Tuesday, August 23, 2016

D.C. reporter who moved to county labeled worst in natural amenities says rural life is more than sum of data

What a difference a year makes. In August 2015 Washington Post reporter Christopher Ingraham made snarky comments about a rural town being ranked dead last among the nation's most desirable places to live—based on a natural amenities index—then in September accepted an invitation to visit the town, leading him to move his family to the town. As one of the newest residents in Red Lake Falls, Minn., population 1,410, Ingraham says that he has re-thought his take on statistics and that data points are unable to measure the true value of a town. (Ingraham photo)

"My relocation to Red Lake Falls has been a humbling reminder of the limitations of numbers," Ingraham writes. "It has opened my eyes to all of the things that get lost when you abstract people, places and points in time down to a single number on a computer screen. The government's natural-amenities index captures the flatness of Midwestern farm country quite well, for instance. But it misses out on so much about that landscape: the sound of the breeze rustling the grain or the way the wheat catches the light at different times of day, the dry-sweet smell of a field full of sunflowers."

"The data are blind to the ever-changing tapestry of colors and textures as crops grow, flourish and wane toward harvest," he writes. "You can practically set your calendar by whatever's happening on a section of farmland on a given day. Green shoots usher in the start of June. Those shoots turn gold to mark mid-summer's prime, and now, in late August, a chill creeps into the evening air as the combines go out to reduce the fields to stubble."

"The federal data set does reflect northwest Minnesota's bitter cold," Ingraham writes. "The average January low temperature of minus-4 degrees is baked into the data, but it doesn't tell you about how our new neighbors pulled together when it got so cold in February that the water main on our street froze solid and did not thaw out until April, leaving several houses without water for weeks. They hooked up hoses from the homes with water to those without, and the town made things easy by splitting up everyone's water bills as best as they could. By the end of the ordeal, nobody seemed to be worse for the wear."

"Nor, as far as I can tell, have we come up with a good way to quantify nostalgia," he writes. "Red Lake Falls feels like the kind of town your grandparents would live in, and I mean that in the best possible way... To an adult living here for the first time, it feels like the kind of place you remember visiting during summers in childhood, where memories are built on indolent afternoons spent in broad sunny lawns while the adults relaxed on a screened-in porch with cocktails in their hands." (Read more)

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