Saturday

Apr. 26, 2014

Prayer for a Field Mouse

by Pat Riviere-Seel

Bless the gray mouse
that found her way
into the recycle bin.
Bless her tiny body,
no bigger than my thumb,
huddled and numb
against the hard side.
Bless her bright eye,
a frightened gleaming
that opened to me
and the nest she made
from shredded paper,
all I could offer.
Bless her last hours
alone under the lamp
with food and water near.
Bless this brief life
I might have ended
had she stayed hidden
inside the insulation.
Bless her body returned
to earth, no more
or less than any creature.

"Prayer for a Field Mouse" by Pat Riviere-Seel from Nothing Below but Air. © Main Street Rag, 2014. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1986 that the Chernobyl Disaster, the worst nuclear power plant accident in history, occurred in Ukraine. During a systems test, the plant experienced a series of power surges, which led to an explosion in the core of one of its reactors, and a fire that burned for 10 days. Radioactive material 400 times greater than the amount released at Hiroshima shot into the atmosphere and blanketed the surrounding countryside. The public was not informed of the disaster until three days later, and only then because the radiation had traveled almost 700 miles to Sweden, triggering alarms at a nuclear power plant there. The Soviet government was forced to admit that a disaster had occurred. The nearby city of Pripyat was evacuated. The residents, believing that the evacuation would only last three days, left all their personal belongings behind, and most of them have never returned, although some elderly Ukrainians have defied the Exclusion Zone to return to their homes in spite of the high radiation levels.

On this day in 1607, a group of about a hundred English settlers arrived at the Chesapeake Bay. They made landfall at a cape they named Cape Henry, after the Prince of Wales, and the fleet's chaplain, Robert Hunt, said a prayer and placed a cross at the site of their landing. The fleet was made up of three ships, 39 crew members, and 103 passengers — all men and boys; the women wouldn't come along until a year and a half later. The expedition was driven by entrepreneurial motives: the Virginia Company of London hoped to reap the bounty of the New World.

Upon arrival, Captain Christopher Newport opened the sealed orders from the Virginia Company, only to find that Captain John Smith, a man who had been charged with mutiny on the voyage and who was scheduled to be hanged, had been named to the Governing Council. The orders also directed the settlers to choose an inland site for their colony, so the men got back on their ships and began exploring the bay, eventually making their way up the James River. A couple of weeks later, they landed on an island that seemed like a reasonable and easily defendable location. They unloaded the ships and broke ground on their new settlement, which they named Jamestown in honor of their king, James I.

It's the birthday of the man who said, "Philosophy is like trying to open a safe with a combination lock: each little adjustment of the dials seems to achieve nothing, only when everything is in place does the door open": Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating."

Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote: "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for." And, "Uttering a word is like striking a note on the keyboard of the imagination."

And it's the birthday of landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, born in Hartford, Connecticut, in 1822. Even though he studied such diverse subjects as chemistry, engineering, and agriculture, he wasn't big on formal education, preferring instead to wander through nature. He believed that exposure to forests, meadows, and other green spaces was therapeutic, and was something that even city dwellers needed. This belief was solidified as he traveled the world in his twenties. He and some friends took a six-month walking tour of Britain and Europe, where he saw many parks and formal gardens, and also took an interest in the class system that he observed there. The trip helped form the philosophy that informed his life's work: that people of all walks of life should have access to a common green space. It was a radical idea for the mid-19th century. Olmsted believed that parks would give city dwellers a sense of tranquility. He said, "It is one great purpose of the Park to supply to the hundreds of thousands of tired workers, who have no opportunity to spend their summers in the country, a specimen of God's handiwork that shall be to them, inexpensively, what a month or two in the White Mountains or the Adirondacks is, at great cost, to those in easier circumstances."

In 1853, the city of New York set aside a 700-acre plot of land for the purpose of developing a public green space similar to London's Hyde Park or Paris's Bois de Boulogne. The land was mainly in use as a home for squatters until 1857, when a design contest to expand and improve the park was announced. Olmsted partnered with British designer Calvert Vaux, and together they came up with a proposal they called the "Greensward Plan." Their plan won the contest, and construction began on the park in 1858.

Olmsted and his firm were involved in the design of several other parks and green spaces across the country, including Brooklyn's Prospect Park; the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina; and the campuses of Stanford, Berkeley, and the University of Chicago. He designed the Emerald Necklace, a park system for the City of Boston. He also worked on the landscape that surrounds the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C.

Though Olmsted is most famous for landscape architecture, that's only one of his accomplishments. He worked as a journalist and wrote several books on various subjects, including two on slavery and Southern society. He was a managing editor of Putnam's Magazine and was also a partner in the publishing firm of Dix and Edwards. He drained the saltwater and sewage from Boston's Back Bay and created the Fenway. He managed a gold-mining estate in California. He was the administrative head of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, which was the forerunner to the American Red Cross and helped meet the needs of Union soldiers during the Civil War. He was a leader in the conservation movement, helping to preserve the Yosemite Valley and Niagara Falls.

His friend and colleague Daniel Burnham once said of Olmsted: "An artist, he paints with lakes and wooded slopes; with lawns and banks and forest covered hills; with mountain sides and ocean views."

In 1895, Olmsted suffered a mental breakdown. He lived out the final years of his life in the McLean Hospital in Waverly, Massachusetts.

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