Walkable Cities

Walkable cities are more pleasant even for those who do not walk much. These cities are cleaner, safer and more sustainable than others, since the factors that make it walkable are very often just good.

Why don’t we have these cities more often?

Maybe the biggest reason is that cities are planned in pieces. Traffic engineers want to make the roads convenient and safe for cars, so they develop roads that move cars faster and more efficiently through cities. Pedestrians, houses, trees and stores are things that get in the way of traffic. By making the cities easy for people to get in and out, they are essentially draining the life blood from the city. The car is hard on the life of a city. The traffic engineers do their job well, but their piece is not the only one. Another piece are architects. They like special or beautiful buildings. Beautiful buildings are good, but the life of the city depends on the places between them. This they often ignore.

Density is an important factor for walkability and transit. All transit trips begin and end with a walk. If people cannot walk to and from, they must drive. Density does not always mean very tall buildings. In fact, smaller cities often cannot support high rises. But the density much be closer and maybe average 4-6 stories. A simpler fix is to allow more people in given areas. This might include so-called “tiny houses” and grandma or mother-in-law apartments. These allow homeowners to share living space. What is holding this back are zoning laws.

The author talks about “prospect and refuge”. Our species grew up on the savanna and we have a natural propensity to like those sorts of landscapes. Prospect refers to being able to see far. We want open space so that we can see danger coming or opportunity available. This is the open, grassy prospect. Refuge is that place we can go for safety – trees to climb or rock outcroppings to hide. Most people like a combination of open and closed spaces. We want “defensible space. This is why we dislike large empty squares of long straight highways.

We can make our cities more inviting by keeping this in mind. People like colonnades, porches and overhangs. Cities that have these kinds of things on the edges of the streets attract walking. Defensible space is important too. No matter how wide the sidewalk, we don’t like to be near the fast passing cars. This can be remedied by allowing on street parking or by planting trees.

Trees are the street amenity that all pedestrians like. It is less popular with traffic engineers. For them, a tree is a dangerous hard barrier that might cause injury if a car gets out of control. Of course, it is ironic that they prefer soft pedestrians to hard trees.

Trees are safer than non-tree lined streets. Sure, if you run into a tree it is hard, but the presence of the trees calms traffic. People drive slower in tree-lined places. They change behavior. Drivers respond to wide open spaces and they drive faster. So, if you goal is rapid driving, by all means clear the space. But that is not the usual goal in a pleasant city.

Our cities are shaped by choices, many of them not made consciously in context. The cities we most love are often not the ones we choose to build, as we focus on simple efficiency. The car is the enemy of the pleasant city and its benefactor. We have to decide when and where we want them, not just default to everywhere.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Jeff Speck has dedicated his career to determining what makes cities thrive. And he has boiled it down to one key factor: walkability. The very idea of a modern metropolis evokes visions of bustling sidewalks, vital mass transit, and a vibrant, pedestria…..
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Dirt to Soil

Soil is a living community, not just a pile of dirt. The best insight from this book is that plants and fungi are developing in the soils, and it is useful to think of the microbes as livestock. They have to be fed and kept healthy.

Unfortunately, some of the things we do to increase productivity can harm the life of the soil. More on that later, but first a little more on healthy soil.

Healthy soil does everything better. It is more fertile, absorbs and holds water better, erodes less easily and holds more carbon. The last aspect is salient these days. Good soils can be 7-9% carbon. Most of our soils today less than 2%. Soils alone cannot solve the problem of climate change, but there is a lot of capacity for carbon storage in soils. The big positive in this equation is that adding carbon to soil is just plain good for many other reasons.

We can add carbon to soil directly by mixing in biochar and organic materials, but this is not the most interesting part of what the author says. He talks about carbon being released by plants in a symbiotic relationship with soil fungi and mycorrhizae. The discovery of mycorrhizae is relatively recent and not all the relationships are well understood. I don’t know how much he is talking science and how much he is talking about his own experience, so the details might differ, but the general concept is sound and very interesting. The plants are essentially feeding the fungi and the fungi help feed the plants. In the process, they build soils and sequester carbon.

We can disturb these relationships with herbicides, pesticides and artificial fertilizer. Let me start with the caveat that the author does not oppose the use of all agricultural chemicals but says that we should use less and use them in more targeted ways. It is easy to understand how pesticides and herbicides would have negative impacts, but what about fertilizer? Artificial fertilizers impact the soil community by letting plants “cheat” on growing. They no longer need to draw so much from the mycorrhizal environment, causing the mycorrhizae to decline or die.

The main thrust of his book, however, involves five principles.

Limited disturbance. Limit mechanical, chemical, and physical disturbance of soil. – Tilling disturbs the structure of the soil. It cuts the roots and the mycorrhizae, makes it dry out faster and creates strata, where a hard layer is under the soils that prevents water infiltration.

Armoring the soil is one way to be resilient. The armor is the residue from a previous cover crop and a cash grain crop is growing through the armor. There should be little bare ground. This was one of the causes of the dust bowl. When soil is exposed, it washes or blows away. The author makes an interesting, almost poetic analogy. He says that what plants do is harvest sunshine. When there are no plants, all that is wasted and even becomes negative in drying.

Diversity. Different species of plants and animals occupy different ecological niches. A diverse community can support more total life and that life may be complementary. A diverse community is also more resilient against diseases, pests and stress in general. I drought will affect different communities differently.

Living roots. Keep living roots in soil as long as possible. This is related to the tilling above. Living roots help maintain soil integrity.

Integrated animals. This is a key point. We should probably eat less meat, since that is better for the environment, but eating no meat is bad for the environment. We need livestock to maintain healthy soils. Grassland ecosystems require grazing animals. There are better and worse ways to do this. Over grazing can destroy grasslands, but no grazing also destroys them. Best is “mob grazing” where large numbers of animals are put on the same place for a short time. They eat most of the grass and trample a lot more of it. You would think this is bad, but it puts the carbon into the soil and allows for better regeneration. The author is a fan of Alan Savory. I have written about him before.

Working in any natural system requires constant effort and constant learning. The author is someone like that. I learned a lot from the book and I also enjoyed a lot. I listened to the audio book on my way to and from a conference about clean water in Charlottesville. It was appropriate listening and complemented insights from the conference.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. Gabe Brown didn’t set out to change the world when he first started working alongside his father-in-law on the family farm in North Dakota. But as a series of weather-related crop disasters put Brown and his wife, Shelly, in desperate financial str…
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Pete Buttigieg

Met Pete Buttigieg today. I read his book and was impressed by his intellect.

I am not impressed when politicians present detailed plans. Everybody should know that the detailed plans will always fail, as the conditions presidents face will be different from those they imagine. What I liked about Buttigieg is that instead of detailed plans, he talks about the intellectual process that we reach goals. It might seems a subtle difference, but it is important. During his brief talk today, he said that the best thing we can do is envision the future we want and then work to figure out how to get there. He didn’t say it, but I think it implied the iterative approach that is best for addressing complex problems.

He didn’t engage in that anger you too often hear on the campaign trail. He was critical of the “current president” but specifically showed respect for those who voted for him. He said that the election was not the cause but the result of frustration. Some people voted for a candidate that they did not love because they wanted change.

Asked about foreign policy, he supported our network of alliances, adding that American values are important in the world and that we had the responsibility to advocate for them in our deeds and our words.

I literally got an elevator speech with Pete. After the talk, there was the usual milling around and I thought I there was nothing more for me to see, so I went to the elevator. Just about the time it arrive, Buttigieg and his entourage showed up. I offered to take the next one, but he invited me in. I told him that I had read his book. He said that he wrote to book to show the kind of guy he was, rather than just a long political advert. I said that I was impressed, but it might be that he is too intellectual to play well with much of the electorate. He responded that problems were nuanced and required nuanced solutions. I agree. He said that he got along alright with the people in Indiana and thought that people could understand the complexity if properly presented.

Seemed a good guy. Let’s see how it does.

My first picture is the standard photo with the candidate. Next is the Capitol. It was very pleasant day. Extraordinarily fresh for middle June. Last is part of the green roof at the building where we met.

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Forests and water in Virginia

I attended the Virginia Forest and Drinking Water Forum in Charlottesville today. Not sure if I learned anything truly new & significant, but it was good to get reminded of this important topic and I got to talk to a few people I know in the environmental community and meet a few new ones. You have to go to things and you often learn things that you think you knew but did not. After you learn something related to the things you knew already, you often fool yourself into thinking you knew it before.

I know that I do this because I have documented it. Sometimes I write what I think I will get out of a conference before going and then before reading what I wrote I write again what I thought I knew. It is enlightening. The easiest person for us to fool is ourselves.

Clean water is a forest product, and forests are the best ways to protect our water supply. One of the most famous examples of “green infrastructure” involved New York City’s water supply. Years ago, NYC bought up forest land upstream and protected it from development. They still benefit. That is why I was surprised when someone brought up a study saying that it was relatively simple to purify water and that it made only a 1-2% difference in cost. As I thought about it, I considered that the study may be true but that it missed the point. You can purify drinking water, but clean water is more than just what you drink after it is processed. I think the study is one of those that knows the price of everything but the value of nothing. Anyway, I just decided to dismiss it. Lots of studies say lots of things and if they think the only value of a forest is what they can put a price on, they are full of crap.

Among the speaker was a representative from Miller-Coors. They brew that beer in the Shenandoah Valley, near Harrisonburg. He credited the Coors family with a love of quality beer and a love of nature. He quoted the Coors patriarch as saying, “This is the best beer that I have ever made, but not the best that I will ever make.” Miller-Coors has their own waste treatment plant and they support clean water in Virginia and wherever they sell beer.

In Virginia they make Coors Lite, Miller Lite & Blue Moon. The ordinary Coors is made only in Colorado. I don’t like the Lite products. The ordinary Coors is my favorite to drink down on the farms, when I am working in the heat. It is a “lawn mower” beer, not one you drink in the evening.

I had a good discussion with Justin Barnes about land ethics and wilderness, what that means. Both of us are tying to figure this out. He may succeed. I am sure that I won’t. Or let me explain more precisely, I think that I am coming to an understanding of the land ethic, but that I will never be able to put it into words that I can explain to others. The trite but true idea is that it is the journey and not the destination.

Anyway, I enjoy these conferences. I think I learn a few new things and support the things I know already.

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Dauerwald – near natural forests & land ethics

I have been studying various approaches to land ethics more intensely in recent years and have come much more to respect tribal points of view. This is plural points of view – since there is not one but many.

What they tend so share, in my limited experience, is people living in harmony with nature and the land. This is distinct from what I have come to learn about a preservationist ideal, which often seeks to separate humans from nature. Some of our concepts of wilderness exclude human influences, no matter how harmonious. I think this is an error.

One guy I talked to made a profoundly simple statement. He said that we should tread lightly and harmoniously in nature, but that implies that we DO tread and include humans.

There are many traditions for living in and with nature. I doubt we can come to a once-and-for-all ideal. For example, I only recently learned about the German tradition of dauerwald, and I only learned about it because someone said that “my” forest management resembled that. My research found many similarities. I never recalled learning about this specifically, but I did grow up with Aldo Leopold, whose parents were German and who must have been familiar with the concept and in the long game idea, one of the sources I found on the topic was a webinar hosted by Han Schabel. I had not thought of that name for years, but it seemed familiar and it was. He was my forestry professor at UWSP way back in 1973.

Anyway, I signed up for this webinar. I have done others and always been satisfied. The more I think about land ethics and our/my place is a dynamic environment, the more confused I get but also I get more a feeling of connection and joy is the word I would have to use. It is a very deep joy in the world. Maybe the less I know I know, the more I understand. Who knows?

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Summer reading

Some summer reading and maybe finding patterns that do not exist.

I am usually reading a few books over the same period, so I get them confused. This is not helped by the fact that I tend to read related books, since the interest in one leads me to the others. Amazon is complicit in this, with their “people who bought this also bought these” hints.

I finished four books this week. “The World According to Star Wars” by Cass Sunstein, “In Pursuit of Elegance” by Matthew May, “Peak” by Anders Ericsson, and “The Inevitable” by Kevin Kelly. I highly recommend all of them, and it is not a bad idea to read them around the same time. I found lots of commonalities. Maybe I just imagined them, but they have helped me put things in context.

“Peak” for example, is about getting really good at something through deliberate practice. Anders Ericsson is the source for the “10,000 hours rule” made famous by Malcolm Gladwell. This is the idea that anybody gets to be an expert at something with 10,000 hours of practice. Ericsson says that this formulation is way too simplistic. While you cannot find any real experts in anything who have not put in the time (the idea of spontaneous genius is a myth) just putting in your time is not sufficient. Natural abilities do play a role and there is some question about whether it requires a certain natural ability just to put in the time, i.e. the capacity to practice that much might be an indicator of ability as well as a creator. He also wrote that the skills are not fungible. Playing chess very well does not teach you to be logical in other realms, although a person attracted to chess might have the predilection to be logical. Cause and effect are difficult to sort out, even in simple cases. Deliberate practice works where the process can be understood and there are measurable goals. Reading this made me think of computer or mechanical processes. If you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Which fit in well with my next book, “The Inevitable.”

“The Inevitable” is a great book and I will write more about it on its own. In this context, however, I was interested in what the author had to say about cognition being a type of utility. He said that there is really no single type of intelligence and that it would be less useful if there were. This fits well with the idea in “Peak” that skills are no easily fungible. The chess playing program does not also play football. But most parallel was when the author, Kevin Kelly, described how they have made machines that learn to play games. This is different from a chess playing program when the moves are programmed into the software. This newer cognition is where the computer is programming with rules to learn. He described how a computer learned to play Pong (recall that primitive video game). At first, the machine did poorly, but it got better with each try until it could beat any human player AND had devised a strategy to get around the boundaries that no human player had contemplated. This was deliberate practice and an iterative, evolutionary process. The difference is that the machine did not forget as humans might. To repeat what I said above, if you understand all the steps in a process, you can make a machine or program a computer to do it better than a human can. Can and are doing.

Building on that brought me to “The World According to Star Wars.” This is a light-hearted book but it explores serious issues from Sunstein’s earlier work on “choice architecture,” that he explained in “Nudge” and goes into more detail in a book I am reading now called “The Ethics of Influence.” Choice architecture is simply the circumstance, environment of choice. For example, stores put candy near the checkouts. You have a choice to buy or not, but the architecture encourages a particular outcome. When we “add cognition” as Kevin Kelly says, we must choose a particular choice architecture and that will greatly affect outcomes. Kelly devotes a whole chapter to filtering. We have so much going on and so many choices available that we must use filters to get through the day. Filters are useful, but dangerous. We increasingly live in a peculiar and idiosyncratic world created by filters which we may or may not have set up or even be aware about.

Which led me inexorably to my fourth book, “In Pursuit of Elegance.” I rarely have read a book that is so much like what I think. Elegance consists of doing the right things and doing them smoothly. Instead of thinking about what can be added to a process, a wise person looks for things that can be subtracted. There is the old joke that it takes a lot of planning to be spontaneous and it takes a lot of understanding of complexity to be simple. The choice architecture should be simple based on a deep enough appreciation of the complexity so that we know what to leave out, what to leave alone and what to leave to others.

Returning to “The Inevitable,” Kelly does not lament that machines may be “smarter” than humans. Of course they are. A calculator is much smarter, but only in the calculations. Humans can delegate to the machines those parts of cognition most appropriate for them. The machines will be tools, cognitive tools that increase our intelligent advantage much as a physical tool increases our muscle power. Humans integrate well with their devices. When I ride my bike, it feels like I am doing the movements and I am. The same goes for cognition. Humans will have the capacity for elegance working with machine cognition.

I am not sure my books were really very closely related, but I think I did find a path among them useful to be and that is why I bought the books and took the time to absorb them, so it worked.

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A perfect day

The perfect day was a day much like many others, but unexpected and stolen from the drudgery of work.

My story started (as I am noticing about many of my stories) with beer drinking. Drinking too much beer. My friends and I were at my friend Jerry Roark’s sister’s house. She was a “cool” older sister. She made her home and her yard available to us to drink. It was not illegal, BTW since we were all older the then drinking age (18) in Wisconsin, although not much. We needed a place to be.

It was Sunday. We were all supposed to go to jobs we disliked on Monday morning. It was one of those great times among friends, a warm long evening in June, talking about nothing, laughing and just enjoying the company. We planned just to have the proverbial couple of beers together, but there were more than a couple beers available, and we kept on going. We were having too much fun to leave. I am not sure how many beers we ended up drinking, but it was more than we should have done.

At about 4 am the next morning, my father woke me up to go to work at the Cement Factory. We both worked there. My father liked to drink beer even more than I did, but he was better at it. He never missed a day’s work because of beer. He never missed a day’s work for any other reason that I can recall, as a matter of fact. He was unsympathetic when I told him that I was too sick to go to work and castigated me both for the bad judgement of having consumed too much before a workday and for being so weak that I could not handle it. After we sat across the kitchen table looking at each other for a little while, however, he told me that I looked too bad to go to work. I should go back to bed. He would tell the boss that I was too sick to work, adding that he would let everyone around the plant know the real reason so that they could ridicule me the next day.

I went back to bed and I think I fell asleep even before it got there. I was used to waking up at 4 am, so I was sleeping really late when I finally crawled out of bed at around 10am. To my surprise, I felt remarkably good. I slept off the effects of the alcohol but still had the energy provided by all those carbohydrates from the liquid bread.

The weather was perfect. Milwaukee weather can be perfect when you get a hot summer day with a breeze from the east. The cold water of Lake Michigan freshens and cools the air as it blows in, while the warm summer sun gives you the feel of liquid sunshine on your shoulders. So, I thought I would go down to the Lake to enjoy it close up. I went to South Shore Park. To my surprise, I ran into my friends. We had independently arrived at the same decisions. We all had been too “sick” to go to work. We all had recovered by midmorning, and we all had been drawn to Lake Michigan. We continued our enjoyable talking and laughing at a picknick table overlooking Lake Michigan. Only Jerry Roark was tough enough to go to work that Monday. He got to brag about his power, but he missed the day’s pleasure.

This is not the kind of day you can plan. You could plan to go to the Lake. You could wait for great weather. You could plan a great day. I had been to that spot many times before and would go back other times later. What made this day special was spontaneity, surprise and serendipity. We traded this delightful day at Lake Michigan for a dreary day of work. None of us had jobs anybody could love. I hated mine with no small passion. We had stolen back some of our time, taken it back w/o needing to form the intention to do it, so it was both gift and plunder. A gift that has kept giving for more than 40 years.

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Our longleaf savanna experiment at Freeman, Virginia

My friend Adam Smith just sent some pictures of our Freeman place. We are experimenting with longleaf pine restoration. To do this, we thinned all the trees to 50 basal area and then made 1/4 acre clearings in each acre. We are planting in  longleaf, creating an uneven aged stand.

It would be too much to say that it is based on the Stoddard-Neel approach – we cannot do that in Virginia at this time – but that was my inspiration. We will try to create the pine grassland ecosystem, once common in Virginia.

Philosophy of  Stoddard-Neel

Rather than a formal silvicultural system, the SNA is as much a philosophy of how a forest ecosystem — in its entirety — should be managed and nurtured while still deriving economic benefit. Inherent in a landowner or manager’s decision to practice ecological forestry is a strong land ethic and an appreciation of the multiple values of the forest ecosystem.

Logger Kathryn-Kirk McAden did a good job, as you see in the photo. I understand that the request was unusual.

Mike Raney and the hunt club might be interested to see what they are walking across.

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Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant

The Blue Plains Water Treatment Plant is one of the most advanced in the world. I am interested in biosolids and in water quality, so I went on a tour when I had the chance. In many ways it was reminiscent of the Milwaukee sewage plant that we (my cousins and I) visited last year. When I mentioned the Milwaukee facility to some of the professionals at Blue Plains, they evinced the proper respect. Milwaukee did not invent biosolids, but Milorganite was among the first and still remains one of the most successful use
I was lucky enough (well I kinda made it happen) to sit next to the woman from Blue Drop, the non-profit firm in charge of marketing biosolids form the plant. We talked about how good and useful biosolid are for building soil. Building soil. Biosolids add heft. We can sequester prodigious amounts of carbon in soil if we build soil. I told her that the only problem with biosolids in forestry is that we (at least I) am unable to get them as much as I want. I doubt she will be able to help me with my specific problem, since Brunswick County is too far away, but it is always good to talk with anybody interested.

The plant is underfunded, typical of much public infrastructure, so always looking for ways to cut costs of make money. They use methane from the biodigesters, take advantage of waste heat and they are planning to put solar panels over some of the roofs and tanks.

Selling biosolids

They also think that they can make some money selling biosolids. There are cultural impediments to the sale. People are just grossed out by the thought of recycled poop. But attitudes are changing. They upgraded their ability to process biosolids and now produce class A biosolids. You can see them in my pictures. They don’t look like crap and don’t smell very much, so they are more accepted.

They also gave up using lime stabilized biosolids and instead run them through thermal hydrolysis, a two-stage process combining high-pressure boiling of sludge followed by a rapid decompression. This combined action sterilizes the sludge and makes it more biodegradable and destroys pathogens in the resulting in it exceeding the stringent requirements for land application, i.e. great biosolid.

Thermal hydrolysis

You can see the thermal hydrolysis machine in my picture. It is the first of its kind in the USA. In the USA. This points to an American blind spot. This technology is well established in Europe and it is much better than previous treatments. But we Americans refuse to learn from their experience. It is a similar dynamic for CLT. Procurements often specify that successful projects must be in America. We miss a lot of good idea with our parochial outlook. Americans are leaders in many things, but not all things and good ideas do not stop at the border.

learn from others

In the early days of our republic, one of the most important duties of American diplomats was to bring back good ideas from other places. We still do this, but we have too much of a “not made here” idea. The Europeans are ahead of us in many aspects of waste treatment and ecological products. We need not reinvent. We can take the best and leave the rest and then move on. Makes sense to me.

Innovation is most often lateral thinking – the adjacent possible. We get that from using the work of others & sharing our own.

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The author delivered what he promised; I was hoping for more. He promised to share experiences and voices of those left behind, the ones he calls the “last row”. This he does

I would question his choice of subjects to interview in depth. He acknowledges people who are poor but reasonably well ordered and content but tends to give much more space to the real losers. In his defense, the author never tried to get truly representative samples. He started his “research” as a way to get to know things for himself and shares them. It is worth reading.

The author honestly airs his own prejudices. He is (or was) a well-educated, rich and privileged progressive atheist. He admits that he thought he did his duty to the less fortunate by voting in progressive ways, supporting higher taxes and occasionally tossing money in the general direction of the very poor.

There are a few surprising insights, although they make sense when you think about them. One is that the centers of society among the poor are churches and McDonald’s. Poor people do not much like to go to community centers or those various helping NGOs. They feel too much judged at these places.

The author was surprised the strong positive role religion played in the lives of the poor. He came to see it as instrumental in helping the poor and even came to question his own atheism.

In the end, the author provides no solutions, but he points to some of the prejudice progressives have. For one thing, they do not appreciate McDonalds or religion, but those are small things. The big thing is the belief in credentials and the overvaluing of things that can be easily measured in money or credentials. Educated and prosperous people have trouble understanding that some people just do not want to move to better jobs or do the things necessary to be successful in economic terms. They want to stay were they are for various community reasons.

The book is useful for the many stories he has learned from talking to real people. He was more than a tourist in these places. He spent literally years getting to know the tough neighborhoods and the people who just are not making it in today’s society. It is a world few people who read the book will really experience.

There are many books being written about the need for community. This is one of them, but it is different from others like “Alienated America” or “Third Pillar” in that it talks more about the very poor and disordered parts of society. “Dignity” is more personal, but also more hopeless. For many of the people profiled, I just could not think of any way out and neither could the author. He says in the first part that the only way most people get out of these predicaments is to get arrested or die. He provides no more hope at the end, except to say that if we talked to the more unfortunate and treated them with dignity, it might be better. And maybe this book will help us notice people we so easily overlook.

Check out this great listen on Audible.com. “Candid, empathetic portraits of silenced men, women, and children.” (Kirkus) Widely acclaimed writer and photographer Chris Arnade shines new light on America’s poor, drug-addicted, and forgotten – both urban and rural, blue state and red sta…

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