Why I write

I was sitting, thinking the other day, what good does writing do? It happened while I was reading about the plight of the Aka language of Arunachal Pradesh, India—which was no doubt painstakingly reported and written by its author, Russ Rymer. I realized that no matter the effort Rymer put into his story, I was not about to drop what I was doing and go save an endangered language. Sure, a few people might. But what about the rest of us, who read the article and move on? I write because I’m convinced that good writing can make a difference in the world, but suddenly I wasn’t so sure.

So I thought it through, and in the end decided I was right all along—that good writing matters. It may not change our lives in a stereotypically life changing way. But it can in smaller, subtler ways. Everything I’ve learned—whether from school or reading or just plain observing—doesn’t mean much on its own. Only when you piece those bits together does knowledge add up to anything.

That’s what Per Square Mile is to me, and what I hope it means to you. Each of my articles and posts may not be a compendium, and their individual impact may not add up to much (though if I’m lucky, a few may), but neither do most articles, books, pamphlets, or posts. Yet when they’re put together, juxtaposed with other equally unassuming bits, they build on each other. Every piece of considered prose pushes humanity forward a fraction of a part of an infinitesimally small distance. Add it up, and you start to get somewhere.

That’s what I’m trying to do with Per Square Mile. I’m writing bits and pieces with an eye on the whole. It may seem like I’m wandering in an intellectual wilderness at times, turning over whatever stone happens to be underfoot. And sometimes that’s true. But it’s not all aimless wandering.

I firmly believe that the best and most interesting ideas are lurking at the intersections of disparate disciplines. When we smash together linguistics and urban design, economics and photogrammetry, psychology and demography, neuroscience and national parks, the tiny overlaps explode like subatomic particles in a linear accelerator. Individually, those fields are revealing and rewarding. But together, they’re downright provocative. Their collisions release thousands of tiny fragments of ideas, which we can expand and study and scrutinize. Then we can then take those ideas and crash them against each other and take their fragments and bash them together, over and over and over.

I would be kidding myself if I thought that one of my articles would singlehandedly change the world. But that sort of cynicism gets you nowhere in life. Instead, I subscribe to a difference sort of idealism. That my work here, when considered as a whole, can expand the body of knowledge—our understanding of the world—a fraction of a part of an infinitesimally small distance. So while each article, each post here may not amount to much, the site as a whole just might. That’s why I write, and that’s what I want to keep doing here at Per Square Mile, week after month after year.

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  1. Tim, you’ve got the same approach as I do with the Hazard Hot Sheet. I’ve had hits from all over the globe, and sharing tidbits can add up in terms of changing attitudes. I don’t make any $$$ at it, and frankly I don’t know how you manage to be so prolific…I’m an unemployed hermit and I manage maybe 2-3 posts a week.I also do interviews (print & radio mostly)for reporters who are looking for people in my field. The rest of my time I spend helping stray & feral cats. The gratification is enough in itself.

  2. This could be a statement of purpose for my blog, “Nature Intrudes,” as well. I’m not as concerned that someone takes up working in the urban forest as I am that they be a little more conscientious, and if they work on something else, that’s great too.

  3. The motivation for action should not be the fruits thereof says the Bhagavad Gita. That is very sound advice, for none of us can know what the effects of our actions can be. Worry about results will reduce our concentration on the action itself. The reason to act is built into our personal karma.