Jul. 2, 2011

Fog in the Valley

by Paul Zimmer

Old combines dither and cough,
Cows amble vaguely into pastures,
Fences vibrate out to the end
Of their stringency, but all
This occurs beneath an opaque sea.

Last week in Manhattan a man
Walked up to me on a foggy morning
And asked for money. When I told
Him I had no change he exploded,
"Man, how do you think I feel,
Having to ask you for a hand out?"

The fog unloosens and slips
In patches up hillsides.
Hawks are first to ease off
Their perches, then small birds
Flitter out into the milky air.

Slowly things begin to connect,
School busses flicker along the berm,
Stitching together corners of fields
With houses, barns, patches of woods,
Things rise to take substance.

If I sold this house and land,
Took cash to the city and passed
Out hundred dollar bills all day
To destitute people, by evening
I could join them in the fog.

"Fog in the Valley" by Paul Zimmer, from Big Blue Train. © University of Arkansas Press, 1993. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this day in 1679, Daniel Greysolon, Sieur du Lhut, first reached Lake Superior, about where the city that bears his name — Duluth — now lies. He was a French soldier and explorer, and had visited Montreal on several occasions. In 1675, he bought a house there, and started thinking about making a trip to the headwaters of the Mississippi River. He became friends with the Sioux Indians, and in 1678 he set out with seven French followers and three Indian slaves, intending to broker a peace agreement between the Sioux and the Ojibwe Indians north and west of Lake Superior, and firm up the tribes' fur trading relationship with New France. He negotiated the peace treaty, arranged some inter-tribal marriages, and encouraged the tribes to hunt together, before moving west to explore the Mississippi and St. Croix rivers.

On this day in 1698, British engineer Thomas Savery patented the first steam engine. He wanted to find a way to pump water out of coal mines, and eventually he built a machine that was filled with water itself. When steam was introduced under pressure, the water level rose and created a vacuum that drew more water up through a valve below. He described it in his book The Miner's Friend (1702) as "a new invention for raising of water and occasioning motion to all sorts of mill work by the impellent force of fire, which will be of great use and advantage for draining mines, serving towns with water, and for the working of all sorts of mills where they have not the benefit of water nor constant winds."

Though Savery's invention worked, his machine was never used in mines due to fears that the boilers would explode. It also wasn't cost-efficient and used large amounts of fuel to run the boiler, and the soldered joints wouldn't tolerate much pressure. Savery coined the term "horsepower" in describing how powerful his steam engine was; because mines had previously been drained using horses and buckets, he claimed his machine had the power of 10 horses.

On this day in 1937, Amelia Earhart was last heard from, somewhere over the Pacific. She had set out, with navigator Fred Noonan, to fly around the world. She said, "I have a feeling that there is just about one more good flight left in my system, and I hope this trip is it." They left Miami on the first of June, and had completed all but about 7,000 miles of the trip when they landed in New Guinea. Maps of the area were inaccurate, and Noonan had some trouble navigating between the islands in the central Pacific. U.S. Coast Guard ships were stationed on the route to their next stop, the tiny Howland Island, to help guide them.

Earhart and Noonan took off from New Guinea, and were in sporadic communication with the Coast Guard cutter Itasca. The weather was cloudy and rainy, with very low visibility, and transmissions — when they came through at all — were faint and full of static. At 7:42 a.m., Earhart communicated: "We must be on you, but we cannot see you. Fuel is running low. Been unable to reach you by radio. We are flying at 1,000 feet." Her last transmission, at 8:45 a.m., was "We are running north and south."

There's a growing body of evidence to suggest that she and Noonan may have made a forced landing on reef near a waterless, uninhabited island called Nikumaroro, and that they may have survived as castaways for a period of some months, collecting rainwater in the leaves of tropical plants and living off fish, birds, and turtles. Scientists are analyzing DNA from a number of sources, and an underwater exploration to look for remnants of the plane is scheduled for the summer of 2012.

She had a habit of writing letters to her husband, George Putnam, before each expedition, in case it should be her last. In one, she wrote: "Please know I am quite aware of the hazards. I want to do it because I want to do it. Women must try to do things as men have tried. When they fail, their failure must be but a challenge to others."

Ernest Hemingway (books by this author) committed suicide 50 years ago today. He had found writing increasingly difficult after World War II, and he was also in pain from injuries he'd suffered during a safari in Africa. He had left his home in Cuba in 1960, after Fidel Castro's regime forced him out, and had settled in Ketchum, Idaho. He was increasingly anxious and depressed. He entered the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota, twice in the eight months before to undergo electro-convulsive therapy, but he hated it and found it ineffective. He shot himself in the head with a 12-gauge shotgun; his widow, Mary, insisted at first that his death was accidental, and that he'd just been cleaning the weapon, but later she admitted it had been a suicide.

His granddaughter Lorian wrote in her memoir, Walk on Water (1998):
"I had visited my grandfather's grave in Ketchum the summer I had caught the marlin, arriving at the small hillside cemetery on a scalding July day, a half-finished fifth of vodka in one hand, a filter-tip cigar in the other. I'd made my way to the simple marble slab marked by a white cross, and stood swaying over the marker for a long time, expecting epiphany, resolution, a crashing, blinding flash of insight. ... I wanted to say something of value to the old man, perhaps that I had met a dare he had set forth by example, but nothing came. The neck of the bottle grew hot in my hand. I tipped it to my mouth, taking a long swig, then poured the rest, a stream of booze, clear as Caribbean waters, at the head of the marker. 'Here,' I said, 'have this,' and walked away."

On this day in 1962, the first Walmart store opened for business in Rogers, Arkansas. Founder Sam Walton placed the early stores in rural areas to avoid competition with urban powerhouses K-Mart and Sears, and within five years he had opened 24 stories throughout Arkansas. The first Wal-Mart Supercenter opened in 1988; in addition to the regular Walmart offerings, the Supercenters offered banking, auto shops, fast-food restaurants, hair salons, and portrait studios. Walmart is now the world's largest corporation, with annual revenues higher than Switzerland's GDP.

Walton was frugal in his personal life, getting five-dollar haircuts and driving around in an old truck, and he carried that sensibility over to his business model. He hired as few employees as he could, and paid them as little as he could, and fought like a tiger to keep unions out of Walmart. But he presented it as his way of making sure working-class consumers could get goods at a reasonable price, and his workers — called "associates" — went along with it. He also gave his employees a share in the company, and those that took advantage of profit sharing were promised a healthy return. Walton wrote in his autobiography, "If you'll just stay with me for twenty years, I guarantee you'll have $100,000 in profit sharing."

Since Walton's death in 1992, Walmart has seen some challenges, including charges of gender discrimination, off-the-clock work, union busting, and investigations into its "Made in America" claims on products that were actually made in overseas sweatshops. The retailer is still a powerhouse, though, and they control the marketplace. They require recording artists to produce sanitized versions of their albums and cover art if they want their CDs sold in stores, and magazines like Rolling Stone, Cosmopolitan, and Vibe are pulled off the shelves if Walmart finds their covers unsavory. Publishers now send preview issues to the corporation to get its approval before printing their magazines.

It's the 40th birthday of Canadian poet and fiction writer Evelyn Lau (1971) (books by this author). She was born in Vancouver, British Columbia, and her parents, who were Chinese immigrants, wanted her to become a doctor. She wanted to become a writer, however, and she published her first poem when she was 12. Her home life became increasingly turbulent, and she ran away when she was 14. She lived on the streets of Vancouver for two years, working as a prostitute and doing drugs. She wrote her memoir Runaway: Diary of a Street Kid (1989) at 17.

When she was 24, she had a doomed love affair with author W.P. Kinsella, who was 60 at the time. She wrote about the ending of their relationship in an essay, called "Me and W.P.," for Vancouver magazine, which led to a lawsuit in 1988. They had signed a pact giving each other permission to write about the relationship, but he felt her portrayal of him was overly malicious.

She said: "I have always wanted to move from the 'margin' to the 'centre' in my writing; I want to train my powers of observation and imagery on more 'normal' lives than I have previously been able to chronicle. But the 'centre' has plenty of darkness itself, and I suppose I will always want to examine those shadows too. I find myself entirely fascinated by how people relate to each other, the things they reveal and the things they hide, their ambitions and disappointments, their struggle for love and their spurning of it."

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