Jan. 11, 2002


by David Wagoner

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Poem: "Lost," by David Wagoner from Collected Poems 1956-1976 (Indiana University Press).


Stand still. The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
The forest breathes. Listen. It answers,
I have made this place around you.
If you leave it, you may come back again, saying Here.
No two trees are the same to Raven.
No two branches are the same to Wren.
If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you,
You are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows
Where you are. You must let it find you.

It's the birthday of novelist Alan Paton, born in Pietermaritzburg, South Africa (1903). He was running a government reform school for young black boys when he wrote his first and most famous novel, Cry, the Beloved Country (1949). The success of it allowed Paton to resign from his government post and devote himself to writing. His second novel was Too Late the Phalarope (1953). Alan Paton, who said: "I could have made better use of my life, but I did try hard to do one thing. That was to persuade white South Africa to share its power, for reasons of justice and survival."

It's the birthday of American philosopher and psychologist William James, born in New York City (1842). During his long tenure on the faculty at Harvard, he became one of the founders of the philosophical school known as Pragmatism. He explained Pragmatism by saying: "The ultimate test for us of what a truth means is the conduct it dictates or inspires." Truth was not an abstract idea; it could be judged only by practical, concrete results. So, in his book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), he argued that the truth of a religious belief could only be determined by the emotional satisfaction it provided. James coined the term "stream of consciousness" to describe the fluid and shifting state of ideas in the human mind. He was the older brother of the novelist Henry James.

It's the birthday of the founder of Cornell University, Ezra Cornell, born in Westchester Landing, New York (1807). He grew rich as the business partner of Samuel F. B. Morse, the inventor of the telegraph. In 1868 he established Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, with an initial endowment of $3 million.

On this date in 1770, Benjamin Franklin introduced rhubarb to America. He was representing the American colonies as an ambassador in London, and sent a crate of rhubarb to his friend John Bartram. The plant, native to central Asia, had been introduced in Europe by traders; the rhubarb which Franklin sent to America had come to London from Siberia. Rhubarb first appeared in American seed catalogues in 1829, and soon became a popular ingredient in pies. John Bartram was also responsible for introducing kohlrabi and poinsettias to America.

It's the birthday of the American Founding Father Alexander Hamilton (1755). He was born in the British West Indies, but moved to New York City when he was 17. He became a vocal advocate for a strong centralized government, wrote more than half of the Federalist Papers, and became the leader of the Federalist Party. During Washington's Presidency, Hamilton served as the nation's first Secretary of the Treasury (1789-1795).

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