Monday Dec. 7, 2015

0:00/ 0:00


blessed snow,
comes out of the sky
like bleached flies.
The ground is no longer naked.
The ground has on its clothes.
The trees poke out of sheets
and each branch wears the sock of God.

There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
I bite it.
Someone once said:
Don’t bite till you know
if it’s bread or stone.
What I bite is all bread,
rising, yeasty as a cloud.

There is hope.
There is hope everywhere.
Today God gives milk
and I have the pail.

“Snow” by Anne Sexton from The Awful Rowing Toward God. © Houghton Mifflin, 1975. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It was on this day in 1972 that astronauts on the Apollo 17 spacecraft took a famous photograph of Earth, a photo that came to be known as “The Blue Marble.” Photographs of Earth from space were relatively new.

In 1948, the astronomer Fred Hoyle said, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from the outside, is available — once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes plain — a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

The photograph captured on this day 43 years ago was the first clear image of the Earth, because the sun was at the astronauts’ back, and so the planet appears lit up and you can distinctly see blue, white, brown, even green. It became a symbol of the environmental movement of the 1970s, and it’s the image that gets put on flags, T-shirts, bumper stickers, and posters.

The crew of Apollo 17 was about 28,000 miles away from Earth when they took the Blue Marble photo. It was the last time that astronauts, not robots, were on a lunar mission — since then, no people have gotten far enough away from Earth to take a photo like it.

It’s the birthday of novelist Willa Cather (books by this author), born in Back Creek Valley, Virginia (1873). When she was nine years old, Cather, her parents and siblings, two cousins, her maternal grandmother, and a hired girl all got on a train and moved together to the Nebraska plains, where her paternal grandparents had a homestead. After the hills and woods of Virginia, Cather was shocked by the landscape of Nebraska, with its endless expanse of grass. She said: “The country and I had it out together and by the end of the first autumn the shaggy grass country had gripped me with a passion that I have never been able to shake. It has been the happiness and curse of my life.”

At first they all lived on the farm with Cather’s grandparents. Cather explored the prairie and listened to stories about the immigrant pioneers who were her grandparents’ neighbors. One of the first stories she heard was about a Bohemian farmer named Francis Sadilek, a musician and weaver who was depressed by the harsh prairie life and committed suicide shortly after arriving. The Cathers weren’t happy farming either, so after a year and a half they moved to Red Cloud, the Webster County seat. On moving day, a neighbor girl named Mary Miner brought Cather a gift: a bottle of perfume in a slipper. The Miner girls quickly became Cather’s best friends, and she was often in their house; it was there that she befriended the Miners’ hired girl, Annie Sadilek, the daughter of Francis Sadilek who had committed suicide. Annie had tried to take over her father’s farm work, but it was too much, and she needed to earn money to support her family. Cather wrote of Annie later: “She was one of the truest artists I ever knew in the keenness and sensitiveness of her enjoyment, in her love of people and her willingness to take pains.”

Cather was a bright and confident young woman. She cut her hair short and often dressed like a boy, and she planned to become a doctor; she referred to herself as “Willie” or “William Cather, M.D.” She excelled at school, and was the only girl from her grade to graduate from high school. She continued on to the University of Nebraska, where a professor submitted one of her essays to a newspaper without her knowledge, and its success convinced her to give up medicine for writing. A year later, she published her first short story, called “Peter,” in a Boston weekly. “Peter” was a retelling of the story of Francis Sadilek and his death.

After college, Cather worked as a journalist in Lincoln, Pittsburgh, and New York City, including as the editor for McClure’s Magazine. She published poetry, short stories, and a novel, Alexander’s Bridge (1912), about the midlife crisis of a structural engineer in Boston. Cather’s friend Sarah Orne Jewett, a New England writer, gave her some advice: to write about the people and places she knew. Cather took that advice in her next two novels, O Pioneers! (1913) and The Song of the Lark (1915). Then she returned to a story she had known since childhood, which she had already written and rewritten in her short stories: the story of the Sadilek family, especially of Annie. That story became the novel My Ántonia (1918). Cather remained lifelong friends with Annie, who married and had 10 children; they exchanged letters, Cather sent gifts, and when she visited Nebraska she would join them for family dinners. Cather had a special affection for Annie’s kolaches and pies. Decades later, Cather wrote to a friend: “The best thing I’ve done is My Ántonia. I feel I’ve made a contribution to American letters with that book.”

Cather’s novels include One of Ours (1922), My Mortal Enemy (1926), and Death Comes for the Archbishop (1927).

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt called December 7th “a date which will live in infamy,” because it was on this day in 1941 that Japanese planes attacked the naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,300 Americans died in the attack, and the United States joined World War II, which it had stayed out of for more than two years, adhering to its policy of neutrality in Europe’s affairs.

On this day 55 years ago, in 1960, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was created by Fred Seaton, the Secretary of the Interior. Over 8 million acres were declared federally protected in an effort to preserve an area of northeastern Alaska that, in just 200 miles (about the size of South Carolina), comprised a pristine environment featuring six different ecosystems, 200 species of bird, 42 species of fish, and 45 mammal species, including 120,000 head of caribou.

The move to protect this area began in the early 1950s, when the husband-and-wife team of Olaus and Mardy Murie led an expedition to the Brooks Range in far northeast Alaska. They were both biologists and naturalists, and what they found during their summer expedition was an environment that had remained essentially unchanged for 12,000 years, since the last Ice Age, filled with coastal lagoons, salt marshes, musk oxen, polar bears, and golden eagles. Olaus Murie said: “We saw clearly this was not a place for mass recreation. The Far North is a fragile place.”

In 1956, the Muries began a dedicated campaign to have the area declared a federally protected refuge. Though they succeeded, the area remained, and remains, under constant siege by lobbyists and oil industry, determined to access the resources buried beneath the land.

In 2015, President Obama recommended to Congress that 12.28 million additional acres, including the Coastal Plain, be designated as protected wilderness. The Gwich’in people still inhabit this area. They are dependent upon the caribou and call the Coastal Plain “The Sacred Place Where Life Begins.”

President Obama said, “This area is one of the most beautiful, undisturbed places in the world. It is a national treasure and should be permanently protected through legislation for future generations.”

It’s the birthday of novelist Susan Minot (books by this author), born in Boston (1956). She was one of seven children, and they grew up in Manchester-by-the-Sea, a town on the Massachusetts coast. Her father came from old money, descended straight from the Boston Brahmins, and her mother was a lively Irish-Catholic woman. Susan Minot said: “I didn’t like what was going on. I didn’t like being stuck in a house. Too many people around. One of the reasons I became a writer is that I had to go into a room and sit down in order to know what was going on in my head.”

Her father was an alcoholic, and when she was a senior at Brown, her mother died in a car crash. Her sister Eliza was seven years old, and so after Susan graduated from college, she moved back home to be with her sister. She figured that writing would be a nice flexible job that she could do while Eliza was at school.

In 1986, she published Monkeys, a book of connected stories drawing heavily on her own life — it tells the story of a family of seven children raised in an upper-class New England family, with an alcoholic father and a warm Irish-Catholic mother who dies in a car crash.

Susan Minot went on to write several other novels, including Evening (1998), and most recently, Thirty Girls (2014).

She said: “The word dysfunction has, I think, served its purpose and now has lost its meaning. Every family, like every person, is imperfect, after all. The idea that there is a Family somewhere who functions is an odd concept. In my youth I was running from my family to try to find out who I was — their influence distracted me. Now I see what a powerful hold they have, no matter what.”

It’s the birthday of linguist and writer Noam Chomsky (books by this author), who has been described as the world's "top public intellectual," born in Philadelphia (1928). His books include Manufacturing Consent (1988) and, most recently, Because We Say So (2015). He said, “We shouldn’t be looking for heroes; we should be looking for good ideas.”

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