COLUMN: The return of winter’s empire

This is my weekly column for the Sunday, Dec. 5, 2010 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.

The return of winter’s empire
By Aaron J. Brown

All things change.

In reading history all things change with regularity only because we have the advantage of looking back at vast amounts of time condensed into tiny paragraphs. For instance, the Middle Ages happened. It was OK. There’s more to the story, of course, particularly if you spent the 37 years of your natural life running grog across Gaul before being killed in the Crusades. But there’s not enough time to think about all that. Too much grog.

In truth a human being might live an entire life, a long, full, frustrating life without ever really seeing any change, only the same, or undercurrents that mean nothing in practicality. For instance, most people in the Middle Ages toiled in workaday jobs until death. That is very different today. Now we have computers. And our deaths are much more elaborate if only because they involved billions of dollars of collective medical care. But the beginning and end are the same. History continues to move slower than we would like here in the now.

History is kind to empires, because empires provide the sort of grab bars – the kind you put next to your bath tub when you are of a certain age – for a person to understand history. The Great Northern Railway called its primary train the “Empire Builder,” and for good reason. The United States was built on the commodities hauled on these rails, to and from places like the Iron Range, St. Paul and Chicago. The buildings and institutions we know in Hibbing, for instance, were built on the steady cadence of railroad cars now mothballed at a museum in Duluth.

I’ve had empire on my mind lately. As a history fan I’ve been gobbling up information about the Roman and British empires, facts long forgotten from my college history classes. It all seems more apt these days as we live in the waning prime of what will be called the American empire. Naturally, the American empire is not over, and will never be over, ever, at least as far as we’re concerned, the rabble of our historical period. Everything is fine. Just fine. No problems. It’s all good, as they say. Keep eating chicken and watching TV. Don’t stop doing what you’re doing, because that is the only thing keeping you from rioting, and I am for that. So is your government.

But we shouldn’t feel sad about the changes. Indeed, moping is a waste of time. As evidence I present the weather.

Last spring the melting snow and ice of winter reminded me of an empire receding from the landscape of a continent. Empires seldom end abruptly, rather decades, maybe even a century of decline precede the deed, always leaving behind remnants, cities and culture. Rome is still Rome. England is still England. Greece is still the word. These empires didn’t explode, they melted. But melted ice still leaves behind warped highways and scarred stone. Leave your dock in the lake and watch the empire of winter crush its bones and scatter them to the weeds in the spring.

These days we watch a new winter empire build its roads and coliseums, slowing travel and stopping rivers. I can sense the self-assurance of a cold that now tempers the snow man standing sentry over my back yard. As northern Minnesotans we know that winter’s prime still lies ahead. We also know that this winter will fall to spring as it did before. All empires are temporary, but significant, just like the people who populate them and make them work.

We tend to remember winters not individual snowflakes. But I think if it was possible, if we took the time to know the snowflakes, we’d find them much more interesting and important. They make empires possible.

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.”


  1. Thank goodness Oberstar is gone. He lost touch with the Range years ago. Here in Chisholm nobody has seen him at his Mom’s house which he claims as his Minnesota residence. He became a liberal elite who had the “balls” to call those of us who didn’t agree with him flat-earthers at the debate. He lost the election that minute.

  2. Yeah, who are you talking to right now? You appear to have answered a question that no one asked.

  3. Just an opinion. I went from a life long Dem to a conservative due to guys like Oberstar. My home area needs a guy who’ll work for us and get us moving forward. We’re stuck in the past up here and need to change.

  4. I get it. I just don’t want every post or column of mine to become a dumping ground for anti-Oberstar comments. I like Oberstar, but I don’t have the energy to fight about it on unrelated threads. I talk about 8CD politics here but that’s only part of what I do.

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