May 4, 2004

Paying Attention

by Jo McDougall

TUESDAY, 4 MAY, 2004
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Poem: "Paying Attention," by Jo McDougall, from Satisfied with Havoc. © Autumn House Press. Reprinted with permission.

Paying Attention

Coming home to visit my parents' graves,
I enter the house where I was born.
My mother sits at a table, sewing,
her eyes a deepening blue.
My father comes in from the fields.
Until now I have never known
that intent young man,
that slender woman
who lean toward each other
and touch hands
and rise together to climb the stairs,
long vistas of the fields dissolving
as dusk puts down its roots.

Literary and Historical Notes:

It's the birthday of poet Thomas Kinsella, born in Dublin, Ireland (1928). He's considered one of the best contemporary Irish poets. His collections include Notes from the Land of the Dead (1972), One and Other Poems, and Blood and Family (1989). He has also translated the epic Irish poem The Tain (1969).

It's the birthday of novelist David Guterson, born in Seattle, Washington (1956). He worked for many years as a high school teacher on Bainbridge Island in Puget Sound, and his favorite book to teach was always Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1961). When he started doing research for his first novel, he decided he would use the same structure as To Kill A Mockingbird, interweaving the life stories of two different main characters. In 1994, his novel was published as Snow Falling on the Cedars, and it sold more than four million copies. It's about the murder trial of a Japanese-American in the decade after World War II. Guterson's second novel, East of the Mountains, was published in 1999.

It's the birthday of Hebrew writer Amos Oz, born in Amos Klausner in Jerusalem (1939). His uncle was killed by the Nazis, but his father managed to escape to Jerasulem in the late 1930s. His family spoke Yiddish, Russian, Polish, German, and English, but Amos was taught only Hebrew. As he grew up, he witnessed the founding of the Israeli nation. In 1948, he helped other schoolchildren fill sandbags to prepare for the siege of Jewish Jerusalem in the War of Independence. When they won the war, he saw hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees stream into Israel. He later said, "The Jerusalem of my childhood was a lunatic town flooded with conflicting dreams, a vague federation of communities, people, faiths, ideologies and hopes."

He left home when he was fourteen to work and study at a kibbutz, and he changed his last name to Oz, which means "strength" in Hebrew. He began writing poems, and in 1966 he came out with his first novel, Elsewhere Perhaps. Since then he's published many more novels, including My Michael (1968) and The Same Sea (2002). Many of his novels and essays have challenged traditional Zionism, and he's become a controversial figure in Israel.

It was on this day in 1626 that a Dutchman named Peter Minuit landed on Manhattan Island. Two days later he bought the island from the Algonquin Indians for the equivalent of twenty-four dollars. The first Europeans had arrived at Manhattan in the early sixteenth century, but no one had an interest in settling there until Henry Hudson came in 1609. He was working for the Dutch East India Company, trying to locate the Northwest Passage, and when he reached Manhattan he reported back to Holland that it might be a good place to set up a colony. In 1626, a Dutch engineer named Cryn Fredericks decided to start up a settlement at the southern tip of Manhattan, where the Financial District is today. He called the settlement New Amsterdam.

When the first Dutch arrived on the shores of Manhattan, the entire island would have been a quiet wilderness. There were tall oaks, chestnuts, walnuts, maples, cedars, and pines, right down to the edge of the water. There might have been a few columns of smoke rising up above the trees, from the fires of the Algonquin Indians, who used the island as a hunting and fishing ground. There were deer, beavers, otters, foxes, black bears, wolves, minks, weasels, and many more animals that provided the basis for the Dutch fur trade.

The geography of Manhattan made it perfect for commercial shipping. Its shoreline was irregular, with lots of little indentations and islands, and so it had a huge area of waterfront. It was accessible from the Atlantic Ocean, but it was also protected from storms by Sandy Hook, Long Island, and Staten Island. And the waters almost never froze over, so when the Dutch built ports they were able to stay open all year round.

Peter Minuit arrived, on this day, May 4, 1626, to take over as the director of New Amsterdam. When he stepped onto the land, there was already a small village in place, and more land was being cleared. On the west side of the island there was a cemetery, a small farm, an orchard, and two wealthy estates. Most of the houses were built along the East River, since its shore was more protected from winds than the shore of the Hudson. There was a path along the river called Pearl Street, from the glittering seashells that lay along the shore. Eventually, the Dutch expanded the eastern shore of Manhattan by about three blocks, by turning tidal areas into solid ground. Today, Pearl Street is separated from the East River by Water Street, Front Street, and East River Drive.

The main street was built over an old Indian Path running from the southern tip of the island north to what is now City Hall Park. First it was called Heere Straat, which meant Gentlemen's Street, but it eventually came to be known as Breede Wegh—which became the name we know it by today, Broadway.

When Minuit arrived, settlers were busy building a fort on the land that would become Bowling Green, New York City's first green park. Today there's a subway station and a regular market there. On May 6, Minuit met at the fort with chiefs from nearby tribes. He bought the entire island for about sixty guilders' worth of cloth, beads, hatchets and other merchandise. Historians in the nineteenth century estimated that would have been the equivalent of about twenty-four dollars, or about one dollar for each square mile of land. Today, Manhattan real estate is worth a total of around 40 billion dollars.

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