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Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Writer's Almanac for January 11, 2012

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Jan. 11, 2012

The Writer's Almanac with Garrison Keillor

Joyce Sutphen - Visit the Writer's Almanac Bookshelf to read an interview with Minnesota's new Poet Laureate



by Charles Simic

After a Walker Evans photograph from the thirties

Hard times brought them out early
On this dreary stretch of road
Carrying a suitcase and a bedroll
With a frying pan tied to it,
The kind you use over a campfire
When a moss-covered log is your pillow.

He's hopeful and she's ashamed
To be asking a stranger to take them
Away from here in a cloud of flying
Gravel and dust, past leafless trees
With their snarled and pointy little twigs.
A man and a woman catching a ride
To where water tastes like cherry wine.

She'll work as a maid or a waitress,
He'll pump gas or rob banks.
They'll buy a car as big as a hearse
To make their fast getaway,
Not forgetting to stop for you, mister,
If you are down on your luck yourself.

"HITCHHIKERS" by Charles Simic, from My Noiseless Entourage. © Harcourt, 2005. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)

It's the birthday of Aldo Leopold (books by this author), born Rand Aldo Leopold in Burlington, Iowa (1887), the author of the conservation movement's cornerstone text, A Sand County Almanac (1949). As very small boy, he was drawn to the outdoors, and when he heard that Yale was going to begin one of the first forestry graduate programs, he set his mind to attend it. He went on to become one of the nation's first professional foresters.

He defied convention in his work. Assigned to hunt livestock predators in a New Mexico national forest, Leopold began to feel that these bears, wolves, and mountain lions shouldn't necessarily be sacrificed for the sake of local ranchers, and he made the point that removing them had a broader impact on the entire ecosystem. His philosophy ultimately came to argue that humans ought not dominate the land; he popularized the term "wilderness" to mean not grounds for outdoor activity but nature in its own, untended state.

After 15 years in the southwest — during which time he developed the first management plan for the Grand Canyon, wrote the Forest Service's first game and fish handbook, and succeeded in designating the nation's first wilderness area — Leopold started and chaired Wisconsin's graduate program on game management. In 1935, Leopold formed The Wilderness Society with other conservationists.

He bought a worn out farm for $8 an acre near the Wisconsin River, barren and nearly treeless from years of overuse and degradation, in an area known as the "sand counties." With his wife and children, he set about tending a garden, splitting firewood, and eventually planting more than 40,000 pine trees. The farm came to stand as a living example of Leopold's life work and ethic, that peaceful coexistence with nature could be possible, and that the same tools used to destroy land could help to restore it.

Leopold began to document his family's work and set some of his ideas about conservation down in essays that were published in 1948, one week before he died of a heart attack while battling a grass fire. The Sand County Almanac: And Sketches Here and There continues to be one of the world's best-selling natural history books.

It's the birthday of the botanist William Curtis (books by this author), born in Alton, England (1746). A scientist, he directed the Apothecaries' Garden, the world's leading botanic garden, at a time when amateur gardening was booming and exotic plants were available through catalogs. He became an expert authority on how Londoners could grow plants from all over the world.

Curtis worked more than 20 years to produce a six-volume book called Flora Londinensis, a study of flowering plants within a 10-mile radius of London. He commissioned several painters to illustrate botanically precise plant portraits, which he captioned with detailed descriptions and both the scientific and common names. The book was praised in the scientific community for being an important contribution — but it was a financial disaster. Consumers wanted rare and exotic; they were uninterested in what already grew in their backyards. Curtis persisted for a decade, producing two beautiful, large folio volumes — and accruing considerable debt.

So he gave readers what he knew they wanted: The Botanical Magazine, a publication focused on ornamental and exotic plants. Most scientific journals at the time were for scientists; Curtis's magazine was written in more accessible language, and it included the intricate hand-painted engravings similar to those in Flora Londinensis — albeit much smaller. Whereas his Flora brought him "praise," Curtis said, the magazine — which remains in print today as the longest-running botanical publication — brought him "pudding."

That success enabled him to continue his beloved Flora. The sixth and final volume was published the year before Curtis's death; all told, because of the intricate hand-painting Flora Londinensis required, he'd produced only 300 copies.

Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.®

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