COLUMN: Turning leaves, reading the signs

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Sept. 26, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

Turning leaves, reading the signs
By Aaron J. Brown

The grass grows slowly now. Cool and dry, the lawn cuts smoother than at any time in 2010. But you’d never know it the way the leaves are falling. Red and yellow helicopters, the oak and maple leaves spin to the ground landing softly with the sound of a yellowed newspaper clipping on a hardwood floor, an old sound not to be heard again for a long time. In just an hour leaves cover the clean mowed rows and you forget you mowed; you forget the whole afternoon, in anticipation of the winter ahead and what must yet be done.

If you’ve succeeded in avoiding cable news and the internet so far today, and I hope you have, the lawn signs nevertheless remind us that there is an election coming up. The TV people tell us this is an angry election, like a hornet’s nest. To me it seems a sleepy affair. Some new people will get in, some old ones will stay. Good steaks and old whiskey await the winners, but also the losers. What I really want to know is where are the clannish battles that I remember from covering Hibbing politics? I’m sure old grudges remain under the radar, but the view from afar is of an election marked mostly by lawn signs, and the occasional letter to the editor decrying lawn sign theft.

There are conflicting theories about yard signs in politics. For 100 years, yard signs have been used in Range politics. In the old days highway construction crews erected countless signs for their candidate patrons along the virgin highways of the budding region. Now signs are put up by volunteers, or the candidates themselves, ducking in and out of their mid-sized, late model sedans, firm in their knowledge that signs equal victory. That may be false comfort, however. Many of my friends in the political business have full faith in one-on-one contact and digital indexing of voters, now. Signs are just war paint, wins and losses are charted on doorsteps and telephones. That’s the theory. But the yard signs remain. On election day, both sides will declare victory as they have for the last decade.

One area where victory is not assured is this region’s transition from fulcrum of the industrial revolution to bullwhip of the global economy. I’ve said here that we’re dealing in new currency, the price of information running even with a ton of rolled steel. And like the old days, when the Merritt brothers’ infant empire died for lack of a railroad off the Mesabi, the issue becomes transportation.

We have valuable commodities in northern Minnesota: affordable housing, good schools, and a beautiful place to create and do business. What’s lacking is high speed internet penetration into the communities and rural areas where more and more people choose to live. Northern Minnesota has among the state’s worst access to high speed internet and most expensive. A common argument is that this is just the nature of the market, but that’s no more convincing an argument than a lawn sign. Public and private leaders have the power, and obligation, to change this.

Case in point from last week, in Cook, Lake and portions of northeastern St. Louis counties a federal grant will now expand extremely high speed internet to every home. The ramifications of this can’t be understated at this point in the development of our 21st century infrastructure. This is a potential model that could revolutionize the way people work and the way the outside world sees northern Minnesota. All manner of creative and production-based jobs can be done from homes and offices with high speed internet. The skyscrapers of New York and Chicago can be made obsolete from an old Finnish farmstead or former company house on the Iron Range.

Can. But will we act? Where are we on this issue on the Central Range? In Itasca County? The season reminds us that change is inevitable. The falling leaves will bury tired old arguments like a yard sign, perhaps soon. Winds blow faster, and colder. The time for finishing big projects will run out before you know it.

Aaron J. Brown is an Iron Range writer and community college instructor. Read more at his blog or in his book “Overburden: Modern Life on the Iron Range.”

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