Sep. 15, 2010

Shooting the Horse

by David Shumate

I unlatch the stall door, step inside, and stroke the silky neck
of the old mare like a lover about to leave. I take an ear in
hand, fold it over, and run my fingers across her muzzle. I
coax her head up so I can blow into those nostrils. All part of
the routine we taught each other long ago. I turn a half turn,
pull a pistol from my coat, raise it to that long brow with the
white blaze and place it between her sleepy eyes. I clear my
throat. A sound much louder than it should be. I squeeze the
trigger and the horse's feet fly out from under her as gravity
gives way to a force even more austere, which we have named

"Shooting the Horse" by David Shumate, from High Water Mark. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day two years ago, in 2008, that Lehman Brothers filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. With about $369 billion in assets, they were by far the largest bankruptcy in history.

It's the birthday of the man who told The New Yorker editor Harold Ross, (books by this author) "I'm not a writer and not an actor. I don't know what I am." That's the writer and actor Robert Benchley, (books by this author) born in Worcester, Massachusetts (1889), who also claimed to be incredibly lazy. Despite all his talk, he was an incredibly prolific actor and writer. He spent 17 years in Hollywood and managed to act in 38 feature films and 48 short films, and to write or co-write many of them. He hosted a radio show, he wrote syndicated columns, he published 12 books of short stories, and he was a regular critic and contributor to Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and Life. And he was best known as a wit, pals with Dorothy Parker and the group that called themselves the Algonquin Round Table.

He said, "In America there are two classes of travel — first class, and with children."

It was on this day in 1835 that the passengers and crew of the HMS Beagle, including 26-year-old Charles Darwin, reached the Galapagos Islands. They had been gone for several years — they left England in December of 1831 — and had made it to South America by February of 1832.

When Darwin signed on to the Beagle, he was about to graduate from Cambridge as a divinity student, having already failed out of medical school.

Commander Robert FitzRoy was appointed to lead the second journey of the HMS Beagle. The ship had recently returned from South America, from a hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego, and the first captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes, became so depressed that he shot himself off the coast of South America. And FitzRoy's uncle had committed suicide because he hated working in government office. So FitzRoy was already concerned that there was a depressed or suicidal trait in his family, and when he found out that the previous captain on almost the same voyage had committed suicide, FitzRoy decided that he needed a companion to keep him sane. So he put the word out that he was looking for a suitable gentleman companion, and he selected young Charles Darwin, whose family wanted him to go into the clergy.

Instead, he spent most of the next five years on the HMS Beagle. His living space was at he stern of the ship, in the chart room. The room measured 9 feet by 11 feet, with a five-foot ceiling, and a mast came up right through the room, which also had a huge chart table in it. Darwin lived in just a few square feet of space, and was seasick almost every day, so he was relieved when the Beagle reached the Galapagos.

In the Galapagos, he recorded species of tortoises, lizards, turtles, snakes, owls, flycatchers, mockingbirds, swallows, doves, and most interestingly, finches. There were 13 finches that he observed in the Galapagos, all of them similar but with slightly different beaks, adapted for different things. A few years later, his observations, of course, became the argument for his theory of evolution and natural selection.

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