Saturday

May 28, 2011

Air

by Ruth Stone

Through the open window, a confusion
of gasoline fumes, lilacs, the green esters of grass.
Edward Waite rides the lawn mower.
Each summer his voice is more stifled. His emphysema is worse.
"Three packs a day," he says, still proud of the fact.
Before he got sick, he drove semis across the country.
Every two weeks he drives his small truck up the mountain.
He mows in long rows fitting swath to cut swath, overlapping the width.
To please me he saves the wild paintbrush along the edge.
Stripped to the waist, I see he has hung his blue shirt
on my clothesline to dry out the sweat.
The shirt, with its arms upraised, filled with the body of air,
is deeply inhaling, exhaling its doppelgänger breath.

"Air" by Ruth Stone, from In the Next Galaxy. © Copper Canyon Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1830, President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act into law. It was the first legislation to diverge from the previous official U.S. policy to respect Native Americans' legal and political rights. Jackson announced his policy by saying, "It gives me pleasure to announce to Congress that the benevolent policy of the Government, steadily pursued for nearly thirty years, in relation to the removal of the Indians beyond the white settlements is approaching to a happy consummation." He also said, "Toward the aborigines of the country no one can indulge a more friendly feeling than myself, or would go further in attempting to reclaim them from their wandering habits and make them a happy, prosperous people."

The policy primarily affected five tribes: the Cherokee, Choctaw, Creek, Chickasaw, and Seminole nations of the southeastern United States. In 1823, the Supreme Court ruled that the white settlers' "right of discovery" superseded the Indians' "right of occupancy." The five nations resisted nonviolently at first, and tried to assimilate into Anglo-American practices of education, large-scale farming, and slave-holding, but to no avail, and about 100,000 Indians were forcibly marched thousands of miles — sometimes in manacles — to lands west of the Mississippi, most of which were deemed undesirable by white settlers. As many as 25 percent died en route.

The Cherokee nation battled the Removal Act in courts of law, and the Seminoles of Florida battled it literally; Chief Osceola said: "You have guns, and so have we. You have powder and lead, and so have we. You have men, and so have we. Your men will fight and so will ours, till the last drop of the Seminole's blood has moistened the dust of his hunting ground."

On this day in 1892, John Muir (books by this author) founded the Sierra Club in San Francisco at the prompting of journalist Robert Underwood Johnson, and served as its first president until his death in 1914. One of the original aims of the Sierra Club was to encourage urbanites to leave the cities and experience nature; as he later wrote in Our National Parks (1901), "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountain is going home; that wildness is necessity; that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life." He hoped that once their awareness was raised, they would pressure their local, state, and federal governments to preserve the wilderness. "It took more than three thousand years to make some of the trees in these Western woods," he wrote, "trees that are still standing in perfect strength and beauty, waving and singing in the mighty forests of the Sierra. Through all the wonderful, eventful centuries since Christ's time — and long before that — God has cared for these trees, saved them from drought, disease, avalanches, and a thousand straining, leveling tempests and floods; but he cannot save them from fools, — only Uncle Sam can do that."

What Muir did with words, Ansel Adams did with photographs; as Wallace Stegner said, "A place is not fully a place until it has had its poet. Yosemite and the Sierra Nevada have had two great poets, Muir and Adams." Adams first visited Yosemite in 1916, when he was 14, two years after Muir's death. He served on the Sierra Club's board of directors from 1934 to 1971, and his photographs of Yosemite played a role, much as Muir's words had, in ensuring its preservation.

Though the Sierra Club originally concerned itself mainly with California and the West, it opened an office in Washington, D.C., in 1963, and began conservation efforts nationally and internationally. Its mission: "To explore, enjoy, and protect the wild places of the earth; To practice and promote the responsible use of the earth's ecosystems and resources; To educate and enlist humanity to protect and restore the quality of the natural and human environment; and to use all lawful means to carry out these objectives."

It's the birthday of author Ian Fleming (books by this author), born in London in 1908. His family enjoyed wealth and social standing; his father, Valentine, was a Member of Parliament, and when he died in World War I, Winston Churchill wrote his obituary. All doors were open to young Ian, and he worked as a foreign journalist, a banker, a stockbroker, a high-ranking officer and assistant to the director of British naval intelligence, and foreign manager of London's Sunday Times before he took up the career, and the character, that would make him famous. Casino Royale (1953) was the first of his many "James Bond" novels, which featured the playboy spy — code name "007" — and a host of fast cars, nifty gadgets, and hot women.

Fleming also wrote a children's book, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1964). In it, his character Commander Pott gave some advice that Bond might have heartily endorsed: "Never say 'no' to adventures. Always say 'yes,' otherwise you'll lead a very dull life."

Today marks the birth in 1934 of the Dionne Quintuplets: Annette, Emilie, Yvonne, Cecile, and Marie, born in the village of Corbeil in northern Ontario, Canada. They were the result of a single embryo that split five times (there was a sixth fetus that had been miscarried), so they were genetically identical, and they were the first recorded set of quintuplets to survive more than a few days. Their parents were poor, and had nine other children, and in 1935, after their father signed an agreement to exhibit the girls at the Chicago World's Fair, the government removed them from their parents' custody to keep them from being exploited for monetary gain. They were placed in a specially built hospital and given over to the care of Dr. Allan Dafoe, who had delivered them. The hospital, which came to be known as "Quintland," was a tourist attraction; people would come from miles around to watch the girls through a one-way screen, and at appointed times throughout the day, nurses would step out onto a balcony and hold the girls up, one by one, their names on cardboard signs.

Their parents successfully regained custody of the quintuplets in 1943, but it was hardly a happy ending. In their autobiography, We Were Five (1963), they wrote, "Who could ever count the times we heard, 'We were better off before you were born, and we'd be better off without you now'?" In a later book, they allege that their father sexually abused them for years, taking them in car rides one by one and touching them sexually. When they asked a school chaplain for help, he told them to continue to love and respect their parents and "wear a thick coat when [they] went for car rides."

The gift shop at Quintland made millions for the province of Ontario, sometimes even saving it from bankruptcy. And though their image was used to sell products from dolls to oatmeal to war bonds, only 800,000 of the nearly half-billion dollars they generated made it into their trust fund. Emilie, who was epileptic, died of a seizure in 1954, and Marie died of a stroke in 1970. The three remaining sisters were forced to live on a combined income of $746 a month; when they petitioned the government for assistance, the first offer they received was for $2,000 a month. The public was outraged, and the government eventually gave them a $4 million settlement.

On this day in 1937, President Franklin D. Roosevelt officially opened the Golden Gate Bridge. The celebration had begun on May 27, when foot traffic and roller skaters were first allowed to cross the bridge. The next day, Roosevelt pushed a button in Washington, D.C., that signaled the bridge's opening to vehicle traffic. The parties and celebrations lasted a week.

The overall design of the bridge was proposed by engineer and erstwhile poet Joseph Strauss, although he had little experience with suspension bridges and required the help of a team of experts to carry out the design. Charles Alton Ellis was the senior engineer, and did most of the work, but received none of the credit.

Residential architect Irving Morrow contributed the aesthetics: the design of the towers, the lighting scheme, and various Art Deco touches. The bridge's distinctive reddish-orange hue is known as "International Orange," and though the original paint job was meant to be temporary — the color of the red lead sealant laid down as a first coat — it proved so popular that it has stayed that color ever since.

Joseph Strauss wrote a poem commemorating the bridge's opening:
The Mighty Task is Done

At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun
The Bridge looms mountain high;
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.

On its broad decks in rightful pride,
The world in swift parade shall ride,
Throughout all time to be;
Beneath, fleet ships from every port,
Vast landlocked bay, historic fort,
And dwarfing all — the sea.

To north, the Redwood Empire's gates;
To south, a happy playground waits,
in Rapturous appeal;
Here nature, free since time began,
Yields to the restless moods of man,
Accepts his bonds of steel.

Launched midst a thousand hopes and fears,
Damned by a thousand hostile sneers,
Yet ne'er its course was stayed,
But ask of those who met the foe
Who stood alone when faith was low,
Ask them the price they paid.

Ask of the steel, each strut and wire,
Ask of the searching, purging fire,
That marked their natal hour;
Ask of the mind, the hand, the heart,
Ask of each single, stalwart part,
What gave it force and power.

An Honored cause and nobly fought
And that which they so bravely wrought,
Now glorifies their deed,
No selfish urge shall stain its life,
Nor envy, greed, intrigue, nor strife,
Nor false, ignoble creed.

High overhead its lights shall gleam,
Far, far below life's restless stream,
Unceasingly shall flow;
For this was spun its lithe fine form,
To fear not war, nor time, nor storm,
For Fate had meant it so.

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

 









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