Dec. 3, 2012

Today they are cutting down
the old maple in the backyard,

a crew of three men, one
on a machine with long neck

that raises him into high branches;
one who has dismantled a part

of the fence that hugs the tree;
one wearing spikes, his chain saw

and other tools hooked to his belt;
high up, cutting thick branches

among dense leaves, working back
towards the scarred and damaged trunk.

The old maple has blushed faint
green in spring, glowed gold in fall,

spun lace in winter, runway and airport
for squirrels, birds—an owl one year—

a pair of woodpeckers who nested,
laid eggs: a starling killed the chicks.

But it's older than we are old
and might come crashing down.

It's being dismantled, the way
age dismantles, higher branches

cut first, then pruned back
until we can see from the sliced

raw trunk—twelve feet around—
an account of age. At dinner time,

three squirrels, tentative, peer
over the fresh stump,

perplexed that their whole world
has vanished.

"Tree" by Liane Ellison Norman, from Breathing the West: Great Basin Poems. © Bottom Dog Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

The Lerner and Loewe musical Camelot opened on Broadway on this date in 1960. It was an adaptation of The Once and Future King, T.H. White's retelling of the legend of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table (1958). The original cast recording — featuring Richard Burton, Julie Andrews, and Robert Goulet — was a favorite of President Kennedy and his family. Not long after her husband's assassination, Jacqueline Kennedy gave an interview to T.H. White. She told him how her husband would often ask her to play the album at bedtime, to take his mind off his crippling back pain. Kennedy was particularly moved by the final number, in which Arthur knights a young boy on the eve of a great battle, and implores him to keep the legend of Camelot alive. "The song he loved most came at the very end of this record, the last side of Camelot, sad Camelot ...'Don't let it be forgot, that once there was a spot, for one brief shining moment that was known as Camelot.' [...] There'll never be another Camelot again."

Today is the birthday of Joseph Conrad (books by this author), born in Berdichev, Poland (now Ukraine) (1857). His parents had both died of tuberculosis by the time he was 12, so he went to live with his uncle in Switzerland and later joined the merchant navy, sailing all around the world and gathering experiences that he would later use in his novels and stories. The best known of these is Heart of Darkness (1899). It's the story of an English riverboat captain in the Congo who is sent to retrieve an ivory trader, Kurtz, who has been living as a demigod among the African natives. The novella has been adapted several times, beginning with Orson Welles' radio production in 1938. The most famous adaptation moved the novella's action from Africa to southeast Asia and set the story during the Vietnam War: Francis Ford Coppola's 1979 film, Apocalypse Now.

It was on this date in 1919 that the Quebec Bridge, spanning the St. Lawrence River, finally opened to traffic. It was a long time coming; the project had been discussed since 1852, and design and construction finally got underway in 1903. Plans were drawn up for the world's largest cantilever bridge, with an 1,800-foot single span that was 150 feet above the river to accommodate oceangoing ships. It was designed to carry two railway tracks and two streetcar tracks, as well as two automobile roadways. Builders broke ground on the bridge in 1904, but there was an error in the estimated weight of the finished bridge: it was off by more than 8 million pounds. Engineers proceeded anyway, unwilling to stop construction on the greatest bridge in the world.

But in 1907, when it was almost complete, the bridge collapsed, taking the lives of 75 workers. Construction resumed in 1913, and in 1916 the bridge collapsed again, this time killing 13. It finally opened to public traffic on this date in 1919, and remains the world's longest cantilever bridge.

Today is the birthday of British social reformer and philanthropist Octavia Hill, born in Wisbech, Cambridgeshire (1838). When she was 26, she established her first low-income housing project in the slums off of London's Marylebone Road. Her tenements were set up to help the poor find work and improve their material positions, but she didn't neglect the arts. Her housing estates offered music classes, public art spaces, and cultural outings. She came to see the importance of open spaces after seeing the cramped and overcrowded conditions in which the city's poor were living. She campaigned for the preservation of, as she put it, "a few acres where the hill top enables the Londoner to rise above the smoke, to feel a refreshing air for a little time and to see the sun setting in coloured glory which abounds so in the Earth God made." With that goal in mind, she co-founded Britain's National Trust for Places of Historic Interest and Natural Beauty in 1895. This year marks the 100th anniversary of her death; when she died in 1912, the National Trust had 713 members; it now has 4 million.

Octavia Hill, who said, "The need of quiet, the need of air, the need of exercise [...] the sight of sky and of things growing seem human needs common to all."

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




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