Friday

Jan. 11, 2013

Snow

by Kenneth Rexroth

Low clouds hang on the mountain.
The forest is filled with fog.
A short distance away the
Giant trees recede and grow
Dim. Two hundred paces and
They are invisible. All
Day the fog curdles and drifts.
The cries of the birds are loud.
They sound frightened and cold. Hour
By hour it grows colder.
Just before sunset the clouds
Drop down the mountainside. Long
Shreds and tatters of fog flow
Swiftly away between the
Trees. Now the valley below
Is filled with clouds like clotted
Cream and over them the sun
Sets, yellow in a sky full
Of purple feathers. After dark
A wind rises and breaks branches
From the trees and howls in the
Treetops and then suddenly
Is still. Late at night I wake
And look out of the tent. The
Clouds are rushing across the
Sky and through them is tumbling
The thin waning moon. Later
All is quiet except for
A faint whispering. I look
Out. Great flakes of wet snow are
Falling. Snowflakes are falling
Into the dark flames of the
Dying fire. In the morning the
Pine boughs are sagging with snow,
And the dogwood blossoms are
Frozen, and the tender young
Purple and citron oak leaves.

"Snow" by Kenneth Rexroth, from The Complete Poems of Kenneth Rexroth. © Copper Canyon Press, 2003. Reprinted with the permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the psychologist and philosopher William James (books by this author), born in New York City (1842). He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James and one of the most prominent thinkers of his era. He was a man who started out studying medicine, went on to become one of the founders of modern psychology, and finished his life as a prominent philosopher.

He was a professor of physiology at Harvard when he was hired to write a textbook about the new field of psychology, which was challenging the idea that the body and the mind were separate. The book was called The Principles of Psychology (1890). It was used as a textbook in college classrooms, but it was also translated into a dozen different languages, and people read it all over the world.

One of the ideas he developed in the book was a theory of the human mind that he called "a stream of consciousness." Before him, the common view was that a person's thoughts have a clear beginning and end, and that the thinker is in control of his or her thoughts. But William James wrote: "Consciousness [...] does not appear to itself chopped up in bits. Such words as 'chain' or 'train' do not describe it fitly as it presents itself in the first instance. It is nothing jointed; it flows."

James's ideas about consciousness were especially influential on writers, and novelists from James Joyce to William Faulkner began to portray streams of consciousness in their work, through language, letting characters think at length and at random on the page. Consciousness itself became one of the most important subjects of modern literature.

He also helped invent the technique of automatic writing, in which a person writes as quickly as possible whatever comes into one's head. He encouraged audiences to take the practice up as a form of self-analysis, and one person who took his advice was a student named Gertrude Stein, who went on to use it as the basis of her writing style.

William James wrote: "Common sense and a sense of humor are the same thing, moving at different speeds. A sense of humor is just common sense, dancing."

It's the birthday of the writer and environmentalist Aldo Leopold (books by this author), born on this day in 1887 in Burlington, Iowa. Aldo grew up in a big family, lived on a 300-acre estate with a lot of his relatives. The whole family spoke German together and worked in the gardens and orchards on their property, where he learned about plants and soil.

After he graduated from Yale, he went to work for the U.S. Forest Service, which had been created just a few years earlier by Theodore Roosevelt. He worked on surveying and drawing maps. After 19 years in the Forest Service, he became the Professor of Game Management at the University of Wisconsin. He bought a piece of land on the Wisconsin River, and there he wrote many of the essays for which he is now famous.

He was collecting his essays into a book. But at the age of 60, helping to fight a grass fire, he suddenly lay down and died of a heart attack. His children put the book together, and in 1949, A Sand County Almanac was published. It's still considered one of the most important texts of the conservation movement.

Aldo Leopold said, "There can be no doubt that a society rooted in the soil is more stable than one rooted in pavements."

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton (books by this author), born in the province of Natal, South Africa (1903). He's best known for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which he wrote after working for 25 years as a public servant and educator.

He was the son of English settlers in South Africa. After graduating from college, he took a job as a teacher in a Zulu school. He had long wanted to be a writer, and wrote two failed novels about his experiences in the Zulu community before deciding that he needed to put writing on hold and get involved in the fight against apartheid.

He went to Johannesburg and got a job transforming a reformatory from a prison into an educational institution. He became known among the residents of the reformatory as the man who pulled out the barbed wire and planted geraniums. He became one of the foremost authorities on penal systems in South Africa, and he began giving talks on the subject. After World War II, he decided to go on a world tour of penal institutions, to learn as much as he could about improving those in his own country.

It was only after he'd left South Africa that he realized he could no longer put off writing fiction. One evening in Norway, sitting in front of a cathedral at twilight, he found himself longing for home, and when he got back to his hotel room he started writing his novel Cry, the Beloved Country, about a Zulu pastor in search of his son, who has murdered a white man. He finished the novel in three months, writing in a series of hotel rooms. When it was published in 1948, it became an international best-seller. It's the best-selling novel in South African history and still sells about 100,000 copies a year.

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

 









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