Monday Mar. 13, 2017

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The Presence

Something went crabwise
across the snow this morning.
Something went hard and slow
over our hayfield.
It could have been a raccoon
lugging a knapsack,
it could have been a porcupine
carrying a tennis racket,
it could have been something
supple as a red fox
dragging the squawk and spatter
of a crippled woodcock.
Ten knuckles underground
those bones are seeds now
pure as baby teeth
lined up in the burrow.

I cross on snowshoes
cunningly woven from
the skin and sinews of
something else that went before.

“The Presence” by Maxine Kumin from Selected Poems 1960-1990. © Norton, 1997. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this date in 2003, the journal Nature reported the discovery of 350,000-year-old fossilized human footprints in Italy. They are arguably the oldest known human footprints; an older set, dating back three and a half million years, was discovered in Tanzania in 1979, but they probably belonged to hominids not directly related to our species, Homo sapiens.

The Italian footprints reported in Nature are about eight inches long and four inches wide, and their makers were probably no taller than five feet.

Thousands of people reported mysterious lights over Arizona on this date in 1997.

It began around 8:00 p.m., when a man in Henderson, Nevada, saw a V-shaped object "the size of a 747," with six lights on its leading edge. The lights moved from northwest to southeast; over the course of the next hour, sightings were reported throughout Arizona, as far south as Tucson — a distance of nearly 400 miles. One cement truck driver reported that the lights hovered over Phoenix for more than two hours, and said: "I'll never be the same. Before this, if anybody had told me they saw a UFO, I would've said, 'Yeah and I believe in the Tooth Fairy.' Now I've got a whole new view and I may be just a dumb truck driver, but I've seen something that don't belong here."

It's the birthday of Janet Flanner (books by this author), born in Indianapolis, Indiana (1892). She moved to New York City in her 20s to become a writer, and became friends with Jane Grant. Grant's husband, Harold Ross, was an editor, and he was thinking of starting his own magazine. In 1922, Flanner took a trip to Paris, and decided to settle there, one of several American expatriates that included Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. She wrote letters home to Grant and her other friends. Harold Ross, who was just launching his new magazine, asked if she would write for The New Yorker. So she began her Letters from Paris column, which ran for 50 years, from 1925 to 1975. Through her column, Flanner introduced her American readership to such rising Parisian artists as Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, and Edith Piaf. Her style fit the magazine's aesthetic well; her prose was sophisticated, witty, and urbane.

She's best known for the Letters from Paris column, but she also provided commentary during World War II. She wrote about European politics and culture, published a piece about Hitler's rise to power in 1936, and covered the Nuremburg trials in 1945.

She once said that of all the work she did for the magazine, she was most proud of her 1936 piece on Hitler.

In her profile, titled "Führer," she wrote:

"Being self-taught, his mental processes are mysterious; he is missionary-minded; his thinking is emotional, his conclusions material. He has been studious with strange results: he says he regards liberalism as a form of tyranny, hatred and attack as part of man's civic virtues, and equality of men as immoral and against nature. Since he is a concentrated, introspective dogmatist, he is uninformed by exterior criticism. On the other hand, he is a natural and masterly advertiser, a phenomenal propagandist within his limits, the greatest mob orator in German annals, and one of the most inventive organizers in European history. He believes in intolerance as a pragmatic principle. He accepts violence as a detail of state, he says mercy is not his affair with men, yet he is kind to dumb animals. ... His moods change often, his opinions never. Since the age of twenty, they have been mainly anti-Semitic, anti-Communist, anti-suffrage, and Pan-German. He has a fine library of six thousand volumes, yet he never reads; books would do him no good — his mind is made up."

It’s the birthday of Uncle Sam. He made his debut on this day in 1852 as a cartoon in the New York Lantern, drawn by Frank Henry Bellew. The name “Uncle Sam” had been used to refer to the United States since about 1810, but this was the first time that someone thought to make him into a character and draw him in human form.

It’s the birthday of American astronomer Percival Lowell (books by this author), born in Boston, Massachusetts (1855). Percival Lowell studied mathematics and history at Harvard, and he went to work in the family’s textile conglomerate. He wasn’t happy in Boston, though; he spent a good deal of time traveling, especially in the Orient, and writing about his travels. In the 1890s, he became fascinated with Mars; astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli had discovered what appeared to be canals on the red planet. Lowell decided to devote his fortunes to studying Mars, believing that the canals offered proof of intelligent life, and so he built a private observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. Even though scientists remained skeptical, Lowell’s vision of intelligent life on Mars captivated the public and had a huge impact on the infant literary genre that became known as science fiction.

On this date in 1781, English astronomer Sir William Herschel discovered the planet Uranus. He wasn’t the first keen-eyed observer to spot the planet — John Flamsteed noted it in 1690 — but he was the first one to figure out that it was a planet and not a star. He could tell by how slowly it was moving that it must be very far from the Sun, farther even than Saturn, which was the farthest known planet. He offered to name the planet “Georgium Sidus,” after his patron King George III, but it was decided instead to stick with the Greco-Roman deity theme. The planet was named after Ouranos, the Greek god of the sky. Over the years, astronomers have discovered 27 moons orbiting the blue-green ice giant, and they’ve named the moons after characters from Shakespeare and Alexander Pope. Uranus’s axis is tilted so far that it appears to be lying on its side, and its rings circle the planet vertically.

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