Oct. 5, 2011

Our Lives Pass Away

by David Budbill

Summer sunlight
glitters on the water.

Sweet colors of fall
drift down and land
on my new woodpile.

Winter is full of snow
and cold, but inside
the woodstove glows.

Then spring again
Our lives pass away.

"Our Lives Pass Away" by David Budbill, from Happy Life. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

On this date in 1877, Chief Joseph surrendered to the United States Cavalry. He was the leader of a band of Nez Perce Indians in the Wallowa Valley in northeastern Oregon, and they had been ordered by the United States government to move to a small reservation in Idaho. Joseph resisted, and for a time it seemed he'd been successful, since the government issued a federal order to remove white settlers from the Nez Perce lands, in support of their original treaty. Four years later, the government reversed its decision and backed up the reversal with the threat of a cavalry attack. Joseph wasn't a war chief, and he believed there was no point in resisting in any case; he reluctantly set out with about 700 followers — fewer than 200 of them warriors — for the Idaho reservation. A band of young men retaliated against the orders by attacking a white settlement, killing several people, and Joseph and his band were forced to flee from the pursuing Army. Though the warriors were outnumbered 10 to one by U.S. soldiers, they defended themselves during several battles for three months and over a thousand miles, through Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Joseph tried to lead them to Canada, but they were finally trapped in the Bears Paw Mountains of Montana, only 40 miles from the border. They fought the Army for five days, but eventually Joseph surrendered.

He was known to be an eloquent speaker, and an Army lieutenant on the scene reportedly transcribed his surrender address. In it, Joseph said: "I am tired of fighting. [...] It is cold, and we have no blankets. The little children are freezing to death. My people, some of them, have run away to the hills, and have no blankets, no food. No one knows where they are — perhaps freezing to death. I want to have time to look for my children and see how many of them I can find. Maybe I shall find them among the dead. Hear me, my chiefs! I am tired. My heart is sick and sad. From where the sun now stands I will fight no more forever."

The first televised presidential address aired on this date in 1947. President Harry Truman broadcast the speech from the White House, and his subject was food conservation. Europe was still reeling from World War II food shortages, and faced a winter famine brought on by regional droughts, floods, and unseasonable cold. Backing measures proposed by the Citizens' Food Committee, Truman called on America's farmers and distillers to reduce grain consumption, and asked the American public to do their part by observing "meatless Tuesdays," going without poultry and eggs on Thursdays, and eating less bread. He felt that food aid was vital to the success of the Marshall Plan for post-war recovery in Europe. Truman assured the public that the government and armed forces would be following the measures as well, and the following day, the Citizens' Food Committee published the White House menu for the first two restricted days:

Tuesday, luncheon — grapefruit, cheese soufflé, buttered peas, grilled tomatoes, chocolate pudding; dinner — clear chicken soup, broiled salmon steak, scalloped potatoes, string beans, sautéed eggplant, perfection salad, sliced peaches.

Thursday, luncheon — corn soup, peppers stuffed with rice and mushrooms, lima beans, glazed carrots, baked apples; dinner — melon balls, baked ham, baked sweet potatoes, asparagus, cauliflower, green salad, coffee mallow.

In 1947, there were only about 44,000 television sets in the United States; nearly everyone got their news from the radio and the papers. But the little-seen broadcast changed the relationship between the government and the media all the same. All of Truman's addresses from then on were televised, and in 1949 he became the first presidential candidate to air a paid political advertisement.

Today is the 60th birthday of Edward P. Jones (1951) (books by this author). He was born and raised in Washington, D.C. He never knew much about his father, who was a Jamaican immigrant; his mother worked as a dishwasher and was completely illiterate. He was a bookish child, never very popular, and what friendships he did make were usually lost because he and his mother moved frequently. He still lives a hermit-like existence in a sparsely furnished apartment, and when he does venture out for social engagements, he usually wants to be back at home. "When you move 18 times in 18 years," he told The Washington Post in 2009, "you learn that the world is forever shifting; you can't be certain of anything. But if you're in your home, your apartment, and the rent is paid up, and there's no reason for the landlord to knock on your door, then you're okay. But once you leave your apartment, once you leave your home, then you can't predict anything. It's not your world; you can't control it."

He studied creative writing in graduate school, at the University of Virginia; when he graduated, it never occurred to him that he would get a teaching job, or even that he should look for one, so he took a position as a proofreader for an obscure tax publication called Tax Notes. He worked his way up to summarizing articles, and didn't do much of his own writing at all during that period. He finished up some short stories he'd started, and that collection, Lost in the City, was published in 1991. He got an idea for a novel not long after that, and started thinking about it, just thinking, working it all out in his head for 10 years. When he was laid off from his job, he wrote the whole book — The Known World — in three months, and it won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2003.

It's the birthday of Clive Barker (books by this author), born in Liverpool, England, in 1952. Best known as an author of macabre stories, he's also written poetry, essays, plays, and children's literature. He's a painter and a filmmaker as well. His working-class parents scrimped and saved to pay for a good education for him, but when he was accepted into London's Royal College of Art, they asked him not to go. "They said, 'Please, this is the last thing we'll ever ask of you, we've supported you going to these schools and it's been expensive, please don't disappoint us now by wasting it all by becoming a painter,'" he told an interviewer in 2009. So he studied English and philosophy instead, "the latter subject because I thought it was the most useless possible thing to do, the least applicable thing in the world. It was sort of my petty revenge on being asked to do this in the first place."

Today is the birthday of astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson (1958) (books by this author). He was born and raised in New York City and was interested in space from a young age, but in his Bronx neighborhood, African-American boys earned respect for athletic prowess rather than book smarts. Undeterred, he studied astronomy on his own, and was giving lectures on the subject when he was 15.

In addition to his work as director of the Hayden Planetarium and visiting research scientist at Princeton, he's written eight books of astrophysics and has a particular interest in writing about space for the general public. He's a popular guest on late-night talk shows, hosts NOVA ScienceNOW on PBS, and recently announced that he will be hosting a sequel to Carl Sagan's Cosmos TV series.

He's described himself as a "passionate agnostic," and has collaborated with evolutionary biologist and staunch atheist Richard Dawkins on discussions of religion and science. He's received his fair share of hate mail, but not because of his critique of religion: He spearheaded the controversial movement to have Pluto downgraded from full planet to dwarf planet status, something that the younger generation of astronomy buffs apparently found intolerable. Most of the hate mail came from schoolchildren.

He wrote: "I don't care what else anyone has ever told you, the Sun is white, not yellow. Human color perception is a complicated business, but if the Sun were yellow, like a yellow lightbulb, then white stuff such as snow would reflect this light and appear yellow — a snow condition confirmed to happen only near fire hydrants."

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




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