Sep. 6, 2013

Green Canoe

by Jeffrey Harrison

I don't often get the chance any longer
to go out alone in the green canoe
and, lying in the bottom of the boat,
just drift where the breeze takes me,
down to the other end of the lake
or into some cove without my knowing
because I can't see anything over
the gunwales but sky as I lie there,
feeling the ribs of the boat as my own,
this floating pod with a body inside it ...

also a mind, that drifts among clouds
and the sounds that carry over water—
a flutter of birdsong, a screen door
slamming shut—as well as the usual stuff
that clutters it, but slowed down, opened up,
like the fluff of milkweed tugged
from its husk and floating over the lake,
to be mistaken for mayflies at dusk
by feeding trout, or be carried away
to a place where the seeds might sprout.

"Green Canoe" by Jeffrey Harrison, from Feeding the Fire. © Sarabande Books, 2001. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Using the Old Style calendar, it was on this day in 1620 that the Mayflower sailed from Plymouth, England, bound for the New World. The passengers called themselves Separatists or Saints, but today we call them Pilgrims. They had come to believe that the only way to practice their religion freely would be to separate themselves from the Church of England. They moved at first to a village near Amsterdam, where the government was more religiously tolerant, but eventually decided to travel to the New World to start a society from scratch.

They originally commissioned two boats for the journey: the Speedwell and the Mayflower. But when they set out, the Speedwell began to leak. They returned to England and tried to repair the Speedwell, but it was not fit for travel. So on this day in 1620, they set sail in the Mayflower, leaving the Speedwell behind.

Having wasted time trying to repair the Speedwell, they had to start their journey later in the summer, when the winds were less favorable. Because of strong crosscurrents, the Mayflower averaged only two miles an hour.

There are no records left as to the size and shape of the Mayflower, but historians believe it was about 90 feet long. In addition to the 102 passengers, it carried food for the journey as well as stores for the winter, livestock, and tools needed to start the new colony. The passengers of the Mayflower had to make themselves comfortable in the large open cargo area called the orlop. One nice thing about the Mayflower was that it smelled sweet, because it had previously been used to transport wine.

Some of the richer families brought partitions for their areas on the boat, but most passengers on the Mayflower had no privacy. There were no sanitary facilities, and there was little fresh water for washing. Many of the passengers became seasick. They ate cold food — cheese and fish or salted beef.

The Mayflower's destination was supposed to be near the mouth of the Hudson River, but it had sailed off course and landed near Cape Cod. The Pilgrims spent the next month searching for a place to settle. On December 21, just over three months after they left England, the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, their new home.

Only half the colonists and crew survived that first winter. But today, an estimated 35 million people are direct descendants of those Mayflower Pilgrims.

It was on this day in 1522 that one of the five ships that set out with Ferdinand Magellan's expedition returned to Spain, having successfully circumnavigated the globe. Magellan himself had been dead for more than a year. He had landed on an island in the Philippines and converted the local tribe to Christianity, and he had agreed to stay and help them fight an enemy tribe on a nearby island, but he was shot by a poisoned arrow. The remaining two ships had continued on without him, but one tried to sail back across the Pacific, and never made it. The final ship, the Vittoria, sailed around Africa and made it to Spain on this day in 1522, with just 18 of the original 237 men who had set sail three years earlier.

On this day in 1847, Henry David Thoreau (books by this author) left Walden Pond and moved back to his father's house in Concord, Massachusetts. Thoreau had lived in the hut for two years, leading a simple life of gardening and contemplation, subsisting on a daily budget of 27-1/2 cents. When he moved back to Concord, he took with him the first draft of his book A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers, strung together from 10 years of journal entries.

It's the birthday of writer Alice Sebold (books by this author), born in Madison, Wisconsin (1963). She grew up near Philadelphia — and she says that she was the "weird" one in an otherwise normal, suburban, middle-class family. Her older sister was smart and talented, but Alice fell between the cracks. She was turned down by the University of Pennsylvania even though her father was a professor there.

She ended up at Syracuse, and during her first semester of college, she was attacked and raped near campus. Sebold tried to piece her life back together — she helped bring her rapist to trial and got him convicted with a maximum sentence; and she went back to college, where she was mentored by Raymond Carver and Tess Gallagher in the creative writing program. But after graduation, she floated around all over the country, did too many drugs, worked a series of jobs, and made halfhearted attempts to write but never finished anything. When she was in her 30s, she got a job as the caretaker of an arts colony in California. It was there, in a cinderblock house in the woods with no electricity, that she finally started to write seriously. She applied to graduate school and wrote a memoir, Lucky (1999).

Her breakthrough was her first novel, The Lovely Bones (2002), the story of a 14-year-old girl who is raped and murdered and narrates the whole novel from heaven while looking down on her family and murderer. It remained on the New York Times best-seller list for more than a year.

Sebold has said in interviews that she was as surprised by the book's success as anyone. She said, "It's very weird to succeed at thirty-nine years old and realize that in the midst of your failure, you were slowly building the life that you wanted anyway."

Her most recent novel is The Almost Moon (2007).

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