Monday Jan. 11, 2016

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Trying to tie my shoes, clumsy, not able to work out
the logic of it, fumbling, as my father stands there,
his anger growing over a son who can’t even do
this simplest thing for the first time, can’t even manage
the knot to keep his shoes on—You think someone’s
going to tie your shoes for you the rest of your life?

No, I answer, forty-five years later, tying my shoe,
hands trembling with this memory. My father
and all those years of childhood not being able to work out
how he loved me, a knot so tight it has taken all my life
to untie.

“Knots” by Joseph Stroud from Of This World. © Copper Canyon Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Elizabeth I held England’s first recorded state lottery on this date in 1569. The queen needed to raise funds to rebuild some harbors and make England more competitive in global trade, so she instituted the lottery for “reparation of the havens and strengths of the Realme and towards such other public good works.” Her lottery was limited to 40,000 entries of 10 shillings each — too steep a price for most commoners. People lined up at the west door of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London to buy their tickets. The prize was 5,000 pounds, part paid in cash and the rest paid in tapestries, plate, and good linen cloth. To sweeten the pot even further, the queen offered all entrants a “get out of jail free card” for all crimes besides murder, treason, piracy, and other felonies. The total jackpot was equal to the number of tickets sold, but the prize wasn’t paid out for three years, so the crown enjoyed an interest-free loan.

The winner’s name has been lost to us, but governments learned a valuable lesson: the lottery — sometimes known as a “voluntary tax” — is a great way to bring in some extra revenue to fill state coffers. Many British colonies — including Jamestown, Virginia — were founded and settled with the help of lottery funds. The national lottery has fallen in and out of favor in Britain since 1569, and was out of favor for most of Queen Victoria’s reign, but Prime Minister John Major reinstated it in 1994 and it’s still going strong, and at a price more affordable to working-class Britons.

As Henry Fielding wrote in his play The Lottery (1732): “A lottery is a taxation upon all the fools in creation; and heaven be praised, it is easily raised, for credulity’s always in fashion.”

Today is the birthday of the American philosopher and psychologist William James (books by this author), born in New York City (1842). He’s the older brother of the novelist Henry James. William originally thought he might be an artist, and he studied painting with William Morris Hunt. But he went to Harvard Medical School instead, because he thought it would be a better way to support his family. When he graduated, he decided to pursue an academic life rather than taking up the practice of medicine, in part because he had suffered a severe bout of depression and anxiety. He lectured on physiology, philosophy, and the emerging science of psychology. He helped transform the study of the mind from a philosophical approach to one that was more aligned with laboratory science. In 1880, he was hired to write a textbook on psychology. It took him 10 years, but he produced an enormous two-volume work: The Principles of Psychology (1890). Not everyone loved it; psychologist Wilhelm Wundt said, “It is literature, it is beautiful, but it is not psychology.” Two years later, James produced a more concise textbook, and the two editions became known among college students as “the James” and “the Jimmy.” After he completed the books, he grew tired of the subject and became more interested in philosophy and religion. He wrote The Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897); The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902); Pragmatism: A New Name for Old Ways of Thinking (1907); and A Pluralistic Universe (1909). As the father of Pragmatism, he maintained that the truth of an idea can never be proven; all one can do is to focus on how useful it is.

It’s the birthday of the botanist William Curtis, born in Alton, England (1746). A scientist, he directed the Apothecaries’ Garden, the world’s leading botanic garden, at a time when amateur gardening was booming and exotic plants were available through catalogs. He became an authority on how Londoners could grow plants from all over the world.

It’s the birthday of writer and ecologist Aldo Leopold (books by this author), born in Burlington, Iowa (1887). Aldo grew up in a big, prosperous family, and lived on a 300-acre estate with a lot of his relatives. The whole family spoke German together and worked in the gardens and orchards, where he learned about plants and soil. He went hunting with his dad and bird-watching with his grandfather.

While he was studying at Yale, he practiced writing by composing long letters home. Theodore Roosevelt created the U.S. Forest Service in 1901, and a few years after that, Leopold finished his master’s degree and joined the Forest Service. He worked on surveying and drawing maps.

When he was in his 20s, he was caught in a storm out in the wilderness and he ended up with kidney disease. For the rest of his life, he had bouts of poor health. And it was during these bouts that he began to write. He wrote Game and Fish Handbook (1915) and Game Management (1933), about wildlife conservation. After 19 years in the Forest Service, he became the Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and bought a piece of land on the Wisconsin River. And it was there, at his home in Wisconsin, that he wrote many of the essays for which he is now famous.

He tried to publish a collection of his essays, but for seven years his manuscript was rejected. He kept reworking the essays, and finally, when he was 60 years old, he got the news that his book was going to be published. One week later, a neighbor’s trash fire got out of control, and Leopold was afraid that it might spread to his farm, so he went out to help fight the fire. Suddenly, he lay down on the grass and died of a heart attack. Leopold’s children spent the next months putting the book together, and in 1949 A Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There was published. The book, the defining and most quoted ethic of which is “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise,” helped shape the ecological movement. Although it went largely unnoticed for over 20 years, a paperback edition became a surprise best-seller when it was republished in the environmental awakening of 1970s. It continues to be one of the world’s best-selling natural history books.

Aldo Leopold wrote, “Harmony with land is like harmony with a friend; you cannot cherish his right hand and chop off his left.”

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