Monday July 20, 2015

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The Blue Robe

How joyful to be together, alone
as when we first were joined
in our little house by the river
long ago, except that now we know

each other, as we did not then;
and now instead of two stories fumbling
to meet, we belong to one story
that the two, joining, made. And now

we touch each other with the tenderness
of mortals, who know themselves:
how joyful to feel the heart quake

at the sight of a grandmother,
old friend in the morning light,
beautiful in her blue robe!

“The Blue Robe” by Wendell Berry from New Collected Poems. © Counterpoint Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1869, Innocents Abroad was published, firmly establishing its author, Mark Twain, as a serious writer (books by this author). The book, Twain’s second, was an outgrowth of an assignment from a California newspaper, which had sent him around the world to write travel sketches. It remained his best-selling book throughout his lifetime.

California opened its first freeway 75 years ago, on this date in 1940. Known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the Pasadena Freeway, or simply “the 110,” it was also the first freeway — a high-speed, divided, and limited-access thoroughfare — in the western United States. It runs for just over eight miles and connects Pasadena to Los Angeles.

Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway remains much as it was in 1940, even though it wasn’t designed for the speeds that motorists travel today: There are no acceleration and deceleration lanes, and drivers must go from the on-ramp speed of five miles per hour up to the freeway speed of 55 in a short and hair-raising distance. It was intended to carry about 27,000 cars a day; today, it sees closer to 122,000. But it’s still the most direct route from Pasadena into downtown LA.

On this date in 1969, Apollo 11 touched down on the moon. It was the first manned moon landing. The lunar module, dubbed Eagle, was piloted by Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin. In order to land on the moon, the Eagle detached from the main spacecraft command module (called Columbia and piloted by Michael Collins). As the lunar module approached the moon’s surface, Armstrong noticed that the Eagle was going to overshoot the planned landing site and was headed for a patch of boulders. With only seconds’ worth of fuel remaining, Armstrong steered the landing craft to a better location and brought her down safely. Six hours after touching down, Armstrong stepped off the module’s ladder and became the first earthling to set foot on another celestial body. He had planned his speech carefully: “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for mankind.” Because the transmission was cutting out, people thought he said “small step for man,” but he insisted that he said “a man.”

The Eagle left a crater a foot deep in the soft soil, which Armstrong later described as being like powdered charcoal. Armstrong and Aldrin got right to work, gathering soil and rock samples and taking photographs, in case the mission needed to be aborted. They also performed a series of exercises, and found that it was fairly easy to get around on the moon, even though the powdery soil was slippery. The astronauts left behind some scientific equipment, an American flag, and a plaque, which read: “Here men from the planet Earth first set foot upon the moon July 1969 AD. We came in peace for all mankind.”

It was on this day 140 years ago, in 1875, that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. It was a swarm about 1,800 miles long, 110 miles wide, from Canada down to Texas. North America was home to the most numerous species of locust on earth, the Rocky Mountain locust. At the height of their population, their total mass was equivalent to the 60 million bison that had inhabited the West. The Rocky Mountain locust is believed to have been the most common macroscopic creature of any kind ever to inhabit the planet.

Swarms would occur once every seven to 12 years, emerging from river valleys in the Rockies, sweeping east across the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rain — and the West had been going through a drought since 1873. Farmers just east of the Rockies began to see a cloud approaching from the west. It was glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.

People said the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter. They covered everything in their path. They sounded like thunder or a train and blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of them. They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path. They ate harnesses off horses and the bark of trees, curtains, clothing that was hung out on laundry lines. They chewed on the handles of farm tools and fence posts and railings. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.

Similar swarms occurred in the following years. The farmers became desperate. But by the mid-1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Within a few decades, the Rocky Mountain locusts were believed to be extinct.

It’s the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He had no interest in literature until he was in the Air Force, stationed in Alaska, and had nothing to do but read. Soon after, he began to write. He said: “I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this.” For years he lived in poverty, often unable to pay rent. When he finished his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), he sent it to Random House because it was the only publisher he had ever heard of. Albert Erskine, who had edited Faulkner, liked the manuscript and agreed to publish it. McCarthy barely sold any books, but he won awards and grants, which gave him money to keep going. He turned down regular jobs and even speaking invitations. He moved to Texas. He said: “I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it. Besides Coca-Cola, the other thing that is universally known is cowboys and Indians. You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia and they’ll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here’s a good subject.” He wrote a few more novels, but they continued to sell poorly. He mostly lived in run-down motels, which were so dimly lit that he carried around a good lightbulb so that he could see better to read and write.

Then Erskine retired, and McCarthy switched publishers. His new editor arranged to have 30 pages of McCarthy’s new manuscript published in Esquire, and suddenly everyone wanted to read it. All the Pretty Horses (1992) won the National Book Award and was a best-seller. His other novels include Blood Meridian (1985), The Crossing (1994), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006).

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®