The Writer’s Almanac for July 20, 2018

Sonnet 18, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” by William Shakespeare. Public domain. (buy now)

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed;
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st;
Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.


It was on this day in 1875 that the largest recorded swarm of locusts in American history descended upon the Great Plains. An estimated 3.5 trillion locusts made up the swarm. It was about 1,800 miles long and 110 miles wide, ranging from Canada down to Texas.

Swarms would occur once every seven to 12 years, emerging from river valleys in the Rocky Mountains and sweeping east across much of the country. The size of the swarms tended to grow when there was less rain, and in 1873, the American West began to go through one of its driest periods on record.

The land was still relatively dry on this day in 1875 when farmers just east of the Rocky Mountains began to see a cloud approaching from the west. Some farmers noticed the distinctive color of the cloud, glinting around the edges where the locust wings caught the light of the sun.

People there that day said that the locusts descended like a driving snow in winter, covering everything in their path. Some people described the sound of the swarm landing as like thunder or a train. The locusts blanketed the ground, nearly a foot deep. Trees bent over with the weight of the insects, and large tree limbs broke off under the pressure.

They ate nearly every living piece of vegetation in their path, as well as harnesses on horses, the bark of trees, curtains, and clothing hung on laundry lines. They gnawed on fence posts and railings, and they especially loved the handles of farm tools, which were left behind polished, as if by fine sandpaper. Some farmers tried to scare away the locusts by running into the swarm, and they had their clothes eaten right off their bodies.

In the wake of the swarm, settlers on half a million square miles of the West faced starvation. Similar locust swarms occurred in the following years, and farmers became desperate. But by the mid-1880s, the rains had returned, and the swarms died down. Most scientists predicted that the locusts would return with the next drought. Mysteriously, they did not. Within a few decades they were believed to be extinct. For most of the 20th century, no one knew what had happened to the locusts, but recent evidence suggests that the cultivation of the land on the Great Plains changed the geography so much so quickly that the Rocky Mountain locust was unable to adapt. The last two live specimens of the Rocky Mountain locust were collected in 1902, and those specimens are now stored at the Smithsonian Institution. 


It’s the birthday of Italian scholar and poet Francesco Petrarca, better known as Petrarch (books by this author), born in 1304 in Arezzo, Tuscany. As a teenager, he developed what he later called “an unquenchable thirst for literature,” in spite of his father’s insistence that he study law. He loved classical literature above all, and he was also a devout Catholic; he saw continuity in the ideals of the classics and the Bible, and managed to combine the best of both into one worldview. That’s why he’s considered the father of European humanism. When his father died in 1326, Petrarch left his law studies and went to Avignon, where he worked in clerical positions that allowed him time to work on his own writing. In 1341, Rome and Paris both wanted to crown him their poet laureate; with his love of the classics, Rome was really his only choice. He was crowned on April 8, on Capitoline Hill, the first poet laureate in a thousand years, and when the ceremony was done, he place his laurel wreath in St. Peter’s Basilica, on the apostle’s tomb.

On April 6, 1327, in the Church of St. Clare in Avignon, he first saw a woman we know only as “Laura.” We don’t know why she rejected him, or if they even spoke at all, and we don’t know anything about who she is. He revealed nothing about her, but wrote a series of poems about her over the course of 40 years, not in Latin but in everyday Italian. His unrequited love for her is central to the collection, but he was also pondering religion, poetry, and politics. Out of the 366 poems in the collection, 316 of them were in sonnet form, and he gave his name to that particular style of sonnet, which we now know as “Italian” or “Petrarchan.” As a body of work, Il Canzoniere, or “The Songbook,” as the collection is called, traces not only his feelings for her, but also the evolution of his own spiritual life and his renunciation of the world in favor of trust in God.

The plague, known as the Black Death, claimed many of his friends in 1348. Laura was one of its victims. She died on April 6, 21 years to the day after he first saw her. Petrarch himself died in 1374, with his head resting on a manuscript by Virgil. 


It’s the birthday of novelist Cormac McCarthy (1933) (books by this author). He was born Charles McCarthy Jr. in Providence, Rhode Island. He’s best known as the author of the “Border Trilogy” — All the Pretty Horses (1992), The Crossing (1994), and Cities of the Plain (1998). Richard Woodward, of the New York Review of Books, called him, “A man’s novelist whose apocalyptic vision rarely focuses on women, McCarthy doesn’t write about sex, love or domestic issues.”

His novel The Road (2006) was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.


The father of modern genetics — Gregor Mendel — was born on this date in 1822. He came from Heinzendorf, Austria, now in the Czech Republic. He was expected to take over the family farm as an adult, but he became an Augustinian monk instead, and also studied the anatomy and physiology of plants. In 1854, he began an experimental program in hybridization, which led to his theory of genetics. While growing peas in the monastery garden, Mendel noticed that the plants had several variations: Some had white flowers, some had purple. Some plants grew tall and others remained short. He listed seven traits on which the pea plants differed, and he began crossing the ones that differed in only a single aspect, like the color of the flowers. Over several generations of pea plants, Mendel developed his theory of dominant and recessive traits, and produced a paper on it — but it was ignored. He was eventually made abbot, and much of his time was spent running the monastery. When he died, his papers were burned, and it wasn’t until the 1920s that scientists recognized the significance of Mendel’s work.

 


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It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

I was at a family gathering Friday night at which there was no fulminating, no laments, which is rare for us Democrats. Justice Kavanaugh was barely mentioned, nor the name that rhymes with “lump.” We were there in honor of love, to meet a nephew who has moved faraway — common, for bright young ambitious people — and his French girlfriend, Kate. Matthew is a smart studious engineer, working out on a frontier that an old English major like me cannot comprehend, and it was lovely seeing him with his arm around this woman and hers around him. She is French, from Normandy, an engineer too.

There were thirty of us, retirees, small children, those in between, and surely it was the presence of small children that helped save us from ripping into the forces of evil and ignorance, and also the presence of Kate who clearly makes Matthew happy in a way that algorithms cannot. And then there was Fiona, a 17-year-old Chinese exchange student spending the year with my niece and her adoptive Chinese daughter. Fiona has a beautiful radiant smile that sees her through the twisty pitfalls of English. It’s a pleasure to talk to that radiance. Apple pie with ice cream was a novelty to her, and she was curious about Christmas, which she’s never experienced, and so we sang “Silent Night” to her, a sweet transcultural moment. She was touched.

I was the one who ventured (briefly) into politics and righteousness and discovered, talking about Mr. Lump, that Kate does not understand the words “corrupt,” “mendacious,” “bully,” though she does know “dishonest” (malhonnête). The word “mendacious” is not useful in love nor in engineering: it leads to nothing. I gave up on that line of conversation and turned to writing her a limerick.

A young French woman named Kate
Came into our family late
And brought savoir-faire
And amour, mon cher,
And made our Matt a good mate.

Thanks to great leaps in engineering, Fiona is able to FaceTime with her people in China on a regular basis, very cheaply, and not feel so stranded as exchange students felt back in my day. Smart people like Kate and Matthew have bestowed great benefits: look around you. Fiona will return to China with memories of American warmth and jollity. The couples at the supper, six of us, are reminded of our own courting days, which, praise God, can continue for decades if we avoid dishonesty and bullying.

I was brought up in the midst of righteous people (no dancing, no drinking, no movies, no TV, no rambunctious play on the Lord’s Day) and have an enormous capacity for it myself, but the urge seems to diminish in old age. When in the midst of warm family feeling, an old man should put his collection of lectures in his back pocket and tend to more important business, which is sitting down beside a very shy child and trying to make her smile.

Shyness runs in my family. I have plenty of my own and am capable of sitting silent and frozen in the midst of strangers. I did a radio show and could talk a blue streak to invisible people, but in real life I still have a 13-year-old adolescent inside me. This awkwardness goes hand in hand with arrogance, which is a plague for us Democrats since we are right about almost everything.

I sat down besides my great-niece and instead of asking probing questions about her schooling, I asked, “Do you know how many counties there are in Minnesota?” She shook her head. “Eighty-seven,” I said, and I recited them rapidly in alphabetical order, “Aitkin, Anoka, Becker, Beltrami,” and so on. This made her grin. It’s a simple trick, requiring no great intelligence, and it works like a charm. She was amused. She smiled at me again when the evening ended and gave me a slight hug.

It was a hard week, a steady drizzle of anger in the news, the words “divisive” and “divisiveness” everywhere you looked, and at the risk of sounding naïve, I must say it was a pleasure to sit down to hotdish and pie in honor of young love and bite my tongue when tempted to fulminate and rant.

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Writing

It is a good and pleasant thing not to rant

It’s the details of a story that give it life, not the high moral outlook of the thing, but many people find details confusing: it’s righteousness they crave, righteousness as a rationale for anger, and so you have the current surge in harangues and fulminations and the rarity of true storytelling. It’s just human nature. But it’s sad to see.

Read More

Standing around, watching people suffer

The annual marathon ran by our house in St. Paul Sunday morning, a phalanx of flashing lights of police motorcycles, followed by Elisha Barno of Kenya and other African runners, and later the women’s winner, Sinke Biyadgilgn, and a stream of thousands of others, runners, joggers, walkers, limpers. For the sedentary writer standing on the curb, it’s a vision of hard work I am very grateful not to have undertaken. In the time I’d spend training to run 26 miles and 385 yards, I could write a book. When you finish a marathon, all you have to show for it is a pile of damp smelly clothes.

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Columnist salutes a brother columnist, a red one

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Old man goes to hear an old man sing

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My weekend in Manhattan: a memoir

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