What Is It You Plan to Do?

The Summer Day

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean --
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down --
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

Mary Oliver

‘A Tremendous Job of Public Conditioning’

I’ve been reading some of Mari Sandoz‘s works: “Old Jules,” her biography of her father; “Crazy Horse, the Strange Man of the Oglalas”; and “Cheyenne Autumn,” the story of the tribe’s 1878-79 exodus from Oklahoma to Montana.

All of the books were researched and/or written in the 1930s and ’40s, but they’ve aged well, maybe because they are unique in their perspective: a native daughter’s inquiry into her settler father’s brutal and brutalizing past; a white woman who spent so much time with both tribal people that she produced that somehow channel their experience (that’s not just me saying that; Vine Deloria Jr., who chronicled his Sioux people and was fiercely critical of white culture’s misunderstanding of Native Americans, wrote an introduction to “Crazy Horse” and called it “a work of real genius”).

Here’s just one passage, from Sandoz’s preface to “Cheyenne Autumn,” that I find strikingly modern in its perspective — especially in its observation of how, and how rapidly, the white American invasion overwhelmed the Plains tribes:

The Sioux and Cheyenne, Sandoz writes:

… had their “first real encounter with the United States Army in the Grattan fight of 1854. At that time the white men in the region were only a few little islands in a great sea of Indians and buffaloes. Twenty-three years later, in 1877, the buffaloes were about gone and the last of the Indians driven to the reservations—only a few little islands of Indians in a great sea of whites. 

This exploit of modern man is unrivaled in history: the destruction of a whole way of life and the expropriation of a race from a region of 350,000,000 acres in so short a time. It entailed first of all a tremendous job of public conditioning. In the 1830s and 1840s the buffalo Indians were considered the most romantic of peoples, drawing visitors from everywhere. Such men as Prince Paul of Würtemberg, Prince Maximilian, Sir William Drummond Stewart, Catlin, Parkman, and hundreds of others came to ride in the surrounds, to eat roast hump ribs, to study and become one with this great Red Hunter. 

But that was before the white man wanted these Indian lands. The discovery of gold and the rise of economic and political unrest over much of the civilized world, with millions of men hungry for a new start, changed that, and suddenly the romantic Red Hunter was a dirty, treacherous, bloodthirsty savage standing in the way of progress, in the path of manifest destiny. By 1864, with the nation at war ostensibly to free the black man from slavery, the public had been prepared to accept a policy of extermination for the red. …

… After this period of twenty-three years that turned a free hunting people into sullen agency sitters, there was a short series of rebellions. With the buffalo gone, the starving Indians, dismounted and disarmed, were easily shuffled off to land on which no white man could conceivably make a living. Congress now felt free to initiate more cuts in the appropriations for their helpless wards, dropping them far below the treaty stipulations, often to actual starvation levels. By midsummer, 1877, the quiet and peaceful Nez Perce were making their desperate break for survival. The next year the Sioux, Bannocks, Arapahos, Poncas, and others rebelled too, hoping to return to their old homes where the children were healthy and the cooking pots once held meat.”

— Mari Sandoz, “Cheyenne Autumn”

By the way, this week is the 140th anniversary of the Cheyennes’ attempt to break out of Fort Robinson, the northwestern Nebraska outpost where part of the band that escaped from Oklahoma in September 1878 was being held. The breakout, in which more than 60 of the roughly 140 Cheyennes held inside an empty, unheated barracks died, followed the Army’s attempt to starve the imprisoned group into returning to Oklahoma.

Post-Holiday Celebrity Crab

Horseshoe crab on Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York.

Post-Thanksgiving, we’re visiting my brother John and family in Brooklyn. One of John’s favorite spots in the metropolis, or anywhere, is Rockaway Beach, part of the barrier islands that face south across Raritan Bay toward northern New Jersey and the open Atlantic. Even though you’re technically within the city limits, it seems like a long trip, either driving or on the train. Today, John borrowed a car, and we drove out there with a couple of cameras each to walk and take pictures.

We happened across the specimen above soon after getting to the san at Beach 116th Street (and yes, it’s “Beach 116th Street,” and I don’t yet know how the numbered streets in this part of the city came by that designation, though maybe it helps avoid confusion with other numbered streets in the metropolis).

So, that’s a horseshoe crab. And until a week ago, when I first heard a repeat episode of “Radiolab” that explained horseshoe crabs’ unique (and crucial) place in the world of pharmaceuticals and biotechnology, I wasn’t aware that they were significant beyond the fact of their existence. But it turns out it can be quite credibly argued that every modern medical procedure you’re ever undergone — or at least those that involve some interaction with or contact with your blood — has depended on a sort of involuntary gift from an organism that evolved nearly half a billion years ago.

Here’s the link to the “Radiolab” episode: Baby Blue Blood Drive. And here’s the link to (and after that a snippet from) The Atlantic article that inspired the show: “The Blood Harvest.”

The thing about the blood that everyone notices first: It’s blue, baby blue.

The marvelous thing about horseshoe crab blood, though, isn’t the color. It’s a chemical found only in the amoebocytes of its blood cells that can detect mere traces of bacterial presence and trap them in inescapable clots.

To take advantage of this biological idiosyncrasy, pharmaceutical companies burst the cells that contain the chemical, called coagulogen. Then, they can use the coagulogen to detect contamination in any solution that might come into contact with blood. If there are dangerous bacterial endotoxins in the liquid—even at a concentration of one part per trillion—the horseshoe crab blood extract will go to work, turning the solution into what scientist Fred Bang, who co-discovered the substance, called a “gel.”

On Rockaway Beach, Queens, New York.

Road Diary: Atlanta Mockingbirds

I once almost visited Atlanta — made it to a vague part of what I recall to be the northwestern outskirts — in 1972. It is an enduring memory, fogged as it is with the exhaustion and anxiety that attended the episode and a certain amount of lingering regret.

You’d like to hear more — exhaustion? anxiety? regret? — but I’m not going to go into all that right this minute.

I’m in Atlanta for real now for the wedding of a former KQED colleague. And while I have not done a lot of exploring as of yet, I can say that I like the woodsy corner of the city I’ve landed in. The neighborhood is called Kirkwood, adjacent (or at least close) to Decatur in Atlanta’s northeastern quadrant.

One notable finding when I walked to breakfast late this morning — a discovery that may be entirely commonplace to the locals — is the profusion of mockingbirds (Mimus polyglottos) hereabouts.

Checking my own mockingbird history, I see I have posted on them before — in 2014 and again last year. So there’s something about the birds, including the poem “Thus Spake the Mockingbird” and my memory of how brilliantly Kate reads it, that stops me and makes me listen. A passage from said verse:

…I am Lester Young’s sidewinding sax, sending that Pony Express
message out west in the Marconi tube hidden in every torso
tied tight in the corset of do and don’t, high and low, yes and no. I am
the radio, first god of the twentieth century, broadcasting
the news, the blues, the death counts, the mothers wailing
when everyone’s gone home. …

 
So, here is a Kirkwood variation on the mockingbird’s never-ending solo.

Road Blog: Chicago to West Des Moines

Part of the grain elevator complex in Morrison, Illinois, just east of the Mississippi and northeast of the Quad Cities.

I left my power cord back in Chicago, so I will keep this short. After a relaxed, not to say lazy, start of the day, we started rolling at 11. OK — that was kind of lazy.

Made our way out from the North Side out to through the western suburbs on Interstates 294 and 88. Got off of U.S. 30 to continue west at Rock Falls. Right there we had the only weather of the day, driving through a line of thunderstorms that apparently marked a cold front. It was much cooler and drier to the west — 74, for instance, in Morrison, Illinois — see above — where I stopped to check out the local grain elevator scene.

We stayed on U.S. 30 across the Mississippi, through Clinton, Iowa, and on to a hamlet called Calamus. A road sign pointed north to Lost Nation. I kept going, but pulled over half a mile on to consult an actual paper map to see what getting to Lost Nation might involve. Wandering for 8 or 10 miles on country roads, it looked like. We were not under the gun timewise — we were to meet Eamon and Sakura in West Des Moines (they were coming up from Cincinnati, part of their trek from New York to Seattle) — so I did a U-turn and headed up the backroads.

A town of 400 advertising ‘small city security with big city access.’

Lost Nation: The best picture would have been of the road signs pointing out the turn, as the town itself (population 400) proved unprepossessing in our 5-minute visit (it bills itself as offering “small city security with big city access). One wonders about the origins of the name, and the stories that have found their way into print suggest both pestilence and a fanciful-sounding Native American tale as the source.

Me, my expectations tend toward pestilence or worse. Not too far down the road, we passed a sign saying, “Limited government under God: Vote Republican.”

We stopped to see what locals advertise as the world’s biggest wooden nickel, just outside Iowa City. After that, we got on Interstate 80 for the rest of the trip west. Eamon and Sakura got to the hotel nearly at the same moment we did (they would have beaten us, but stopped by the Iowa state capitol building on the way). Then dinner. Then back to our hotel, the Sheraton, and back on the road early in the morning.

California woman with local socio-political attraction near Iowa City.

From Above: Bowknot Bend

Above, a shot from a flight from Nashville to Oakland in April 2016. I always take a window seat. I hardly ever watch the in-flight movies. The the window is my in-flight movie.

Every once in a while, I’ll actually get a half-decent picture of some dramatic piece of landscape. I was reasonably sure that this was the Green River someplace in eastern Utah. Checking Google Maps and Gmaps Pedometer, this place is 25 miles due west of Moab and 28 miles south-southeast of Green River, Utah. The perspective is looking north from just south of the bend.

Here’s the spot on Google Earth’s satellite view: www.google.com/maps/@38.6054343,-110.0189264,9139m/data=!…

Here’s a U.S. Geological Survey map of the area: www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=6925846

Here’s a NASA Earth Observatory image, shot from the north, looking south: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83353

From the NASA writeup: “Bowknot was named by geologist John Wesley Powell in 1869 during one of his famous explorations of the rivers in the American West. The Green River flows south (toward the top of this image) and joins the Colorado River downstream. The combined flow of these rivers was responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon, some 325 kilometers (200 miles) away from Bowknot.”

And finally, here’s Powell’s journal entry, dated July 15, 1869, of traveling down this stretch of the Green River:

About six miles below noon camp we go around a great bend to the right, five miles in length, and come back to a point within a quarter of a mile of where we started. Then we sweep around another great bend to the left, making a circuit of nine miles, and come back to a point within six hundred yards of the beginning of the bend. In the two circuits we describe almost the figure 8. The men call it a bow knot of river so we name it Bow knot Bend. The line of the figure is fourteen miles in length.

There is an exquisite charm in our ride to day down this beautiful cañon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved, and grandly arched; of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places, so as to almost deceive the eye and suggest the thought, to the beholder, that he is looking into profound depths. We are all in fine spirits, feel very gay, and the badinage of the men is echoed from wall to wall. Now and then we whistle, or shout, or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.

At night we camp on the south side of the great Bow knot, and, as we eat our supper, which is spread on the beach, we name this Labyrinth Cañon.

‘Is Everybody OK?’

I’ve written before — a while ago — about the terrible early days of June 1968.

I’m a little puzzled that I could be reflecting on the 50th anniversary of anything. I’m like the old guy in 1968 looking back on the end of the Great War.

But here we are. Fifty years ago on this date, immediately after declaring victory in the California primary, and just moments after 14-year-old me turned off the TV election coverage and went to bed, an assassin shot Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles.

If you listen to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” you might have heard this StoryCorps segment, which features a man who came to the mortally wounded Kennedy’s aid. If you were alive at the time, you remember the photograph of that scene.

The segment brought that night and that terrible loss back in a rush. The most poignant moment: Juan Romero, the hotel worker who tried to help Kennedy, saw the senator’s lips moving as he lay on the floor. Romero says he put his head down so he could hear Kennedy’s words. He was asking, “Is everybody OK?”

The National Joy Smoke

I think we all have an idea what the national joy smoke is today. It’s not Prince Albert, in the can or otherwise.

But a hundred years ago? I just encountered the ad below while fishing around for newspaper mentions, circa 1917, of one of my dad’s uncles. The ad here appeared in the Warren Sheaf, still published in Marshall County, Minnesota — just northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The ad copy (early “Mad Men,” transcribed below) is not to be missed.

A World War I-era ad for Prince Albert tobacco.

Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nails some Prince Albert for packing.

Just between ourselves, you never will wise-up to high-spot-smoke-joy until you can call a pipe b its first name, then, to hit the peak-of-pleasure you land square on that two-fisted-man-tobacco, Prince Albert!

Well, sire, you’ll be so all-fired happy you’ll want to get a photograph of yourself breezing up the pike with your smokethrottle wide open! Talk about smoke-sport!

Quality makes Prince Albert so appealing all along the smoke line. Men who never before could smoke a pipe and men who’ve smoked pipes for years all testify to the delight it hands out! P.A. can’t bite or parch! Both are cut out by our exclusive patented process!

Right now while the going’s good you get out your old pipe or the papers and land on some P.A. for what ails your particular smoke appetite!

You buy Prince Albert everywhere tobacco is sold. Toppy red bags, tidy red zinc, handsome pound and half pound humidors—and—that classy, practical pound crystal humidor with sponge moistener took that keeps the tobacco in such perfect condition.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Winston-Salem, N.C.

‘The Essence of Poverty’

A random radio mention of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and its connection to the story of Annie Sullivan, celebrated as “The Miracle Worker” for her role in the education of Helen Keller and the blind and deaf in general, leads me here:

Anne Sullivan Macy: Miracle Worker, from the American Foundation for the Blind.

And to this quote from her biography:

The essence of poverty, is shame. Shame to have been overwhelmed by ugliness, shame to be the hole in the perfect pattern of the universe. In that moment an intense realization of the ugliness of my appearance seized me. I knew that the calico dress which I had thought rather pretty when they put it on me was the cause of the woman’s pity, and I was glad that she could not see the only other garment I had on … the inadequacy of my outfit did not dawn upon me until the woman pitied me.”

(I wound up reading the entire AFB “gallery” on Annee Sullivan. What a story.)

After the Dog

So it’s been two weeks since The Dog’s departure — don’t worry, this is not another 3,000-word canine bio — and he still flickers in and out of daily life.

For example: I’m realizing that I always thought about Scout when I left the house. How long would I be gone and how would he handle it? And I always thought about him when I came home. How soon could I get him out in the yard or out on a walk? It’s a subtle thing, but he’s still woven into that thinking, many times a day.

Walking nearby streets, I realize Scout’s absence has changed my relationship to the neighborhood; because his relationship to the place had become my relationship to the place — to our neighbors, to all the friends he had and still has here.

End of dog talk for tonight.