Mar. 30, 2010

Profile of the Night Heron

by Anne Pierson Wiese

In the Brooklyn Botanic Garden the night
heron is on his branch of his tree, blue
moon curve of his body riding low
above the pond, leaves dipping into water
beneath him, green and loose as fingers.
On the far shore, the ibis is where
I left him last time, a black cypher
on his rock. These birds, they go to the right
place every day until they die.

There are people like that in the city,
with signature hats or empty attaché cases,
expressions of private absorption fending
off comment, who attach to physical
locations—a storefront, a stoop, a corner,
a bench—and appear there daily as if for a job.
They negotiate themselves into the pattern
of place, perhaps wiping windows, badly,
for a few bucks, clearing the stoop of take-out
menus every morning, collecting the trash
at the base of the WALK/DON'T WALK sign
and depositing it in the garbage can.

Even when surfaces change, when the Mom & Pop
store becomes a coffee bar, when the park
benches are replaced with dainty chairs and a pebble
border, they stay, noticing what will never change:
the heartprick of longitude and latitude
to home in on, the conviction that life
depends, every day, on what outlasts you.

"Profile of the Night Heron" by Anne Pierson Wiese, from Floating City. © Louisiana State University Press, 2007. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Jon Hassler, (books by this author) born in Minneapolis (1933). He grew up in Plainview, Minnesota, and began working at the local grocery store when he was 11 years old. He later said: "I've always thought of the Red Owl Grocery Store in Plainview, Minnesota, as my training ground, for it was there that I acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist, namely ... the fun of picking the individual out of a crowd and the joy of finding the precise words to describe him. I dare say nobody ever got more nourishment than I did out of a grocery store."

He taught at high schools and community colleges for 20 years before he began writing seriously. His first novel, Staggerford, came out in 1977, when Hassler was 42 years old. Jon Hassler died in 2008, 10 days before his 75th birthday, from a rare brain disease called progressive supranuclear palsy. His most recent novel is The New Woman (2005), set in his fictional town of Staggerford, about an 88-year-old woman named Agatha McGee.

It's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). As a young man, he was deeply religious and went off to do missionary work in a coal-mining region in Belgium. One day he decided to give away all of his worldly goods and live like a peasant. But his religious superiors thought he was having a nervous breakdown. They kicked him out of the mission and he had to go home. It was then that he started to draw and paint. He taught himself with art books and by studying the masters.

On this day in 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million dollars. It had belonged to Russia for about 125 years, since Russians had been the first European explorers to get to the place and had proclaimed it their territory in 1741.

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and a couple years later, on this day in 1867, the deal to buy Alaska was negotiated and signed by President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, William Seward. He announced that someday this big chunk of land would be a U.S. state. The American public by and large was not sold on the purchase of frozen tundra. People thought it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a faraway place, which they alternately referred to as Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden" and "Seward's Icebox." In fact, the purchase became commonly known as "Seward's Folly."

But then gold was discovered there in the 1890s and the Klondike Gold Rush followed, with tens of thousands of people heading north to try to strike it rich. They settled in as fishers and miners and trappers and producers of minerals, and Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912. It became the 49th state of the union, the largest one (consisting of 663,268 square miles) and also the least densely populated state. In 1968, oil was discovered at the far northern part of the state, at Prudhoe Bay. A pipeline was built and began to pump oil in 1977, and now the area near Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in the U.S.

The writer Vladimir Nabokov, (books by this author) who was born in Russia in 1899 — just 32 years after the Alaska Purchase — and who emigrated to the United States in 1940, wrote in his memoir, Strong Opinions, about how he was once asked to list "scenes from the historical past which he wished he could have witnessed on film." He replied: "Shakespeare in the part of the King's Ghost. The beheading of Louis the Sixteenth, the drums drowning his speech on the scaffold. Herman Melville at breakfast, feeling a sardine to his cat. Poe's wedding. Lewis Carroll's picnics. The Russians leaving Alaska, delighted with the deal. Shot of a seal applauding."

It's the birthday of the man who said "All the world's a stage, and most of us are desperately unrehearsed," playwright Sean O'Casey, (books by this author) born in Dublin (1880). Within the span of a few years in the 1920s, he wrote most of the plays for which he is now most famous: The Shadow of a Gunman (1923), Juno and the Paycock (1924), and The Plough and the Stars (1926).

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