MinnesotaBrown: Top Posts of 2023

A good year for the garden. (PHOTO: Aaron J. Brown)

If a tree falls in the woods and nobody hears it, does it make a sound?

That old philosophical query runs through my mind as I pose a new question: if a writer stops tracking his web traffic, does anyone read what he wrote? Of course, the answer is that I think so, but can’t know for certain.

Sometime early in 2023, Google asked me to perform some minor task in the back end of my website’s code to keep my Analytics tracker going. I didn’t do it. It’s not that I couldn’t. I could have. It’s not that I was protesting anything. I wasn’t. Quite simply, I let it slip away for no other reason than to see what would happen next. The answer: Nothing. I wrote things. Posted them. Shared them on social media. I heard from a few of you, so I know they went through. And then I went about my business. 

There’s a certain kind of faith in writing. You have to believe it matters even when it doesn’t. And usually, it doesn’t. Don’t worry, this is not a play for pity or compliments. Rather, I only point out that even the greatest writers in history end up in the dust bin eventually. A handful survive in retellings by future scholars, but no one reads the original. In a dozen generations, people will literally speak a different language. It does not matter, except in the present. In the present, writing matters very much. Or so I believe, on faith, because I am still writing. 

Last year, I shared with you the challenges stemming from my mother’s stroke in November 2022. She was still hospitalized at the time and the future was uncertain. Today, she’s recovered quite a bit, though it took a lot of work on her part and a lot of time to help her move into an apartment and reestablish her new reality. Perhaps this is why I stopped tracking “hits.” 

So this year, I have no “top posts” in any quantifiable sense. I don’t know which of my columns you liked more than others, or what took off because it was shared on some weird reddit thread. Instead, I will share my favorite columns from the Mesabi Tribune and Minnesota Reformer, and an update about my book. 

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The Mesabi Tribune columns

I’ve been writing a column for the Mesabi Tribune and erstwhile Hibbing Daily Tribune for more than 22 years. Here are 25 of my favorites from 2023, with annotations:

Grading on a curve

The mining industry plays politics, but it works in metallurgical grade estimates. This piece explored the challenges of exploiting lower grade minerals in northern Minnesota when higher grade options are available elsewhere. One notable addition since this ran last February, global mining giant Glencore seized control of the former PolyMet project, which is now merged with other nearby reserves and called New Range Copper Nickel.

Pork: the other fight meat

Marauding cold-resistant hybrid wild pigs are coming. No, really. It’s only a matter of time.

Beaver Dams inspire bad ideas

Beavers are nocturnal. We rarely see them. But they work harder than we do. Always have. They were rerouting rivers and lakes long before we had the idea. Every once in a while a person has the notion to explode a beaver dam to create a certain outcome. Invariably, they get a different, often far more destructive outcome. Anyway, that was the column I wrote.

After publication, I was drawn down a fascinating rabbit hole. Longtime reader and pen pal Lee Peterson noted that a Duluth Winnipeg and Pacific Railroad train derailed near Forbes in 1976 because a collapsed beaver dam took out a bridge. I mentioned this to my grandfather later on and he blew my mind.

In ’76, Pops ran trucks and heavy equipment for Dennis Halberg. He worked at the scene of the crash that night to clear the rails to help the DWP avoid losing $1 million per day while the line was blocked. Pops ran the enormous crane rig while my father, a 19-year-old technical college student at the time, latched the gigantic hook to each of the loads of spilled goods, mostly lumber from Canada. My dad said it was a job he would only do if his dad was at the controls because he easily could have been killed by the 100-pound hook that swung wildly on that dark, sleepless night. 

They worked through the night to clear the lumber into neat piles along the sides of the tracks for salvage. The trains started running again. The railroad sent a dining car from Duluth for the workers to get some breakfast. Dad said they served the best pork chops and gravy he ever had. The way he talked about them made me feel I could taste them, even though this happened three years before I was born. It occurs to me now that I am the same age as my grandfather then, and my oldest son the same age as my dad.

Pops said that the railroad just came through and pushed all his neat piles of salvaged lumber into the swamp. Insurance write-off. How much lumber walked out of those swamps you think? Our family didn’t get any, I can assure you of that. Anyway, none of this is in the column. Bonus content.

Eighteen years

Speaking of my oldest boy, he turned 18 last year. Every columnist who lasts gets a chance to take a crack at this topic. Here’s my entry into the canon.

In a beastly world, beauty is precious

There will never be a good way to monetize beauty that can be shared with everyone. That’s precisely why we must create such beauty.

Rich town, poor town

What makes a town rich or poor? After years of researching “The Richest Village on Earth” I have learned that attitude shapes contentment in a place at least as much as money.

Get wise to the age

No, posting a copy and pasted message will not legally indemnify you from social media policy changes. That picture isn’t real. Actually, it might be A.I.-generated using prompts designed to evoke a specific emotion from you. That information you shared in a meme is false. You are being exploited and exploiting others in hitting the “share” button.

Why do people believe the stuff on Facebook? It’s endlessly stupid and impossible to stop. Some of it is designed to lead you into a world of dark, twisted propaganda. The so-called “Information Age” encourages wide-spread self-importance and weaponized lies without any of the cost, public responsibility or legal liabilities once required of publishers. The only people who can stop it is us — stupid, stupid us.

All we have

For some on the Iron Range, unquestioning loyalty to industry and zero accountability for mining companies is “all we have.” Nope. That’s not true.

A shapeless state

If Minnesotans know one thing, it’s the shape of our state. We might not be great at drawing the squiggly parts, but we identify with it. So much so that people get tattoos of the arbitrary boundaries of what is essentially an administrative district. Why? Do borders really define our love of place?

Minnesota can lead and prosper in e-recycling

When you’ve been mining for 125 years, you might overlook the fact that recycling is changing the steel industry. It’s also changing the electronics industry typically cited as the reason to develop new copper nickel mining. E-recycling stands as one of the great untapped opportunities, and responsibilities, of our current generation.

Iron in the air, if we embrace renewables

As mentioned, recycled steel is a big part of modern steelmaking. But pure iron might be useful to energy storage as well as making steel. In fact, if we open our minds to some of the new renewable energy trends the Iron Range might benefit far more than many local politicians realize.

Bass-booming dinos warn against historical assumptions

The past wasn’t what you think it was. Case in point, our new understanding of dinosaurs. Heck, even the past you remember is probably different than what really happened. My deep dive into decades of Iron Range history shifted my thinking about nostalgia and memory.

Loss of Nashwauk ambulance would affect huge area

This was a more recent column that struck a nerve with many in my neck of the woods, but also reached much farther. In fact, most rural emergency medical providers — both public and private — are failing, or near failing. I followed up with another column just a few weeks ago. This will be a big issue at the legislature and in rural city council and county board meetings over the next few months. It might even portend massive reforms needed to keep local governments functioning amid a crush of rising costs and increased demand for services.

Local autonomous vehicles drive change

Self-driving cars aren’t just something people ride in California. They’ve been running through the streets of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, for more than a year. And while the technology is interesting, the real revelation is that the region lacks reliable local public transportation.

The old roads still taken

This historical fever dream telling of the birth and development of Highway 53 reminds that roads might change but the routes not so much.

Some recent perusal of my notes gives an addition to this story. After the opening ceremony for the Miller Trunk Highway in Eveleth mentioned in this column, two people died in separate accidents on the way back to Duluth. Most do not realize how many people died in car wrecks from 1920 to 1960 before modern safety features were added to cars.

Thus ends summer crying over the sink

The end of summer in Minnesota brings one to an emotional crossroads. Every year, a fresh realization of time lost.

‘The Wolf’s Trail’ crosses our path

Before congregations of orange- and camouflage-festooned men gathered to decry the Eastern Timber Wolf as the sole cause of poor deer hunting in 2023, I wrote this column. Mostly a review of Thomas D. Peacock’s Ojibwe folk tale “The Wolf’s Trail,” I also suggested that the anti-wolf movement building here in northern Minnesota cool its jets. The wolf isn’t the main reason the deer population is down. Killing all the wolves would benefit the deer herd far less than people think.

After watching the vitriol and populist zeal this issue generated, I fear that the whole thing is less about “sane wolf management” and more about continued degradation of science and regulation combined with an almost medieval hatred that will eventually be transferred from wolves to people. There is a direct line from the angry wolf people to the angry state flag people and soon enough they’ll be mad about something else.

Rethinking labor as change accelerates

What does “work” mean in an automated world? Artificial intelligence isn’t going to take our jobs, but it risks taking our humanity.

The affordability we can’t afford

This piece dove into some of the local impacts related to the rising cost of living. It’s worse in cities than here in rural northern Minnesota, but bad everywhere.

New car smells like the future

Some light comedy related to the complicated features of today’s new cars. Kind of a Bob Newhart vibe on this one.

Canned squid and the damage done

The story of how a can of squid entered my life and changed my perspective on the world. Not for the better, mind you.

Woods and waters, cheese and beer

This might have been my most controversial column all year. I suggest that Minnesota and Wisconsin are more alike than many care to admit. It is our similarity that truly fuels our rivalry.

Where the wild deer are

More comedy, this time centered on deer. What if the deer population isn’t down, but rather just assimilated with humans in subtle, insidious ways?

Paint the town red

Here’s another weird one, but maybe my favorite. Doja Cat. A 19th Century Irish lord. Batman. Idioms. This thing has it all.

Your intrepid author, featuring the 2023 mustache that spurred considerable debate in the Brown household. Will it survive 2024? No one knows.

The Minnesota Reformer columns

The Reformer pays better and has a bigger audience, so they get my best work, or at least my best attempts. I am given freedom to write longer, so I dive much deeper into the subject matter. In fact, I call these “essays,” and therefore myself an “essayist,” which is a great way to make friends at the dump.

Here are ten of my Reformer essays:

Different in a small town

My favorite thing I wrote all year, mostly because it was a wild mix of observational humor, sociology and local culture that took me way out of my comfort zone.

Rural broadband isn’t closing gaps; it’s widening them

Nobody went in on rural broadband like me. It was and remains important to the economic future of northern Minnesota. But the unintended consequences also merit consideration.

Bog is dead: the waning defense of Minnesota wetlands

Cutting edge climate research in northern Minnesota shows what many wish to deny: climate change is happening, and it will affect us, too.

Hope for the Range economy, but we must put the past behind us

This was a fun mix of some family stories, observations about the mining and steel industry and economic trends that could benefit the Iron Range or swallow us whole, depending on our reaction.

Minnesota in the age of smoke and fire

Here was another climate-tinged story that combined history and present-day reactions to forest fires. I learned a lot writing this one and turned a few good phrases.

Cannabis project shows Iron Range addiction to big promises

When an entrepreneur proposed a new cannabis production facility, I sensed a familiar pattern to the rhetoric. Iron Range boondoggles are part of our political lore, and yet we seem unable to stop falling into old economic development traps, even when brand new industries emerge. This one got plaudits from conservative lawmakers and boutique cannabis producers alike, keeping it gloriously weird.

Lessons on freedom from the Russian opposition

A Russian reform politician caught my attention several years ago. She stood up to Vladimir Putin when that was no easy thing to do. But things got harder for her and she ducked out of the spotlight. Though I could not reach her, I was able to communicate with a Russian political spokesman working for the only anti-war party left in the country after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine. What he told me seems incredibly important for our country as it grapples with its commitment to democracy and free speech.

The northland has its own housing crisis

I tracked the real estate trends that saw housing prices and rents soar across northern Minnesota, as they have elsewhere. There are two economies, and the richer one is driving up costs.

Um, like, the humans are speaking

This essay combines some of my experience as a public speaking instructor with analysis of the rise of artificial intelligence. How our flaws help us understand and prove our humanity.

U.S. Steel sold, but the founding philosophy of rapacious profit lives on

Earlier in the year, I wrote an essay about the potential sale of U.S. Steel that explored the history. This more recent essay sorts out the current status of Nippon’s takeover of U.S. Steel with another fascinating historical parallel.

Karl Jacob and Aaron Brown co-hosted a “Roaring ’20s Revue” on Oct. 14, 2023 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Hibbing High School auditorium and the 30th anniversary of the Hibbing Foundation. They told Victor Power stories from their podcast “Power in the Wilderness,” the same working title as the book Brown has been working on for seven years.

And finally, the book

Victor L. Power

“Power in the Wilderness” will be published by the University of Minnesota Press. You know, eventually.

A lot of people ask me about the book. It’s gratifying that people are so excited to read it. The good news is that the book is done. The bad news is that it’s still too long. I’ve been trimming all year — a few hours each week. I knocked about 40,000 words off, but that’s just not enough. Recently, I made a difficult conclusion. I need to rewrite several chapters to make them more concise.

When I began, I aimed to write a sweeping, epic nonfiction book, like something Robert Caro or Erik Larson would write. Well, I pretty much did. But that’s not the book my publisher can afford to print. Moreover, it’s the kind of story that might be more effective told shorter. Think jet fuel instead of 87 octane pump juice.

Rewriting means just that. I open a fresh document and write a new chapter using the old chapters as source material. I’ve done this before on this project. It works. In fact, the process generally results in better prose. But it takes time. A few weeks for each chapter carved from my Saturday late night editing sessions.

All that means that the book still isn’t done. I’d love to give you a publication date, but I’m going to settle for giving you an honest update. I’m hoping to share the manuscript with a few readers this year and make a new plan with my editor. A new deadline will light the fire and then we’ll knock this sucker out.

Thanks for reading my work. Your kind notes and comments mean a lot. Sharing things on social media is great, but social media is volatile and ever-changing. One thing that really helps is subscribing to my e-mail list. Tell your friends!

In addition to finishing the book, you will eventually see a redesign here at MinnesotaBrown. I intend to clean up the reader experience, favoring a simpler, less cluttered look. The blog will become part of a larger author page that will eventually — I swear to you — become a place where you can buy the new book.

Happy New Year!


  1. You are still quite a prolific young man. Ever since I took an online Speech class from you, back about 2009 or 2010, I have enjoyed what you have to say and the way you say it. Even without google keeping track, I am sure there are still a few of us reading your words out here in cyber space. The happiest of new years to you and your family!

  2. I really enjoy reading your work and have for over a decade now. Although I don’t visit the website anymore I still get your latest columns on my email where I read them religiously every Monday. Can’t wait to see what 2024 brings for MinnesotaBrown and look forward to the highly anticipated book coming out soon!

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