Thursday Aug. 18, 2016

0:00/ 0:00

Cucumber Fields Crossed by High Tension Wires

The high-tension spires spike the sky
beneath which boys bend
to pick from prickly vines
the deep-sopped fruit, the rind’s green
a green sunk
in green. They part the plants’ leaves,
reach into the nest,
and pull out mother, father, fat Uncle Phil.
The smaller yellow-green children stay,
for now. The fruit goes
in baskets by the side of the row,
every thirty feet or so. By these bushels
the boys get paid, in cash,
at day’s end, this summer
of the last days of the empire
that will become known as
the past, adios, then,
the ragged-edged beautiful blink.

“Cucumber Fields Crossed by High Tension Wires” by Thomas Lux from The Street of Clocks. © Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of Italian-born Viennese composer Antonio Salieri, born in Legnago, in the Republic of Venice (1750). Although he was quite popular in the 18th century, he probably wouldn't be well known today were it not for the movie Amadeus (1984). The movie was based on Peter Shaffer's play by the same name (1979), which was in turn based on a short play by Aleksandr Pushkin, which was called Mozart and Salieri (1830). These stories all present Salieri as a mediocre and uninspired composer who was jealous of Mozart's musical genius; Salieri tried to discredit Mozart at every turn, and some versions of the story even accuse him of poisoning his rival.

But Salieri was a talented and successful composer, writing the scores for several popular operas. He had a happy home life with his wife and eight children. And because he had received free voice and composition lessons from a generous mentor as a young man, he also gave most of his students the benefit of free instruction. Some of his pupils included Beethoven, Franz Liszt, and Franz Schubert. He was the Kapellmeister — the person in charge of music — for the Austrian emperor for 36 years. He and Mozart were competitors, but their rivalry was usually a friendly one; Salieri visited Mozart when he was dying, and was one of the few people to attend his funeral.

After the turn of the 19th century, Salieri's music began to fall out of fashion. "I realized that musical taste was gradually changing in a manner completely contrary to that of my own times," he wrote. "Eccentricity and confusion of genres replaced reasoned and masterful simplicity." He stopped composing operas and began to produce more and more religious pieces. He suffered from dementia late in his life and died in 1825. He had composed his own requiem 20 years earlier, and it was performed for the first time at his funeral.

Today is the birthday of Margaret Murie (books by this author), born in Seattle, Washington (1902). She was the first woman to graduate from the University of Alaska, which she did in 1924, when it was known as the Alaska Agricultural College and School of Mines. That's also where she met her future husband, Olaus Murie; they married in 1924 and spent eight months — a period they called their honeymoon — traveling around Alaska by boat and dogsled, researching caribou. Murie wrote a memoir of their early days together: Two in the Far North (1957).

Murie was instrumental in the formation of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and the passage of the Wilderness Act, each of which protected millions of acres of wilderness. She received the Audubon Medal, the John Muir Award, and the Presidential Medal of Freedom. She died in 2003, at the age of 101.

Today is the birthday of the explorer Meriwether Lewis (books by this author), born just outside of Charlottesville, Virginia (1774). Thomas Jefferson chose him to explore the new Louisiana Territory in 1804, and he in turn asked William Clark to be his partner on the journey. Lewis was the younger of the two, and whereas Clark was easy-going and friendly, Lewis was quiet and intellectual. Lewis kept meticulous journals and recorded everything they saw: prairie dogs, grizzly bears, and Native American tribes both friendly and hostile. When the account of the expedition was collected and published, most of the words were Lewis's.

Among the many written observations of geography, Indian customs, and flora and fauna, Lewis also sent back specimens to Thomas Jefferson of the most interesting things he'd found. Among the varied items were several living animals: four magpies, one sharp-tailed grouse, and one black-tailed prairie dog. The prairie dog and one of the magpies arrived in good health, and they spent the rest of their days in the nation's capital.

For his work, Lewis was paid a handsome salary, received 1,600 acres of land, and was made governor of the Louisiana Territory. But he was prone to depression and alcoholism, and he died in 1809, probably by his own hand.

On this date in 1920, the 19th Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, giving women the right to vote. The first national constitutional amendment had been proposed in Congress in 1878, and in every Congress session after that. Finally, in 1919, it narrowly passed both houses of Congress and was sent to the states to be ratified. Most Southern states opposed the amendment, and on August 18, 1920, it all came down to Tennessee. The pro-amendment faction wore yellow roses in their lapels, and the "anti" faction wore red American Beauty roses. It was a close battle and the state legislature was tied 48 to 48. The decision came down to one vote: that of 24-year-old Harry Burn, the youngest state legislator. He had been expected to vote against it, but he had in his pocket a note from his mother, which read: "Dear Son: Hurrah, and vote for suffrage! Don't keep them in doubt. I noticed some of the speeches against. They were bitter. I have been watching to see how you stood, but have not noticed anything yet. Don't forget to be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt put the 'rat' in ratification. Your Mother." He voted in favor of the amendment.

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