Jul. 16, 2014

The Sound of Sunlight

by Todd Davis

On the far side
of the canyon
is burning
through two
like water
into an empty

A canyon wren
her mouth
and a coyote
mid trail
before vanishing
among juniper.

As we descend
the eastern wall
we look
and witness
the shadow
of a merlin
the merlin

Behind us
in the meadow
where we lay
last night
the squall
of an elk
picks up
the sound
of sunlight
and joins it
in a flood
of bugling.

"The Sound of Sunlight" by Todd Davis from In the Kingdom of the Ditch. © Michigan State University Press, 2013. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

George Washington signed the Residence Act, establishing the site of the U.S. capital on the east bank of the Potomac River on this date in 1790. The issue had been a matter of much Congressional debate for the past few years. Eventually, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton worked out a compromise: the capital would be placed in the South, and in return, Madison would agree to let the federal government assume the states' war debt. The Residence Act mandated that the capital site not exceed 100 square miles, and that it should lie on the Potomac River somewhere between the Anacostia River and the Conococheague, a creek that flows into the Potomac. At first glance, the marshy, mosquito-ridden site seemed an unlikely place for a capital, but George Washington saw potential in the area's many rivers.

The act also established Philadelphia as a temporary capital while the exact location was figured out and a plan drawn up for the layout of the city — a process that took 10 years. Washington hired a French architect and city planner named Pierre L'Enfant to design this new city. L'Enfant studied the maps of several European cities and chose what he thought were the best elements of each. He figured out where all the important government buildings would go, connected them with diagonal-running avenues, and then overlaid a grid of streets. The layout resulted in lots of little triangular spaces, which were perfect for statues and monuments. But L'Enfant grew too ambitious, and Washington fired him in 1792. The federal government began moving into Washington, D.C., in 1800, but George Washington, who died in 1799, never lived in the city that bore his name. John Adams was the first president to occupy the White House.

Today is the birthday of St. Clare of Assisi, born 1194. As the eldest daughter of a wealthy family, she was expected by her parents to marry well, and they began trying to fix her up with eligible bachelors when she was only 12. She managed to convince them to wait until she was 18, but by that time she preferred to go and listen to the young and radical Francis of Assisi preaching the gospel. One Palm Sunday, she ran away in the middle of the night to give her vows to Francis. He cut her hair, dressed her in black, and brought her to a group of Benedictine nuns. Later, he moved her to the Church of San Damiano, where she embraced a life of extreme poverty, after the example set by Jesus. Claire's sister Agnes eventually ran away to join her, and so did other women, and the order became known as the "Poor Ladies." They spent their time in prayer and manual labor, and refused to own any property.

Clare defended her lifestyle of poverty and sacrifice by saying: "There are some who do not pray nor make sacrifices; there are many who live solely for the idolatry of their senses. There should be compensation. There should be someone who prays and makes sacrifices for those who do not do so. If this spiritual balance is not established, earth would be destroyed by the evil one."

Throughout her tenure as abbess, Clare fought for the right to adopt her Rule of Life as the official governing policy of the Poor Ladies, rather than the Rule of St. Benedict, which was more lax. She was the first woman to write the rule for a religious order, and Pope Innocent IV finally granted her request just two days before she died at the age of 59. She was canonized two years after her death, and eventually the Poor Ladies became known as the Order of St. Clare, or the "Poor Clares."

In 1958, Pope Pius XII designated St. Clare as the patron saint of television, because when she became bedridden near the end of her life, it's said she was able to see and hear an image of the Mass on the wall of her room. And it was a Poor Clare nun, Mother Angelica, who founded the Eternal Word Television Network.

The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (books by this author), was published on this date in 1951. It's about a 16-year-old prep school boy named Holden Caulfield, who is fed up with all the "phonies" and wants to go live in a cabin in California. The book took Salinger 10 years to write, and it was at one time the most banned book and the most frequently taught book in the country.

The book begins: "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth."

And later, Holden says: "I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody's around — nobody big, I mean — except me. And I'm standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff — I mean if they're running and they don't look where they're going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That's all I'd do all day. I'd just be the catcher in the rye and all."

Despite Salinger's hesitations about publicity, The Catcher in the Rye was a sensation. It became a best-seller almost immediately, reaching No. 1 on the New York Times best-seller list after two weeks. It has sold more than 65 million copies.

It's the birthday of religious leader and writer Mary Baker Eddy (books by this author), born in Bow, New Hampshire (1821). As a child, she suffered from a spinal ailment and spent much of her life preoccupied by issues of health. She entered a sanitarium in 1862, where she met Phineas P. Quimby, a man who believed in a "science of health" achieved by direct mental healing that had religious overtones. Baker was seemingly cured, but her suffering recurred after Quimby's death. In 1866, she fell on ice and her suffering increased. She turned to the New Testament and was suddenly healed, which led her to discover what she later called Christian Science, or the "superiority of spiritual over physical power." In 1875, she set down her principles in a voluminous work called Science and Health, and in 1876 founded the Christian Science Association.

It's the birthday of playwright Tony Kushner (books by this author), born in New York City (1956). He's best known for his two-part play Angels in America (1991). He has written many plays since then, including Homebody/Kabul (2001) and The Intelligent Homosexual's Guide to Capitalism and Socialism with a Key to the Scriptures (2009).

Tony Kushner said: "I think that's what theater is about. You believe it and you don't believe it simultaneously, which engages a certain part of your brain that has to do with being skeptical about the nature of what you're experiencing in life. That's why theater is important. You learn to go out into the world after you see a play that you really loved and look at politics and love and all sorts of other human phenomena in the same way. It's real and yet it isn't."

In 1945 on this day, the first atomic bomb exploded at 5:30 a.m., 120 miles south of Albuquerque, New Mexico. People saw a ball of fire that rose rapidly, releasing four times the heat of the interior of the sun, followed by a 40,000 foot mushroom cloud. The bomb was supposed to give the United States "peace through strength." Officials told the New Mexican citizens that an ammunitions dump had blown up. The project's director, Kenneth Bainbridge, watched the column of fire and dust and said, "Now we are all sons of bitches." Today, radiation levels on the spot are still 10 times that of radiation levels found in nature, and the ground is marked by a lava stone obelisk and a plaque that reads, "Where the World's First Nuclear Device Was Exploded on July 16, 1945."

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