Gatlinburg Fires

Forest fire

For much of November, the air here in Knoxville smelled of smoke. Election day in particular had a sour, tobacco-y aroma, a stench with none of the kindness of the familiar scent of wood-burning fireplaces. It’s common to smell smoke here: the sausages sizzling in the big grill, on the second floor of a nearby apartment block that a Latin family sometimes lights, the smell of the food crossing the street to where I walk the dogs in the evenings; the gas flames cooking the burgers and vegetables in many homes’ outdoor grills; the warm drift of smoke from chimneys.

The smoke of a burning forest, however, is different. A forty-five minute drive away, the mountains were ablaze, a combination of an arsonist’s work and a horridly dry season. That fire reeks like a gigantic, pluming cigarette, bitter, sharp. Some days in November, the distant hills and ridges disappeared into the haze, even off to the north, miles and miles distant from the mountains themselves. Fortunately, at the very end of November, a storm passed through my town, the first rain in ages, striking down dead tree branches into our back lawn. The air, here in Knoxville, cleared after that, refreshed, but the fires in the mountains continued to burn.

In the middle of the month, my parents visited, coming from London to meet my son for the first time. It was a lovely time. We all drove to Gatlinburg, a pretty town in the foothills, bright with winter sun. We ate catfish and bbq for lunch. We weighed up taking the ski-lift up into the hills above the town, for the view, but decided against it because of the baby’s heavy pram, and the crush of the tourists in the lift. 

I vaguely assumed, as I often do, that there would be time to come back and so on.

Now, that lift is destroyed. The town has had to flee the town. Friends have lost businesses and homes.

I keep hoping for more rain, but so far, the week continues to be dry.

Quit Social Media to Make Better Art


I’ve been ruminating the last few days on this Cal Newport essay. He advises every creative person to get off social media, arguing that posting clever things creates nothing of real value and damages the mind’s ability to focus, to concentrate.

I’ve never had a social media account…

In a recent New York magazine essay, Andrew Sullivan recalled when he started to feel obligated to update his blog every half-hour or so. It seemed as if everyone with a Facebook account and a smartphone now felt pressured to run their own high-stress, one-person media operation, and “the once-unimaginable pace of the professional blogger was now the default for everyone,” he wrote.

I think this behavior is misguided. In a capitalist economy, the market rewards things that are rare and valuable. Social media use is decidedly not rare or valuable. Any 16-year-old with a smartphone can invent a hashtag or repost a viral article. The idea that if you engage in enough of this low-value activity, it will somehow add up to something of high value in your career is the same dubious alchemy that forms the core of most snake oil and flimflam in business.

… Consider that the ability to concentrate without distraction on hard tasks is becoming increasingly valuable in an increasingly complicated economy. Social media weakens this skill because it’s engineered to be addictive. The more you use social media in the way it’s designed to be used — persistently throughout your waking hours — the more your brain learns to crave a quick hit of stimulus at the slightest hint of boredom.

I love using Facebook to stay in contact with and entertain friends, and Twitter is probably the greatest newspaper / journalists’ coffeeshop in the history of the world.

Yet I suspect Newport is correct when he says that much of the “work” we do on social media is a lot less lasting or beneficial than we think. These networks seem to create their own urgency, the need to check in to see how a post is doing, which is at odds with their outwardly fun or casual nature. I’m considering stepping back a little, or a lot, especially from Twitter.

Read the whole article, and tell me what you think.

(I heard about the essay from Austin Kleon’s weekly newsletter).