I’ve got a lot going on this spring. I”m finally getting to know enough about my job to know that I need to know much more, and do much more in it. I’m getting edits back from my publisher, and seeing that I need to make graphic and color edits as well as text edits. I’m reconnecting with my weights now that I’m over my seasonal cold, just to bring on that heart attack in the cold basement sooner. I’m sticking to writing this blog twice a week*, and trying to keep it data informed. I’m taking two classes on pretty different topics, with radically different deliverables. One involves financing sustainability, the other involves the experience of teaching at a university. The deliverable for that one is a curriculum for a class.
At the beginning of the semester, I already knew what I wanted that curriculum to be, and it wasn’t what you’d expect.
For the last few years, I’ve been researching history. My method is very specific. I look for firsts or touch points in the past, usually on the web, sometimes in good books, and I put them in a spreadsheet. As we are almost as poor at judging the past as we are the future, I change the scale of this timeline based on how far back the snippet goes. From 1776 to today, I have the items sorted by year. From 1490 to 1770, sorted by decade. From 1st century to the 15th, sorted by century. And then I go back by thousands of years ago, millions of years ago, and billions of years ago. The spreadsheet now has over 3,000 lines.
I started this spreadsheet to get past a cognitive block I had held from history class in middle school. I had no idea when the first trains were. I could tell you it was sometime before 1860 but after 1800, but the specifics were fuzzy. I also started this to scratch my itch about the history of places. I have always loved looking at old maps and photographs, to see what was here before. This is frustrating hobby, however, because maps and photographs only go reliably back into the 1800s, and not at all before the 1600s. Finally, I wanted to redress a frustration I had with Dr. Vuchic’s telling of the history of transit. Teaching his class in 2006, he recounted in great detail the miraculous power and reliability of the first electric trolley system: Frank Sprague’s 1888 Richmond Street Railway. Dazzled by the power of history, I got the creeping sense that afternoon that something must have come before. So I began researching the back-story of transit, then biking, then traffic, then walking, then paving, then homes, then technology, then life.
I started the spreadsheet in earnest as part of my book on transportation and land use in America. Researching the spreadsheet got me thinking about the meaning of value, utility, and money, which is what I’d like the second book to be about. But for this semester, I’d like to design a class about the history of life on Earth, from the material on this spreadsheet. I’ll be writing some pieces to that end in the coming months, just to organize my thoughts and tell a story.
If I am interested in sustainability, I should be clear on what sustainability is about.
* Cf. Seasonal cold for excuse about last week.