And away we go!
Vol. 1 of Grist From the Mills: Welcome to a wild new year
In this issue: An introduction | The big picture | Read local | A change is comin’| The bright side | For your earhole | Now Read This | Final frame
“As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.” - The Understory, by Richard Powers
Hello and welcome to the first edition of Grist From the Mills. I’m grateful that you’re here. How are you today? Would you like some tea? I miss you.
It’s primed to be an absolutely wild week in politics. I’ll have some things to say about that in the next edition, but for now suffice to say, I’m sending love and gratitude to all the amazing organizers in Georgia--primarily Black women like Stacey Abrams--who just pulled off one of the most impressive and difficult electoral victories in recent memory (and saved our collective asses, once again, in the process). I’m also holding space for the very real grief and righteous anger felt by the Black community at the continued failure of our justice system to bring any accountability or justice for them in the face of continued police brutality. We have much work to do.
The quote I used at the top felt particularly appropriate for the kick-off of this newsletter and this new year. Call it a mantra--humility and looking--something to keep me centered and get us all through this period of uncertainty, anguish, and slowing down. It also serves as a guidepost for how I’d like to approach the rest of my time on Earth. I always say I’m seeking balance in life, and one between confidence and humility seems pretty solid.
But what can you expect from this here newsletter? I’ll be aiming to publish every other week on Wednesdays, at least to start. It will be a place to share thoughts, recommendations, ideas, and stuff I’ve learned (or think I’ve learned). It will be largely Wisconsin-focused, by dint of that’s where I’ve lived for the past 20 (!) years now, but I hope you won’t feel betrayed if I occasionally venture elsewhere. Turtle Island, our home on the traditional homelands of the Ho-Chunk Nation and many other indigenous people, is a vast place, after all!
My focus, as ever, will be a bit scattered: politics, music, history, nature, a little roller derby. I’ll do my best to make it make sense, anyway. Of course, I don’t pretend to have answers or great insights never before thought or shared. I have only my particular experiences and unique lil’ perspective--as we all do--and I hope you’ll share yours with me in return. Consider this an open forum. You can always reach out to me with questions, recommendations, and ideas of your own.
Back to that quote, though: I’m in the middle of reading the Pulizer-winning novel that I drew it from, a book described as “a gigantic fable of genuine truths,” and as “a stunning evocation of--and paean to--the natural world.” I picked it up on the recommendation of friend and former roller derby-ist Melissa Faliveno (aka Harlot Brontë), whose own book, Tomboyland, I can’t recommend enough.
It couldn’t have come at a better time in my quarantine reading line-up, following, as it has, my first reading of Robin Wall Kimmerer’s excellent collection of essays, Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. You can maybe already see the theme developing here.
Blame it on my new job at a conservation organization, blame it on my lifelong fascination with the natural world, blame it on the fact that I do some days regret not becoming some kind of naturalist or park ranger. Not being able to busy myself with the usual flurry of activities this year, though, I’ve found myself digging more deeply into what’s been all around me, so easily accessible, all this time: nature. How little I understand, how much there is to learn, how important it is, how much more connected we all are to it and it with us, how badly we’ve been mistreating it, what amazing things some people are doing to correct that, and how resilient it is despite us.
Which is to say, there is so much I don’t know, and my life up to this point has been a mad dash to chase knowledge and experiences to make up for that ignorance. As I close in on my 40th year on Earth, I still feel that sense of urgency, to see and do more, to leave this place in better shape than I found it. I also feel increasingly at peace with the mystery of it all and how lucky we are just to experience any of it. I’m glad to be here with you all on the journey.
Stay humble. Keep looking.
Future volumes will include some combination of: opinion essays, interviews with interesting people, big picture and local article recommendations, music/book/movie recommendations and reviews, good things you can do/learn about, queer stuff, photos, and whatever else tickles my digital fancy.
The big picture.
(Article recommendations dealing with large-scale issues/problems/ideas)
Speaking of Robin Wall Kimmerer: “The Serviceberry: An Economy of Abundance” (Emergence Magazine - text and audio avail.) is a long-form article that manages to be both a botany lesson and an incredibly thought-provoking treatise on economic systems. Namely, how the gift economies used for millenia by many indigenous cultures might be able to save us from the inhumane and world-destroying mess of unbridled capitalism:
"To name the world as gift is to feel one’s membership in the web of reciprocity. It makes you happy—and it makes you accountable. Conceiving of something as a gift changes your relationship to it in a profound way, even though the physical makeup of the 'thing' has not changed... I imagine if we acknowledged that everything we consume is the gift of Mother Earth, we would take better care of what we are given. Mistreating a gift has emotional and ethical gravity as well as ecological resonance."
Put a face and a life to the jarring racial and economic inequities of our current healthcare system and the pandemic: “Tethered to the Machine.” is excellent reporting and storytelling [by Lizzie Presser for ProPublica] that puts the human costs of structural racism and profits-over-people healthcare into stark perspective.
The Washington Post [paywall]: “With few exceptions, big businesses are having a very different year from most of the country. Between April and September, one of the most tumultuous economic stretches in modern history, 45 of the 50 most valuable publicly traded U.S. companies turned a profit, a Washington Post analysis found. Despite their success, at least 27 of the 50 largest firms held layoffs this year, collectively cutting more than 100,000 workers, The Post found.”
Tl;dr - Seems like we’re long overdue for a change in systems.
(Article recommendations to do with Madison and/or Wisconsin-based things)
Pretty thrilled with the election of Francesca Hong to the Wisconsin State Legislature. She’s been a force for good in Madison’s restaurant scene and I look forward to what she’ll bring to state-level governing. Read a great interview with her in the Cap Times that ran this week.
Josh Dzieza and The Verge continue to do some of the very best reporting on the Foxconn debacle in Wisconsin. The whole thing would be a comedy of errors if it weren’t causing quite so much actual pain for the people caught up in the mess left behind by Scott Walker and Donald Trumps’ feverish con job. See the full list of articles here.
On the hyper-local level, WORT-FM has coverage of the Madison neighborhood that’s trying to prevent the loss of the small post office that’s long been nestled inside the Stop-N-Go convenience store on Winnebago Street. With Kwik-Trip buying up the shop, they’re looking to jettison the postal operation to make room for more aisles that won’t sell contraceptives (Tone Madison with the shoe leather journalism!). Given the loss of the laundromat next door, too, this feels like just one more step in the march of gentrification. It’s hard for working class folks to live in a neighborhood without basic services, after all, but developers and chain store operators rarely seem to care much about being good community members so much as wringing every last dollar out of an area. Consequences be damned.
A change is comin’.
I intend to dig into this more in future editions, but definitely worth keeping your eyes on the people declaring their candidacies for Madison’s Common Council when elections are held this April. Seems to me like an important sea change may be in the works….
Making friends in the snowy forest on a hike just before the New Year
The bright side.
(Positive action and ideas)
Just about everything feels like a bummer this year, but life goes on, and with it, there are always reasons for celebration and joy--or even just a little bit of motivation:
What is ‘friluftsliv’? How an idea of outdoor living could help us this winter [Nat Geo] - look I won’t say I’m planning to sit outside drinking beer under a blanket this winter, but I’m not not saying that, either.
The success story of Thaidene Nëné - a 6.5 million acre protected area in Canada that is the result of Indigenous leadership - came with support from the world’s largest conservation non-profit (The Nature Conservancy) and countless others. It’s a great example of what can and should be accomplished when traditional/white conservation NGOs and governments take a supportive back seat to the sovereignty and knowledge of indigenous people and nations.
On theme with today’s newsletter generally, I will never miss an opportunity to recommend this particular episode of Radiolab, “From Tree to Shining Tree,” about how a network of microscopic fungi connects trees in a highly-sophisticated communications and resource sharing network just under our feet. The world wide web is real, man! Trees eat salmon! FUNGUS RULES US.
Looking for a reasonably safe winter activity to keep you busy and engaged? Stumbled across the Wisconsin’s Historical Society’s scavenger hunt here. Can be done from foot or by car. Go forth and scavenge!
Put it in your earhole.
Music recommendations, from local to the big-time:
Every year I collect some of my favorite songs in a giant playlist of releases from that year. This years’ mixtape spans genres from pop to electro to alternative R&B to rock to folk to jazz: Check it out/follow along on Spotify. Then be sure to purchase tracks/albums directly from those artists you like!
ICYMI: I almost can’t believe it happened this year, but my band Damsel Trash put out our single--“What’s Inside Your Butthole”--back in June as a fundraiser for local racial justice org Freedom, Inc. It’s a cover of a song written by an actual child. I recorded my part on my phone. We even made a terrible video for it. Enjoy!?
Now Read This.
Obviously there are SO MANY other great newsletters out there that you maybe already subscribe to or haven’t yet heard of. Here’s a couple I’ve been reading and enjoying:
The Recombobulation Area [Dan Shafer] - The Milwaukee-based, veteran freelance reporter provides excellent insight into Wisconsin’s wonky politics and unique culture.
Fran’s Joy Digest [Fran Tirado] - one of the hosts of the wonderfully queer Food 4 Thot podcast just kicked off this truly lovely newsletter to share things that bring them joy, something we could all use more of in our lives these days!
Any other great (particularly Wisconsin-based and/or queer) newsletters I should be checking out?
Lots of foggy winter weather has meant lots of opportunity to enjoy the beauty left behind: Rime ice. This is a shot I took near our house on the north/east side of Madison this week.
‘Til next time.
Thanks for reading! Hit me up with questions, comments, suggestions, and tips on great hiking spots.
Logo designed by Daniella Echeverria / Honeybee Studios
Disclaimer/Disclosure: I am employed by the Wisconsin chapter of The Nature Conservancy. However, any and all opinions expressed in this newsletter are mine alone and do not necessarily represent the opinions or positions of my employer.
Pineapple on pizza is good.