The three-toed sloth is the slowest creature we know
for its size. It spends its life hanging upside-down
from a branch, its baby nestling on its breast.
It never cleans itself, but lets fungus grow
on its fur. The grin it wears, like an idiot clown,
proclaims the joys of a life which is one long rest.
The three-toed sloth is content. It doesn’t care.
It moves imperceptibly, like the laziest snail
you ever saw blown up to the size of a sheep.
Disguised as a grey-green bough it dangles there
in the steamy Amazon jungle. That long-drawn wail
is its slow-motion sneeze. Then it falls asleep.
One cannot but envy such torpor. lts top speed,
when rushing to save its young, is a dramatic
fourteen feet per minute, in a race with fate.
The puzzle is this, though: how did nature breed
a race so determinedly unenergetic?
What passion ever inspired a sloth to mate?
“The Three-toed Sloth” by Fleur Adcock from Poems 1960-2000. © Bloodaxe Books, 2000. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of women's rights reformer Lucretia (Coffin) Mott, born in Nantucket, Massachusetts, in 1793. She went to public school in Boston for two years, and then, when she was 13, she enrolled in a Quaker boarding school near Poughkeepsie, New York. After two years there, she was hired on as an assistant, and then a teacher. She quit when she found out that she was being paid less than half of what the male teachers all made, simply because she was a woman; the experience sparked her first interest in women's rights. In 1811, she married fellow teacher James Mott, and the newlyweds moved to Philadelphia. Ten years later, she became a minister in the Society of Friends, as the Quaker church was called, and she was a popular public speaker on matters of religion and social reform.
She was active in the abolitionist movement when she met Elizabeth Cady Stanton on a ship to London; both were on their way to the World's Anti-Slavery Convention in 1840. They were attending as delegates, but found that the convention would not let them speak because they were women; they were even seated in a separate area, behind a curtain. The two women resolved then and there to organize a convention for women's rights as soon as they returned home. It took eight years, but eventually they did: the Seneca Falls (New York) Convention of 1848.
Mott wrote, "The world has never yet seen a truly great and virtuous nation, because in the degradation of women, the very fountains of life are poisoned at their source."
Herman Melville (books by this author), age 21, set sail aboard the whaling vessel Acushnet on this date in 1841 from the port of New Bedford, Massachusetts, bound for the Pacific Ocean. Melville had no experience as a whaler, and not much as a seaman, either, although he'd sailed to Liverpool, England, and back during his few weeks as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. But he loved the sea, and he was eager to learn. Whaling was still big business in 1841; whale oil from blubber was the most widely available fuel for artificial lights, powering household lamps, streetlights, and even lighthouses. It was also one of the most popular lubricants, used in factory machines, sewing machines, and clocks.
Melville learned the ins and outs of whaling, helping to harpoon the whales, harvest them, and process their oil aboard the ship. He also listened to the tales his fellow whalers told, particularly of a legendary white sperm whale called Mocha Dick. Knickerbocker Magazine had described the whale in 1839: "this renowned monster, who had come off victorious in a hundred fights with his pursuers, an old bull whale, of prodigious size and strength. From the effect of age, or more probably from a freak of nature, ... he was white as wool! ... Numerous boats are known to have been shattered by his immense flukes, or ground to pieces in the crush of his powerful jaws." Melville also met the son of Owen Chase, who had survived a whale attack on the Essex 21 years earlier, and he read Chase's account. It gave him material for Moby-Dick, which begins, "Call me Ishmael. Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world."
Today is the birthday of J.R.R. (John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien (1892) (books by this author), born to English parents in Bloemfontein, South Africa, where his father was working in a bank. Tolkien was always fascinated with languages, he went to school at Oxford, first studying Classics, and later, English Language and Literature. He came across an Old English poem by Cynewulf, which contained a couplet that fascinated him: "Hail Earendel brightest of angels / Over Middle Earth sent to men." The couplet found new life in the universe of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings (1955), which takes place in Middle Earth and includes a half-Elven character named Earendil the Mariner, who eventually becomes a star.
In 1925, Tolkien returned to Oxford University as a professor of Anglo-Saxon and, later, English Language and Literature. One day, while grading exams, he discovered that a student had left one whole page in his examination booklet blank. Tolkien, for reasons unknown even to him, wrote on the page, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit." This single line turned into a bedtime story that he told his children, and from there, a book: The Hobbit (1937).