Friday Oct. 24, 2014

Fence Line Tree

There’s a single tree at the fence line
here in Montana, a little like a tree
in the Sandhills of Nebraska, which may be miles
away. When I cross the unfertile pasture strewn
with rocks and the holes of gophers, badgers, coyotes,
and the rattlesnake den (a thousand killed
in a decade because they don’t mix well with dogs
and children) in an hour’s walking and reach
the tree, I find it oppressive. Likely it’s
as old as I am, withstanding its isolation,
all gnarled and twisted from its battle
with weather. I sit against it until we merge,
and when I return home in the cold, windy
twilight I feel I’ve been gone for years.

"Fence Line Tree" by Jim Harrison, from Saving Daylight. © Copper Canyon Press, 2006. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1929, the U.S. Stock Market crashed. The day became known as "Black Thursday." By the next Tuesday, the market had lost almost $26 billion of value. Banks failed, individual investors lost their savings, and the Great Depression began in America.

It's the birthday of playwright Moss Hart (books by this author), born in New York City (1904), who learned how to keep an audience's attention when he got a job as the entertainment director for a series of summer resorts along the Borscht Belt in the Catskills. He said that keeping city folks sufficiently entertained when they are on vacation was the toughest job he ever had. He had his first hit play with Once in a Lifetime in 1930, when he was just 25 years old, and went on to co-write or direct a string of hits, including The Man Who Came to Dinner, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. His best-known play, You Can't Take It With You (1936), is about the eccentric Sycamore family, whose home is full of snakes, ballet dancers, Russian Royalty, candy, and fireworks, and what happens when Alice, the most ordinary daughter of the family, brings her fiancé home to meet everybody. More than 70 years after its release, it is still one of the most popular plays for amateur productions.

It's the birthday of writer and explorer Alexandra David-Néel, born in Saint-Mandé, France, in 1868. As a teenager, she traveled by herself through European countries, including a bike trip across Spain. When she was 21, she inherited money from her parents, and she used it all to go to Sri Lanka. She worked as an opera singer for a while to finance her travels. She was especially interested in Buddhism.

She disguised herself as a Tibetan woman and managed to get into the city of Lhasa, which at that time was off-limits to foreigners. She became fluent in Tibetan, met the Dalai Lama, practiced meditation and yoga, and trekked through the Himalayas, where she survived by eating the leather off her boots and once saved herself in a snowstorm with a meditation that increases body temperature. The locals thought she might be the incarnation of Thunderbolt Sow, a female Buddhist deity. She became a Tantric lama in Tibet when she was 52 years old.

And she wrote about it all. Her most famous book is Magic and Mystery in Tibet (1929), in which she wrote: "Then it was springtime in the cloudy Himalayas. Nine hundred feet below my cave rhododendrons blossomed. I climbed barren mountain-tops. Long tramps led me to desolate valleys studded with translucent lakes ... Solitude, solitude! ... Mind and senses develop their sensibility in this contemplative life made up of continual observations and reflections. Does one become a visionary or, rather, is it not that one has been blind until then?"

She died in 1969, at the age of 101, a few months after renewing her passport. She was a big influence on the Beat writers, especially Allen Ginsberg, who converted to Buddhism after reading some of her teachings.

It was on this day in 1861 that the transcontinental telegraph system was completed. For the first time, people could quickly send messages from one coast to the other.

Before the telegraph came along, the Pony Express was the fastest and most reliable means of coast-to-coast communication. Riders on horseback traveled nonstop along a 2,000-mile route from St. Joseph, Missouri, to Sacramento, California. Because the riders pushed themselves and their horses so hard, they each rode for 75 to 100 miles, changing horses every 10 to 15 miles. The relay between riders was continuous. The trip took 10 days in the summer, and up to 16 days in the worst of winter. The Pony Express closed just two days after the transcontinental telegraph began operating.

A year earlier, Congress had passed the Pacific Telegraph Act, allocating $40,000 for the project. To construct the telegraph line, materials had to be hauled in to some of the most unreachable parts of the country. Insulators and wires were ordered from the East, shipped to California all the way around Cape Horn at the southern tip of South America (there was no Panama Canal yet), and then hauled into the interior West, over the mountains. The telegraph poles had to be hauled on wagons, and there was no timber for a big stretch of the line from Carson City to Salt Lake City. One of the managers was friends with Brigham Young, and the Mormons provided labor and supplies for about 1,000 miles of the line.

The first message sent from California to the East Coast was from Chief Justice Stephen F. Field, who sent a telegram to President Lincoln congratulating him on the completion of the project, and expressing California's support for the Union in the Civil War.

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