Jun. 15, 2011

This World is Not My Home

by Charles Wright

The more you say, the more mistakes you'll make,
                                                                                        so keep it simple.
No one arrives without leaving soon.
This blue-eyed, green footed world—
                                                                   hello, Goldie, goodbye.

We won't meet again. So what?
The rust will remain in the trees,
                                                       and pine needles stretch their necks,
Their tiny necks, and sunlight will snore in the limp grass.

"This World is Not My Home, I'm Only Passing Through" by Charles Wright, from Bye-and-Bye: Selected Late Poems. © Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1215, King John of England placed his seal on the Magna Carta, granting basic liberties to his subjects. He wasn't the first English king to grant a charter, but he was the first to have it forced on him by his barons. He had taxed the Church and the barons heavily to fund the Third Crusade, defend his holdings in Normandy, and pay for unsuccessful wars, and England was on the brink of civil war. The charter limited the monarchy's absolute power and paved the way for the formation of Parliament, and it is the nearest thing to a "Bill of Rights" that Britain has ever had. It guaranteed, among other things, that "No free man shall be arrested, or imprisoned, or deprived of his property, or outlawed, or exiled or in any way destroyed, nor shall we go against him or send against him, unless by legal judgement of his peers, or by the law of the land."

Of course, John had no intention of upholding the document, and it was repealed almost immediately on the grounds that he gave his seal under duress. But the idea had taken root, and through a succession of subsequent charters, it became the basis for the British legal system and, in turn, the legal systems of most of the world's democracies. Parts of the United States Constitution were lifted directly from the Magna Carta, and it is so central to our own idea of law that the American Bar Association erected a monument at the meadow of Runnymede. The yew tree, under which the signing is believed to have taken place, still stands.

The first successful transfusion of blood into a human was performed on this day in 1667. The blood donor was a sheep, and the supervising doctor was a French physician named Jean-Baptiste Denys. He put a small amount — about 12 ounces — of sheep's blood into a 15-year-old boy, who survived the procedure. He repeated his experiment on another man and was again successful, but when he tried to increase the amount of blood actually transfused for his third and fourth patients, they died, and the practice of animal-human blood transfusions was outlawed in 1670.

It was believed at that time that volatile, hot-tempered people could be calmed by giving them the blood of a docile animal, like a sheep or cow, but there were concerns about long-term changes and mutations in the patient. Would he end up with a sheep's head? Samuel Pepys mused in his diary about the possibilities: "This did give occasion to many pretty wishes, as of the blood of a Quaker to be let into an Archbishop, and such like." It was generally agreed upon that humans should only receive transfusions of human blood, but the first successful human-to-human blood transfusion didn't occur until 1818, due to lack of understanding about blood type compatibility.

On this day in 1752, Benjamin Franklin is believed to have performed his famous kite experiment and proved that lightning is electricity. He tied the kite to a silk string with an iron key on the end of the string. From the key, he ran a wire into a Leyden jar, a container that stored electrical charge. He then tied a silk ribbon to the key, which he held onto from inside a shed, to keep it dry. The electrical charge from the storm overhead passed through the key and into the Leyden jar.

Franklin, as it turns out, was lucky to have conducted this experiment safely. Several others who attempted it after him were electrocuted. He used the information he gained to design lightning rods, which conducted a storm's electrical charge safely into the ground. One of Franklin's lightning rods saved his own house years later, during a storm.

Although Franklin described his kite endeavor in a letter later that fall, the full account of the experiment wasn't written down until 15 years after the fact by a man who wasn't even present: Joseph Priestly. However, he wrote it after detailed correspondence with Franklin, so his account is generally believed to be reliable.

On this day in 1844, Charles Goodyear received a patent for the vulcanization of rubber. The waterproof gum was all the rage in the 1830s, when it was first imported from Brazil. The only trouble was that it froze solid in the winter, and melted into a stinky lump of goo in the summer, so it seemed doomed to go the way of all fads. Goodyear, a bankrupt hardware merchant who was in jail for outstanding debts, asked his wife to bring him some rubber and her rolling pin so he could play around with it in his cell. He continued his experiments when he was released, in spite of everyone telling him rubber was dead. "I am the man to bring it back," he insisted.

For five years, Goodyear tried adding a variety of drying agents, like sulfur, in an attempt to keep the elasticity but lose the stickiness and tendency to melt. One day, he accidentally dropped a sulfur-rubber mixture on a hot stove, or so the story goes, and discovered that heating it made the rubber weatherproof. He perfected his method over the course of a year, during which time his family sold all their household goods and nearly starved. Neighbors provided his children with milk and let them dig potatoes out of their gardens. Goodyear was jailed for nonpayment of a hotel bill and came home to find his infant son had died. But eventually, he sold his new rubber product for use as elastic in ruffled men's shirts. He sold his manufacturing rights, which would have made him wealthy, in favor of continued experimentation on the uses of vulcanized rubber, and spent what little money he did have in defending his patent against persistent infringement. He died in 1860, $200,000 in debt. Almost 40 years after his death, the Goodyear Tire Company was named in his honor, although his family was not connected to it in any way.

In spite of his financial and patent difficulties, Goodyear was never bitter. "Life," he wrote, "should not be estimated exclusively by the standard of dollars and cents. I am not disposed to complain that I have planted and others have gathered the fruits. A man has cause for regret only when he sows and no one reaps."

The Duluth lynchings occurred on this date in 1920. Three young men — Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson, and Isaac McGhie — were among a group of six black circus workers wrongly accused of raping a white woman. They were pulled from their cells in the Duluth jail and hanged from a light pole in front of a crowd of thousands. Nineteen men were arrested in the lynching, eight stood trial, and three were convicted of rioting. They served less than 15 months of their five-year sentence. Two of the surviving circus workers were tried for rape, in spite of a lack of evidence of sexual or any other type of assault, and one was convicted and sentenced to 30 years.

Many African-Americans left Duluth as a result of the lynching, and those that remained founded a chapter of the NAACP; the organization's first guest speaker was sociologist, black protest leader, and NAACP co-founder W.E.B. Du Bois.

It's the birthday of novelist and essayist Christian Bauman (1970) (books by this author), born in Easton, Pennsylvania. He worked a series of dead-end jobs, got married, had a daughter, and finally joined the Army in 1991, as a way out from under mounting bills and no prospects. He served four years, spending time in Somalia and Haiti. "This Army of robots that you see on television doesn't exist,'' he told The New York Times in 2003. ''What percentage of soldiers are in elite units? Almost none. The real Army is made up of people like me, people who had no choice, people trapped and suffocating without enough education and a real job. It is this Army, I explain, along with what happens to it when it is sent into countries where we don't understand what is going on.'' He wrote compulsively, and later drew upon his experiences to write his first two novels, The Ice Beneath You (2002) and Voodoo Lounge (2005).

When he was discharged in 1995, he began a career as a folk musician and lyricist. "Woody Guthrie's life was my fantasy," he said. "He was a reader. He wrote beautiful and creative songs that brought to light injustices, and most importantly injustices that were unknown by many. He was like Steinbeck. And this is what I wanted to do." Bauman's folk touring days inspired his third novel, In Hoboken (2008).

On this day in 2002, an asteroid narrowly missed the Earth, passing by only 75,000 miles away, about one-third the distance between the Earth and the moon. Named "Asteroid 2002-MN," the rock was about the size of a football field, and it was traveling at 10 kilometers — about 6.2 miles — per second. It was the second-closest pass by an asteroid that we're aware of, although there are likely to have been others. The closest, Asteroid 1994XL1, passed within 65,000 miles of our home planet.

Had it struck the Earth, it wouldn't have caused global damage, but it may have made an impact similar to that of the Tunguska event of 1908, an asteroid that exploded in the sky over Siberia, flattening 800 square miles of trees.

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