Friday Apr. 14, 2017

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On a Distant Shore

The night before sailing
from the world I had known
that now seems the ancient
world to me
it was a hot summer night
in the humming city
the small hours the tiny
two-room apartment of a friend
the windows wide open
above the avenue
and behind me three young women
crammed in asleep
as I stood at the window
and then I turned to the room
and in the light from the street
beheld one beautiful
bare breast of a friend’s friend
gently rising and falling
as though I were not there
already not there

“On a Distant Shore” by W.S. Merwin from The Moon Before Morning. © Copper Canyon Press, 2014. Reprinted with permission.  (buy now)

On this day in 1935, “Black Sunday,” the Great Plains region experienced one of the largest dust storms in American history.

That morning, the weather was clear and warm, little to no breeze. But by afternoon, the sky had turned a strange purple and the wind had started to whip. A towering black plume of dust shot across the Plains, from South Dakota to Texas, before people could react. Cars were shorted out, and animals were smothered on the spot — countless birds, mice, jackrabbits. Cattle’s stomachs were later found to be filled with several inches of dirt, their eyes cemented shut by a mixture of tears and dust.

The disaster of the Dust Bowl years was completely manmade. Motivated by a spike in wheat prices right after the First World War, settlers had rushed into America’s farmland to remove the native grasses and plant more wheat. When the price in wheat fell during the Depression years, farmers abandoned their now-empty fields. With no native grasses in place to hold the soil down, it was free to move in the air. A few more years of drought after that was all it took to turn a once-thriving prairie into an arid wasteland.

Nearly 850 million tons of topsoil was displaced in 1935 alone, with the worst dust storms hitting areas in Oklahoma and the panhandles of Texas. People adapted their lives to the dust. Women would knead their bread in a dresser drawer draped over with cloth, working the dough through two hand-holes cut in the drawer’s sides. They abandoned stovetop cooking in lieu of the oven, where less dirt could get through. Meals had to be eaten immediately or else they would accumulate a layer of dust. Children walked to school in goggles and dust masks.

Thousands fled to California during the Dust Bowl, overwhelming the state’s resources. Others suffered health and respiratory problems from the constant presence of dust. Homes and farm equipment were buried in great dunes of sandy dirt. The multiyear tragedy led to the federal government’s passing of the Soil Conservation Act in 1936.

Today, farmers use more careful agricultural methods to prevent the kind of erosion that would lead to another Dust Bowl.

Abraham Lincoln was assassinated in Washington, D.C., on this date in 1865.

The Lincolns almost didn’t attend the play, a British comedy titled Our American Cousin, that night. Mary Todd Lincoln had a headache, and the president himself was not inclined to go, saying he felt tired. But Lincoln reckoned he could use a laugh, and since Ulysses S. Grant and his wife — who were also invited — couldn’t make it, the Lincolns decided they had better attend. Lincoln took care of some last bits of business — including signing legislation that established the Secret Service — and made his way to the theater, where they joined Major Henry Rathbone, and Rathbone’s fiancée, Clara Harris. By all accounts, Lincoln was in a pleasant mood and laughed heartily at the play.

John Wilkes Booth entered the president’s private box at Ford’s Theatre at about 10 o’clock in the evening. He took out a single-shot Derringer, aimed it at the back of Lincoln’s head, and pulled the trigger.

Today is the birthday of American journalist Tina Rosenberg (books by this author), born in Brooklyn (1960). She is a proponent of what she’s called “solutions journalism” — journalism that doesn’t just report bad news but works to change the world by showing how the problems can be overcome. In 2013, she co-founded the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that encourages journalists to think outside the usual parameters of their beats. “The key,” she says, “is that this coverage has to be done not as fluff, or as advocacy, or as PR, but with equal rigor — the same rigor that we use when we cover the problems themselves [...] Many journalists have been doing solutions-focused stories for a long time. I think what’s new is that our organization has put a name on it, has created a teachable system for doing it, has made it into something that people can think about in a category of its own.” The key, she says, is to cover the work that is being done, not simply celebrate it. She writes a New York Times column called “Fixes,” in which she explores solutions to major social crises like health care and poverty.

She says: “We know that a steady diet of news about violence and corruption and incompetence does create in people: depression, apathy, learned helplessness, stress, all kinds of things. And it’s really bad for the news business. We are selling a product that people find painful to consume. I think anyone would tell you that that’s not a good business model.”

She was awarded a MacArthur Fellowship in 1987. She used the fellowship money to move to South America, where she researched and wrote her first book, Children of Cain: Violence and the Violent in Latin America (1991). Her second book, The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism (1995), won the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction. Her most recent book is Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World (2011).

It’s the birthday of graphic novelist Daniel Clowes (books by this author) born in Chicago (1961), whose sympathetic portraits of eccentric, lonely, and disenfranchised people have revolutionized the world of comics and cartooning. He’s best known for his intense graphic novels and comic book series like Lloyd Llewellyn (1986), Ghost World (1997), and David Boring (2000). A critic once referred to him as “Mister Rogers with a black sense of humor.”

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