Apr. 7, 2014

Plains Spadefoot Toad

by Tom Hennen

Toads are smarter than frogs. Like all of us who are not good-
looking they have to rely on their wits. A woman around the
beginning of the last century who was in love with frogs wrote
a wonderful book on frogs and toads. In it she says if you place
a frog and a toad on a table they will both hop. The toad will
stop just at the table's edge, but the frog with its smooth skin
and pretty eyes will leap with all its beauty out into nothing-
ness. I tried it out on my kitchen table and it is true. That may
explain why toads live twice as long as frogs. Frogs are better at
romance though. A pair of spring peepers were once observed
whispering sweet nothings for thirty-four hours. Not by me.
The toad and I have not moved.

"Plains Spadefoot Toad" by Tom Hennen, from Darkness Sticks to Everything. © Copper Canyon Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of author Marjory Stoneman Douglas (books by this author), born in Minneapolis, Minnesota (1890). She was a lifelong crusader for the preservation of the Florida Everglades and is best remembered for her book Everglades: River of Grass (1947). She wrote: "There are no other Everglades in the world ... Nothing anywhere else is like them: their vast glittering openness ... the racing free saltness and sweetness of their massive winds, under the blue heights of space ... the simplicity, the diversity, the related harmony of the forms of life they enclose ... It is a river of grass."

It's the birthday of sitarist Ravi Shankar born in Benares, India (1920). He was the first Indian instrumentalist to be known internationally and is largely responsible for bringing his country's music to the West. He became friends with Beatles' member George Harrison in the late 1960s, and Harrison began to incorporate Indian music into the Beatles' songs.

Shankar once said: "When I play ... I really lose a lot of contact with the outside world ... I try to feel things within me. ... It is that feeling of extreme sadness ... the very sad longing to be with something that I have not been able to attain. And that is what I try to do in my musical notes. I try to get nearer and nearer, and when I feel nearer ... I feel a certain peace."

It's the birthday of jazz singer Billie Holiday, born Eleanora Fagan in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (1915). She was never professionally trained, but by the time she was 18, she had spent more time performing in clubs than performers twice her age. When she recorded with Benny Goodman, her career took off, and she went on to work with Artie Shaw and Lester Young, who gave her the nickname "Lady Day." One of her most famous songs was "Strange Fruit." It was written by Abel Meeropol, a Jewish schoolteacher and union activist, who was disturbed by a photograph of a lynching. Meeropol performed it at various leftist events, and at one of these fundraisers it caught the attention of a director at Café Society, a famous Greenwich Village nightclub. The manager took the song to Billie Holiday, and it became a staple of her live act. It was always her last song, and right beforehand, the club would stop serving, quiet everyone, and put a spotlight on Holiday. Her performance of "Strange Fruit" became a sensation, and the record became her biggest seller. In 1999 TIME magazine named "Strange Fruit" the "song of the century."

Studs Terkel saw a performance of Holiday's in 1956, and he wrote: "When she went into 'Willow, Weep for Me,' you wept. You looked about and saw that the few other customers were also crying in their beer and shot glasses. Nor were they that drunk. Something was still there, that something that distinguishes an artist from a performer: the revealing of the self. Here I be. Not for long, but here I be. In sensing her mortality, we sensed our own."

Today is the birthday of the English Romantic poet William Wordsworth (books by this author), born in Cockermouth, Cumbria (1770). He and his four siblings were orphaned while he was still a student at Hawkshead Grammar School. He was always a fan of long hikes, and in 1790 he took a break from college at Cambridge to embark on a walking tour of Europe. While hiking through the Alps, he found inspiration in nature, and later said, "Perhaps scarce a day of my life will pass by in which I shall not derive some happiness from those images." After he left the Alps, he spent some time in France during the French Revolution, and through his exposure to it, Wordsworth became interested in the "common man" — mainly his voice and his concerns. He also fathered a daughter, Caroline, out of wedlock, but didn't stick around; he had to go back to England before she was born. Due to the conflict between England and France, he wasn't able to visit his daughter until she was nine years old, but he did the best he could to provide for her and her mother.

Wordsworth's most important professional collaboration was with friend and fellow poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Together they published Lyrical Ballads (1798). The collection contained some of the poets' most famous works, like Coleridge's "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and Wordsworth's "Lines written a few miles above Tintern Abbey." Most critics panned the book and Wordsworth's poems, which were about ordinary subjects and were written in the "real language of men," as Wordsworth called it, rather than elevated poetic language.

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