Sep. 23, 2013

How It Is with Us, and How It Is with Them

by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"How It Is with Us, and How It Is with Them" by Mary Oliver, from Dog Songs. © Penguin, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It was on this day in 1806 that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark returned to St. Louis, Missouri, after a journey that had lasted almost two and a half years and covered 8,000 miles. Lewis, Clark, and their crew had traveled all the way to the Pacific Ocean and back, exploring the new territory that Thomas Jefferson had added to the nation through the Louisiana Purchase.

Lewis and Clark each kept detailed journals, which is why we know so much about their trip. During the expedition itself, however, they had very limited communication with anyone back home. They left St. Louis in the spring of 1804 and spent their first winter at an encampment on the Missouri River in what is now North Dakota. In May of 1805, they set off west from their encampment into unknown territory. They were worried that they wouldn't survive and Jefferson would never receive any findings from the trip. So in April of 1805, they sent a large keelboat back down the river to St. Louis — accompanied by the least helpful of the expedition's members. They included some private letters to friends and family, but mostly reports for Jefferson. They wrote extensively about the new plants, animals, landscapes, and people that they encountered. They were especially amazed by some of the animals — grizzly bears, antelope, and endless herds of buffalo. Along with descriptions, maps, weather data, accounting records, and journals, the keelboat included all sorts of objects. There were skeletons and skins, antlers, dried plants and rocks. There were Native American artifacts, including a cooking pot, a bow and arrows, corn, and a buffalo skin beautifully painted with a battle scene. And there were live animals: four magpies, a sharp-tailed grouse, and a prairie dog that the men had captured the summer before in South Dakota and kept alive in a cage for months. The keelboat traveled down the Missouri River to St. Louis, at which point everything was transferred to another boat and taken down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and from there put on a ship in the Gulf of Mexico and taken up to Washington, D.C. The reports and specimens reached Jefferson in August, by which point Lewis and Clark were at the present-day border of Idaho and Montana. It was the last news that anyone would hear of the expedition until their return to St. Louis.

So when Lewis and Clark did return, everyone was astonished. Two days earlier they had arrived in St. Charles, Missouri; expedition member Sergeant John Ordway wrote in his journal: "Towards evening we arrived at St. Charles fired three rounds and Camped at the lower end of the Town. The people of the Town gathered on the bank and could hardly believe that it was us for they had heard and had believed that we were all dead and were forgotten."

When they returned to St. Louis on this day in 1806, Lewis wrote a letter to tell Jefferson the news; it took almost a month to reach the president. Lewis wrote: "It is with pleasure that I announce to you the safe arrival of myself and party ... In obedience to your orders we have penetrated the Continent of North America to the Pacific Ocean, and sufficiently explored the interior of the country to affirm with confidence that we have discovered the most practicable rout which dose exist across the continent by means of the navigable branches of the Missouri and Columbia Rivers."

After some time in St. Louis, the explorers made their way eastward. They stopped at the home of Clark's sister in Louisville, where the citizens threw a banquet and bonfire in their honor. Lewis continued on to Monticello, Jefferson's home in Virginia, to report on the expedition. In late October, Jefferson wrote to Lewis: "I received, my dear sir, with unspeakable joy your letter of Sep. 23 announcing the return of yourself, Capt. Clarke & your party in good health to St. Louis. The unknown scenes in which you were engaged, & the length of time without hearing of you had begun to be felt awfully. Your letter having been 31 days coming, this cannot find you at Louisville & I therefore think it safe to lodge it at Charlottesville. Its only object is to assure you of what you already know my constant affection for you & the joy with which all your friends here will receive you."

It's the birthday of the tragic poet Euripides, (books by this author) born near Athens in 480 B.C.E. Of the three poets of Greek tragedy whose plays survive, Euripides' plays survive in the greatest number. He probably wrote 92 plays, and 19 of them have been preserved. Compared to other tragedians, Euripides portrayed the gods as much more petty and uncaring, and he made his characters more human, flawed and fully rounded. He was also one of the first writers to treat women as major characters in his plays.

It's the birthday of singer and songwriter Bruce Springsteen, born in Freehold, New Jersey (1949). He was a working-class kid, his father taking odd jobs, his mother working as a secretary to support the family. He didn't do well in school, and people thought he was weird because he didn't seem to have any ambition for anything. Then, one day, he saw Elvis Presley perform on TV and that inspired him to scrape together $18 to buy a battered secondhand guitar. By the time he was 14, he was playing in local bands on the bar circuit.

Springsteen was the leader of a series of hard rock bands with names like the Rogues, the Steel Mill, and Dr. Zoom and the Sonic Boom. He played at private parties, trailer parks, prisons, state mental hospitals, and even a shopping center parking lot. His first album, Greetings from Asbury Park, came out in 1973. He continued writing songs that struck a chord with audiences — songs about cops, firefighters, soldiers, road builders, steelworkers, factory laborers, and migrant workers — and 10 years later, his album Born in the U.S.A. (1984) became the best-selling album in Columbia Records history.

His most recent album Wrecking Ball (2012) was released last year.

Bruce Springsteen said: "If I have a good trait, it's probably relentlessness. I'm a hound dog on the prowl. I can't be shook!"

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




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