May 22, 2010
That Mississippi chicken shack.
That initial-scarred tabletop,
that tiny little dance floor to the left of the band.
That kiosk at the mall selling caramels and kitsch.
That tollbooth with its white-plastic-gloved worker
handing you your change.
That phone booth with the receiver ripped out.
That dressing room in the fetish boutique,
those curtains and mirrors.
That funhouse, that horror, that soundtrack of screams.
That putti-filled heaven raining gilt from the ceiling.
That haven for truckers, that bottomless cup.
That biome. That wilderness preserve.
That landing strip with no runway lights
where you are aiming your plane,
imagining a voice in the tower,
imagining a tower.
It's the birthday of children's author and illustrator Arnold Lobel, (books by this author) born in Los Angeles, California (1933). He was sick as a kid, and he spent most of second grade home in bed, where he drew pictures of animals to keep himself busy and so he had something to show the other kids when he finally went back to school. He went on to write or illustrate more than 100 books, including the Frog and Toad books — Frog and Toad Are Friends (1970), Frog and Toad Together (1972), etc.
It's the birthday of the writer Peter Matthiessen, (books by this author) born on this day in New York City (1927). He grew up in a wealthy family in Connecticut, where he went to boarding school. His father had given up his architecture career to give talks and fund-raise for the Audubon Society and the Nature Conservancy, and they lived on a big piece of property in suburban Connecticut. Matthiessen was interested in nature from the time he was young, assembling a natural history museum in his house and exploring his family's property.
He went into the Navy, wrote sports articles for the Honolulu Advertiser while he was stationed at Pearl Harbor, then went on to Yale, where he studied English and zoology. A professor recruited him for the CIA. The CIA wanted him to find an excuse to be in Paris, and he thought most small literary magazines were too pretentious, so he co-founded The Paris Review as a cover for his CIA activities. And he wrote his first novel, Race Rock (1954), about four people in their late 20s who grew up together on the East Coast.
He didn't like the politics of the CIA, so he quit and returned to America to work as a commercial fisherman and the captain of a charter fishing boat. He wrote in the off-season, or when the weather was bad. The result was his second novel, Partisans (1955).
In 1956, he packed his car with a shotgun, a sleeping bag, and college textbooks about botany and zoology, and he headed off to visit every wildlife refuge in the country. The book that came out of three years of travel and research was Wildlife in America (1959). It got great reviews, and along with Rachel Carson's Silent Spring (1962), helped jumpstart the American environmental movement. Also, Wildlife in America sold so well that Matthiessen was able to finance more traveling. He went down a treacherous river in Peru looking for a fossil, and wrote The Cloud Forest (1961). He lived with a tribe in New Guinea and wrote Under the Mountain Wall (1962). He scuba-dived in a metal cage to see Great White Sharks off the Australian Coast, and wrote Blue Meridian (1971). And he kept going back for more — to the Arctic, to Eastern Africa, to the Caribbean.
In 1973, his second wife died of cancer, after they had been married for 10 years. She had practiced Zen and taught her husband some about it. So after her death, he went to the Himalayas to grieve, to learn more about Zen, and to search for the Himalayan blue sheep and also the elusive snow leopard. And he wrote The Snow Leopard (1978), which was a best-seller and won him the National Book Award.
Despite the huge success of his books about the natural world, Matthiessen has said that he regrets that his nonfiction work overshadowed his fiction, and he thinks of himself as a fiction writer first. He said about fiction: "It allows you to go deeper into the truth. You are not constrained by the facts, you can put anything down and you can take chances and try and find ways of articulating what people know to be true but present it in a fresh way."
During the 1990s, he wrote a trio of three novels about the Florida Everglades: Killing Mister Watson (1990), Lost Man's River (1998), and Bone by Bone (1999). They tell the story of the real-life plantation owner Edgar J. Watson, who killed countless people in his quest for land and resources, and who in turn was killed by his neighbors in 1910.
Peter Matthiessen said: "I like to hear and smell the countryside, the land my characters inhabit. I don't want these characters to step off the page, I want them to step out of the landscape."
Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®