Nov. 4, 2011

Into the Winter Woods

by David Budbill

Long-johns top and bottom, heavy socks, flannel shirt, overalls,
steel-toed work boots, sweater, canvas coat, toque, mittens: on.

Out past grape arbor and garden shed, into the woods.
Sun just coming through the trees. There really is such a thing

as Homer's rosy-fingered dawn. And here it is, this morning.
Down hill, across brook, up hill, and into the stand of white pine

and red maple where I'm cutting firewood. Open up workbox,
take out chain saw, gas, bar oil, kneel down, gas up saw, add

bar oil to the reservoir, stand up, mittens off, strap on and buckle
chaps from waist to toe, hard hat helmet: on. Ear protectors: down,

face screen: down, push in compression release, pull out choke,
pull on starter cord, once, twice, go. Stall. Pull out choke, pull on

starter cord, once, twice, go. Push in choke. Mittens: back on.
Cloud of two-cycle exhaust smoke wafting into the morning air

and I, looking like a medieval Japanese warrior, wade through
blue smoke, knee-deep snow, revving the chain saw as I go,

headed for that doomed, unknowing maple tree.

"Into the Winter Woods" by David Budbill, from Happy Life. © Copper Canyon Press, 2011. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Erie Canal was completed on this date in 1825. An engineering marvel that was once called the Eighth Wonder of the World, it connects Lake Erie to the Hudson River. Construction on the canal began in 1817; it runs 363 miles from Albany to Buffalo, and traverses rivers, valleys, forests, and marshes. It was the first route from the eastern coastal ports to the Great Lakes that didn't require portage, it was significantly faster than overland routes, and it cut transportation costs by about 90 percent. It was designed for barge traffic, and was originally 40 feet wide and four feet deep. Expansion began 10 years after the canal opened, and it was enlarged to 70 feet wide and seven feet deep. It contains 36 locks, which manage an elevation change of almost 600 feet.

The canal was first proposed in 1807; it was the idea of Jesse Hawley, an entrepreneur who dreamed of an easier, cheaper way to get grain from the west to the Eastern Seaboard. Shipping costs had bankrupted him, and he had plenty of time to brainstorm while he was sitting in a debtors' prison. He envisioned a canal running along the Mohawk Valley, and got New York governor DeWitt Clinton on board. The state legislature finally approved the $7 million appropriation in 1817. They recouped the cost of construction — and then some — within nine years, through canal tolls.

The world's first deep-level underground "tube" railway opened in London on this date in 1890. Charles Pearson had first floated the notion of "trains in drains" in 1845, when steam trains themselves were still reasonably young, and by the 1860s, traffic congestion in London made the idea seem highly desirable. In 1862, the Times scoffed at the idea of running steam trains underground, calling it "an insult to common sense," but even so, the first underground railway line commenced operation in 1863.

The trouble was that steam trains needed to run close to the surface so that adequate ventilation could be provided. The digging of these shallow lines utilized the "cut and cover" method of tunnel construction: a trench was dug, and earth piled back over the top once a roof was built. This method caused a lot of disruption, and many people were displaced from their homes; in addition, the ventilation portals were ugly. In one case, a false house front was created to mask the vent and preserve the dignity of a well-to-do neighborhood.

Eventually, advances in digging technology and electric traction techniques enabled future lines to be placed deeper underground, causing much less surface disruption. The City and South London Railway line opened in 1890, becoming the first deep-level electric railway in the world. The tunnels were round, giving the railway the nickname it still bears today: The Tube.

It's the birthday of Charles Frazier (1950) (books by this author), the author of Cold Mountain (1997), born in Asheville, North Carolina, where his family has lived for several generations. His father, who was researching the family's history, told him the story of an ancestor who had fought in the Civil War and made his way on foot back home to Cold Mountain. Frazier was looking for ideas for the plot of a novel, and knew that this was the story he was looking for. Details about his ancestor were few and far between, and the story his father told him was only about a paragraph long. He decided to write the tale as historical fiction instead, filling in things that he didn't know by reading Civil War diaries, studying the history of the period, and using what he remembered about Appalachian farm life, which was still relatively primitive even in the mid-20th century. But he didn't want to write a typical Civil War story about the battles. "I realized that there are two kinds of books about a war: There's an Iliad, about fighting the war, and about the battles and generals, and there's an Odyssey, about a warrior who has decided that home and peace are the things he wants," he said. "Once I decided that I was writing an Odyssey kind of book instead of an Iliad kind of book, I could move forward with it with some sense of happiness."

He's currently at work on his third novel, Nightwoods, set in the Appalachian Mountains of the 20th century.

It's the birthday of American playwright Jon Robin Baitz (books by this author), born in Los Angeles in 1961. He was raised in Brazil and South Africa, and then came back to California in time to attend Beverly Hills High School.

His plays include The Film Society (1987), Three Hotels, (1991), and A Fair Country (1996), which was nominated for a Pulitzer. He also writes for film and television occasionally, and was the executive producer of the ABC drama Brothers and Sisters. His next project is reported to be the stage adaptation of movie producer Robert Evans' 1994 memoir, The Kid Stays in the Picture.

Today is the birthday of C.K. Williams (1936) (books by this author), born Charles Kenneth Williams in Newark, New Jersey. His early poetry was often about things going on in the outside world, like the war in Vietnam, the Holocaust, and the Civil Rights movement. As he matured, he wrote more and more about interior matters, like feelings of alienation and enlightenment. He didn't write poetry until he was in his late teens, and he didn't think much of poetry or any other literature prior to that point — in fact, he hated capital-L Literature because he thought it was musty and pretentious — so he was as surprised as anyone else when he started writing it himself. He wrote his first few poems to impress his girlfriend, but soon came to care more about the poems themselves than her reaction to them. He tends to write long, almost prose-like lines; in fact, the lines were so long in one of his collections, With Ignorance (1977), that it had to be printed in special wide-page format, like a catalog from an art exhibition.

He's the author of several books, including two that came out in 2010: On Whitman, about Walt Whitman, for the "Writers on Writers" series; and Wait, a collection of poetry.

Today is the birthday of cowboy poet and humorist Will Rogers (1879) (books by this author). He was born on a ranch near Oologah, Oklahoma, although Oklahoma was still the Cherokee Nation at that time. Growing up on a cattle ranch, it's not too surprising that he learned how to throw a lasso, but Rogers took it a step further. He made it into the Guinness Book of World Records for throwing three lassos at once to rope a galloping horse and rider: one rope went around the horse's neck, the second went around the rider, and the third captured the horse's legs. His trick roping skills are featured in a movie, The Ropin' Fool (1922), and he was popular in Wild West shows and on the vaudeville circuit. He also had a knack for wisecracks, and soon those became part of his act as well. He appeared in several Broadway shows and about 70 movies. He also wrote six books and a popular syndicated newspaper column, "Will Rogers Says," which reached 40 million readers.

He often made fun of politicians, saying things like, "I am not a member of an organized political party. I am a Democrat," and "There's no trick to being a humorist when you've got the whole government working for you." In 1928, he launched a mock campaign for president; he called himself the candidate for the "Anti-Bunk Party," and his only campaign promise was to resign, should he be elected. In 1932, he sent a letter to Franklin Roosevelt giving him advice on dealing with Congress, saying, "They're just children that's [sic] never grown up. They don't like to be corrected in company. Don't send messages to 'em, send candy." His son and namesake, Will Rogers Jr., eventually became a politician himself, running for and winning a seat in Congress in 1943.

Rogers was on a trip to Alaska in 1935 when his plane, flown by Wiley Post, crashed outside Barrow. He was 55 years old.

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




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