Jul. 20, 2012

Porcupine at Dusk

by Ingrid Wendt

Out of the bunch grass
              out of the cheat grass
              a bunch of grass waddles
                    my way.

Quill-tips bleached by winter four
              inches down: crown of glory dark
              at the roots: a halo
                            catching the sun's
                            final song:

No way could such steady
              oblivion possibly live
              up to legend, whatever
                            fear I might have had
                            is gone, but still I stop

Short on my after-dinner walk, no
              collision course if I
              can help it, thinking
                            at first it's the wind,
                            nudging a path out of the field

Or one of a covey of tumbleweed
              lost like those today on the freeway,
              racing ahead of my car that whole long drive
              here to the banks of the Snake, to friends
                            so close they know
                            when to leave me alone.

As though I were nowhere around, the porcupine
              shuffles the edge of the road,
              in five minutes crosses
                            a distance I could have covered
                            in less than one

And disappears at last into cattails
              and rushes, sunset, a vespers
              of waterbirds, leaving me
                            still unwilling to move.

I am a sucker for scenes like this.
              The slowest beauty can rush me.
              And here I am,
                            all of my defenses down.

"Porcupine at Dusk" by Ingrid Wendt, from Surgeon Fish. © WordTech Editions, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy (1933) (books by this author). He was born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island. He's best known as the author of the "Border Trilogy" — All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). Richard Woodward, of the New York Review of Books, called him, "A man's novelist whose apocalyptic vision rarely focuses on women, McCarthy doesn't write about sex, love or domestic issues."

His novel The Road (2006) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.

Earlier this year he announced that he had written a screenplay, called The Counselor. Not too much is known about the project, but it's been described as "[McCarthy's 2005 novel] No Country for Old Men on steroids." Ridley Scott is set to direct the film.

California opened its first freeway on this date in 1940. Known as the Arroyo Seco Parkway, the Pasadena Freeway, or simply "the 110," it was also the first freeway — a high-speed, divided, and limited-access thoroughfare — in the western United States. It runs for just over eight miles and connects Pasadena to Los Angeles.

Today, the Arroyo Seco Parkway remains much as it was in 1940, even though it wasn't designed for the speeds that motorists travel today: There are no acceleration and deceleration lanes, and drivers must go from the on-ramp speed of five miles per hour up to the freeway speed of 55 in a short and hair-raising distance. It was intended to carry about 27,000 cars a day; today, it sees closer to 122,000. But it's still the most direct route from Pasadena into downtown LA.

Today is considered the birthday of Alexander III, otherwise known as Alexander the Great, born in 356 B.C.E.; the exact date is not known. He was born in Pella, Macedonia, the northeastern region of the Greek peninsula.

During his reign, Alexander founded more than 70 new cities, some 20 of which were named after him. He was undefeated in battle, and by the age of 30, he had established the largest empire in the ancient world: At one point, it stretched from the Adriatic Sea to the Indus River in what is now Pakistan. He also presided over many advances in geography and natural history, often bringing scientists with him on military campaigns so that they could collect land samples to study. And he was the subject of legends — it was said that the Temple of Artemis burned down on the day he was born, because the goddess herself had left the temple to attend his birth. Later, the Oracle at Delphi proclaimed him invincible, and he was even rumored to be the son of the god Zeus. He died, possibly of malaria, in Babylon at the age of 32, after an extended drunken celebration.

It's the birthday of the Italian scholar and poet Petrarch (books by this author), born Francesco Petrarca in Arezzo, Tuscany (1304). In 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, he first saw a woman known only as "Laura." Over the course of 40 years, he wrote a series of poems about her that have come to be known as Petrarchan sonnets, poems of 14 lines divided by their rhymes into one section of eight lines and one section of six. Laura died of the plague in 1348, 21 years to the day after he first saw her. And Petrarch himself died in 1374, with his head resting on a manuscript of Virgil.

A Petrarchan sonnet often presents a problem or question in the first eight lines, followed by a response. One famous example is Wordsworth's eulogy of John Milton. In the first section, Wordsworth bemoans the sorry state of England, and then remarks on Milton's qualities that are sorely missed.

London, 1802
Milton! thou shouldst be living at this hour:
England hath need of thee: she is a fen
Of stagnant waters: altar, sword, and pen,
Fireside, the heroic wealth of hall and bower,
Have forfeited their ancient English dower
Of inward happiness. We are selfish men;
Oh! raise us up, return to us again;
And give us manners, virtue, freedom, power.
Thy soul was like a Star, and dwelt apart:
Thou hadst a voice whose sound was like the sea:
Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free,
So didst thou travel on life's common way,
In cheerful godliness; and yet thy heart
The lowliest duties on herself did lay.

The father of modern geneticsGregor Mendel— was born on this date in 1822. He came from Heinzendorf, Austria, now in the Czech Republic. He was expected to take over the family farm as an adult, but he became an Augustinian monk instead, and also studied the anatomy and physiology of plants. In 1854, he began an experimental program in hybridization, which led to his theory of genetics. While growing peas in the monastery garden, Mendel noticed that the plants had several variations: Some had white flowers, some had purple. Some plants grew tall and others remained short. He listed seven traits on which the pea plants differed, and he began crossing the ones that differed in only a single aspect, like the color of the flowers. Over several generations of pea plants, Mendel developed his theory of dominant and recessive traits, and produced a paper on it — but it was ignored. He was eventually made abbot, and much of his time was spent running the monastery. When he died, his papers were burned, and it wasn't until the 1920s that scientists recognized the significance of Mendel's work.

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