Monday Aug. 25, 2014

Evening on the Lawn

I sat on the lawn watching the half-hearted moon rise,
The gnats orbiting the peach pit that I spat out
When the sweetness was gone. I was twenty,
Wet behind the ears from my car wash job,
And suddenly rising to my feet when I saw in early evening
A cloud roll over a section of stars.
It was boiling, a cloud
Churning in one place and washing those three or four stars.
Excited, I lay back down,
My stomach a valley, my arms twined with new rope,
My hair a youthful black. I called my mother and stepfather,
And said something amazing was happening up there.
They shaded their eyes from the porch light.
They looked and looked before my mom turned
The garden hose onto a rosebush and my stepfather scolded the cat
To get the hell off the car. The old man grumbled
About missing something on TV,
The old lady made a face
When mud splashed her slippers. How you bother,
She said for the last time, the screen door closing like a sigh.
I turned off the porch light, undid my shoes.
The cloud boiled over those stars until it was burned by their icy fire.
The night was now clear. The wind brought me a scent
Of a place where I would go alone,
Then find others, all barefoot.
In time, each of us would boil clouds
And strike our childhood houses
With lightning.

"Evening on the Lawn" by Gary Soto, from One Kind of Faith. © Chronicle Books, 2003. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of conductor and composer Leonard Bernstein, born in Lawrence, Massachusetts (1918). When he was 40, he became the youngest musical director ever in charge of the New York Philharmonic. Bernstein wrote scores for many musicals, including On the Town and West Side Story, as well as symphonies and scores for ballets. He also wrote a book called The Joy of Music (1959), a collection of essays and conversations about music.

In it, he wrote, "Music, of all the arts, stands in a special region, unlit by any star but its own, and utterly without meaning ... except its own." The Christmas before Bernstein died, at age 72, he conducted Beethoven's Ninth Symphony in Berlin to celebrate the crumbling of the wall. He died just five days after retiring. He conducted his final performance at Tanglewood, in the Berkshires in western Massachusetts, on August 19, 1990. It was the Boston Symphony playing Britten's "Four Sea Interludes" and Beethoven's Seventh Symphony.

On this date in 1609Galileo Galilei demonstrated his first telescope to the Venetian Senate in Padua. He didn't invent the telescope — credit for that goes to a Dutch astronomer, Hans Lipperhey, who had demonstrated one the previous year — but he heard about it, and by trial and error he figured out how it was made. Galileo greatly improved on the design and made it variable-focus. Venice was known for the quality of its glass craftsmanship, and Galileo bought lenses from spectacle-makers at first, but soon taught himself the art of glass grinding. The telescope he presented to the Senate could magnify images to eight times the naked eye, and by the fall, he was looking at celestial bodies through a 20-power telescope. By the following January, he had discovered four moons orbiting Jupiter. The Senate was so impressed with his invention that they gave him lifetime tenure at the University of Padua and doubled his salary.

On this day in 1875Captain Matthew Webb became the first person to swim across the English Channel. In twenty-one hours and forty-five minutes, he swam from Dover, England, to Calais, France. Nine years later, he drowned in Niagara Falls, trying to swim across and under the churning water.

It was on this day in 1916 that President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the act that established the National Park Service. Yellowstone was designated as the first national park in 1872, and by the 1890s, there were three others: Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant (now known as Kings Canyon). When Congress created the first national parks, it didn't assign a part of the government to run them, and the task ended up falling to the Army. The Army patrolled for poachers or vandals — traveling on skis in the cold Yellowstone winters — but they didn't have any legal recourse to deal with criminals, so they just gave them warnings. In 1894, the last remaining wild buffalo herd in the country was in Yellowstone, and it was small. That year, a poacher named Edgar Howell bragged to reporters that there wasn't much anyone could do about his buffalo hunting, since the most serious penalty he faced would be to get kicked out of Yellowstone and lose $26 worth of equipment. The editor of Field and Stream ran that story in his magazine, and there was a huge uproar. President Grover Cleveland signed the "Act to Protect the Birds and Animals in Yellowstone National Park," but that was just one park. Without a national system regulating the parks, the government remained limited in its control.

The Department of Agriculture, the Department of the Interior, and the Department of War all claimed to protect the national parks, but no one was really doing the job. In 1914, the conservationist John Muir died, after losing a long fight to preserve Yosemite's beautiful Hetch Hetchy Valley against developers who wanted to turn it into a dam and reservoir for the city of San Francisco. Although Hetch Hetchy was dammed, Muir had stirred up public opposition, and many citizens worried that the national parks weren't adequately protected. The issue was brought up in Congress that year, but they wouldn't sign a bill to change it.

The Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, knew that they needed a good lobbyist to convince Congress to protect the parks better. Then he got a letter from an old college classmate named Stephen Mather. Mather was a self-made millionaire who struck it rich as the sales manager for Pacific Coast Borax Company, thanks to his genius for advertising and promotion. In his letter, Mather complained that he had just been on a visit to Yosemite and Sequoia and was upset by what he saw: cattle grazing, development, and trails in terrible condition. Lane told Mather that if he was unhappy he should come to Washington and fix the problem himself. Mather agreed.

Mather was talented and he was rich: a perfect lobbyist. He went to Washington and threw himself into a publicity campaign to designate a government agency specifically for the national parks. He hired Horace Albright, a legal assistant, and Robert Sterling Yard, the editor of the New York Herald. He paid much of their salaries himself. He sponsored the "Mather Mountain Party," a two-week trip for 15 extremely influential business leaders and politicians in the Sierra Nevadas — he paid for it himself, and the men enjoyed a luxurious vacation, hiking and fishing and enjoying fine dining (complete with linens) in the midst of the parks. By the end of the two weeks, they all supported Mather's request for a national agency to oversee the national parks. He partnered with the railroads in their huge "See America First" publicity campaign. He got national newspapers to run headlines about the cause, started a campaign for school kids to enter essay contests, and after convincingNational Geographic to devote an entire issue to the national parks, Mather gave every member of Congress a copy. His assistant, Albright, drafted a bill to create a parks bureau, which would be part of the Department of the Interior. On this day in 1916, Wilson signed it into law, and the National Park Service was created.

Mather said: "Who will gainsay that the parks contain the highest potentialities of national pride, national contentment, and national health? A visit inspires love of country; begets contentment; engenders pride of possession; contains the antidote for national restlessness. ... He is a better citizen with a keener appreciation of the privilege of living here who has toured the national parks."

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