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Hello, friends! 

Today's opening essay is by Jeffrey Bilbro, an 
Associate Professor of English at Grove City College and Editor-in-Chief at the Front Porch Republic.

His new book, "Reading the Times: A Literary and Theological Inquiry into the News," is coming out this month, and I cannot wait for you all to read it. (Pre-order it here.)

I'll be talking to Jeff about his book on May 13 at 8 pm (ET) on Zoom. Please join us! Participants will get the chance to win a free copy of Jeff's book.

We'll discuss reading news as a Christian, what it means to have a "macadamized mind," the difference between kairos and khronos, and more.

Register for the Zoom webinar here. (And feel free to send me questions in advance at!)
Lena Nastasi, Crocheted Lace, c. 1936
This January, poet A.E. Stallings tweeted her New Year’s resolution:
“I think this year it will be to ‘make’ something everyday... whether a poem, a bit of knitting, even just dinner, (or a mistake?)…”
As her wry conclusion acknowledges, this commitment to making doesn’t have to be onorous. But it does require effort, creativity, and action. It’s a resolution particularly appropriate for a poet: poet means, after all, maker. Yet it is also a salutary response to our media ecosystem that all too easily conditions us to be merely passive spectators. 

Stallings’s resolution reminded me of Joseph Pieper’s brief essay “Learning How to See Again.” Pieper warns that “The average person of our time loses the ability to see because there is too much to see!” If we are distracted and overwhelmed by too much information—too many stories demanding our outrage or horror—we lose the ability to attend to what really matters.

To regain our vision, Pieper recommends the act of artistic making, the act of “producing shapes and forms for the eye to see.” Such artistic work requires close attention:
“The mere attempt, therefore, to create an artistic form compels the artist to take a fresh look at the visible reality; it requires authentic and personal observation.”
Artistic making, then, offers one way we might answer our call to be, in Tolkien’s justly famous term, sub-creators

Unfortunately, however, our media ecosystem does not encourage such an active response to the events of our world. News-as-spectacle—whether a political scandal, a natural disaster, a terrorist attack, or even many of the more mundane and amusing posts filling our social media feeds—shapes those who consume it to be passive spectators. Packaged in this way, the news invites us to feel deeply and then keep scrolling. And by flooding us with information to which we can have no meaningful response, these technologies threaten to malform our affective sensibilities. 

Charles Dickens captured this problem well in his character Mrs. Jellyby. A minor character in Bleak House, Mrs. Jellyby is a “telescopic philanthropist” fixated on helping people in Africa (or at least making herself very busy in an effort to do so) while blithely neglecting her own children.

In our twenty-first century media ecosystem, we are all in danger of becoming Mrs. Jellybys: making the news media the primary lens through which we view the world magnifies the significance of distant, shocking events and obscures the important events happening at hand. The goal of a properly attentive life is right love and right action, and this goal is not served when we are caught up in distant dramas.

When we become habituated to viewing the news as if we were passive spectators, our imaginations become impoverished and it becomes harder to imagine how we might respond. Yet humans are not mere spectators to the ongoing drama of God’s creation. We are called to tend and to keep it. So people will continue to look for ways to respond, some more redemptive and effectual than others. All too often, though, our response to the news is much the same as our response to a sporting event: attend a rally, join a march, slap on a bumper sticker, or stake a sign in the lawn. 

Others, however, imagine more active, participatory modes of response. Indeed, there is a long tradition of such redemptive responses to the news. During the world wars, many grew victory gardens, rolled bandages, or collected scrap metal. When storms and floods strike the gulf states, the Cajun Navy mobilizes to rescue people. Last spring, as people realized the importance of face masks to slowing the spread of the coronavirus, many began cutting fabric and sewing masks, and those with 3D printers helped produce face shields. Similarly, many who have been moved by the plight of immigrants or refugees are moved to volunteer with local organizations (Stallings herself is exemplary in this regard). Such responses may not entail artistic creation, but they require “authentic and personal observation” and represent properly human ways of reading and responding to the news.

One of the real strengths of the “crunchy con” tradition, I think, is its emphasis on making, on getting one’s hands dirty caring for the people and things that we cherish and want to conserve. Even today, when so many forces encourage us to be mere consumers of entertainment events, we can still find ways to be sub-creators who participate in the care of our local communities and the broader world.

If you don’t yet know where to start, you could do worse than following Stallings’s example and resolving to make something every day. 

Jeffrey Bilbro is an Associate Professor of English at Grove City College and Editor-in-Chief at the Front Porch Republic. In addition to his new book, he’s written or edited several books on the Kentucky farmer and author Wendell Berry.
Have you been able to find and maintain "properly human ways of reading and responding to the news"?

Are there forms of "artistic making" that help you in this work?

Email me your thoughts, and I'll include some excerpts in the next newsletter!
in other news
  • Don't miss this staggering piece by Austin Frerick and Charlie Mitchell on Iowa's largest hog producer, which considers the company's devastating impact on local communities, ecology, and politics.

  • West Texas is home to thousands of "zombie oil wells" in need of cleanup, Grist reports: "When an operator goes out of business, it’s the folks who live in the oil patch who are left with whatever mess the companies leave behind."
  • The new “Our Towns” documentary—based on the book by Jim and Deb Fallows—is "visually stunning,” John Miller writes, while also showing "the pain of racism, deindustrialization, opioid addiction, and dozens of other American problems. … There are places and their people. There are economies. There are people figuring out the work, planting new roots in the grass.”
  • Leigh Stein considers the religious emptiness of Instagram: "Instead of helping us to engage with our most important questions, our screens might be distracting us from them. Maybe we actually need to go to something like church?"
  • Leah Libresco Sargeant considers the vital work of doulas for Capita Social: “Doulas help to bridge the gap between patient and provider—a gap that exists for more than just laboring mothers. Recognizing the worth of doulas’ work should spur us to ask where else patients are missing out on care that is undervalued because it isn’t easily quantified, or because it is too tender, slow, and personalized to look like what we expect of medicine. ”
  • Nathan Beacom writes of the amateur scientist who sought to prove an ancient journey had been made between South America and Polynesia—and of the prowess of indigenous navigators and voyagers "whose achievements surpass those of explorers whose names we know."
  • In the television series Friday Night Lights, Peter Blair suggests, viewers are offered important and diverse visions of place: the show enables us to see "what dignified staying looks like," as well as "ways of leaving a place that don’t require forfeiting affection for it."
  • An overabundance of information, L.M. Sacasas writes, "has the paradoxical effect of sinking us ever deeper into indecision and anxiety." What we truly need, he argues, "is not information but something else altogether: courage, patience, practical wisdom, and, perhaps most importantly, friendship."
Lena Nastasi, Crazy Quilt, c. 1936
  • The Innovation Delusion, by Lee Vinsel and Andrew L. Russell
    I've been slowly reading this book over the last few months, letting its message and thoughtfulness sink in. In it, Vinsel and Russell consider the vital role of maintenance, and how often that work has been devalued and denigrated in our society. While innovation and technology are important goods, Vinsel and Russell suggest that we've become obsessed with "innovation-speak," and defer maintenance whenever and wherever we can—at great costs to society and its most vulnerable. 

    "When things go wrong, the first place we should look is to see if the relations of care are healthy," Vinsel and Russell write. "...[I]f we devoted more effort to caring about one another—our health, our mobility, and our environment—we would naturally devote more effort to our collective maintenance." 

    (**Disclaimer**: I'm briefly mentioned in the last chapter of the book, because I've talked to Vinsel and Russell in the past about many of the themes I share in this newsletter, re: the perils of throwaway culture and the importance of sustainability and conservation.)

  •  The Fellowship of the Ring, by J.R.R. Tolkien
    I haven't picked up The Lord of the Rings since high school, but decided to re-read the series this spring. I'm especially struck, this time, by the way Tolkien writes of nature—by the sense of reverence and tenderness with which the novel's characters (Legolas and Sam, especially) treat plants and animals.

    In this (and many other ways), Tolkien helps re-form our consumptive vision, helping prevent us from seeing the created world as object. As Tolkien himself once put it, fantasy helps us to see things 
    "as we are (or were) meant to see them”—as things apart from ourselves. "We need ... to clean our windows; so that the things seen clearly may be freed from the drab blur of triteness or familiarity—from possessiveness."
Lena Nastasi, Needlework, c. 1936
music, podcasts, and more
  • The Sacred podcast proffers a variety of thoughtful, powerful interviews about what we hold sacred, the power of mystery, and the importance of dialogue with those who are different from us.
  • Eric Jacobsen talks to Chuck Marohn about how "car culture" makes us lonelier—"explod[ing] our sense of space, fragment[ing] communities, and weaken[ing] public and civic interactions."
  • Charlie Parker's "April in Paris" album.
Feedback for the last edition of Granola: 

"To me, somebody who exemplified engaged rootedness was Dave Seaton, who edited and published the Winfield (Kansas) Courier for nearly three decades. I met Dave as a high school senior working on a local US House campaign. The minute my boss and I strode into his office for a candidate interview, I felt the pull of our interviewer's story. His questions evinced a perceptiveness honed through travel and an unshakable local attachment to his hometown, a county seat of 12,000 surrounded by wheat fields.

As a young man harboring the same worldly ambition I did in high school, Dave left Winfield to obtain a bachelor's degree at Harvard and a master's degree at Columbia. Following that, he joined the Peace Corps in Brazil and proceeded to work on Capitol Hill for US Senator James Pearson.

Having seen the world, Dave returned to Winfield in 1979 to operate his family's small-town newspaper, where he embraced a role similar to the one in the John Miller piece you linked about local journalism. While my boss didn't end up obtaining the paper's endorsement, that brief interview inspired me more than Dave probably realized. Sadly, Dave passed away last year, but his story constantly encourages me to never forget where I'm from."
– Andrew

"One small way I like to connect with my hometown is through its local culinary scene. I have found myself acquiring a slight distaste for the larger chain restaurants in favor of the smaller, local establishments. Mostly because, in the chains, the employees don't seem to have the same sense of pride, ownership, and passion for their food as the local ones do.

This also tends to lend itself to a lack of personality or uniqueness that I look for in my dining experiences. It has broken my heart to see some of my favorite local restaurants close down, often due to poor marketing, which many of the smaller, family-run businesses can't afford.

I love championing these kinds of deserving businesses through Instagram promotion and food blogging, and I love getting feedback from viewers who tell me that my content inspires them to get out of their usual restaurant rotation and try places they never would have thought to try. I have never done anything as heroic as single-handedly preventing a restaurant from closing and my influence is only a couple thousand people wide, but I like to believe that if enough of the little people do little things, the sum of those deeds could amount to something great."
– Becca
"Thank you for this one. In particular: for resisting that vice so tempting to lovers of the local and appreciators of small towns, and pointing out that rootedness can include city-dwellers and those who are transplants. (What is a transplant but a plant that has successfully put down roots someplace new, after all?)"
– Chris
"Particular people in particular places trying to love the people around them have been an inspiration to me in the past year. I recently watched the Jane Jacobs documentary Citizen Jane and it warmed my heart to learn she transplanted to Canada (even if it had to be Toronto, and not Montreal). Jacobs definitely loomed large while I was writing this piece for Clerestory Magazine..."
– Matt
I am a writer, bookworm, mother, gardener, and sourdough fan. I've written a book about the farm community where I grew up in Idaho—it's titled Uprooted: Recovering the Legacy of the Places We've Left Behind. To quote C.S. Lewis, "You'll never find a cup of tea big enough or a book long enough to suit me."
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