Saturday Jan. 17, 2015

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Watching Sandhill Cranes

Spirits among us have departed—friends,
relatives, neighbors: we can’t find them.
If we search and call, the sky merely waits.
Then some day here come the cranes
planing in from cloud or mist—sharp,
lonely spears, awkwardly graceful.
They reach for the land; they stalk
the ploughed fields, not letting us near,
not quite our own, not quite the world’s.

People go by and pull over to watch. They
peer and point and wonder. It is because
these travelers, these far wanderers,
plane down and yearn in a reaching
flight. They extend our life,
piercing through space to reappear
quietly, undeniably, where we are.

“Watching Sandhill Cranes” by William Stafford, from Even In Quiet Places. © Confluence Press, 1996. Reprinted with permission of the author.   (buy now)

Captain James Cook and his crew on HMS Resolution were the first Europeans to sail below the Antarctic Circle on this date in 1773. Cook made three exploratory voyages to uncharted areas of the Pacific, making maps as he went. In 1772, he was commissioned by the Royal Society to go in search of the rumored Terra Australis, a hypothetical continent that was first suggested by Aristotle. Cook had already circumnavigated New Zealand, and charted the eastern coast of Australia, but the Royal Society believed that Terra Australis lay farther south. Cook left Plymouth in July 1772 to sail around the bottom of the world. They had some trouble with pack ice, but once the weather warmed up in the southern hemisphere's midsummer, they were able to cross below the Antarctic Circle. They crossed it two more times on this voyage, and on the third crossing, Cook very nearly discovered Antarctica. They sailed within about 150 miles of the continent, and had hoped to go further, but couldn't make their way through the pack ice, so they turned back.

The Eighteenth Amendment, the Volstead Act, and better known as Prohibition, took effect on this date in 1920, a year after it was ratified. It made the manufacture, sale, and transportation of liquor illegal. The temperance movement had been fighting this fight for almost 80 years. Its activists wanted to protect families and communities from the horrors of alcohol abuse. They saw the 18th Amendment as a major victory for morality — but in reality, it made criminals out of a lot of ordinary American citizens, and made liquor even more desirable than it had been before.

In the end, it was the Depression that led to the demise of Prohibition. A wealthy Republican named Pauline Sabin led the repeal movement. She said that making liquor legal again would create jobs, weaken organized crime, and generate tax revenue. It took almost 14 years before the 21st Amendment reversed Prohibition. It's the first and only time an Amendment to the U.S. Constitution has been repealed.

Today is the birthday of Benjamin Franklin (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1706). He was a printer, a scientist, an inventor, a writer, the founder of America's first lending library, and one of the Founding Fathers of America itself. He recalled in his Autobiography (1794) that writing well became "of great Use to me in the Course of my Life, and was a principal Means of my Advancement."

It's the birthday of the youngest of the Brontë sisters: Anne Brontë (books by this author) was born in Thornton, Yorkshire, in 1820. We don't know as much about her as we do about her sisters, Charlotte and Emily. She was sensitive, passionate, and spiritual, but also a bit meek and timid. She was especially close to Emily, and they would make up fanciful stories about an imaginary country called "Gondal." When she was 19, she took a position as a governess, because she wanted to contribute to the support of the household. Six years later, she returned home and began writing. The three sisters hatched a plan to publish a book of poetry under three male pseudonyms: Currer, Ellis, and Acton Bell. The book got a couple of good reviews and sold all of two copies. But Anne continued to write, and she sold a couple of poems to regional periodicals. She also wrote two novels: the first, Agnes Grey (1847) sold pretty well, and her second, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (1848), was a smash hit. It sold out the first printing in six weeks.

It was also in 1848 that Charlotte and Anne went to London to reveal the fact that the Bell brothers were really the Brontë sisters. Anne in particular had gotten frustrated over the speculation about the sex of the authors, and whether it was appropriate for women to write novels. She wrote: "I am satisfied that if a book is a good one, it is so whatever the sex of the author may be. All novels are or should be written for both men and women to read, and I am at a loss to conceive how a man should permit himself to write anything that would be really disgraceful to a woman, or why a woman should be censured for writing anything that would be proper and becoming for a man."

Within the next year, three of the four Brontë siblings — Emily, Anne, and their brother Branwell — died of tuberculosis. Anne was the last to die, and before she died, leaving Charlotte alone, Anne whispered, "Take courage."

Today is the birthday of poet William Edgar Stafford (books by this author), born in Hutchinson, Kansas (1914). Among his best-known books are The Rescued Year (1966), Stories That Could Be True: New and Collected Poems (1977), Writing the Australian Crawl: Views on the Writer's Vocation (1978), and An Oregon Message (1987).

During the Second World War, he was a conscientious objector. He refused to be inducted into the U.S. Army. From 1940 to 1944, he was interned as a pacifist in civilian public service camps in Arkansas and California where he fought fires and built roads. He wrote about the experience in the 94-page prose memoir Down In My Heart (1947), which opens with the question, "When are men dangerous?"

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