Apr. 26, 2012

Spring Plowing

by Ted Kooser

West of Omaha the freshly plowed fields
steam in the night like lakes.
The smell of the earth floods over the roads.
The field mice are moving their nests
to the higher ground of fence rows,
the old among them crying out to the owls
to take them all. The paths in the grass
are loud with the squeak of their carts.
They keep their lanterns covered.

"Spring Plowing" by Ted Kooser, from Flying at Night. © University of Pittsburgh Press, 1985. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of the man who said: "The truth springs from arguments among friends," and "The life of man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster." That's Scottish philosopher David Hume (books by this author), born in Edinburgh, Scotland in 1711. While working as a librarian, he wrote the six-volume History of England (1762), which became a bestseller and gave him the financial independence to write and revise his philosophical treatises. He wrote A Treatise of Human Nature (1740), Enquiries Concerning Human Understanding (1748), and Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751). He was a strict skeptic, and questioned all knowledge derived from the senses.

David Hume said, "Beauty is no quality in things themselves: It exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty."

He also said, "Reading and sauntering and lounging and dozing, which I call thinking, is my supreme happiness."

And, "He is happy whose circumstances suit his temper but he is more excellent who can suit his temper to any circumstances."

Today is also the birthday of another well-known philosopher: Ludwig Wittgenstein (books by this author), born in Vienna in 1889. He was described by his colleague Bertrand Russell as "the most perfect example I have known of genius as traditionally conceived: passionate, profound, intense, and dominating." He was the youngest of nine children; three of his brothers committed suicide.

Wittgenstein was born into one of the richest families in Austro-Hungary, but he later gave away his inheritance to his siblings, and also to an assortment of Austrian writers and artists, including Rainer Maria Rilke. He once said that the study of philosophy rescued him from nine years of loneliness and wanting to die, yet he tried to leave philosophy several times and pursue another line of work, including serving in the army during World War I, working as a porter at a London hospital, and teaching elementary school.

Wittgenstein was particularly interested in language. He wrote, "The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for."

It's the birthday of ornithologist John James Audubon (books by this author), born in Les Cayes in what is now Haiti (1785). His father was a French naval officer and plantation owner, and his mother was a Creole chambermaid.

Audubon loved birds from early on. He said: "When I had hardly yet learned to walk, and to articulate those first words always so endearing to parents, the productions of Nature that lay spread all around, were constantly pointed out to me. They soon became my playmates; and before my ideas were sufficiently formed to enable me to estimate the difference between the azure tints of the sky, and the emerald hue of the bright foliage, I felt that an intimacy with them, not consisting of friendship merely, but bordering on frenzy, must accompany my steps through life." Audubon grew up in France, and when he was 18 years old, his father managed to get him a false passport to escape the Napoleonic Wars, and he headed to America. Fascinated by all the new American birds he saw, he began to study them more closely. He found some Eastern Phoebes nesting in a cave. He had read that they returned to the same spot to nest every year, and he wanted to test that idea. For days, he sat in the cave with them and read a book, until they were used to him and let him approach. He tied string to their legs to identify them, and sure enough, the next year the same birds were back in the cave. It is the first known incident of banding birds.

Audubon fell in love with a woman named Lucy Bakewell. Her father objected to Audubon's lack of career goals, and insisted that he find a solid trade before marriage. So, he opened a general store in Kentucky on the Ohio River, and soon after, John and Lucy were married. Audubon was a terrible business owner — he preferred roaming the forests of Kentucky and drawing to actually taking care of his store. He was thrown in prison for debt. Finally, he realized that his best chance for success lay in his birds after all. He dissolved his business partnership and set out on a quest to catalog and draw every bird in North America. He traveled from New Orleans to the Everglades, from Niagara Falls and the Great Lakes up to Newfoundland in Canada, down the Mississippi River, and all the way to Texas, and published his masterpiece Birds of America (1838). The book was two feet wide and three feet tall, with 435 life-sized hand-colored plates of birds.

It's the birthday of novelist and short-story writer who said, "Write your heart out": Bernard Malamud (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1914). He grew up poor during the Depression. His parents were Russian-Jewish immigrants who ran a grocery store that was open for 16 hours a day, and the family lived above it. There were no books in the house until Malamud was nine and almost died of pneumonia. He was confined to his bed, and his father bought him a 20-volume set of The Book of Knowledge, a children's encyclopedia.

After earning a master's from Columbia, he spent a few years teaching high school English, then applied for 200 jobs as a college professor. He was offered two. So he headed out to Corvallis, Oregon, to teach at Oregon State, a land grant university that wouldn't let him teach any classes on literature, only Freshman Composition — four sections of the same class, every semester. He taught there for 12 years and published some of his best-known novels, including The Natural (1952), The Assistant (1957), and The Magic Barrel (1958). After Malamud won the National Book Award for The Magic Barrel, he was finally allowed to teach literature classes. Three years later, he was offered a position at Bennington College in Vermont, where he taught for the rest of his career.

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