Friday June 30, 2017

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Little Things

Little drops of water,
      Little grains of sand,
Make the mighty ocean
      And the pleasant land.

Little deeds of kindness,
      Little words of love,
Make our earth an Eden,
      Like the heaven above.

“Little Things” Julia A.F. Carney. Public domain. 

On this date in 1864, President Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to California for “public use, resort, and restoration.” A homesteader, Galen Clark, had been so awed by the giant sequoia trees that he vowed to save them from logging; his cause gained momentum and support from photographer Carleton Watkins and senator John Conness. The Department of the Interior helped them craft a bill, which passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the president in the height of the Civil War. The Yosemite Land Grant of 1864 marked the first time the federal government set aside land specifically for preservation and recreational use. It didn’t have the authority to evict homesteaders, though, and that battle continued until 1872, when the Supreme Court voided the homesteaders’ claims. Yosemite was declared the nation's third national park on October 1, 1890.

In 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a treatise on national parks at the request of the Board of Yosemite Commissioners. In it, the landscape architect — whose most famous work is New York’s Central Park — wrote:

“It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness.”

On this day in 1966, the National Organization for Women was founded in Washington, D.C., by a group of 28 women. They’d gathered for the Third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women to air their frustrations about the Equal Opportunity Commission’s failure to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibited sex discrimination in employment. Women had lobbied Congress hard in 1964 to include this amendment in the Civil Rights Act, and their anger at its lack of enforcement was boiling over.

They attempted to issue a resolution that recommended the EEOC carry out its legal mandate, but were prohibited by Conference leaders. Betty Friedan, whose 1963 book The Feminist Mystique had become a rallying cry for women, gathered everyone in a hotel room. She wrote three letters on a napkin, “NOW.” Activist Catherine Conroy slid a five-dollar bill on the table and told women in the room, “Put your money down and sign your name.”

Five months later, they held an organizing conference in Washington, D.C., to vote on bylaws, draft a mission statement, and choose officers. Friedan served as NOW’s first president. Of that meeting, she said: “We wasted no time on ceremonials or speeches, gave ourselves barely an hour for lunch and dinner. At times we got very tired and impatient, but there was always a sense that what we were deciding was not just for now, ‘but for a century ...’ We shared a moving moment of realization that we had now indeed entered history.”

The National Organization for Women is the largest women’s rights organization in the United States, with 550 chapters in all 50 states. NOW advocates for social change, the eradication of sexual violence against women, and equal rights for all women in education, the workforce, and health. They held the first “Take Back the Night” campaign in 1973, coordinating vigils and marches against sexual violence.

In The Feminine Mystique, Betty Friedan wrote, “Why should women accept this picture of a half-life, instead of a share in the whole of human destiny?”

It’s the birthday of poet Czeslaw Milosz (books by this author), born in Szetejnie, Lithuania (1911). He grew up in a Polish-speaking family. His father was an engineer for czarist Russia during World War I. The family traveled all over the country as his father helped rebuild roads and bridges. Milosz was fascinated by all the different religions in that part of Russia, from Catholicism, Greek Orthodox, and Protestantism to Judaism and pagan mysticism. He loved listening to village folktales about the Lithuanian lakes, rivers, and forests, and these tales later influenced his poetry.

The family eventually settled in Poland. Milosz studied law rather than literature in college because, he said, “There were so many girls studying literature it was called the marriage department.” In 1931, he co-founded a literary group that was so pessimistic about the future it was nicknamed the “Catastrophists.” The group predicted a coming world war, but nobody believed them. He worked for Polish Radio for a while, but he got fired when he let Jews broadcast their opinions on the air. Another radio station sent him to cover the invasion of Poland by Nazi forces in 1939. After the invasion, he found a job as a janitor at a university, secretly writing anti-Nazi poetry for underground publications. He witnessed the genocide of the Jews in Warsaw, and was one of the first poets to write about it in his book of poems Rescue (1945).

After the war, Milosz got a job working as a diplomat for communist Poland, though he wasn’t a party member. One night in the winter of 1949, on his way home from a government meeting, he saw several jeeps filled with political prisoners, surrounded by soldiers. He said, “It was then that I realized what I was part of.” He defected in 1951, and made it to Paris even though his passport had been confiscated.

Most intellectuals in Paris were pro-communist at the time, and they thought of Milosz as either a traitor or a madman for leaving Poland. The poet Pablo Neruda attacked him in an article called “The Man Who Ran Away.” In 1953, Milosz published a book about communism called The Captive Mind, in which he argued that people were too ready to accept totalitarian terror for the sake of an imaginary future. He moved to the United States and began teaching at the University of California at Berkeley in 1960. He had mixed feelings about the United States: he wrote, “What splendor! What poverty! What humanity! What inhumanity! What mutual good will! What individual isolation! What loyalty to the ideal! What hypocrisy! What a triumph of conscience! What perversity!”

He kept writing poetry in Polish, even though almost no one was reading it. His books had been banned in Poland, and his poems weren’t translated into English until 1973. Then, in 1980, he got a phone call at 3:00 in the morning telling him that he’d won the Nobel Prize in literature.

Czeslaw Milosz said: “I have read many books, but to place all those volumes on top of one another and stand on them would not add a cubit to my stature. Their learned terms are of little use when I attempt to seize naked experience, which eludes all accepted ideas.”

And he said, “Language is the only homeland.”

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