Dec. 4, 2011

Men Untrained to Comfort

by Wendell Berry

Jason Needly found his father, old Ab, at work
at the age of eighty in the topmost
tier of the barn. "Come down!" Jason called.
"You got no business up there at your age."
And his father descended, not by a ladder,
there being none, but by inserting his fingers
into the cracks between the boards and climbing
down the wall.

                           And when he was young
and some account and strong and knew
nothing of weariness, old man Milt Wright,
back in the days they called him "Steady,"
carried the rastus plow on his shoulder
up the high hill to his tobacco patch, so
when they got there his mule would be fresh,
unsweated, and ready to go.

                                                       Early Rowanberry,
for another, bought a steel-beam breaking plow
at the store in Port William and shouldered it
before the hardly-believing watchers, and carried it
the mile and a half home, down through the woods
along Sand Ripple.

                                        "But the tiredest my daddy
ever got," his son, Art, told me one day
"was when he carried fifty rabbits and a big possum
in a sack on his back up onto the point yonder
and out the ridge to town to sell them at the store."

"But why," I asked, "didn't he hitch a team
to the wagon and haul them up there by the road?"

"Well," Art said, "we didn't have but two
horses in them days, and we spared them
every way we could. A many a time I've seen
my daddy or grandpa jump off the wagon or sled
and take the end of a singletree beside a horse."

"Men Untrained to Comfort" by Wendell Berry, from Leavings. © Counterpoint Press, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this date in 1674 that Father Jacques Marquette built a log cabin on the shore of Lake Michigan, near the mouth of the Chicago River. The French Jesuit had explored the area the year before, with explorer Louis Jolliet, and he returned with the intent of establishing a mission there. His journey had been going fairly smoothly, and hunting was good, but a snowstorm dumped a foot of snow overnight, and Marquette also suffered a recurrence of the dysentery that had plagued him on his previous journey. He and his companions built a crude cabin, intending to pass the winter there. It was an advantageous location; it was possible to move between the Great Lakes and the Chicago River (which eventually connected with the Illinois River, and thence to the Mississippi) by way of a short overland portage. For this reason, the Jesuits chose the site of Marquette's little cabin to build the Mission of the Guardian Angel in 1696. The mission was largely abandoned in 1720 after repeated Native American raids, but in the 1780s, a man of African descent named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable built a farm there. He was the first permanent resident of Chicago.

From Marquette's journal entry of December 4:

"We started well to reach Portage River, which was frozen half a foot thick. There was more snow there than anywhere else, and also more tracks of animals and turkeys. The navigation of the lake from one portage to the other is quite is fine, there being no traverse to make, and landing being quite feasible all along, providing you do not obstinately persist in traveling in the breakers and high winds. The land along the shore is good for nothing, except on the prairies. You meet eight or ten pretty fine rivers. Deer hunting is pretty good as you get away from the Pottawatomies."

On this date in 1872, the ghost ship Mary Celeste was found floating, unmanned and abandoned, in the Atlantic. She was an American brigantine merchant ship, and she'd been at sea for about a month. When she was found, she was fully stocked with six months' worth of food and supplies, she was completely seaworthy, and the weather was calm. She was flying no distress signal, and there were no signs of violence or mutiny, but all of her passengers and crew had vanished without a trace. The ship's lifeboat was gone, which seemed to indicate that they had abandoned ship, but their personal possessions and valuables were untouched, so they must have left in a hurry. Also missing were the ship's papers (with the exception of the logbook), her navigation equipment, and two pumps.

There are several theories about why the ship was abandoned. They run the gamut of plausibility and include sea monsters, alien abduction, tsunami, piracy, and mutiny. The most plausible scenario involves the Mary Celeste's cargo. She was carrying 1,700 barrels of raw alcohol, intended for sale in Italy. When she was eventually brought to port, it was discovered that nine of the barrels were empty. Many experts believe that the barrels leaked, causing a build-up of alcohol fumes that would have been easily ignited. Because alcohol burns at such a low temperature, even a large explosion could have left the ship and even the surrounding barrels undamaged; such an explosion would have spooked the captain and crew into abandoning ship. The lifeboat passengers probably drowned in bad weather, or died of starvation and thirst.

Today is the birthday of poet Rainer Maria Rilke (books by this author), born in Prague (1875). He was a delicate boy, born prematurely. The year before he was born, his mother had given birth to a girl who died after a week, and she wanted her son to fill that place. Rainer's given name was René, and his mother dressed him in dresses, braided his hair, and treated him like a girl. Later, he wrote, "I think my mother played with me as though I were a big doll." But his mother also encouraged him to read and write poetry, and made him copy out verses before he even knew how to read.

He made a career as a poet by seducing a series of rich noblewomen who would support him while he wrote his books. One princess let him live for a while in her Castle Duino near Trieste, a medieval castle with fortified walls and an ancient square tower. Rilke's room had a view of the gulf of Trieste, which he loved. In a letter from his room he wrote, "I am looking out into the empty sea-space, directly into the universe, you might say." It was during the winter of 1912, alone in the castle, that Rilke later said he heard the voice of an angel speaking to him about the meaning of life and death, and he started a poem that began with the lines, "And if I cried, who'd listen to me in those angelic / orders? Even if one of them suddenly held me / to his heart, I'd vanish in his overwhelming / presence. Because beauty's nothing but the start of terror we can hardly bear, / and we adore it because of the serene scorn / it could kill us with. Every angel's terrifying."

Rilke wrote two poems about angels in almost a single sitting, and he knew that he had begun his most important work, but then he got stuck. He eventually left the castle, the First World War broke out, and he struggled to write anything for years. Finally, in February of 1922, he managed to finish in a single month what he'd started a decade before. The result was a cycle of 10 long poems that he called The Duino Elegies, about the difference between angels and people, and the meaning of death, and his idea that human beings are put on earth in order to experience the beauty of ordinary things.

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