Monday Nov. 2, 2015

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What’s Found

in the tangle of trees
in twigs
from branches
and trunks and roots
in the ephemeral
tenderness of green
leaves that last a season
in the trembling and wind
the blue of sky and lake
in clouds resounding
from a place of emptiness
a chamber that answers
in vibration, string and wind
a trembling, brimming and falling
in the place opposite of grief
the place opposite of dark
in the body of lost
in water and air
a star whose light
has ended but travels
toward us
rising and falling
in a cascade of notes
which is not endless
but aching and sweet
like iridescent feathers
of wings that rise and fall
in the circle of migration
in each flight
music that we breathe

“What’s Found” by Sheila Packa from Echo & Lighting. © Wildwood River Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It’s the birthday of astronomer Harlow Shapley, born in Nashville, Missouri (1885). He was the first scientist to realistically estimate the size of the Milky Way galaxy, and he also determined that — contrary to previously held theories — our Sun is not at the galaxy’s center. He also studied the pulsating stars known as Cepheid variables, and his work led to later astronomers’ use of the Cepheid variables to estimate astronomical distance.

Shapley didn’t go to high school, but instead got a job as a crime reporter in a tough Kansas oil town when he was just 15 years old. His life took on a new direction when he wandered into the Carnegie Library in Chanute, Kansas. He began spending time there, reading up on a variety of subjects, and decided he wanted to pursue an education after all. The high school wouldn’t admit him, so he went instead to the Presbyterian Carthage College Institute, and in 1907 he went on to the University of Missouri. He often told the story of how he had planned to study journalism, but the university’s school of journalism wasn’t up and running yet. He flipped through the course catalog and thought he might major in archaeology — but he couldn’t pronounce it. He moved down the list to “astronomy” instead. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the University of Missouri, and earned his Ph.D. from Princeton. He got a job at Harvard and turned their astronomy program into one of the best in the world. He also co-founded UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, and he lobbied for the creation of the National Science Foundation.

When he wasn’t looking at distant galaxies through his telescope, Shapley could often be found studying ants through his magnifying glass. The insects fascinated him, and they were a hobby of his for decades.

Today is the birthday of the man who said, “I am the worst prognosticator imaginable, and it’s a good thing I write about the past instead of the future.” That’s novelist and essayist Thomas Mallon (books by this author), born in Glen Cove, New York (1951). He’s written nine novels, all involving historical events, including Dewey Defeats Truman (1996) and Fellow Travelers (2007), about a gay romance during the McCarthy era; he’s also written several books of nonfiction, including Mrs. Paine’s Garage (2002), about the woman who housed Lee Harvey Oswald in the weeks leading up to his assassination of President Kennedy. In addition, he has contributed essays and columns to magazines like GQ, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Harper’s.

His most recent novel just came out this fall. It’s called Finale, and is set in 1986, in the Reagan White House. The New York Times calls it his “most audacious and important work yet.” Mallon, who describes his political bent as “libertarian Republican,” said: “I wanted to present Reagan as a consequential figure who had accomplished some things that were admirable. But I certainly don’t present him as a heroic figure. I think that anybody who picks this book up because they think that this is going to be a heroic and fully admiring view of Reagan is going to be disappointed and annoyed. But I would say my job as a novelist is first to tell a good story if I can and to try to entertain and to try to see things from as many angles as possible.”

In his essay “The Historical Novelist’s Burden of Truth” (1998), he speculated about the popularity of historical fiction: “The cyber and fiber-optic revolutions have made every person and place on the present-day globe absurdly and instantly accessible to every other person and place. We are, more than we yet realize, becoming sick of one another. The past is the only place to which we can get away, and if I had one prediction for the millennium it would be that all of us, including novelists, shall be spending a lot of time — more than ever before — looking backward.”

Mallon is at work on two more historical novels: one about Fort Sumter, and the other about the presidency of George W. Bush.

It’s the birthday of frontier hero Daniel Boone, born near Reading, Pennsylvania (1734). He was one of 11 children, raised in a Quaker household. He grew up wandering through the woods, tending the family’s cattle. He learned to track animals, and he hunted with a wooden spear until he was 12, when he got his first rifle. But then two of his older siblings married non-Quakers, or “worldlings,” and the family was ostracized by the Quaker community. So they moved to North Carolina. It took them more than a year to get there.

Daniel Boone fought in the French and Indian War, came home and got married, and managed to have 10 children in between his long and frequent hunting trips into the wilderness. He explored farther and farther west, and in 1767 he ventured into what is now Kentucky. A couple of years later, he made it to the Cumberland Gap, and then he said, “I returned to my family with a determination to bring them as soon as possible to live in Kentucky, which I esteemed a second paradise.” He did manage to move his whole family to the Kentucky territory, then western Virginia, and finally settled in Missouri when it was still owned by France. When someone asked him why he had left Kentucky, he said it was “too crowded.” In 1788, when he moved to western Virginia, there were about 70,000 people in the entire territory.

Daniel Boone became a myth even during his lifetime, the quintessential rugged outdoorsman. In 1784, John Filson published a book called The Discovery, Settlement and Present State of Kentucky to Which Is Added the Adventures of Daniel Boon. Filson interviewed Boone and looked at his journals, but he heavily edited the frontiersman’s words, replacing them with flowery language. He presented Boone’s story in the first person, as an autobiography, and Boone himself happily claimed that every word was true, and the book became extremely popular in Europe and America. It went through numerous editions, freely edited and adapted. Lord Byron included a long ode to Boone in his epic poem Don Juan, and James Fenimore Cooper used Boone as the inspiration for the character Natty Bumppo in his series of novels The Leatherstocking Tales.

There was only one painting done of Boone during his lifetime, showing him in a buckskin shirt, leggings, moccasins, and a beaver hat. But in the 1820s, an actor portraying Boone couldn’t find a beaver hat, so he grabbed a coonskin cap instead. To this day Daniel Boone is portrayed in a coonskin cap, even though the real Boone thought coonskin caps were silly and impractical — he always wore a beaver or felt hat instead, which had a wide brim for keeping out the sun and rain.

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