Saturday

May 14, 2011

First sown

by Marge Piercy

Peas are the first thing we plant
always. We lie full length
on the cold black earth and poke
holes in it for the wrinkled
old men of the seeds.

Nothing will happen for weeks.
Rain will soak them, a white
tablecloth of snow will cover
them and be whisked off.
The moon will sing to them:

open, loosen, let the pale
shoots break out. No,
they are pebbles, they sit
in the earth like false teeth.
They ignore the sweet sun.

Then one unlikely day
the soil cracks along miniature
faults and soon baby leaves
stick out their double heads
and we know we shall have peas.

"First sown" by Marge Piercy, from The Hunger Moon: New & Selected Poems, 1980-2010. © Alfred A. Knopf, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of nature writer Hal Borland (books by this author), born in Sterling, Nebraska (1900). He wrote that he grew up "in those years when the Old West was passing and the New West was emerging. It was a time when we still heard echoes and already saw shadows, on moonlit nights when the coyotes yapped on the hilltops, and on hot summer afternoons when mirages shimmered, dust devils spun across the flats, and towering cumulus clouds sailed like galleons across the vast blueness of the sky. Echoes of remembrance of what men once did there, and visions of what they would do together."

Hal's grandfather was a blacksmith, and his father a newspaperman. Hal followed in his father's footsteps and moved all over the country working for local papers — he started out at his father's paper in Flagler, Colorado, a town of 750 people, and he ended up at The New York Times in 1937. One day, he submitted a piece about the English oak tree to the editorial page, and it was accepted. After that, his nature editorials were a staple in the Times. He published one every week, and by the time he died in 1978 he had written 1,750 nature editorials — the last of them published the day before his death. Borland kept a New Yorker cartoon on his office wall showing a man brandishing a newspaper and shouting: "Here's another of those crackpot editorials about the voices of frogs shattering the autumn stillness!"

Borland published quite a few books, too, including When the Legends Die (1963) and Sundial of the Seasons (1964).

He said, "I came to know that a frontier is never a place; it is a time and a way of life. I came to know that frontiers pass, but they endure in their people."

And, "You can't be suspicious of a tree, accuse a bird or squirrel of subversion or challenge the ideology of a violet."

It was on this day in 1804 that Lewis and Clark departed on their journey. Even though this was the official start date of the trip, it had taken years of preparation.

Thomas Jefferson had been trying to send explorers to the American West for years. Back in 1785, when he was the Ambassador to France, Jefferson met a man named Ledyard who had been born in Connecticut, wandered all over the East Coast, sailed with Captain Cook in the South Pacific, and ended up in Paris. Jefferson wanted to send Ledyard to explore out West, and they worked out an intricate plan for him to get to the West Coast via Russia. But the trip was a disaster — Ledyard walked 1,200 miles through Scandinavia and the Artic Circle, and managed to travel through most of Russia before an angry Catherine the Great had him captured and deported, so he took off for Africa, where he soon died. A few years later, in 1793, Jefferson was secretary of state, and he decided to try again. He organized an expedition under the charge of a French botanist and explorer named André Michaux, who wanted to travel from the Missouri River all the way to the Pacific. Eighteen-year-old Meriwether Lewis asked Thomas Jefferson to let him join Michaux's expedition, but Jefferson said no. Unfortunately, the new French Minister to America, Edmond-Charles Genet, was scheming to increase hostilities between America and Spain, and Michaux ended up involved in the plot, and the expedition fell apart.

The third time around, Jefferson planned even more carefully. He had now known Meriwether Lewis for years, and Lewis was his trusted private secretary, so Jefferson suggested that Lewis lead the trip. In January of 1803, Jefferson sent a secret letter to Congress to ask if they would fund an expedition — at a cost of $2,500. They agreed, and Jefferson sent Lewis to learn the skills he would need from the best teachers — he studied surveying and mapmaking, botany, mathematics, anatomy, fossils, and medicine, each with an esteemed scholar. For his co-leader, Lewis chose William Clark, his former commanding officer in the army.

Lewis and Clark spent the winter before they departed near St. Louis at Camp Dubois, on the Mississippi River. They gathered supplies, recruited more people, and in the final days, packed the boats. They had a long supply list, which included 25 hatchets, 10.5 pounds of fishing hooks and fishing lines, 12 pounds of soap, three bushels of salt, 45 flannel shirts, 15 pairs of wool overalls, 176 pounds of gunpowder, 130 rolls of tobacco and 4,600 sewing needles (the tobacco and needles were gifts for Native people they would encounter), a microscope, a telescope, two sextants, 15 .54-caliber rifles, and 50 dozen Dr. Rush's patented "Rush's Thunderclapper" pills — a laxative whose two main ingredients were mercury and jalapeños. They fit all this and much more into three boats: one was a 55-foot Keelboat, a riverboat that could be sailed, rowed, or poled; and two were pirogues, smaller flat-bottomed boats that were similar to big canoes, one painted red and one white. On this day in 1804, the "Corps of Discovery" started up the Missouri River.

It's the birthday of jazz musician Sidney Bechet, born in New Orleans (1897). He was a clarinetist, a saxophonist, and a composer.

Philip Larkin wrote the poem "For Sidney Bechet":
That note you hold, narrowing and rising, shakes
Like New Orleans reflected on the water,
And in all ears appropriate falsehood wakes,

Building for some a legendary Quarter
Of balconies, flower-baskets and quadrilles,
Everyone making love and going shares--

Oh, play that thing! Mute glorious Storyvilles
Others may license, grouping around their chairs
Sporting-house girls like circus tigers (priced

Far above rubies) to pretend their fads,
While scholars manqués nod around unnoticed
Wrapped up in personnels like old plaids.

On me your voice falls as they say love should,
Like an enormous yes. My Crescent City
Is where your speech alone is understood,

And greeted as the natural noise of good,
Scattering long-haired grief and scored pity.

From the archives:

It was on this day in 1796 that the doctor Edward Jenner inoculated an eight-year-old boy with a vaccine for smallpox, the first safe vaccine ever developed.

Jenner was a country doctor and surgeon in the small town of Berkley, England, where he had lived for most of his life. The only time he'd ever been away from Berkley was when he studied for a few years at a hospital in London. It was there that he learned the basics of the scientific method, experimentation, and careful observation. The job of a country doctor involved a fairly rudimentary treatment of injuries and illness, but Jenner thought he might be able to put the scientific method to some good use.

The most devastating disease in the world at the time was smallpox, a disease that caused boils to break out all over the body. It killed about one in every four adults who caught it, and one in every three children, and it was so contagious that most human beings in populous areas caught it at some point in their lives. During the 18th century alone, it killed about 60 million people

In the mid-1700s, British doctors had imported a procedure from Asia in which healthy people were deliberately infected with smallpox through the skin, which brought on a milder form of the disease and then immunity. The procedure was called "inoculation," after the horticultural term. Inoculation wasn't practical, because inoculated patients could pass on the disease to others while they were showing symptoms, and some inoculated patients developed the more severe form of the disease and died.

Jenner wanted to develop a smallpox inoculation that wouldn't harm anyone. He worked in a place with a lot of dairy farmers, and there was a rumor that milkmaids almost never caught smallpox. Jenner realized that the milkmaids had all suffered from disease called cowpox, which they'd caught from the udders of cows. Jenner had a hunch that the infection of cowpox somehow helped the milkmaids develop immunity to smallpox.

Jenner decided to take some of the fluid from a cowpox sore and inject in into a healthy patient. There were no laws governing medical experimentation on human subjects at the time, but Jenner still had some reservations about trying his ideas out on a person. He mulled it over for years, and then finally decided to go ahead. On this day in 1796, he gathered some cowpox material from an infected milkmaid's hand and injected it into the arm of an eight-year-old boy named James Phipps.

The boy developed a slight headache, and lost his appetite, but that was all. Six weeks later, Jenner inoculated the boy with smallpox, and the boy showed no symptoms. He had developed immunity from the cowpox.

Jenner submitted a paper about his new procedure to the prestigious Royal Society of London, but it was rejected. The president of the Society told Jenner that it was a mistake to risk his reputation by publishing something so controversial.

So Jenner published his ideas at his own expense in a 75-page book, which came out in 1798. The book was a sensation. The novelist Jane Austen noted in one of her letters that she'd been at a dinner party and everyone was talking about the "Jenner pamphlet." The procedure eventually caught on, and it was called a "vaccine" after the Latin word for cow. It wasn't perfect at first, because of poor sanitation and dirty needles, but it was the first time anyone had successfully prevented the infection of any contagious disease.

What made it so remarkable was that Jenner accomplished this before the causes of disease were even understood. It would be decades before anyone even knew about the existence of germs.

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

 









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