Jun. 30, 2011

On the 747

by Malena Morling

As soon as I sat down
the seven year old girl
offered me gum
and showed me a postcard
of the airplane we were in.
She was writing her mother
whom she had just left at the gate,
smearing her love
in blue magic marker.
Then she pulled out a drawing
she had made of the wind
and one of a cloud
and a man who had ladders
for legs and eight arms
extending eight hands.
After the heavy body of the plane
lifted off the ground,
she held my hand and talked
about her flute teacher's birds
and the eels she had bought
in a bait store and let loose
on the beach, each one
slithering into the dark
of the green waves,
returning to what she said
she could not imagine.

"On the 747" by Malena Mörling, from Ocean Avenue. © New Issues Press, 1999. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1860, a debate on the merits of the theory of evolution took place at Oxford University. It occurred as part of the annual meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Darwin's book On the Origin of Species (1859) had just been published seven months earlier, and was hotly contested by scientists and theologians on both sides of the issue. Noted biologist Richard Owen had written a scathing review of the book in the Edinburgh Review, and he also coached the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, in his condemnation of the book. On the pro-Darwin side of the issue were several liberal theologians — including mathematician and priest Baden Powell — as well as scientists Joseph Dalton Hooker and Thomas Henry Huxley. Huxley was such an ardent and vocal supporter of evolutionary theory that he came to be known as "Darwin's bulldog."

Bishop Wilberforce, one of the most famous orators of the day, was to be one of the speakers on Saturday the 30th. The hall was packed and hundreds lined up outside to hear the discussion, which came to be known as the Wilberforce-Huxley debate (or the Huxley-Wilberforce debate, depending on whose side you were on), even though there were many contributors to the discussion. There is no transcript of the day's events, but one exchange has reached the status of legend. Wilberforce asked Huxley whether he was descended from an ape on his father's side or his mother's, and Huxley retorted that he was not ashamed to have a monkey as an ancestor, but he would be ashamed to descend from someone who used his great gifts to obscure the truth. Most accounts include some version of this story, but according to Hooker, that may have been all that most people heard. In his report to Darwin (who was too ill to attend), Hooker wrote:

"Well, Sam Oxon got up and spouted for half an hour with inimitable spirit, ugliness and emptiness and unfairness ... Huxley answered admirably and turned the tables, but he could not throw his voice over so large an assembly nor command the audience ... he did not allude to Sam's weak points nor put the matter in a form or way that carried the audience. The battle waxed hot. Lady Brewster fainted, the excitement increased as others spoke; my blood boiled, I felt myself a dastard; now I saw my advantage; I swore to myself that I would smite that Amalekite, Sam, hip and thigh if my heart jumped out of my mouth, and I handed my name up to the President as ready to throw down the gauntlet."

Hooker was the closing speaker of the discussion, and he felt that his speech had carried the day (of course, Wilberforce and Huxley each felt the same way about their own speeches). In the end, though each side claimed victory, most accounts chalk it up as a win for the Darwinians.

On this date in 1864, President Lincoln granted the Yosemite Valley to California for "public use, resort, and restoration." A homesteader, Galen Clark, had been so awed by the giant sequoia trees that he vowed to save them from logging; his cause gained momentum and support from photographer Carlton Watkins and Senator John Conness. The Department of the Interior helped them craft a bill, which passed both houses of Congress and was signed by the president in the height of the Civil War. The Yosemite Land Grant of 1864 marked the first time the federal government set aside land specifically for preservation and recreational use. It didn't have the authority to evict homesteaders, though, and that battle continued until 1872, when the Supreme Court voided the homesteaders' claims.

In 1865, Frederick Law Olmsted wrote a treatise on national parks at the request of the Board of Yosemite Commissioners. In it, the landscape architect — whose most famous work is New York's Central Park — wrote:
"It is a scientific fact that the occasional contemplation of natural scenes of an impressive character, particularly if this contemplation occurs in connection with relief from ordinary cares, change of air and change of habits, is favorable to the health and vigor of men and especially to the health and vigor of their intellect beyond any other conditions which can be offered them, that it not only gives pleasure for the time being but increases the subsequent capacity for happiness and the means of securing happiness."

On this day in 1908, a mysterious explosion over central Siberia flattened trees over an 800-square-mile area. Known as the "Tunguska event" because it happened near the Stony Tunguska River, the devastation was caused by an explosion that occurred at an altitude of five to 10 kilometers, with energy a thousand times more powerful than the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Scientists believe a comet or asteroid collided with the Earth, but blew up before it hit the ground; the impact created a fireball that ignited the forest, and the blast wave that followed put the fire out. Eighty million trees were knocked over in a pattern radiating out from the epicenter, their limbs and bark stripped away.

Eyewitnesses reported a fireball in the sky, an earthquake-like trembling, and a blast of hot air. A man sitting on his front porch 40 miles away was hurled from his chair. He reported: "Suddenly in the north sky ... the sky was split in two, and high above the forest the whole northern part of the sky appeared covered with fire. ... At that moment there was a bang in the sky and a mighty crash. ... The crash was followed by a noise like stones falling from the sky, or of guns firing. The earth trembled."

It's the birthday of Lena Horne, born in Brooklyn in 1917. Her grandparents were early members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored Persons, and two-year-old Lena was the cover girl for their monthly newsletter in October 1919. Her father was a gambler who left when his daughter was very young, and her mother was an actress who was focused on her own career. Lena was mostly raised by her grandparents, and her grandmother taught her from a young age that racism in any form was unacceptable. Other black children teased her because she was so light-skinned, but this worked in her favor when she auditioned as a dancer for the Cotton Club when she was 16. Other dancers submitted to their role as scantily clad entertainment for white patrons, but it didn't sit well with Lena. A year later, she made her debut in a Broadway chorus.

In 1941, she was lured to Hollywood by impresario Felix Young. He signed a lease on a house for her, since African-Americans were not allowed to live in Hollywood. Her neighbors found out and circulated a petition to have her removed, but Humphrey Bogart, who lived across the street, came to her defense. She recalled that Bogart "sent word over to the house that if anybody bothered me, please let him know."

Her first movie appearances were stand-alone musical numbers that could easily be edited out before the films were shown in the South. During World War II, she did U.S.O. shows around the world, and she was popular with black and white soldiers alike. "The whole thing that made me a star was the war," she said in a 1990 interview. "Of course, the black guys couldn't put Betty Grable's picture in their footlockers. But they could put mine." She was openly critical of the way African-American soldiers were treated, and eventually she was no longer welcome to perform for the U.S.O.

When she was 80, she said: "My identity is very clear to me now. I am a black woman. I'm free. I no longer have to be a 'credit.' I don't have to be a symbol to anybody; I don't have to be a first to anybody. I don't have to be an imitation of a white woman that Hollywood sort of hoped I'd become. I'm me, and I'm like nobody else." She died in 2010 at the age of 92.

It's the birthday of Mexican novelist, short-story writer, and poet José Emilio Pacheco (1939) (books by this author), born in Mexico City. He started writing for magazines and newspapers when he was still in high school and continued through college, though his father would have liked him to become a lawyer and take over the family practice. His first book of poetry, The Elements of Night, was published in 1963, and his first short-story collection, A Distant Wind, came out the same year. He's also a translator of works by Albert Einstein and Samuel Beckett, among others.

In 2010, he was awarded the Cervantes Prize by King Juan Carlos of Spain. The king thanked him "for having revealed the poetic intensity of Spanish in a singular way." Just before the ceremony, Pacheco's trousers fell down and he remarked, "Not having braces is a very good argument against vanity."

On this day in 1953, the first Chevy Corvette rolled off the assembly line in Flint, Michigan. At that time, it was an experiment, and only 300 cars were produced that year, all of them convertibles, all of them white, with a red interior and a black ragtop. The Corvette was made of fiberglass, and came with two options: an AM radio for $145, and a heater for $91. It wasn't exactly a high-performance vehicle, at 105 horsepower; it wasn't until 1955 that the car incorporated a V-8 engine and attained a muscular 195 horses.

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