s capital. Two-thirds of the capital in the world is land. It’s all enclosed and it’s owned by not very many people who leverage that capital for debt.” —Tyson Yunkaporta on the As Temperatures Rise podcast

Campgrounds are a weird microcosm of community, commons, and the difficulties of sharing both. It’s perhaps in campgrounds that I first became a dedicated curmudgeon about the libertarian ethos—which I was very briefly attracted to in college—that we could all survive without governance if everyone just agreed to “don’t hurt people and don’t take their stuff.” In a campground, someone’s always taking your stuff, usually your peace and quiet, sometimes the scant water access, and very often the clean air and water itself. And I’ve been in situations where without some kind of intervention and enforcement, someone at a campground was going to get hurt.

But campers are on balance polite, even if I’m often having to ask them to turn off their music after dark (I’m discounting the family group last year that tried to hang a zip line across a popular swimming and boating route—their extreme lack of consideration was an outlier). And they share things, too, and because we go on an annual camping trip with a few other families there are always a pack of kids roaming around scavenging pancakes and sandwiches and s’mores from whomever happens to be providing them at that second. And people help one another set up and break down and borrow things they’ve forgotten (a mallet this year in my case). It’s really just like all the rest of life except with a sleeping bag, rain fly, and bear spray. And pea cord. You can never have enough pea cord.


Sarah Miller’s essay on writing about climate change keeps revolving around my head. If you haven’t read it, it’s worthwhile doing so. She’s written about climate change and its effects wonderfully, and also six ways from Sunday, and it’s seemingly made no difference.

“Writing is stupid,” she wrote. “I just want to be alive. I want all of us to just be alive. It is hard to accept the way things are, to know that the fight is outside the realm of argument and persuasion and appeals to how much it all hurts.”

Writing is stupid. I’ve felt that for a long time. But why is it stupid? I wonder if it’s because writers expect to change the world with it. I am certainly guilty of that. Writing as a way to connect people, to share story, to find ways to ground ourselves and face grief and loss, and rejoice in life, to find the little detail that brings someone else’s mind and your own into momentary commonality, to shape the words that help people open their minds and find their own empathy—that isn’t stupid. And I think that’s what writing is for. It’s just awfully hard to let go of the ego nudges that whisper you could change the world with this. You could save it. That’s the stupid part. Writing is just story, and story is absurd and inefficient and glorious and what keeps us all swimming around this crazy world, for better or worse.


At the campground I was at, there are always a bunch of Swainson’s thrushes singing at dawn. I usually listen to them with my coffee and a magazine because there’s nobody else up at that hour.

If you’ve never heard a Swainson’s thrush, treat yourself, though I haven’t yet found a recording that does it justice, especially in a pine forest with the sun rising behind ridiculously tall mountains. It’s absurdly, insanely beautiful, like the sunset in the photo above, which I take pictures of every year even though it never really changes in that place. It remains, like the best stories, absurdly, insanely beautiful.


Some stuff to read or listen to:

  • It’s often hypothesized that plague helped hasten the fall of Rome and the end of feudalism in Europe. Political economist John Rapley argues in Aeon that it’s not plagues themselves, but empire’s devotion to protecting wealth, whether through military adventures or stimulus packages, that creates vulnerabilities: “Whereas government stimulus programmes once kickstarted economic growth, today they tend to protect accumulated wealth. Western societies spend a lot of money just to stay rich.”

  • Many cities are imploring the federal government to help them lower speed limits in high risk areas, but are hamstrung by decades of highway and traffic planning that is dictated by the fantasy of unhindered driving. This is demonstrated by adherence to the “85% rule,” which says that speed limits will be based on how fast people are traveling, not on how fast they should be traveling: “Critics say that rule, in use since the 1930s, locks in an auto-centric approach that is dangerously unsuited to urban streets, ratcheting speeds higher while pedestrian deaths have climbed 50% over the past decade.”

  • Evidently the podcast universe wants to feed my slowly growing obsession with soil. Building Local Power recently did an episode with Maryland-based Million Acre Challenge, which aims to rebuild a million acres of healthy soil within the state.

  • In Machines We Trust from MIT Technology Review continues its daunting look at AI’s growing and unseen influence on our lives. This episode looks at the use of AI and algorithms in job interviews. (This podcast is always very well structured and researched. I’m not sure what to think about the interview algorithm that gave a reporter a 70+% rating in English proficiency when she answered all the questions by reading a Wikipedia page in German. Nothing good, I guess.)

  • This episode of As Temperatures Rise with mediator and conflict resolution-ist Ken Cloke was one of the most interesting I’ve heard in a while. How do we think in a democratic society not just about we want or what we think we have a right to, but instead about the kinds of dialogues that ensue if we talk about our interests and values?

  • I recently read paleoanthropologist Jeremy DeSilva’s book First Steps: How Upright Walking Made Us Human and so used the opportunity to write a bit about it and bipedal evolution for Medium.

  • I loved this article in High Country News about how a river revitalization project (as in: probably gentrification along the banks) might displace homeless people living along and from the river. “The Los Angeles River’s overlooked anglers,” by Miles Griffis in the April issue.

  • Photography isn’t something I follow very much but I really enjoyed this piece in The American Scholar about Susan Meiselas’s “vernacular photographs” and her work in Iraqi Kurdistan and New York’s Little Italy. Reminded me of why Svetlana Alexeivitch’s The Unwomanly Face of War remains one of the most important books I’ve ever read.

  • It’s that time of year when the EPA’s Fire and Smoke Map stays open on my phone. Do you know where your smoke comes from?