Sep. 16, 2010

The Woodcutter Changes His Mind

by David Budbill

When I was young, I cut the bigger, older trees for firewood, the ones
with heart rot, dead and broken branches, the crippled and deformed

ones, because, I reasoned, they were going to fall soon anyway, and
therefore, I should give the younger trees more light and room to grow.

Now I'm older and I cut the younger, strong and sturdy, solid
and beautiful trees, and I let the older ones have a few more years

of light and water and leaf in the forest they have known so long.
Soon enough they will be prostrate on the ground.

"The Woodcutter Changes His Mind" by David Budbill, from While We've Still Got Feet: New Poems. © Copper Canyon Press, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of American novelist John Knowles, (books by this author) born in Fairmont, West Virginia (1926). He is best known for his novel A Separate Peace (1959), based in part on Knowles' experiences at Phillips Exeter Academy.

It's the birthday of James J. Hill, born in Rockwood, Ontario, in 1838, who formed the Great Northern Railway Company, a railroad that ran from the Midwest all the way to the Puget Sound.

It's the birthday of writer John Gay, (books by this author) born to a poor family in Barnstaple, England (1685). His most famous work is the play The Beggar's Opera, which was first performed in 1728.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey with an epitaph he wrote for himself:
"Life is a jest, and all things show it.
I thought so once, and now I know it."

It's the birthday of the scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr., (books by this author) born in Keyser, West Virginia (1950). He said, "When I was a kid growing up, my friends wanted to be Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I wanted to be a Rhodes Scholar."

He went to junior college for a year and then to Yale, and he was the first African-American ever to win a Mellon Fellowship to study at Cambridge, where he earned his Ph.D.

He moved back to the United States, and he was hanging out in a bookstore in New York and found the novel Our Nig; or, Sketches from the Life of a Free Black. Published in 1859, it's the story of a biracial girl named Frado who is abandoned by her white mother and becomes an indentured servant to a Massachusetts family. Our Nig was attributed to Harriet E. Wilson, and for a long time the book had been dismissed as a sentimental novel written by a white man under a pseudonym. But Gates did some research and he was able to prove that Harriet Wilson was in fact a black woman, whose own life was similar to that of her main character. Gates' unearthing of Our Nig made his name as a scholar, and he has been a prominent academic and writer ever since. Some of his books include Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars (1992), Colored People: A Memoir (1994), and The Trials of Phillis Wheatley (2003).

It was on this day in 1620 that the Mayflower set sail from England. There were 102 passengers on board. Although we usually think of the Mayflower as being filled with a persecuted religious group called the Pilgrims, in fact they made up less than half of the passengers, and they called themselves "Saints" — it wasn't until later that they were called Pilgrims.

The "Saints" were religious separatists who had broken away from the Church of England. In 1607, many of them left for Leiden in Holland, which was much more tolerant of their religious ideas, but they were still excluded from jobs and land ownership, and they struggled to make a living.

Only 35 passengers on the Mayflower were the Leiden Separatists, or "Saints." The rest of the 102 passengers were recruits from England. They were mostly families who were going as entrepreneurs, to be planters. The "Saints" referred to these people as "Strangers."

They had 65 miserable days at sea, most of it below deck because the weather was so awful. And the Mayflower didn't make it to Virginia, but instead was blown off course and ended up on Cape Cod. The passengers decided to settle there, but they were forced to remain on board for more than a month just off the coast of Massachusetts, while leaders went ashore to explore, trying to find a good spot for a settlement. In the meantime, the "Saints" and the "Strangers," despite a lot of friction, agreed to jointly sign the Mayflower Compact, a governing document that was more or less a social contract, in which everyone agreed to follow certain rules and laws so that they could all coexist.

It was only many years later, in 1840, that someone dug up a description that William Bradford had written about the original "Saints," who had left Leiden, a place that he called "that goodly & pleasante citie which had been their resting place for near 12 years; but they knew they were pilgrimes, & looked not much on those things, but lift up their eyes to ye heavens, their dearest cuntrie, and quieted their spirits." And so the Leiden separatists came to be called Pilgrims in retrospect, and that term came to be applied to everyone who was on board the Mayflower, both "Saints" and "Strangers."

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®




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