Mar. 30, 2014

Train Ride

by Ruth Stone

All things come to an end;
small calves in Arkansas,
the bend of the muddy river.
Do all things come to an end?
No, they go on forever.
They go on forever, the swamp,
the vine-choked cypress, the oaks
rattling last year's leaves,
the thump of the rails, the kite,
the still white stilted heron.
All things come to an end.
The red clay bank, the spread hawk,
the bodies riding this train,
the stalled truck, pale sunlight, the talk;
the talk goes on forever,
the wide dry field of geese,
a man stopped near his porch
to watch. Release, release;
between cold death and a fever,
send what you will, I will listen.
All things come to an end.
No, they go on forever.

"Train Ride" by Ruth Stone from In the Next Galaxy. © Copper Canyon Press, 2002. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Vincent Van Gogh, born in Zundert, Holland (1853). He's the painter of sunflowers and starry nights whose work was just beginning to be acknowledged when he committed suicide at the age of 37. His brother Theo was an art dealer, and for years he had supplied Van Gogh with a small monthly stipend; in return, Van Gogh gave his brother every canvas he painted. He wrote thousands of letters to Theo. In one letter he wrote: "How much sadness there is in life. The right thing is to work." He moved to a small town north of Paris and painted feverishly until insanity overtook him. Two days before he died, he wrote: "I feel a failure. That's it as far as I'm concerned — I feel that this is the destiny that I accept, that will never change."

It's the birthday of the woman who wrote Black Beauty (1877), Anna Sewell (books by this author), born in Yarmouth, England (1820). When she was 14 years old, she fell while running and injured her ankles so badly that she had trouble walking for the rest of her life. She became dependent on horses for transportation, and drove her father to and from work every day on the family's horse-drawn carriage.
She didn't start writing Black Beauty until the final years of her life, when she was confined to her house because of her ankle injuries. Black Beauty is subtitled "The autobiography of a horse, Translated from the original equine." It's narrated by the horse himself, who was based on one of the horses Anna grew up with. The novel is full of detailed passages about how to care for horses, and it was largely thanks to Sewell that several laws against the mistreatment of horses were established in England.

On this day in 1867, the United States agreed to purchase Alaska from Russia for the sum of $7.2 million dollars. It had belonged to Russia for about 125 years, since Russians had been the first European explorers to get to the place and had proclaimed it their territory in 1741.

The American Civil War ended in 1865, and a couple of years later, on this day in 1867, the deal to buy Alaska was negotiated and signed by President Andrew Johnson's secretary of state, William Seward. He announced that someday this big chunk of land would be a U.S. state. The American public by and large was not sold on the purchase of frozen tundra. People thought it was a ridiculous amount of money to spend on a faraway place, which they alternately referred to as Andrew Johnson's "polar bear garden" and "Seward's Icebox." In fact, the purchase became commonly known as "Seward's Folly."

But then gold was discovered there in the 1890s and the Klondike Gold Rush followed, with tens of thousands of people heading north to try to strike it rich. They settled in as fishers and miners and trappers and producers of minerals, and Alaska was granted territorial status in 1912. It became the 49th state of the union, the largest one (consisting of 663,268 square miles) and also the least densely populated state. In 1968, oil was discovered at the far northern part of the state, at Prudhoe Bay. A pipeline was built and began to pump oil in 1977, and now the area near Prudhoe Bay is the largest oil field in the U.S.

It's the birthday of novelist Jon Hassler (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1933). He's known for writing novels about ordinary people in the upper Midwest, including Dear James (1993), Rookery Blues (1995) and The Dean's List (1997).

He grew up in Plainview, Minnesota, and began working at the local grocery store when he was 11 years old. He liked to watch the customers and listen to their gossip, and he came to know almost everyone in his town by sight. He later said: "I've always thought of the Red Owl Grocery Store in Plainview, Minnesota, as my training ground, for it was there that I acquired the latent qualities necessary to the novelist, namely ... endurance, patience, resilience, and sound working habits, and ... the fun of picking the individual out of a crowd and the joy of finding the precise words to describe him. I dare say nobody ever got more nourishment than I did out of a grocery store."

He taught at high schools and community colleges for 20 years before he began writing seriously. His first novel, Staggerford, came out in 1977, when Hassler was 42 years old. By that point, he had amassed a collection of 85 rejection slips.

His first big success was The Love Hunter (1981), about two friends who teach at a small Minnesota college, one of whom is dying of multiple sclerosis. When they go on a hunting trip together, the healthy man decides to kill the dying man, to end his pain and so that he can marry his wife, whom he is secretly in love with.

In an interview, he said: "I want my books to be accessible, I want people to just step into them and not have any barrier between them and the story — which means the prose shouldn't even be noticeable. But it takes a lot of work to make it not noticeable, I find."

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




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