10| This video on how denim is made

Legit, I talk about jean jackets and denim a lot, but I love jean jackets and denim a lot. Something that’s always soothed me—inspired, too, in a way—are simple videos on how everyday products are made. I find the mystery on who’s making the things I wear/eat/consume/use endlessly fascinating: Everything I touch has been crafted by someone. It’s the writer in me, maybe, but these are stories, the everyday ones, I can’t get enough of. Once, a couple of years ago, I interviewed my grandmother about her life growing up in rural Missouri. I was trying to detail her life, record it so I could transcribe it later, and get to know her better in the process, too. She told me something so simple, and yet to me, at the time, so profound: When she was a kid, they’d dig a hole in the ground at the back of the smoker. They’d line it with hay, then fill it with apples from the fall harvest, covering them with hay, too. The apples would last all winter. They’d always have fresh apples that way—how absolutely marvelous! Sincerely, it’s so minute, but it’s real, it’s vivid—these are the moments I search for and cling to as a writer, like this denim video. It’s hypnotic, I suppose, seeing how far something’s traveled, how many hands have touched it, put it together before it comes to you.

9| Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World

This is easily my favorite painting. In 2016, I finally got to see it in person, and I stared at it dumbfounded for thirty minutes while the rush of MoMA traffic was off elsewhere, moving around me, crowding me, seeing the hot new exhibits, virtually anything else. There’s just so much to unpack from this painting (and, yes, I’m working on an essay about it, to be finished… eventually), but I won’t wax about it here. I think, for a work to speak to you, sure, you can dissect it and write about it and talk about it endlessly, but it also just needs to exist as an emotional piece in its own right with no further explanation. More than any other painting I can think of, I feel the dread and unease in this piece, the solitude, the bucolic beauty hanging above the lone figure, the shadowy-grey house and barn along the horizon. Really, that’s all I need to start generating ideas, to let my mind carry, carry.

8| Tasmanian tigers

Sure, maybe you know them as thylacines, but I’ve been obsessed with them—with Tasmania itself—since third grade when I did a report on Tasmanian devils for school. There are a few certainties with me, things you find out pretty quickly that I love and talk about a lot: trees (more, later), denim, islands. Something about islands, how they exist, how they manage to form and cultivate plant and animal species, become these perfect little ecosystems, just rocks my world. I really don’t know what it is about Tasmania—maybe because it’s so far at the bottom of the world or maybe because it’s so under-explored and misunderstood—but it’s a boon to me, creatively. And Tasmanian tigers are the perfect lesson to learn from, too. Hunted into extinction, the last thylacine died, in captivity in Hobart, in 1936. We were the problem—this was because of us. It’s sad, and the creatures, everything I’ve researched and learned about them, were just beautiful. Like bigfoot, people claim to see them each year, report sightings and are convinced there’s a population out there in the wild. I’d like to believe that, truthfully, and I spent a lot of time this year dwelling on the idea of an animal being extinct and yet simultaneously alive, surviving—thriving, even—despite us.

7| Wooly Mammoths

A few years back, I read a National Geographic article about the reality of bringing wooly mammoths back from extinction using modern DNA technology (think: Jurassic Park), how it was only a matter of time. Recently, scientists agree it’s a certainty within the next few years, given the advances in gene-editing technology. Yes, part of me wants to see a wooly mammoth, marvel at it, this creature none of us have ever seen before alive before us. But where does it stop, then? I think back to the thylacine—should we replace animals that humans killed off? At first, it sounds great, sure, but we need these reminders, I think, to teach us about conservation, to remind us of our collective danger. Humans have a hard time seeing into the future, acting on behalf of what comes next. So yes: We need to see this catalogue of extinct things to counteract our foolish hubris—because, what scares me more is what would happen to us without it.

6| This video on how aluminum foil is made

Recently, I was teaching a writing workshop on leaning into regionalism and local customs and dialects and idiosyncrasies. I was typing up notes to prepare, I found myself sidetracked by a box of tin foil on the countertop. But, what struck me was this: I knew it wasn’t tinfoil, and yet this is what I, and everyone I know from Michigan, calls it. So, I looked it up. It hasn’t been tin since just after World War II. And yet. We still call it tinfoil. We know better, we do, but we don’t change, don’t attempt to right ourselves. I’m lost in this video again, even writing this, watching the rollers press down on the ingot, flattening it to the desired thinness. Pressed, packaged, shipped, sitting on my counter—the least I can do is learn its name.

5| Fancy pigeon breeds

I’ve long been fascinated by birds—although I don’t at all call myself a bird watcher (I’m not there yet). I was doing some research for a project, and discovered, first, pigeon racing, which is a very real “sport” that still happens all over the country, and from that I learned about pigeon breeding and fancy pigeon breeds. They are spectacular: fanned tails and tufted feet and throats, vivid colors, names like Short-faced Tumbler and French Mondain and Dragoon and Danzig Highflyer. I became obsessed, for a short while, looking at photos and videos of the breeds, understanding the great care that goes into their rearing. I suppose, thinking back, what I like about this, about everything on my list, perhaps, is the secret knowledge: That there’s so many worlds out there layered on top of the one I know, and that I’ll never really know them all. There’s this world, yes, of fancy pigeon breeding, of pigeon shows. There’s this world where generational knowledge is passed down, handed over, that I’ll only ever just scratch the surface of.

4| Wild parakeets

I discovered this year that in Indiana there’s a wild parakeet population, the Monk parakeet. Descended from feral birds, they roam the Hoosier State, olive green with long tapered tails, orange bills, that distinct scalloping pattern of colored feathers on their breasts. They call out in trills and chirrups. They flutter, they hunt insects. And when I drive around the state, I’m always on the lookout, desperate to see one. (And even, yes, a flock of about 100 live in Chicago, of all places!) There’s just something so magical about this, having lived in the Midwest most of my life, this sub-tropical bird that shouldn’t exist here, flourishing, finding a niche. Hanging on. Or, maybe, given that, their tenacity, they’re the most Midwestern bird I’ve ever known.

3| Train robbers

For my current novel-in-progress, I immersed myself in the world of train robbing and outlaws. It’s a fascinating subculture, around as long as the train itself was traversing the hardscrabble western landscape. But what struck me was one of the last train robberies in America, which happened in 1923 by the DeAutremont Brothers. (The Newton Gang did rob a train after them, in 1924, yes, but Ray DeAutremont, ringleader, lived on until 1984, making him the last living train robber in America.) The act itself was desperate—four men were killed, the brothers, amateurs, were way out of their league. They took no prize, and were on the run until their capture in 1927. Ray believed that life was predetermined. He regretted the murders, but felt that they were unavoidable—that he was destined to be at Tunnel 13 in the Siskiyou Mountains. That the events were meant to transpire. That there was no other way about it. What I found immediately fascinating was, first, the novelty that when I was alive in the 1980s, an actual train robber was, too. But next, and most importantly, this further shatters the (often dangerous) mythology of the West, a land where you could take what you wanted without recourse, where, so long as you had a six-shooter on your hip, you could be whoever you wanted. 1923 was not the Old West, but that Western mythos still existed within the populace (still does, unfortunately, today, too), an idea that everything, quite literally, was up for grabs and there was always some way to justify the taking. In reality, the West was built off the backs of slaves and indigenous peoples. It was populated by people of color in greater numbers than any media has ever shown. There were repercussions. It was dangerous and lonely and isolating. Like Ray found out, the land, the West, didn’t owe him a thing.

2| Stolen land

Yes, I’m partially talking about the recent presidential act that shrunk Utah national monuments Bear Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante nearly in half. (A fantastic read about the act, as well as clothing brand Patagonia speaking out against it, here in The Atlantic.) I’ve spent a big chunk of this year working on essays, drafts, nonfiction works-in-progress about the very land beneath us, what we’re allowed to do and say and act only according to the color of our skin, our identified gender. Visiting Muir Woods National Monument this past year was life-changing. While Muir was a celebrated conservationist, here, a land that at one time belonged to no one, a cathedral for native peoples who wanted to hunt or rest or just enjoy it, was cordoned off and sold and sold again. A name was slapped on it—Muir’s name. There are no physical borders of a landscape that extends well beyond them. This intersection of land and borders, of ownership, obviously has a sad and fraught history in this country, with the continued displacement of native peoples (See, at a minimum: the Dakota Access Pipeline). We spend so much of our lives not even looking down, seeing what we’re walking on, what’s been paved over, what we’ve changed drastically with our world-building. We never stop to ask, to really think about Who was here before. How much has been taken.

1| The Great Basin bristlecone pine

You may have heard of Methuselah, a bristlecone pine in California’s White Mountains that’s 4,850 years old, but recently, another bristlecone pine core revealed its age to be 5,067 years. Thus, it is the bristlecone pine—in fact, the oldest recorded living thing on the planet. Soak that in: this tree existed, rooted in the rocky, shaled, mountainous slopes of the White Mountains, during the rise and fall of the Roman Empire. It was a thing that existed when the Ancient Egyptians were just beginning to build pyramids. I like feeling miniaturized by nature and landscapes. I like to be reminded how insignificant I am. But I never view this as some nihilistic belief. No, it’s a hope for me—that the earth, all of its greatness, will outlive me, us all. That there’s still so much more of it left to give, regardless of anything we do.

Robert James Russell is the author of “Holograms” — our most read story of 2017 and one of our Pushcart nominations for this year. He’s also appears to have a real talent for making me feel like there’s so much I don’t know about this strange, beautiful, denim-and-exotic-pigeon-filled world of ours.

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Robert James Russell

The Top Ten Things That Inspired Me In 2O17 
(Things I Spent Way Too Much Time Thinking About or Watching or Obsessing Over Instead of Writing 
or Being Social or Generally Improving My Life in Some Way)
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