Wednesday Oct. 5, 2016

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Autumn Song

Little flower, you live in constant danger:
Likely to be crushed under foot or torn by wind,
Sun-scorched or gobbled by a goat.

These October days streaked with regrets and tears
Are like you, brindled flower, as they bloom
And fade, harried by heat as much as by the cold.

Our ship sets out to sea, not with ivory or gold
In the hold, but with fragrant apples for cargo. Just so
My days are not heavy but delicate, fleeting and vain,

Leaving behind the sweet, faint scent of renown
That quickly will vanish like the taste of fruit
Passing from the tongues and hearts of everyone.

“Autumn Song” by Daniel Mark Epstein from Dawn to Twilight. © Louisiana State University, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is the birthday of French philosopher and writer Denis Diderot (books by this author), born in Langres (1713). He was a prominent thinker during the French Enlightenment, and he was good friends with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. The two men met regularly at cafés in Paris to discuss music, philosophy, and their troubles with women.

From 1745 to 1772, Diderot was the chief editor of Encyclopédie, a book meant to replace the Bible as the source of knowledge. It was the first book of its kind to subject all the entries to rational analysis, debunking a lot of ancient wisdom along the way. For instance, it included an entry on Noah's ark that tried to estimate how many man-hours Noah and his sons must have spent shoveling manure off their boat. Previous encyclopedias restricted themselves to serious topics like theology and philosophy and science, but Diderot tried to cover everything he could think of: emotions, coal mines, fleas, duels, bladder surgery, stockings, the metaphysics of the human soul, and how to make soup.

Diderot, who said, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest."

It's the birthday of the author Helen Churchill Candee (books by this author), née Hungerford, in New York City (1858). One of her early books was a how-to guide, How Women May Earn a Living (1900). She had experience in this area: although she came from a wealthy family, she had little money of her own, and she supported herself and her two children largely by writing articles and books. Her husband, Edward Candee, was abusive, and she eventually took the children and left him. As a single working mother, she wanted to make sure that other women could find ways to support themselves without relying on men. She wrote books on decorative arts, and also published a novel, An Oklahoma Romance, in 1901.

Once she was established as a writer, Candee moved to Washington, D.C., and became one of the first professional interior decorators; several high-powered politicians, including Theodore Roosevelt, were her clients. She was also a close friend of the Tafts, and she decorated the West Wing of the White House when President Taft had it remodeled in 1909.

She was in Europe early in 1912 when she received word that her son, Harold, had been injured in an accident. Naturally, she wanted to return home as soon as possible. From Cherbourg, she boarded a brand new luxury liner, the RMS Titanic, bound for New York. When the ship struck an iceberg near midnight on April 14 and began to sink, Candee boarded Lifeboat Six, under the command of quartermaster Robert Hitchens. She tried to persuade him to go back after the ship went down, to search for any survivors, but he refused. She wrote a dramatized account of the voyage for Collier's Weekly magazine, about an unnamed man and woman. The story, called "Sealed Orders," included a romantic sunset visit to the bow of the great ship, and it may have inspired parts of James Cameron's movie Titanic (1997).

Today is the birthday of rocket scientist Robert Goddard, born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1882). Goddard had been interested in outer space since he read H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds when he was 16. He started thinking seriously about rockets the following year, in 1899. As he recounted in his autobiography, he was up in a cherry tree, preparing to prune its dead branches, when he began to daydream: "It was one of the quiet, colorful afternoons of sheer beauty which we have in October in New England, and as I looked toward the fields at the east, I imagined how wonderful it would be to make some device which had even the possibility of ascending to Mars, and how it would look on a small scale, if sent up from the meadow at my feet."

He received a patent for his design for a liquid-fueled rocket in 1914, and another for one that ran on solid fuel. At this point, the government wasn't really interested in the idea of space travel, so he had a hard time getting grants for his research, and he usually ended up paying out of his own pocket. Finally, a grant from the Smithsonian Institution enabled him to do research and publish a paper on "A Method for Reaching Extreme Altitudes" in 1920. In the paper, he speculated that rockets could be used to reach the moon.

The New York Times heard about his paper, and published an editorial ridiculing him. He went from "nobody" to "national laughingstock" literally overnight, but he said, "Every vision is a joke until the first man accomplishes it; once realized, it becomes commonplace." He didn't give up, and on this date in 1926, he completed the first successful launch of his liquid-fueled rocket in Auburn, Massachusetts. The rocket reached a height of 41 feet and an average speed of 60 miles per hour.

Unfortunately, Goddard didn't live to see space flight become a reality; he died of cancer in 1945. In July 1969, the day after Apollo 11 departed for the Moon, The New York Timesprinted a correction to its scathing editorial of nearly 50 years before. The paper wrote, "It is now definitely established that a rocket can function in a vacuum as well as in an atmosphere. The Times regrets the error."

On this date in 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to the United States Cavalry. He was the leader of a band of Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon, and they had been ordered by the United States government to move to a small reservation in Idaho. Joseph resisted, and for a time it seemed he'd been successful, since the government issued a federal order to remove white settlers from the Nez Perce lands, in support of their original treaty. Four years later, the government reversed its decision and backed up the reversal with the threat of a cavalry attack. Joseph wasn't a war chief, and he believed there was no point in resisting in any case; he reluctantly set out with about 700 followers — fewer than 200 of them warriors — for the Idaho reservation. A band of young men retaliated against the orders by attacking a white settlement, killing several people, and Joseph and his band were forced to flee from the pursuing Army. Though the warriors were outnumbered 10 to one by U.S. soldiers, they defended themselves during several battles for three months and over a thousand miles, through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Joseph tried to lead them to Canada, but they were finally trapped in the Bears Paw Mountains of Montana, only 40 miles from the border. They fought the Army for five days, but eventually Joseph surrendered.

He was known to be an eloquent speaker, and an Army lieutenant on the scene reportedly transcribed his surrender address. In it, Joseph said: "I am tired of fighting. [...] It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

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