Apr. 27, 2014


by Mary Oliver

The text of this poem is no longer available.

"Today" by Mary Oliver from A Thousand Mornings. © The Penguin Press, 2012. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Anglo-Irish writer Mary Wollstonecraft (books by this author), born in London in 1759, one of the first women to argue in favor of equality between the sexes in her book Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792).

It's the birthday of poet and novelist Gilbert Sorrentino (books by this author), born in Brooklyn, New York (1929). His first novel was The Sky Changes, the story of a couple's attempt to save their crumbling marriage by taking a road trip across America.

It's the birthday of the author of the "Madeline" books, Ludwig Bemelmans (books by this author), born in Meran, Tyrol, Austria (1898). The first of the five "Madeline" books tells the story of a young Parisian girl's trip to the hospital to have her appendix removed. He got the idea when he was in the hospital recovering from a bicycle accident and there was a girl in the next room over who had just had her appendix out.

Madeline (1939) begins: "In an old house in Paris that was covered with vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines. In two straight lines they broke their bread and brushed their teeth and went to bed. They smiled at the good and frowned at the bad, and sometimes they were very sad. They left the house at half past nine, in two straight lines, in rain or shine ... the smallest one was Madeline!"

It's the birthday of playwright August Wilson (books by this author), born Frederick August Kittel in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania (1945). His plays include Ma Rainey's Black Bottom (1984), Fences (1987), and The Piano Lesson (1990).

Wilson said: "Confront the dark parts of yourself. ... Your willingness to wrestle with your demons will cause your angels to sing."

It was on this day in 1934 that A Field Guide to the Birds by Roger Tory Peterson was published (books by this author). The son of Swedish and German immigrants, Peterson grew up in Jamestown, a struggling industrial town near the western border of New York state. He was a smart boy, and he skipped two grades. He didn't fit in well with his older classmates, who made fun of him for his obsession with wildlife — they called him "Professor Nuts Peterson." His seventh-grade teacher encouraged him to join the Junior Audubon Club, and this began a lifelong passion for birds. On a field trip, he wandered into the woods with a friend, and they saw a flicker that they thought was dead. He wrote: "When I reached out to touch its back it exploded with life — a stunning sight, flying away with its golden underwings and the red crescent on its nape —I can see it now — the way it was transformed from what we thought was death into intense life. I was tremendously excited with the feeling which I have carried ever since, of the intensity of a bird's life, and its apparent freedom, with this wonderful ability to fly."

Peterson's mother had always encouraged his fascination with nature — she made him nets to catch butterflies and convinced the local druggist to give the boy cyanide for preserving insects. But his father was skeptical of his son's passion, and hoped that he would go to work in a local mill after he graduated from high school, which is exactly what happened. Peterson graduated at the age of 16 and went to work at the Union National Furniture Company, where he was paid $8 a week. His job was to paint Chinese scenes on lacquered wooden cabinets. His manager was impressed by Peterson's artistic skills and told the boy that he should go to art school, not waste his talent at a furniture company.

That same year, Peterson was reading an ornithology magazine at the library, and he saw a notice for the next meeting of the American Ornithologists' Union at a natural history museum in New York City. Part of the meeting would include a show of bird art, and Peterson submitted two paintings. They were both accepted, and so at the age of 17 his work was shown alongside the best bird illustrators in the country.

After two years of working at the mill, Peterson took off for New York City for art school and then got a job teaching science at a private school for boys, in Boston. There, he joined the country's oldest ornithological group, called the Nuttall Club. He also began working on a bird guide with a new system for identification — grouping species with similar characteristics and using arrows to point out the differences between them. He submitted it to New York City publishers but was repeatedly turned down. He discovered that a fellow member of the Nuttall Club named Francis Allen was an editor at Houghton Mifflin, so he took the manuscript to him. Allen was impressed. To make sure that Peterson's illustrations were accurate, Allen took the manuscript to a Harvard ornithology professor and asked him to identify the species from across the room. The professor had no trouble doing so, and Houghton Mifflin agreed to publish A Field Guide to the Birds.

Since printing full-color plates was expensive, Houghton Mifflin printed just 2,000 copies, which cost $2.75 each. To make sure they wouldn't lose too much money if the book was a flop, Peterson's contract stated that he would not receive any royalties on the first thousand books, and 10 cents per copy on the second thousand. A Field Guide to the Birds sold out its first printing in one week. By Peterson's death in 1996, more than 7 million copies had been sold.

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