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What Would Ben Do?

Talk, Banter & Buzz

COURTEOUS READER:

Almanacs, those compendia of meteorological and astronomical data, have been around almost since the advent of the written word.

But it wasn’t until Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1733 that the literary form expanded to include witticisms, advice, and civic commentary. In his introduction to that first almanac, which was followed by nine more editions, Franklin wrote that he had undertaken the endeavor “with no other View than that of the public Good.”

Last year, Cosmo Doogood (a.k.a. Twin Cities publisher Eric Utne) followed suit, publishing a volume called Urban Almanac: Celebrating Nature & Her Rhythms in the City. Like Franklin’s work, it contained weather forecasts and astronomy guides, as well as inspirational miscellany. “I didn’t want to resign myself to saying people can’t have a connection to nature just because they live in cities,” Utne says. “My almanac was full of civilizing ideas and urban survival tips—wonderful, convivial strategies that make life a little less mean, nasty, and brutish.”

The 2005 edition was hailed by Newsweek as “an urban epiphany…what Ben Franklin would be doing if he were here today.”

In the newly published 2006 Urban Almanac, Utne zeroes in on that Franklin tie, asking throughout “What Would Ben Do?”
 

BENJAMIN FRANKLIN

Birthday: January 17, 1706
Scientist, statesman, civil servant, entrepreneur, writer, and humanitarian

Utne exhorts us to be more like the wild man out in the lightning storm with his kite and key. “I think Ben would have been appalled and chagrined at how disconnected we are from nature,” Utne says. “Look into your own soul, your own spirit, your own connection with the natural world. Ben Franklin did that.”

Ben also penned a list of 13 virtues, including moderation, temperance, and chastity, that he reportedly worked on cultivating all his life.
 

BEN’S REALITY

But in addition to being wise, witty, and widely revered, Franklin was also very human. He was known to be an inattentive husband and womanizer who suffered from gout as a result of his gluttony. But perhaps, Utne says, it was his failings that kept “Poor Richard” connected to the common man.
 

ERIC UTNE

Birthday: August 6, 1946
Publisher, teacher, environmentalist, and political commentator

He is best known for founding the Utne Reader (now Utne magazine) in 1984, the first-ever journal of previously published articles from alternative sources and points of view.

Utne ran the magazine for 15 years, until, he says, his own Franklin-like flouting of the very lifestyle he professed caught up with him. “Here I was, publishing editorial about the environment and meditation and being a person who actively engaged in the world, and what I was doing myself was working insane hours, wearing too many hats.”
 

THE REBIRTH OF UTNE

In 1999, the eponymous publisher left Utne in the hands of his wife, Nina Rothschild Utne, and went on to become a teacher at City of Lakes Waldorf School in Minneapolis. When he assigned his eighth graders to create almanacs like the ones penned by Ben Franklin, Utne realized that this was exactly what he himself should do.
 

A CIVILIZING IDEA

Last year’s Urban Almanac was a smashing success—the 2005 edition sold 30,000 copies in the first three months of the year and was featured on National Public Radio.

“I learned with the first almanac that I’m clueless about nature,” Utne says. “Now, I’m trying to notice things. I can read the clouds and know what the weather will be like in 24 hours. And I’ve got a bird feeder outside my window for the first time in my life.” 


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