Sunday June 21, 2015

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My Daughter Describes the Tarantula

Her voice is as lovely and delicate as a web.
She describes how fragile they are,
how they can die from a simple fall.
Then she tells me about their burrows
which are tidy and dry and decorated
with silk. They are solitary, she tells me,
and utterly mild, and when they are
threatened they fling their hairs, trying
not to bite. She says they are most
vulnerable when they molt: unable
to eat for days while they change.
They are misunderstood, she explains,
and suddenly her description becomes
personal. She wants to keep one
as a pet, to appreciate it properly,
to build it a place where it belongs.

“My Daughter Describes the Tarantula” by Faith Shearin from Telling the Bees. © Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

Today is Father's Day. The holiday that we celebrate on the third Sunday in June traces its roots to 1910, but the first recorded celebration of a holiday honoring fathers took place in Fairmont, West Virginia, on July 5, 1908. Grace Golden Clayton wanted to celebrate the lives of 210 fathers who had died in a mining cave-in in Monongah, West Virginia. That particular observance was never promoted outside of Fairmont, and no mention was made of it until years later. The Father's Day that took root owes its origins to Sonora Smart Dodd, of Spokane, Washington. She heard a Mother's Day sermon in 1909 and thought it might be nice to honor fathers as well. So the following year, she promoted the idea with the support of area churches. The first bill to make it a national holiday was introduced in Congress in 1913, but in spite of encouragement by President Woodrow Wilson, it didn't pass. In 1966, Lyndon Johnson issued a proclamation designating the third Sunday in June to honor fathers, and it finally became an official, permanent national holiday during the Nixon administration.

Today is the summer solstice and the first day of summer in the Northern Hemisphere. For those of us in the north, today will be the longest day of the year and tonight will be the shortest night. The entire Earth is about 3 million miles farther from the sun at this time of the year. The difference in the temperature is due to the fact that our planet is tilted on its axis, and at this time of year, the Northern Hemisphere is tilted toward the sun, receiving more direct radiation for longer periods of time each day. It is that slight tilt, only 23 1/2 degrees, that makes the difference between winter and summer. The rise in temperature allows most of the plants we eat to germinate. Wheat and many other plants require an average temperature of at least 40° F to grow. Corn needs a temperature of 50° F, and rice needs a temperature of 68° F.

It's the birthday of novelist Ian McEwan (books by this author), born in Aldershot, England (1948). He was an army brat, traveling all over the world as a kid. He said: "I remember how I liked to loll unobtrusively on the floor behind the sofa when my mother had a friend round. I would listen in to these roaming, intimate heart-to-hearts ... how compelling they were ... and, with so many bad people in the world, what a lucky six-year-old I thought I was when my mother and her friends were always on the side of the good."

He went to college, then read about a new fiction writing program at the University of East Anglia, directed by Malcolm Bradbury. He called and got straight through to Bradbury, who explained that they dropped the program because no one applied. McEwan said that he wanted to apply, and Bradbury agreed. Every few weeks, McEwan wrote a short story, and he and Bradbury met in a pub to talk it over, and that's the way he wrote most of the stories that became his first book, First Love, Last Rites (1975). That book, and the ones that followed, were so dark and twisted that he was nicknamed "Ian McAbre."

His books include Amsterdam (1998), Atonement (2001), On Chesil Beach (2007), Sweet Tooth (2012), and The Children Act (2014).

It's the birthday of author Mary McCarthy (books by this author) born in Seattle, Washington (1912). She published several novels — including The Group (1963) about a group of Vassar students — but she had a hard time making things up, so most of her novels are autobiographical.

Most critics believe that her best book is the memoir Memories of a Catholic Girlhood (1957). She is also remembered for her literary criticism. The writer Gore Vidal said, "She was our most brilliant literary critic, [because she was] uncorrupted by compassion."

It's the birthday of naturalist and writer Donald Peattie (books by this author), born in Chicago (1898). He married his high school sweetheart, studied botany at Harvard, and worked as a botanist for the Department of Agriculture. He felt that literature was his true calling, and he and his wife moved their family to Paris, where they hoped to become great writers. He said, "We had crossed a wide Atlantic elated with excitement, unafraid to launch the frail bark of our careers." But two days after their arrival, their young daughter died. Autumn came to Paris — cold, dark, and dreary. They relocated to the South of France and lived there for six years. Peattie published a couple of novels, but they were flops.

In 1933, they returned home with their three sons, so poor that they had to borrow money for the ship tickets back home. It was the middle of the Great Depression, Peattie was unemployed, and his wife's health was bad. They settled at his wife's childhood home, The Grove, a 100-acre estate in Glenview, Illinois. He found work writing pamphlets about trees, and he began writing a day-by-day account of the natural area at The Grove — the woods, wetlands, and original prairie. That became An Almanac for Moderns (1935), and it launched his career. He wrote: "I learned also the value of knowing some one thing, at last, with a certain degree of thoroughness, be it only my one square mile. I even began to welcome the very limitations of my problem, as a sonnet writer his fourteen lines ... I have learned, however, that three years is utterly insufficient to make me a master of a reasonable amount of wood-wisdom concerning one square mile of Illinois land."

A few years later, they moved to Santa Barbara, and there Peattie wrote his two greatest books: A Natural History of Trees of Eastern and Central North America (1950) and A Natural History of Western Trees (1953). For each tree, Peattie wrote poetic descriptions, natural histories, identifying characteristics, and anecdotes.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®