Wednesday May 11, 2016

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In truth I am puzzled most in life
by nine horses.

I’ve been watching them for eleven weeks
in a pasture near Melrose.

Two are on one side of the fence and seven
on the other side.

They stare at one another from the same places
hours and hours each day.

This is another unanswerable question
to haunt us with the ordinary.

They have to be talking to one another
in a language without a voice.

Maybe they are speaking the wordless talk of lovers,
sullen, melancholy, jubilant.

Linguists say that language comes after music
and we sang nonsense syllables

before we invented a rational speech
to order our days.

We live far out in the country where I hear
creature voices night and day.

Like us they are talking about their lives
on this brief visit to earth.

In truth each day is a universe in which
we are tangled in the light of stars.

Stop a moment. Think about these horses
in their sweet-smelling silence.

“Horses” by Jim Harrison from Songs of Unreason. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Twenty years ago today, in 1996, eight climbers died on the slopes of Mount Everest. At that time, it was the worst single loss of life on the world’s highest peak.

The weather had been pretty favorable for climbing on May 10, and several people had already reached the summit and were on their way back to base camp when a fierce blizzard arose within a matter of minutes. The snow buried the fixed ropes that aided climbers in their ascent and descent, and many of them got lost. Whiteout conditions meant that some of the climbers who were able to make their way to a base camp were unable to find the tents when they got there. Temperatures plunged rapidly to 40 degrees below zero. Winds of 70 miles per hour drove hard snow pellets into the faces of the climbers. Another problem was the high number of climbers who were attempting to reach the summit on May 10; they were still waiting for their chance to ascend well after the time that they should have started their descent to base camp.

The victims were seasoned climbers and guides, including three members of the Indo-Tibetan Border Police; a 47-year-old Japanese woman named Nasuko Nanba, who had already climbed many of the world’s highest peaks; and guides Rob Hall, Andy Harris, and Scott Fischer. Also on Everest that day were several amateurs who paid $60,000 apiece for a chance to join a commercial expedition. Since 1953, when Sir Edmund Hillary and his guide, Tenzing Norgay, became the first climbers to reach the summit of Mount Everest, technological advances have enabled less experienced climbers to reach the peak. But technology has also lulled the amateurs into a false sense of security; when faced with unpredictable situations such as this blizzard, these climbers are more vulnerable — especially if they become separated from the experienced guides they’ve hired to lead them and take care of all the details. The increasing number of inexperienced climbers on Everest was controversial, so Mark Bryant, editor of Outdoor magazine, hired Jon Krakauer — a writer and amateur climber — to join one of the expeditions and report for the magazine. Krakauer was one of 20 climbers to reach the summit before the blizzard hit. He survived the storm and later wrote about his experience, and interviewed other survivors, in his best-selling book Into Thin Air (1997). Another survivor, guide Anatoli Boukreev, co-authored a book that rebutted Krakauer’s interpretation; Boukreev’s book is called The Climb: Tragic Ambitions on Everest (1997).

One of the victims of the 1996 disaster was New Zealand guide Rob Hall. He had remained back to help another climber, American Doug Hansen, who was struggling with altitude sickness and frostbite. They found a little shelter in a snow hole, but Hansen died during the night, and Hall soon found that his frostbitten hands and legs were effectively useless. He radioed base camp and asked them to call his wife, Jan Arnold — seven months pregnant with their first child — on the satellite phone. He reassured her that even though he was trapped in the snow hole without provisions, and couldn’t move his legs, help was sure to come as soon as the storm passed. “Hey look,” he told her, “don’t worry about me.” He died soon after.

Since the 1996 disaster, there have been two Mount Everest disasters with greater loss of life, both of them avalanches. The first claimed 16 lives in 2014; the second — a result of the 2015 earthquake in Nepal — claimed 18 lives.

It’s the birthday of American composer and lyricist Irving Berlin (1888), whose simple, hopeful songs carried Americans through the Great Depression and several wars. Berlin was born Israel Isidore Baline in Imperial Russia. He was the son of a cantor and his family was poor; they lived in a hut made of hard black dirt. Like many Jewish families of the late 19th century, they fled from Russia to escape the pogroms. Berlin’s family settled in New York City, renting a basement apartment on Cherry Street that had no windows and no hot water.

Berlin only had two years of schooling; his father died when he was young and he had to hawk newspapers to help his family. It was while selling the Evening Journal that he began memorizing the songs drifting from saloons and restaurants. He discovered that when he sang, people tossed coins in appreciation. Berlin published his first song, “Marie from Sunny Italy” (1907), receiving 37 cents for the rights. He began plunking out his own tunes on the piano at night, one of which became “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” (1911). Berlin recorded the song and it became a hit, sparking a national dance craze. He said: “The melody [...] started the heels and shoulders of all America and a good section of Europe to rocking. The lyric, silly though it was, was fundamentally right.”

Irving Berlin became one of the most prolific songwriters and composers in history. He wrote 19 Broadway shows, including Ziegfeld Follies (1919), which introduced the song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” and Annie Get Your Gun (1946), starring Ethel Merman, who made “There’s No Business Like Show Business” a hit. Berlin composed songs for 18 Hollywood films, many of them starring Fred Astaire, like Top Hat (1935), Follow the Fleet (1936), Carefree (1938), and Easter Parade (1948). Top Hat introduced the romantic standard “Cheek to Cheek.”

Today is the birthday of the man who once said, “Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts”: physicist Richard Feynman, born in New York City (1918). He worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the nuclear bomb, and he was the youngest group leader in the project’s theoretical division. When the first test bomb was detonated in 1945, he was ecstatic about the project’s success, but soon the real-world implications of this new weapon began to trouble him.

He made enormous contributions to the field of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics, and he had fun doing it. It frustrated him that so few laypeople shared his awareness of the wonder in science. Feynman refused to believe that scientific inquiry came at the expense of beauty.

It’s the birthday of novelist Mari Sandoz (books by this author), born near Hay Springs, Nebraska (1896). She is best known for Old Jules (1935), a biography of her father, a violent, domineering homestead locator.

Sandoz’s parents were Swiss immigrants who spoke only French and German at home. What little schooling Sandoz had was difficult, due to her poor English. She worked hard, though, and dreamed of being a writer, scribbling stories in between cooking, cleaning, and watching her six siblings. Homestead life was brutal: Sandoz suffered snow blindness in one eye after spending a day digging cattle out of a drift, and when her father got a snakebite, he blew it off with a shotgun and made Sandoz drive him across the craggy Sand Hills in a buggy looking for help.

She graduated eighth grade at 17 and secretly took the rural teachers’ exam, and passed, which helped her escape from her abusive father. She moved to Lincoln, worked low-paying jobs, and kept writing, racking up almost 1,000 rejections for her short stories. When she finally won a story contest, her father said, “You know I consider artists and writers the maggots of society.”

Despondent, Sandoz burned 70 of her unpublished stories. In 1928, she went home to care for her father, who was dying. To her surprise, his last wish was for her to write his biography, which she did, calling it simply Old Jules. She wrote unsparingly of homesteaders and life on the Plains with its trappers, Indians, hardships, and mail-order brides. It took 14 tries, but the book was finally published to great acclaim and sales, and Sandoz was able to live comfortably.

Sandoz continued to write about Plains life in her novels Slogum House (1937) and Capital City (1939), though she received hate mail and death threats from Nebraskans who felt she gave homesteaders a bad name. Sandoz was one of the first white writers to portray Native life with compassion, particularly in the monumental biography Crazy Horse: The Strange Man of the Oglalas (1943). Sandoz wrote several more books about Plains Indians and was working on her last, The Battle of Little Bighorn, when she died in New York City (1966). Her apartment was packed with shopping bags and file boxes containing thousands of note cards of source material.

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