Sunday Jul. 20, 2014

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There is always enough.
       My old cat of long years, who
              stayed all the months of his dying,

though, made sick by food,
       he refused to eat, till, long-stroked,
              he turned again to accept

another piece of dry catfood
       or spoonful of meat, a little water,
              another day through which

he purred, small engine
       losing heat—I made him nests
              of pillow and blanket, a curve of body

where he curled against my legs,
       and when the time came, he slipped out
              a loose door into the cold world

whose abundance included
              the death of his choosing.

"Enough" by Robin Chapman from Abundance. © Cider Press, 2009. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

It's the birthday of the Italian humanist, scholar, and poet Francesco Petrarca (books by this author), better known as Petrarch, born in Arezzo, Italy (1304). He's usually considered to have lived just before the Italian Renaissance movement in art and literature began, but he was one of the most important influences on Renaissance artists and writers. More than anyone else from his age, he advocated for the restoration of classical Roman literature and politics. He read Cicero and Virgil obsessively, and he spent his adolescence traveling through Europe in search of old Latin manuscripts. His father became so fed up with his interest in Roman literature that he threw all of his books by Latin authors into a fire. In 1347, Petrarch supported a failed attempt to establish an ancient Roman-style republic.

He wrote epic poems in Latin that he hoped would make him famous—and they did: in 1341 he was crowned Poet Laureate of Rome. It had been hundreds of years since Roman officials had given anyone that title, and in his acceptance speech Petrarch gave what some historians call "the first manifesto of the Renaissance," about the revival of interest in classical culture.

By the end of his life, Petrarch was one of the most famous men in Europe. People made pilgrimages from all over southern Italy and France to see him. When he stopped off in Arezzo on the way from Rome to Padua, he was invited to visit the house of his birth, which had already been converted to a memorial in his honor.

After Petrarch's death, a book of sonnets was published about a woman named Laura—the Canzoniere (1374), or "Song Book." He wrote the sonnets in his free time during the last forty years of his life. They were the only poems he wrote in Italian, and he didn't consider them very important, but they're what most of us know him by today.

The kind of poems he wrote have come to be known as Petrarchan sonnets, poems of fourteen lines divided by their rhymes into one section of eight lines and one section of six. Thanks in large part to Petrarch, writing sonnets became all the rage in Elizabethan England, when poets like Sir Walter Raleigh, Michael Drayton and, most famously, William Shakespeare composed sonnet sequences.

Petrarch wrote:
"She ruled in beauty o'er this heart of mine,
A noble lady in a humble home,
And now her time for heavenly bliss has come,
'Tis I am mortal proved, and she divine."

It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy (books by this author), born in Providence, Rhode Island (1933). He had no interest in literature until he was in the Air Force, stationed in Alaska, and had nothing to do but read. Soon after, he began to write. He said: "I never had any doubts about my abilities. I knew I could write. I just had to figure out how to eat while doing this." For years he lived in poverty, often unable to pay rent. When he finished his first novel, The Orchard Keeper (1965), he sent it to Random House because it was the only publisher he had ever heard of. Albert Erskine, who had edited Faulkner, liked the manuscript and agreed to publish it. McCarthy barely sold any books, but he won awards and grants, which gave him money to keep going. He turned down regular jobs — and even speaking invitations. He moved to Texas. He said: "I ended up in the Southwest because I knew that nobody had ever written about it. Besides Coca-Cola, the other thing that is universally known is cowboys and Indians. You can go to a mountain village in Mongolia and they'll know about cowboys. But nobody had taken it seriously, not in 200 years. I thought, here's a good subject." He wrote a few more novels, but they continued to sell poorly. He mostly lived in run-down motels, which were so dimly lit that he carried around a good light bulb so that he could see better to read and write.

Then Erskine retired, and McCarthy switched publishers. His new editor arranged to have 30 pages of McCarthy's new manuscript published in Esquire, and suddenly everyone wanted to read it. All the Pretty Horses (1992) won the National Book Award and was a best-seller. None of his previous books sold more than 5,000 copies in hardcover; All the Pretty Horses sold nearly 200,000 copies in its first few months. His other novels include Blood Meridian (1985), The Crossing (1994), No Country for Old Men (2005), and The Road (2006).

On this day in 1869, Innocents Abroad was published, firmly establishing its author, Mark Twain (books by this author), as a serious writer. The book, Twain's second, was an outgrowth of an assignment from a California newspaper, which had sent him around the world to write travel sketches. It remained his best-selling book throughout his lifetime.

It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. It was a swarm about 1,800 miles long, 110 miles wide, from Canada down to Texas. North America was home to the most numerous species of locust on earth, the Rocky Mountain locust. At the height of their population, their total mass was equivalent to the 60 million bison that had inhabited the West. The Rocky Mountain locust is believed to have been the most common macroscopic creature of any kind ever to inhabit the planet.

Swarms would occur once every seven to 12 years, emerging from river valleys in the Rockies, sweeping east across the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rain — and the West had been going through a drought since 1873. Farmers just east of the Rockies began to see a cloud approaching from the west. It was glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.

People said the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter. They covered everything in their path. They sounded like thunder or a train and blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of them. They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path. They ate harnesses off horses and the bark of trees, curtains, clothing that was hung out on laundry lines. They chewed on the handles of farm tools and fence posts and railings. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.

Similar swarms occurred in the following years. The farmers became desperate. But by the mid-1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Within a few decades, the Rocky Mountain locusts were believed to be extinct. The last two live specimens were collected in 1902, and they're now stored at the Smithsonian.

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