Winter is black and beige down here
from drought. Suddenly in March
there’s a good rain and in a couple
of weeks we are enveloped in green.
Green everywhere in the mesquites, oaks,
cottonwoods, the bowers of thick
willow bushes the warblers love
for reasons of food or the branches,
the tiny aphids they eat with relish.
Each year it is a surprise
that the world can turn green again.
It is the grandest surprise in life,
the birds coming back from the south to my open
arms, which they fly past, aiming at the feeders.
“Winter, Spring” by Jim Harrison from Dead Man’s Float. © Copper Canyon Press, 2016. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
The German pharmaceutical company Friedrich Bayer received a patent for Aspirin on this date in 1899. This most ubiquitous of nonprescription drugs had its roots in the bark of the willow tree, and the development of the synthetic version was an international endeavor. Plants like willow and meadowsweet were used as a pain remedies by Sumerians and Egyptians as early as 3000 BCE. The Greek physician Hippocrates reported giving willow leaf tea to women in the throes of childbirth to help ease their labor pains. In 1783, an English clergyman named Edward Stone wrote a letter to the Royal Society. He explained that, over five years, he had had consistent success in relieving ague and fever in his parishioners by giving them dried white willow bark. In 1828, a German pharmacy professor isolated the active ingredient in willow bark and named the bitter yellow crystals “salicin,” after the Latin name for white willow — Salix alba. Extracting the salicin from plants was difficult, and required a large amount of plant matter to produce the necessary quantity, so scientists went to work on a synthetic version. A German chemist named Hermann Kolbe first synthesized salicylic acid in 1860.
In 1895, a Bayer chemist named Felix Hoffmann was given the task of developing a “new and improved” synthetic salicylic acid product. He had a personal stake in the work, because his father suffered from rheumatism but couldn’t take salicylic acid without vomiting because it irritated his stomach. Hoffmann studied the scientific literature, and felt that combining an acetyl group with salicylic acid would yield a gentler product. He came up with an effective synthetic version in 1897, and once it passed clinical trials, Bayer sought a patent for the brand name Aspirin: “A” for acetylsalicylic acid, the synthetic compound developed by Hoffmann; “-spir” for Spiraea ulmaria, or meadowsweet, which was a botanical source of salicylic acid; and “-in” because it was a common suffix for drugs at that time. By 1950, it was the best-selling pain reliever in the world.
On this date in 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson announced his plan to establish a draft lottery for military service. Previously, young men registered for the Selective Service at the age of 18. In the instance of war, they could be drafted by the U.S. military for service for a period of at least 21 months. However, there were deferments for married men, men with children, and young men enrolled in college.
Today is the birthday of Nobel Prize-winning Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez (books by this author), born in Aracataca, Colombia (1927). Márquez is considered to be both one of the best writers of the 20th century and one of the best Spanish-language novelists. His major works One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967) and Love in the Time of Cholera (1985) popularized magical realism, which introduced fantastical elements into otherwise realistic plotlines. Márquez allowed most of his novels to be adapted into films, with the notable exception of One Hundred Years of Solitude. He offered the rights to acclaimed film producer Harvey Weinstein once on the condition that they “film the entire book, but only release one chapter — two minutes long — each year, for 100 years.” To everyone else, he flatly refused. “They would cast someone like Robert Redford,” Márquez said, “and most of us do not have relatives who look like Robert Redford.”
It’s the birthday of sports writer and satirist Ring Lardner (books by this author), born in Niles, Michigan, in 1885. Though he has lost some of his name recognition today, he was lauded by many powerhouses of writing during his lifetime —Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and J.D. Salinger among them. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden Caulfield says, “My favorite author is my brother D.B. and my next favorite is Ring Lardner.” Lardner was an avid baseball fan, and he focused most of his writing on the game. Fitzgerald and Woolf often lamented that his great literary talents were being wasted on the subject of sports. For fans of sports journalism, however, Lardner was a master storyteller in the golden age of players like Joe DiMaggio, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Jackie Robinson. Of his publication success, Lardner once said: “A good many young writers make the mistake of enclosing a stamped, self-addressed envelope, big enough for the manuscript to come back in. This is too much of a temptation to the editor.”
It’s the birthday of Michelangelo Buonarroti, Italian sculptor, architect, and painter, and original “Renaissance man,” born in Tuscany, Italy (1475). Many know him as the painter of the Sistine Chapel’s elaborate ceiling. But what most do not know is that before he was one of history’s greatest artists, Michelangelo was a con artist. At the urging of his patron sponsor, he carefully imitated the style of an ancient Greek sculpture so that the pair could sell it off as a valuable antique. He even took care to make sure the statue looked as if it had been buried underground. The buyer eventually caught wind of the plan and demanded his money back, but he was so impressed by Michelangelo’s technical skill with the forgery that he invited him to Rome to meet him. Michelangelo stuck around the city, and by the end of his life, he had been commissioned by nine consecutive popes.
It’s the birthday of poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning (books by this author), born in Durham, England (1806). A young poet, Robert Browning, read her poems and sent her an admiring letter. Eventually, he came to court her, and in 1846, when she was 40 and he was 34, they married — in secret and against her father’s wishes — and ran away to Italy. Over the next few years, Barrett Browning wrote her most famous volume of poetry, Sonnets from the Portuguese (1850), which included the lines: “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”