May 12, 2014


by Carrie Fountain

Occasionally, I'd wake to the sound of a hot air balloon passing over
the house, a short snarl of flame followed by a long, cool gap of
silence. And once, while everyone was still sleeping, I got on my bike
and followed to where one landed in a field across the highway, where
I stood on the ditch and watched the huge, austere bulb touch down
and the passengers, a boy and his father, climb out of the basket and
the crew deflate the envelope; where after an hour or so, just as I'd
hoped-just as I'd been hoping-someone called me over to help
fold the fabric. It was nothing like I thought it'd be. It was a lot of
waiting and then being spoken to brusquely by men who were not
my father. It did bring about a great feeling of neatness, though,
watching the enormous thing folded and folded and folded again,
until it fit, impossibly, along with the cooled burners, into its own
basket, which was hoisted onto a truck and driven away. Couldn't we
be accounted for in the same way? Didn't we, too, carry our whole
lives in our mouths?

"Mesilla" by Carrie Fountain from Burn Lake. © Penguin, 2010. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

Mormon pioneer William Clayton invented the modern odometer — one that resembles those we use today — on this date in 1847. He invented it during the Mormon migration from Missouri to Utah. He'd been trying to keep track of how far they'd traveled by counting the revolutions of a wagon wheel: 360 revolutions per mile, and he counted them all. But after a few days of that, he got bored. He wrote in his journal: "I walked some this afternoon in company with Orson Pratt and suggested to him the idea of fixing a set of wooden cog wheels to the hub of a wagon wheel, in such order as to tell the exact number of miles we travel each day. He seemed to agree with me that it could be easily done at a trifling expense." A carpenter named Appleton Harmon constructed a device to Clayton's specifications, and Clayton dubbed it the "roadometer." His records of the journey were published in 1848 and proved invaluable to the "Forty-niners" of the Gold Rush the following year.

It's the birthday of novelist and poet Rosellen Brown (books by this author), born in Philadelphia (1939). Her novels include Tender Mercies (1978), Before and After (1992), and Half a Heart (2000). Brown is proud of the fact she sustained a writing career while bringing up two daughters, and she still relies on some of the routines she developed when her kids were small. "I start every day by reading a little something," she told TriQuarterly. "I've always done that in order to change the cadence of what I've been listening to, especially with children around. You know, you start the day saying, 'Yes, there is a matching sock somewhere,' or, you know, 'Hurry up, you'll miss the school bus.' And then I ... had to sit down and try to get into a very different place by reading something. But what that ends up doing to me within a few pages is [it] makes me terribly envious, jealous — makes me want to do it myself."

It's the birthday of the artist and poet Dante Gabriel Rossetti (books by this author), born in London (1828). Rossetti studied art at the Royal Academy and was one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of artists who rejected any art from Raphael onward. They wanted to return to the lush colors and passionate subjects of 15th-century Italian painting. Rossetti was fascinated with medieval culture, especially the legend of King Arthur, and a lot of his subjects were drawn from stories of the Middle Ages. He often wrote sonnets to accompany his paintings and also provided illustrations for his sister Christina's poems. When his wife, Elizabeth, died of a laudanum overdose in 1862, he buried many of his poems with her. Later, his friends persuaded him to exhume the poetry, which he published in 1870. They were sensual and erotic, and caused a scandal.

It's the birthday of Farley Mowat (books by this author), born in Belleville, Ontario (1921). He wrote books of history, young adult novels, and nonfiction books about the people and animals of Canada. He grew up on the Canadian prairie. By the time he was 13, he was going off alone on 30-mile snowshoe trips across the Saskatchewan plains, and he had started his own nature magazine called Nature Lore. Later, he wrote a nature column called "Prairie Pals" for the local newspaper.

When he was 18, he went off to Italy to serve in World War II, and it was there that he started writing his first books. One day, he was sitting in an armored vehicle, bracing himself for the sound of bullets and grenades. He said he felt a "sense of revulsion against my own species," and so he started writing about his dog back home. He later said: "I went back to the only safe place in my mind — my childhood. It was my escape, and it saved my bloody life." The book became The Dog Who Wouldn't Be, and it was published in 1957.

He wrote in that book: "I suspect that at some early moment of his existence he concluded there was no future in being a dog. And so, with the tenacity that marked his every act, he set himself to become something else. Subconsciously he no longer believed that he was a dog at all, yet he did not feel, as so many foolish canines appear to do, that he was human. He was tolerant of both species, but he claimed kin to neither."

Mowat is probably best known for his books about the Canadian Arctic. He first became interested in the Arctic as a teenager, when his great uncle took him on a birdwatching trip in the Arctic tundra. While he was there, he saw a huge herd of caribou moving across the land, and the image has stuck with him for the rest of his life. In the summer of 1947, he took a job with the Canadian government as a biologist in the Northwest Territories. His assignment was to write about wolves and their effect on the caribou population. He found out that it wasn't wolves that were causing the caribou to die out, but human fur trappers, and he wrote about it in Never Cry Wolf (1963). The Russian government banned the slaughter of wolves thanks to Mowat's findings, and the book became a best-seller.

While he was in the Arctic, Mowat was adopted by a small Inuit tribe. They taught him a pidgin version of their language, and he lived with them for more than six months. There were only 40 of the Inuit left, out of a population that had numbered in the thousands. Mowat tried to get the Canadian government to help conserve the Arctic mammals that the Inuit depended on for their survival, and when that didn't work, he wrote a book about them, People of the Deer (1952).

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