Sunday Jan. 11, 2015

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In the Shed

While we are gone,
our neighbor finds
a long-dead buck in our shed,
steeped in snow and wood.
A broken leg took him down
and he found refuge.
The deer that had wandered the hills,
had run in front of a car.
This is the story we make up to
understand how he got there.
It’s sad, the part about dying.
It scares us, we want to turn
our faces away, drag the deer
back to the forest.
But there is something else
we should look at—
a small gladness that he found
shelter close to our house,
that he came out of the wind and snow
to curl up near the wood pile.
All deer die.
This one is a testament.

“In the Shed” by Mary Logue, from Meticulous Attachment. © Mid-List Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1922, insulin was first used successfully on a human being. The patient, 13-year-old Leonard Thompson, was treated for diabetes at Toronto General Hospital. He had shown the first symptoms of the disease two years earlier, then had been put on a starvation diet, but had gone steadily downhill and was near death when doctors gave him the chance to try the new drug insulin. The boy made a remarkable recovery. He might have lived well into middle age, if not for a motorcycle accident several years later.

It’s the birthday of historian Bernard DeVoto (books by this author), born in Ogden, Utah (1897). He loved the wide spaces and big skies of the West, but he felt like an outsider in his hometown — he was raised Catholic in a Mormon town, and he was too bookish and unathletic to feel comfortable there. He studied English at Harvard. After graduation, he taught at Northwestern and then at Harvard, although he never succeeded in his goal of becoming a full professor there. He wrote a novel, The Crooked Mile (1924), and dreamed of writing the Great American Novel. Then he wrote a book on one of his literary heroes, Mark Twain, a book called Mark Twain’s America (1932). It blended literary criticism and history, and DeVoto found he had a knack for nonfiction, and especially for history.

In 1935, he began a monthly column for Harper’s, “The Easy Chair,” which he wrote until his death. He covered a huge range of topics: the evils of McCarthyism, detective novels, the Civil War, railroads, the Western landscape, the best way to make a martini, and international politics. He wrote one column about the ineffectiveness of dull stainless-steel knives in America, which inspired Julia Child to send him a fan letter ... and a sharp carbon-steel French knife. DeVoto’s wife, Avis, handled his correspondence, and after she wrote Child back, the two women became pen pals and eventually close friends, and Avis DeVoto helped Child edit Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In the summer of 1946, DeVoto took a three-month road trip through the West. He had been writing about the West on and off for years, and had just finished two books set there — a novel and a history of fur trading. He wanted to revisit the place in preparation for a book on the Lewis and Clark expedition, and he thought he would write some essays during his trip. He was horrified by the land abuse that he discovered there. The novelist Wallace Stegner, who wrote DeVoto’s biography, said: “DeVoto went West in 1946 a historian and tourist. He came back an embattled conservationist.” Commercial interests — especially cattle grazers and big timber — were attempting to take back huge amounts of public land, and DeVoto coined a phrase to describe it: a “land grab.” Instead of the lighter travel pieces that he intended to write, he wrote a series of essays for Harper’s criticizing the assault on natural resources and the exploitation of wilderness. He described how politicians and businesspeople were conspiring with cattle ranchers to open public lands for grazing, and how timber companies were trying to clear-cut national parks. In one of these essays, “The West Against Itself,” DeVoto wrote: “So, at the very moment when the West is blueprinting an economy which must be based on the sustained, permanent use of its natural resources, it is also conducting an assault on those resources with the simple objective of liquidating them. The dissociation of intelligence could go no farther but there it is — and there is the West yesterday, today, and forever.”

The preservation of Western land and resources became his life’s work. DeVoto lived for just nine more years after his summer road trip, but in that time he published more than 30 essays about Western conservation. His books include Mark Twain at Work (1942), The Year of Decision: 1846 (1942), Across the Wide Missouri (1947), Mountain Time (1947), and The Course of Empire (1952), and he edited the journals of Lewis and Clark.

His book The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto (1948) was recently reissued. In it, he described a Manhattan as “an offense against piety,” a daiquiri as “a regressive fantasy,” and mixed drinks with fruit juices as “all pestilential, all gangrenous, and all vile.” He wrote: “The proper union of gin and vermouth is a great and sudden glory; it is one of the happiest marriages on earth, and one of the shortest lived.“

On this date in 1770, Benjamin Franklin introduced rhubarb to America. He was representing the American colonies as an ambassador in London, and sent a crate of rhubarb to his friend John Bartram. The plant, native to central Asia, had been introduced in Europe by traders; the rhubarb that Franklin sent to America had come to London from Siberia. Rhubarb first appeared in American seed catalogs in 1829, and soon became a popular ingredient in pies. John Bartram was also responsible for introducing kohlrabi and poinsettias to America.

It’s the birthday of the American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (1755). He was born in the British West Indies, but moved to New York City when he was 17. He became a vocal advocate for a strong centralized government, wrote more than half of the Federalist Papers, and became the leader of the Federalist Party. During Washington’s presidency, Hamilton served as the nation’s first secretary of the Treasury (1789– 1795).

Alexander Hamilton wrote: “The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for among old parchments or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature by the hand of the divinity itself and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.”

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