Just beyond the hem of the lake’s blue skirt
the sky turned suddenly jaundiced,
a weighted stillness, not quite your own,
descended, and even the black pine
and birch hovered motionless
in a calm that bore no calmness at all.
And for what must have been the briefest
of moments you gazed, a child of seven,
transfixed on the sinewy black thread
of the storm, its form swaying,
tearing the fabric of the horizon,
throwing bits of cloud and gravel dust
as dogs and kids scurried into the small, white cabins
which suddenly looked as though they were
made to be thrown all along, something
stolen from the set of someone else’s epic.
And years later you would not remember
how it was you were pulled indoors,
or whose arm it was that lifted you
with the force of a blow bringing you to safety,
nor how the storm at once lifted, lifted,
like a needle from a phonograph
above the roofs of trees still trembling;
and when you looked out again
it was through brown sheets of mud
slapped across the windows
the dark fragrance of earthworms
seeping through the slats,
beyond which the world shone as green
and peaceful as it ever would again.
“Tornado” by Greg Watson from All the World at Once. © Nodin Press, 2015. Reprinted with permission. (buy now)
Today is the birthday of the poet and artist Edward Lear (books by this author), born in London in 1812. He was the 20th of 21 children, about half of whom died in infancy. Lear himself survived to the age of 75, but his health was somewhat fragile. He suffered his first epileptic seizure when he was five years old, and felt a lifelong sense of shame at the affliction, which was poorly understood at that time and often attributed to demonic possession. He was also prone to fits of deep depression, which he dubbed “the Morbids.”
Because of his parents’ financial difficulties, Lear’s older sister, Ann, raised him. She tutored him and taught him to draw and paint. He began selling his drawings when he was 16, and later found work as a drawing teacher, and a sign painter, and an illustrator of medical textbooks. He was hired by the London Zoological Society to produce a series of bird paintings, and he insisted on only painting from live specimens, not stuffed dead birds. His paintings impressed Edward Stanley, the Earl of Derby, so much that Stanley asked Lear to come and document the animals in the private zoo he kept on his estate. Lear lived at Knowsley Hall for four years on and off, working on the paintings, which were eventually published in the book Gleanings from the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall (1846). He also befriended the Earl’s grandchildren and began writing poetry for them, lots of limericks and nonsense verse, including “The Owl and the Pussycat.”
It’s the birthday of Florence Nightingale, born in Florence, Italy, to a wealthy English family (1820). Her parents didn’t have any sons, and her father gave her many of the advantages that would have gone to a son. They were very close, and he treated her as a respected companion and gave her a well-rounded education in the classics, languages, philosophy, and mathematics. Her mother, on the other hand, wanted to see her marry well. She became increasingly upset as her daughter turned away suitor after suitor. Finally, when she was 25, Nightingale told her parents that she wanted to become a nurse. Since nursing was a working-class occupation, her parents were horrified, but she believed she had been given a purpose by God.
In London, Nightingale met Elizabeth Blackwell, the first female doctor in America. Blackwell encouraged and inspired her, and she finally obtained her father’s permission to study nursing when she was 31. And in 1854, with the British Army crippled by outbreaks of typhus, cholera, and dysentery during the Crimean War, she took a group of 38 nurses to Turkey. She became known as “the lady with the lamp,” because she would quietly make her rounds among the patients at all hours of the night. Conditions in the field hospitals were appalling, and she began a campaign to reform them, but the military stonewalled her. She used her London newspaper contacts to publish accounts of the horrible way wounded soldiers were being treated. Finally she was allowed to reorganize the barracks hospitals. She thought that the high death rates were due to poor nutrition and overwork; it wasn’t until after the war that she realized the role that proper sanitation played in patient care.
After the war, she continued to fight for military hospital reform and the education of nurses; she was soon one of the most famous and influential women in Britain, second only to Queen Victoria. In 1860, she founded the Nightingale School and Home for Nurses. But she had returned from the war an invalid herself, possibly suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, or a brucellosis infection that she picked up in the Crimea. For the last several years of her life, she was blind and in need of constant nursing herself.