Tag Archives: sentimental goo

Farewell Duluth III: Solitude

10 Aug

You’re a believer in community, you buy all that sentimental stuff you peddle every day, that life is found in intertwining your history with those of the people closest to you. And yet. And yet there are days where it wears you down, where you get too caught up in whatever bubble you inhabit, grow annoyed by the little tics of those around you. Community is one of the greatest sources of life you know, but it is not the only one. You have to get out. Just you, and you alone.

This is another of your town’s triumphs: nowhere is it easier. There are parks at every turn; some packed, some more wild; some well-worn, some neglected. A short drive can take you to places where you won’t meet a soul, if you so desire. You head out to recharge, to find distance; perhaps to cast judgment from afar, perhaps to head for a realm where judgment has no meaning.

You are swift to retreat into these moments; at times you were perhaps too swift, but even now as things come together, you cannot neglect this. This is your cycle inward, necessary before you pull back out. You must go. Back out to some little corner you’ve claimed as your own simply because it cannot be owned. Time is short, so you hurry upward, the jagged rocks in the path turning your feet as you climb. You could stop here or there to admire the view, but not here, this isn’t the place. Across a road, past the spot where you once saw a bear, ever winding upward. A few signs of youthful dalliance, carelessly hidden in the woods; was that you not so very long ago? How the time goes, how much more precious youth now seems.

Out you go, hurrying to time this journey just right. Before long you’re hopping from rock to rock, down a staircase carved in stone. Through the birches, across a boardwalk, the deer far back in the woods flushed, bounding back through the underbrush for only a moment before they’re silent, and then all is silent for you, too. Up a hill, though the view disappoints, back through another stand of wood, a mysterious half-hidden trail, whether from deer or teenagers or something much older you do not know, up to that oak tree near the top of the ridge where you once stood there trying to make sense of what exactly it was you’d done, brandishing a manifesto from an earlier self and proclaiming its wrongness, though now you’ve come full circle and have forgiven yourself. Your younger self deserves more credit than you ever gave him. Who could you have been if you’d gotten over those crippling anxieties, acted on that self you always wanted to be? God only knows now, though that impulse is still inside of you, can still be channeled into something good. Onward, you press, on to the outcropping, site of many a picnic and also your first goodbye to this place, a sunrise at dawn beneath a different oak, this one now as dead as the finality of that goodbye. Take the right fork, you haven’t been that way before. You make your way down the path, looping in and out behind spruces, careening downward so easily you can’t help but run. You bend to pick at a malformed raspberry, sample the latest thimbleberry, scarf the smattered juneberries, a regular forest feast.

Down a field of talus, across the bit that gets muddy when it rains, and you’re nearly there: or maybe you’ve come from the other direction, up from the wider path, past the ruin of an old mill and the side creek that you once waded up for a mile or two, picking crayfish out of the shallows with a couple of people you chose to share this garden with, down the path where one great story reached its peak and another arose; where it led was never entirely clear, but still it has its roots here, high on the bank above the little stream. The destination is always the same. This little patch of woods birthed so many of the convoluted thoughts of the past seven summers, your blessing and your curse, a burden you could not live without. Here is where the last story came to an end, and here too you hope to end the last and worst of the stories you’d rather pretend were not yours.

You reach the gates, push aside those tumbled branches and finally, there it is before you: the cathedral, the dying pines towering up above an open glade, the sun dancing between the trunks, the blinding light of the sinking sun pouring through, setting it all ablaze, and you set out gingerly through the waist-high grass, your hand trailing through it as you go. Perhaps you should drop to your knees, make a show of it all? No, you cannot linger, the mosquitoes nip and the sun sinks. Now, it seems, that time is over, gone without any obvious moment of revelation. It all makes sense now. You complete your duty without any fanfare, and life goes on as if it had never been more than a fleeting thought. Victory.

You head off the path and into the heart of the little stand. Not quite a sacred ground: you’re still in a city, after all, and the reminders of life beyond never quite die. Wilderness is a myth, or perhaps a state of mind. Yes, death comes only to the pines, nearly half of them now just towering empty trunks, lonely pillars supporting a ceiling of fading blue. Et in Arcadia ego. Spruces rise up in their place, and even here before you, a solitary oak tree, fighting above the tangles of thimbleberries and announcing its arrival on the scene. Bring your children here someday, and it might all be gone: just another clump of wood in a forest that buries its past. You could move on to the next hill, where the pines stand a bit more resolutely, but no: yours are these ones, right here, the ones that remind you that you don’t have long. Everything seems more immediate, both the triumphs and the tragedies of life given a vivid edge, and you relish them that much more because you know how much it means to feel all of these things, to live with that joie de vivre that overwhelms all weakness and fear. The more you lay claim to these trees, the more you sense that they are not yours alone, that another set of eyes watches. You’re not quite sure yet where one story begins and another ends; perhaps they all just blend together here; here, in this garden of all your dreams.

You’re free here, though you don’t quite feel it. Gone are the days when every little victory was cause for rejoicing; now you just take it all in stride, natural, the next step along this little chasm through the grass. All is right, all goes on, and as long as you may linger, this is not you: you must share this, come down from your messianic ideal not into a nihilistic doom but into reality where you belong, where you can still be the author of a story that aspires to everything you might desire, even as you know you might not ever quite get there. The pursuit is enough, and with moments like these, you’ll have the wits to make sure the chase never eats you alive.

It’s time to move on. The sun sinks away, and you have far to go before you can rest your feet again. You’ll miss this spot, but you are forever changed by what it’s gifted you, and that is enough: it belongs to you, you belong to it, and whatever shall come will be in the shadows of those towering pines. The light will filter through, blinding but bearing that gift of life all at once, all of those apparent contradictions borne together into something that is, quite simply, you.

Part 4 is here.

Farewell Duluth II: On Culture

3 Aug

Culture is a notoriously murky term, one that can be used to explain just about anything without actually proving causes or relationships or anything of the sort. Trying to define a culture is a frustrating exercise that throws a lot of unlike things into the hopper that then spits out a vague, abstract Thing that we claim has some substance. An awful lot of bad social analysis has used it to glorify or defame a group of people, and “cultural studies,” while potentially valuable, can also become repositories of mediocre thought and self-absorption.  At its most fundamental level, culture is a shared identity, which just goes to show how hard it is to pin down; no one person’s identity can be summed up by a few simple words, and it’s only going to get worse as we add more people. There is also a good chance that, even at a time where people are more and more likely to surround themselves with others who share their views, half the people on one’s block wouldn’t qualify as sharing one’s culture. There are a million different ways to measure it, and it’s tough to argue that one has any more intrinsic value than another.

Just because it is hard to capture something, however, does not mean that it is not real, or that it does not have considerable power. Duluth, Minnesota has a very distinct culture, one that makes it undeniably unique, and just about everyone from the city who ventures out and thinks about this knows it.

We can try to list some stuff that makes up the culture. There’s a hardiness and stoicism in the face of long winters, with a strong Scandinavian ethos to it. There’s a blue-collar legacy of a transportation hub near the Iron Range in there, and there’s also a strong element of Congdon Old Money and its resultant noblesse oblige. There’s an outdoorsy ethic, from biking and boating in summer to skiing and pond hockey in winter. There is relative racial homogeneity, the ruling DFL coalition, and an obsession with talking about the weather. There are neighborhoods and schools and businesses, all generators of their own sub-cultures; some predictable, some less so.

Culture, however, is never static, and Duluth has undergone a considerable shift over the past decade. It didn’t begin with mayor Don Ness—before him, there was Canal Park and the Munger Trail and a number of other efforts (of varying success) to get Duluth past its 1980s post-industrial mire. But Ness’s cool Duluth energy is part and parcel with the surge of renewal in recent years. In his own words, it plays to “authentic strengths” of this city, instead of trying to pretend we’re something we’re not. And so we have booms in biking and beer and indie music, plus the rise of urban farming and the industrial chic architecture used to revive derelict lots and crumbling old buildings. All the artsy quality of life stuff is moving in tandem with legitimate economic expansion, from the aviation sector to engineering to some good, old-fashioned manufacturing. Duluth has character, and a genuine sense of direction, too.

Another of Duluth’s strengths is its civic engagement, which has fueled the recent renewal. People love this city and want it to succeed, and will spend endless hours prepping for public meetings on school and park plans and so on. At the same time, though, some of its greatest outbursts are in opposition to new planning, and that’s definitely not always a bad thing. It is an erratic and often untamed force, as evidenced by the overzealous attempt underway to recall city councilor Sharla Gardner. Still, it’s a force that slows some of the more harebrained schemes and preserves some of the better aspects of local culture. At its best it’s simply a direct application of common sense, a counterbalance to the plans from on high that manages a strong voice without going into excess. It’s exemplar at the moment is Jay Fosle, the west side city councilor whose populist conservatism stands in sharp but (usually) respectful contrast to the left-leaning visionaries. As I wrote in my account of the first Council meeting I attended, he can waver between wise insights and serious head-scratchers with little warning. But Fosle is not there simply to say no; he is willing to work with people, and no one does a better job of effectively organizing citizens and bringing them forward to speak to the Council. The authenticity of the voices on both sides of Duluth’s political debates keeps things from falling into the stale platitudes of national politics, and that complexity is another source of life.

Still, as I’ve said many times—here in culture, here in politics, here in education—there’s an elephant in the room that threatens the whole project. This is, of course, the east-west divide. It’s always been there, of course. But the most obvious thrust of the current renewal, with its cultural enrichment and “creative class” cultivation, does not produce evenly spread results. If things just plug along as they are, it’s not hard to predict a split in which east side (and Hermantown) reap the benefits of a vibrant city, while the west side sinks into stagnation, a place without a future. Families with children are an excellent bellwether, and nothing is more haunting than this map of the city’s last school board levy. It’s also what makes Don Ness’s seeds of a vision for the west side so worth watching: if Duluth is going to transcend the common narratives of renewal by gentrification, this is where it will have to take place. It won’t be easy.

The plight of the debate around Duluth’s public schools is a sign of what can go wrong when the enlightened planners impose their vision while dodging public debate. Many of the critiques of that plan and its opaqueness had merit, even though I have little patience left with many of its foremost critics. Duluth’s echo chamber of education debate is a bizarre and unpleasant place, filled with catfights and resentment and overblown egos. Funnily enough, through it all, Duluth remains a pretty good place to raise some kids. It has enough big city stuff to be interesting and keep them engaged, has just enough variety to show them all walks of life, yet is small enough that they still get that much-hyped small-town feel. Every week, someone in the media laments the fact that kids don’t get to play freely anymore, but that’s not what I see when I look out my window. Children roaming and playing are one of the most obvious signs of communal health, and it was heartening to hear a recent visitor to the economic development agency where I intern gushing about all of the families she saw out and about on Duluth’s streets. A little part of me died when the Congdon hockey rinks got cleared out to make room for a parking lot.

This discussion of education and childrearing brings me back to the thrust of this post: the primacy of culture, from which everything else follows. Set things in motion early on, build a supportive environment, and your odds are as good as any, even if your background isn’t one of great wealth or education. Duluth does that well for most people, but as with anywhere, there are exceptions, and when they’re relatively few in number, the contrast can be glaring. There is still a substantial amount of poverty in Duluth, and while I’ll leave aside most of that debate about subcultures and pathologies and other things that bog people down, poverty and its associated ills often leave people incapable of participating fully in the broader culture and reaping its benefits.

To be sure, part of this problem comes from the culture itself. Aspects of culture can be both good and bad when it comes to business climate, and despite Duluth’s attentiveness to many of its ills, good intentions do not always beget good results; sometimes it can make things worse. Minority populations here (racial and otherwise) are so small that it’s hard for them to generate their own vibrant, self-sustaining cultures; they can either assimilate into the general culture, or be alone. It’s hard to know what can be done about this; if we did know, we’d have solved a lot of problems long ago. (Perhaps the most important point here is that these are not problems to be solved, but the stories of lives of real people to be unspooled into the fabric of a community.) Duluth has no shortage of well-intentioned people who want to overcome these troubles, and with the Clayton-Jackson-McGhie group and a vocal group of activists, there are real dialogues, though it’s not hard to ignore them, either. In time, demography will probably make these questions more relevant. One would hope that Duluth’s general tolerance will make this smoother than in other places, but it’s easy to claim tolerance when it’s rarely put to the test. Culture will always divide us, for good and ill.

In the eyes of some, the divisions coming out of culture are reasons for its dismissal. Better to cast away these things that tie us to imperfect places and people. An afterlife or some ideal form of human life takes precedent. Doing this, however, chokes off many of the greatest sources of earthly happiness. There are things I could do without in Duluth’s culture, but, in looking around the world, there is so much here that is worth preserving and enhancing. It has a strong sense of self, and now it also has a trajectory to match. It’s fighting the standard narratives of decline and measurements of success in cities, and these days, more often than not, it’s winning.

That makes Duluth unique, and explains why some people who aren’t native Duluthians find it hard to ever quite settle in here. But it works for Duluth, and it is, of course, never static. It goes along, guided by both inertia and a lot of hands that have claimed it as their own. It is a city with a soul, a sheer sense of being; a sense of motion through time, cyclical, coming and going, life and death flowing in and among one another. It has a rhythm, a pace, perhaps unique to each who walks its streets, yet felt like a beating heart, grounding one within it, leaving no doubt: a sense of place. It’s home.

Part 3 is here.