Aug. 22, 2011

The Trail Is Not a Trail

by Gary Snyder

I drove down the Freeway
And turned off at an exit
And went along a highway
Til it came to a sideroad
Drove up the sideroad
Til it turned to a dirt road
Full of bumps, and stopped.
Walked up a trail
But the trail got rough
And it faded away—
Out in the open,
Everywhere to go.

"The Trail Is Not a Trail" by Gary Snyder, from Left Out in the Rain. © North Point Press, 1986. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1864, 12 European nations signed the First Geneva Convention, marking the beginning of the international humanitarian law movement. The convention was initiated by Henri Dunant, the founder of the International Committee for the Relief of the Wounded, which would later become the International Committee of the Red Cross. He had been horrified by the carnage he witnessed during the war for the unification of Italy, especially the Battle of Solferino (1859), which resulted in 40,000 casualties, many of whom were just left to die on the battlefield. Switzerland agreed to host the convention for the "Amelioration of the Wounded in the Time of War." The First Convention concerned itself mostly with setting ground rules to establish fair treatment of combatants, the obligation to treat sick and wounded regardless of what side they were on, and the protection of medical personnel, vehicles, and equipment. Subsequent conventions extended protection to prisoners of war, shipwreck survivors, and civilians during wartime.

Twelve nations attended the First Geneva Convention and signed the treaty on August 22; it was ratified by all the major European powers within three years. Clara Barton, a nurse in the American Civil War, led the drive for ratification in the United States; it eventually passed in 1882.

On this date in 1902, Theodore Roosevelt became the first U. S. president to ride in a car while in office. He was on a midterm campaign tour of New England at the time, and the motorcar in question was a purple-lined Columbia Electric Victoria Phaeton; the Columbia Motor-Carriage Company was located in Hartford, Connecticut, so they cheerfully provided transportation around the city. Twenty carriages followed the presidential car, and they probably didn't have much trouble keeping up, since the Victoria's maximum speed was about 13 miles an hour. The first presidential motorcade probably moved more slowly, though, to allow the president to wave to onlookers from the open carriage.

The Victoria, like around half of the cars in production at that time, was electric. The others were mostly steam-powered, although a few used internal combustion engines. It had two electric motors, powered by two batteries, the combined weight of which was about 800 pounds. It was the first commercially viable electric car, and it sold for $3,000: five times the average annual wage.

By the end of the decade, automobiles had caught on; President Taft rode in a Pierce-Arrow to and from his inaugural ball in 1909, and they've been a fixture ever since. Although President Roosevelt was the first president to ride in a car, he was not the first president to ride in an automobile: William McKinley had been transported to the hospital in an electric ambulance when an assassin attacked him in 1901.

It's the birthday of Annie Proulx, (books by this author) born Edna Annie Proulx in Norwich, Connecticut (1935). As a young woman, she lived in Vermont, published a small newspaper, and supported herself writing how-to books about things like apple cider and fence-building. Some of her early stories were about hunting and fishing, since she was passionate about those pursuits; the only outlet for them was men's outdoor magazines, though, and the editors made her publish them as E.A. Proulx, believing men wouldn't read them if they knew a woman had written them. "The ones who suggested it were from a small Vermont publication," she told Paris Review, "and I got back this awful letter, full of bad spelling and clumsy syntax, suggesting that I should change my name to initials. Very tiresome." She put up with it for a while, but then started writing as "E. Annie" and then "Annie."

Her freelance writing jobs taught her how to research almost anything, and she has since made a career writing fiction based on her extensive research. To write her first novel Postcards (1992), she traveled back and forth across America, stopping in all the places where her homeless main character worked and lived. After she finished that novel, she stumbled upon a map of Newfoundland. She said, "Each place-name had a story — Dead Man's Cove, Seldom Come Bay and Bay of Despair, Exploits River, Plunder Beach. I knew I had to go there, and within 10 minutes of arriving, I'd fallen in love." She explored the island, examined maps, and went to bed every night with a Newfoundland vernacular dictionary. The result was her novel The Shipping News (1993), which became a best-seller and won the Pulitzer Prize.

She now lives in Wyoming. She has become accustomed to sweeping vistas and open spaces, and has lost her taste for New England. "It's small and once you've gotten used to wide plains and long sightlines, it's annoying to have everything folded in on you. Boxlike shrubbery and cloistering trees. Clawing, leafy, shade-producing, sight-obliterating things that are everywhere. It makes me uneasy." She's produced four volumes of Wyoming stories; her 1999 collection, Close Range, included "Brokeback Mountain," which was made into a film in 2005. Her latest book, which came out this year, is a nonfiction account of the building of her house, Bird Cloud (2011).

It's the birthday of science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (books by this author), born in Waukegan, Illinois (1920). He's the author of many books of science fiction, including The Martian Chronicles (1950) and Fahrenheit 451 (1953). One of his ancestors, Mary Bradbury, was hanged as a witch in Salem, Massachusetts, and he said he got from her his anxiety about fearmongering and thought control. He said, "Science fiction is a wonderful hammer; I intend to use it when and if necessary, to bark a few shins or knock a few heads, in order to make people leave people alone." He told Paris Review, "I prefer to see myself as the Janus, the two-faced god who is half Pollyanna and half Cassandra, warning of the future and perhaps living too much in the past — a combination of both." He didn't go to college, because the family couldn't afford it, but he did go to libraries ... at least three times a week for 10 years. He wrote Fahrenheit 451 on a rented typewriter in the basement of UCLA's Powell Library.

As a boy, he read Edgar Allan Poe and The Wizard of Oz. And when he was 12, a traveling carnival came to town, and he met a magician named Mr. Electrico, who believed young Ray was the reincarnation of a friend who had died in his arms in World War I. Later, at the show, Mr. Electrico touched people in the front row with his electrically charged sword, making their hair stand on end. "When he came to me, he touched me on the brow, and on the nose, and on the chin, and he said to me, in a whisper, 'Live forever.' And I decided to."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote, "Men seldom make passes at girls who wear glasses": writer and critic Dorothy Parker (books by this author), born Dorothy Rothschild in West End, New Jersey (1893). She was clever even as a little girl — she got kicked out of Catholic school for describing the Immaculate Conception as "spontaneous combustion."

She sold her first poem to Vanity Fair when she was 22, got a job as a caption writer at Vogue when she was 22, and was hired by Vanity Fair when she was 24 to fill in as drama critic when P.G. Wodehouse went on an extended vacation. She shared an office with Robert Sherwood and Robert Benchley, and the three became close friends. They took to having lunch at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street so they could complain about their boss. They would order the cheapest thing on the menu and split it, because none of them had any money. Eventually, the group grew and became a tradition; for 10 years, the assortment of writers, editors, actors, and wits met almost daily for lunch and played verbal one-upmanship. They called themselves the Algonquin Round Table, and eventually, "The Vicious Circle." They played word games and card games, they made fun of other writers and actors, they played pranks on each other, and they wrote about each other's clever comments in newspaper columns, so that their witticisms and pranks became national news. "Why, it got so bad," Parker later complained, "that they began to laugh before I opened my mouth." Later in life, she spoke disparagingly of the Vicious Circle and their reputation. "These were no giants. Think who was writing in those days — Lardner, Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway. Those were the real giants. The Round Table was just a lot of people telling jokes and telling each other how good they were. Just a bunch of loudmouths showing off, saving their gags for days, waiting for a chance to spring them. ... There was no truth in anything they said. It was the terrible day of the wisecrack, so there didn't have to be any truth ..."

When Parker was fired from Vanity Fair because her reviews were too scathing, Robert Benchley resigned in protest. She called it "the greatest act of friendship I'd known," because he had a wife and two children that he was barely able to support as it was. The pair formed a freelance writing partnership of sorts, renting a tiny office — "so tiny that an inch smaller and it would have been adultery," she quipped — and calling themselves the Utica Drop Forge and Tool Company, or sometimes, Park-Bench. She contributed book reviews, and sometimes poems, to The New Yorker; she also wrote screenplays with her second husband, Alan Campbell, in the 1930s. An ardent supporter of civil rights, she left her literary estate to Martin Luther King Jr. He died a year after she did, and the estate went to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Parker's ashes are interred in a memorial garden at NAACP headquarters in Baltimore.

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