Prairie Lights: Plenty to be thankful for in 2017

Eclipse

John Warner

We’ll end 2017 with my favorite photo of the year, John Warner’s shot of the eclipse, at the Wind Point fishing access 10 miles south of Thermopolis, Wyo..

Ordinarily, on this last Sunday of the year, I would post a tongue-in-cheek review of the past year, as I had done for more than 10 years at the Billings Gazette and for the past three years at Last Best News.

I was inspired to do so by Dave Barry, as were legions of fellow obscure laborers in the vineyards of backwater journalism. We had the temerity to follow the master’s lead by telling ourselves we could get away with it by writing about local events, leaving the national and international scene to Barry.

I see Barry is still at it, even though he bailed on his humor-columnist job years ago in favor of novels. In his latest recap, Barry described 2017 as “surreal and … densely populated with strange and alarming events.” Too true, which is one reason I’ve abandoned the tradition this year.

What role can satire and parody play in a world in which Anthony Scaramucci is an adviser to the president of the United States? For that matter, what good is parody when the president of the United States seems to parody himself six or seven times a day by means of the goofiest form of communication yet devised by the human race?

I was also discouraged after reading my own recap of 2016, the recurring theme of which was all the idiots provoking wildlife attacks in Yellowstone National Park. The column was entertaining enough, but it seemed so antique. Was the world really that much simpler just a year ago?

In addition to that, you may recall that barely two months after I wrote that recap, I announced that Last Best News would no longer traffic in the sort of fake news — April Fool’s spoofs, invented characters in a column, etc. — that had a long and honorable history in American journalism.

I’ve pushed the boundaries of that pledge a few times since then, but the satirical year-in-review seemed hard to justify.

Leaving that tradition behind also frees me up to do something I’d rather do at the moment, which is thank all the people who supported Last Best News in this, the fourth year of our existence.

Above all, David Crisp and I, who do most of the writing around here, need to thank all of the contributors who have done so much to widen the scope of our coverage, introduce new perspectives and share their talents with our readers.

Apologizing in advance if I somehow forget anyone, I think of  Cal Cumin’s ruminations on Chief Plenty Coups; Adrian Jawort’s story on the quest for justice by Cletus and Earline Cole; Steve Prosinski’s photo gallery of freight train graffiti; Dan Burkhart’s touching exposé of his wife’s activities as a (formerly) secret Santa; Jan Falstad’s lovely piece  about a wilderness horse ride for injured veterans; and Mary Sheehy Moe’s story about a tragedy whose emotional consequences still reverberate after 50 years.

And also Michael Mason, who dove deep into the absurd to write his guide to weird bird watching; Desiree Kling, who wrote a good piece about a man’s obsession with Norwegian woodcarving; Mike McCormick, who wrote about the benefits of being forced to slow down; and Larry Olson, who came up with an entertaining story about a remarkable car.

Many thanks to Marian Lyman Kirst, whose BugBytes series included this story about spiders; to Craig Lancaster for his moving piece on the meaning of family; and to two prolifically talented Scotsmen, cartoonist-writer Roger Kettle and illustrator Steve Bright, who collaborated on a story about Montana, ahem, cuisine.

Then there was Paul Driscoll’s rollicking yarn about spending his boyhood summers at Hail Columbia Gulch outside of Butte; and Brian D’Ambrosio, who surprised me, and no doubt many readers, with his tale about the amazing Irene Lentz, the girl from Baker who designed clothes for Hollywood’s golden age; and Alexis Bonogofsky, a fine photographer herself, who compiled a roster of the best Montana photo feeds on Instagram.

Russell Rowland wrote a compelling portrait of a talented painter; Bruce Lohof, a retired diplomat and occasional op-ed contributor, explained the healthcare debate by focusing on what he called the Third Customer; Jim Elliott, who contributes free columns to small newspapers across the state, penned a fine tribute to the unsung heroes of Montana; and longtime political reporter Chuck Johnson came out of retirement to cover the special legislative session for Last Best News, Missoula Current and The Electric. Here’s his summation of the session’s winners and losers.

I probably should have consulted with David about this, but let me recommend just one of his columns from the past year, a column that combined his typically insightful thoughts about the future of journalism with a considered appreciation of Butte.

And let me mention just one of my stories, not for the writing but for the subject of the writing, the late Vince Larsen, an example of the kind of citizen who could yet save the surreal United States of America.

This year also saw the launching of our partnership with two other online newspapers, Missoula Current and The Electric, in Great Falls. You really should subscribe to Montana Today, the five-day-a-week email alerting readers to what’s new at both those sites and this one.

And finally, let me salute all the readers who come here daily or weekly or occasionally and make this such an interesting place, shoring up our resolve with their confidence in what we do, urging us on with words of encouragement or correction, both of them forms of engagement, for which we are thankful.

Special thanks to those readers who also support us financially. Our foundation is a bit more solid than in the past, meaning we are not going to do our normal end-of-the-year, getting-ready-for-taxes fundraiser, but we still need steady support from those who value us most. To make a voluntary monthly donation, just go here.

Hang in there. Maybe by next year the world will be safe for satire again.

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