“A traveler! I love this title. A traveler is to be reverenced as such.
His profession is the best symbol of our life.
Going from ___ toward ___; it is the history of every one of us.”

Henry David Thoreau’s 200th birthday is this year. I have never quite felt comfortable with the idea of marking birthdays for people who have died, but we do it. I have written about Henry before because I find him an interesting person of contrasts.

He went against the times he lived in. He went to Harvard College and was an intellectual, but in our general image of him, he is a non-conformist. He walked away from society to live in the woods for a year. But he went back. My favorite little anecdote about Hank is that in that year at Walden Pond, he often walked back into town to get some cookies from his mother and have her do his laundry.  It is like camping in the woods, but not too far away from a convenience store.

Thoreau was an abolitionist, a serious and the solitary walker and a passionate naturalist. He modeled his life on religious convictions. He believed that each of us has a connection with divine spirit, though I suspect people generally think of him as less Religious and more spiritual. He never went to church. He never married. He never voted and he didn’t pay his taxes.

He literally talked to trees. He was an environmentalist, although that term was not used in his time. He saw a tragedy coming for future generations because of the heedlessness he saw growing around him.

There is a new biography of HDT out this month that I reserved at my library simply titled Henry David Thoreau: A Life. Will I discover new things about  Thoreau when I read it? Certainly. Will it change my own life, as I feel my first reading of Walden did? I highly doubt that. That’s not a flaw in the book, but a flaw in me. Or maybe it’s a flaw in almost all of us – our lessening ability to change as we get older.

I found out about the book listening to an episode of Radio Open Source, one of three episodes on Thoreau. Pronunciation trivia: “Thoreau” is pronounced like the word “thorough” though most people tend to emphasize the second syllable instead.

Something that I always liked about Thoreau is that he seems to have kept himself very busy. As someone who spends too much time making To Do lists and not enough time doing things on the list, I admire his work ethic.

He worked. He was alternately a handyman, carpenter, surveyor, lecturer, businessman (his family owned a pencil-manufacturing company) and a constant writer.  He spent nearly a decade trying to describe that famous one year on Walden Pond and finally published his Walden or Life in the Woods.

He was a bit of an anarchist. In 1846, he refused to pay six years of delinquent poll taxes because of his opposition to the Mexican–American War and slavery. He spent a night in jail, but was freed the next day when someone, probably his aunt, paid the tax, against his wishes. He used the experience for several lectures on tax resistance, the rights of the individual to self-government, and it eventually became an essay best known as “Civil Disobedience.”

Thoreau studied Indian spiritual philosophies and religions and they appear in his writings. He even followed a diet of rice (“It was fit that I should live on rice, mainly, who loved so well the philosophy of India” and enjoyed flute playing (a musical pastime of Krishna) and yoga.

I found a very interesting website, MappingThoreauCountry.org,  that uses historical maps to organize and interpret documentary materials related to Thoreau’s travels throughout Massachusetts. I am a fan of maps of all kinds and you can view Thoreau’s own work in cartography on the site.

Henry (whose first name was officially David, but he reversed the first and middle name after college) was also very much at home on rivers. Water worlds engaged him. He made his own boat and he paddled and sailed on nearby waterways. He looked into the water in a scientific way and a philosophical way.

Before his Walden year, he had spent A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers  paddling from Concord, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, and back, with his brother John in 1839. John died of tetanus in 1842 and Thoreau wrote the book, in part, as a tribute to his brother. He did the first draft during that year at Walden Pond along with his journaling that would become Walden

HDT also loved solitary walking. Between 1849 and 1857, Thoreau walked the length of Cape Cod four times, passing through nearly every town on what he described as “the bared and bended arm of Massachusetts.” Along the way, he recorded observations that became the basis for lectures, essays, and, eventually, a book-length travelogue that was published posthumously as Walking in 1864.

After college, came a short period of teaching first in a public school and then in the Concord Academy started by Henry and his brother. The school closed after John’s death.

In Concord, he met Ralph Waldo Emerson who took a paternal interest in Thoreau, advising the young man and introducing him to local writers and thinkers, including Nathaniel Hawthorne. His friendships with Emerson and others in the transcendentalist movement had their ups and downs, but it led to his being a popular lecturer and an anti-slavery activist.

In 1841, Thoreau moved into the Emerson house and served as the children’s tutor, editorial assistant, repairman and gardener. For a few months in 1843, he tutored the sons of William Emerson on Staten Island,  while he was looking to make contacts with literary men and journalists in New York City. That was how he found his future literary representative, Horace Greeley.

Thoreau returned to Concord and worked in his family business for most of his adult life.

In April 1844,  he and his friend Edward Hoar accidentally set a fire that ironically consumed 300 acres of Walden Woods.

His experiment in simple living began the following year on July 4, 1845. He moved to a small house he had built on land owned by Emerson around the shores of Walden Pond. The house was in “a pretty pasture and woodlot” of 14 acres. It was 1.5 miles from his family home.

He left Walden Pond on September 6, 1847 – 2 years, 2 weeks and 2 days after loving there – and returned to the Emerson house.

In Walden, he wrote “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

Thoreau moved out of Emerson’s house in 1848 and stayed at a house on nearby Belknap Street. In 1850, he and his family moved into a house at 255 Main Street, where he lived until his death.

When his aunt Louisa asked him in the last weeks of his life if he had made his peace with God, Thoreau responded, “I did not know we had ever quarreled.”

Thoreau’s last words were “Now comes good sailing”, followed by two unexplained words, “moose” and “Indian”.

He died on May 6, 1862, at age 44.

During his rather short life,  Thoreau had witnessed the transformation of his world from a community of farmers and artisans into a bustling, interconnected commercial nation. This was not a change that thrilled him.

He did not see those changes away from nature, self-reliance and simplicity as positive progress.

He was a contemplative individual and a proponent of finding the wilderness, wildness, even the bewilderness that remained in nature. Even if that wilderness was just a small woods, park or river near your home.

rioters

A drawing from a British newspaper showing armed rioters clashing with Union Army soldiers in New York City.

The Writers Almanac taught me that during this week in 1863 the New York City Draft Riots began. I will admit to not even knowing such an event had occurred. It was the bloodiest riot in American history.

Hearing about these riots that happened more than 150 years, a lot of the details seemed much more modern, even contemporary.

The rioters were working-class white men against a new draft law put into place by President Lincoln. The draft was the visible reason for the riot, but there was more going on.

There is something about a long, hot summer that seems to feed riots.

The only riots I have ever experienced were the 1967 Newark, New Jersey riots. They happened this same time of summer (between July 12 and July 17). It was four days of rioting, looting, and destruction. It left 26 dead and hundreds injured.

The Newark riots took place in a time of police racial profiling, redlining, and lack of opportunity in education, training, and jobs. That sounds contemporary.

On that 1863 hot summer during the height of the Civil War, the richest New Yorkers were making money off the war. Poor people were poorer than usual. There was huge inflation.

A good number of working-class immigrant New Yorkers had signed up to serve in the Union Army. Unemployment was high. Workers kept going on strike, but the strikes were broken.

There were many “sensational” newspapers then and their stories heaped the blame for everything bad on Lincoln, black people, and the new Emancipation Proclamation. With the kinds of stories that always occur before war and revolution, newspapers warned working-class white people that black people would now be moving up from the South in huge numbers and stealing their jobs. They claimed that black men were breaking the strikes.

But the Union Army needed more soldiers. Congress authorized the nation’s first draft law, and on Saturday, July 11th, the lottery began, with a blindfolded clerk pulling names out of a hat.

But the wealthy had an out. For $300 you could buy your way out of the draft. In a time when the average New York City worker earned 85 cents per day, it was the 1% versus the 99% of its time.

A group of  firemen who were drafted decided to protest. They showed up at the draft office with their firetruck full of rocks and threw them through the office windows, burned the draft records, and attacked the officers who worked there. Thousands gathered around the firemen and mob mentality took over.

They pulled up railroad and streetcar tracks, knocked down telephone poles, cut telegraph lines, lit buildings on fire, targeted Lincoln supporters, abolitionists and attacked the offices of The New York Times and The New York Tribune. 

Most of all, the mob targeted African-Americans and their businesses and homes owned by blacks and places associated with them, including the Colored Orphan Asylum. At least 11 black men were murdered.

The Battle of Gettysburg had ended just 10 days before the riots began, and on July 15th, troops were hurried from Gettysburg to New York City to put down the rioting. About 6,000 federal troops were eventually there and the riot ended.

The official death toll was conservatively listed as 119. About 20% of  African-Americans left New York City for Brooklyn or beyond the boroughs because of the riots.

That long, hot summer of 1967 caught fire in Newark when two white Newark policemen arrested a black cabdriver. The cabbie was beaten by the officers and taken to the 4th Police Precinct where he was charged with assaulting the officers and making insulting remarks. Local residents saw the cabbie being dragged into the precinct. A rumor started that he had been killed while in police custody.

Actually the driver, John Smith, had been released in the custody of his lawyer. But police rushed out of their station wearing hard hats and carrying clubs and residents gathered there in protest began to throw bricks, bottles, and rocks. The protest moved to City Hall and after midnight false alarms caused fire engines to concentrate on an area along Belmont Avenue in one of the poorest areas of the city. Looters began smashing windows, and threw merchandise onto sidewalks and particularly looted liquor stores.

During this same period, rioting erupted in Plainfield, New Jersey, a city about 18 miles southwest of Newark, that also had a large African-American population and similar conditions.

The riots didn’t improve conditions in Newark, as the NYC riots didn’t stop the draft or improve conditions. The Newark riots began a deeper decline of Newark and its neighboring communities. In the remaining 1960s and continuing into the 1970s, businesses, industry and the white middle class left the city.

I stumbled upon several videos this morning related to John Updike, and that set me off thinking again about one of my favorite authors.

I always admired his three pages per day writer’s requirement. He really worked at his writing.  It paid off. He had a 50+ year career and has 67 books listed on his Wikipedia bibliography that includes 21 novels, 18 short-story collections, 12 books of poetry, 4 children’s books, and 12 collections of non-fiction. Many of my favorite pieces of his fiction are found among his 186 short stories.

I wasn’t reading Updike in 1960. That was the year he was 28 (I was 7) and published his second novel, Rabbit, Run.  The New York Times called the book a “shabby domestic tragedy,” but also “a notable triumph of intelligence and compassion.” I would read it during the summer 0f 1968 after I had read a book of his stories, Pigeon Feathers, and then his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair.

The stories especially appealed to me, since I saw myself as a budding short story writer and was reading Hemingway, Salinger, Faulkner, Fitzgerald and other story writers too. I would go on to read almost all the stories and novels in chronological order of their publication. I wanted to write little, perfect stories like “A&P” about a boy working at the checkout counter in a supermarket and the three young pretty girls who walk in wearing nothing but bathing suits. That little plot unfolds quickly and tragically and, like many Salinger protagonists, I identified strongly with that kid.

My freshman year of college as an English major, I was assigned to read his newest novel, Rabbit Redux.  a sequel to the first Rabbit book.

My wife shared many of my readings in our years together. I gave her my copy of the sexy Couples when we were dating, and we both read Marry Me when it came out and we were a few years from being married ourselves.  Updike chronicles many marriages and many uncouplings, some based on his own life story.

Updike received two Pulitzer Prizes for two of the four Rabbit novels. There is also “Rabbit Remembered” a long story (or novella) that came later. Those tales chronicle Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom, an ex- high-school basketball star who first deserts his wife and son and then explores sexuality, marriage, parenting and also the time he is passing through in America.

This first video I found is a casual interview with Updike at the time of the fourth Rabbit novel, Rabbit at Rest, which ends Harry’s life. It is a sad book about grandpa Harry with his Florida condo, still dealing with his son, Nelson and his wife, Janice, and the 1989 that is post-Reagan time of debt, AIDS, and President Bush 41. It won him another Pulitzer Prize.

What interested me in this video was his own thoughts about death.

This second video is John’s son, David Updike, interviewed about being the child of a writer. David is also a writer I have enjoyed reading. I have his children’s books and his books of stories and they are very good.  It certainly must have been more negative than positive to be the son of John Updike and wanting to be a writer.

I like in this video David’s decision that he would give up writing a piece of fiction if it meant hurting someone he cared about. I don’t think his father held that belief.

John Updike received much praise in his lifetime for his writing. He also was pretty strongly disliked by some of his fellow writers and by feminists. He was, like too many famous men I admire, not a very good husband or father.

But I think even those who are not fans concede that is prose is beautiful, often poetic.

I came to John Updike’s poetry much later than the books and stories. I love reading poetry, and I like some of his poems, but I feel like his prose had more poetry in it than many of the poems. I have used a few of his poems on my poetry blog

He died of lung cancer in January 2009.

I took this passage from Updike’s wonderful story “Pigeon Feathers” and broke the sentences into more “poetic” line breaks using his punctuation most of the time. It is a small poem on what it means to be dead as seen by teenaged David as he walks at night across his farm home to the outhouse and imagines a grave.

A long hole in the ground,
no wider than your body,
down which you are drawn
while the white faces above recede.

You try to reach them but your arms are pinned.
Shovels pour dirt into your face.
There you will be forever,
in an upright position,
blind and silent,
and in time no one will remember you,
and you will never be called by any angel.

As strata of rock shift,
your fingers elongate,
and your teeth are distended sideways
in a great underground grimace
indistinguishable from a strip of chalk.

ManhattanhengeManhattanhenge is the name given to an event that occurs when the setting sun aligns with the east–west streets of the main street grid in the borough of Manhattan in New York City.

The term Manhattanhenge is a neologism from Stonehenge where the sun aligning with the ancient stones on the solstices is an famous event. The Manhattanhenge term was popularized in 2002 by Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist at the American Museum of Natural History.

Today is the last time in 2017 that the alignment will occur. The New York event occurs twice a year.

The event applies to those streets that follow a plan from 1811 which laid out the streets in a grid offset 29.0 degrees from true east–west. During Manhattanhenge, an observer on one of the gridded east-west streets will see the sun setting over New Jersey directly along the centerline of that street.

The dates of Manhattanhenge usually occur around May 28 and July 12 being spaced evenly around the summer solstice.

On two corresponding mornings, the sun rises on the center lines of the grid on (approximately) December 5 and January 8, spaced evenly around the winter solstice. As with the solstices and equinoxes, the dates vary somewhat from year to year.

This phenomenon occurs in other cities with a uniform street grid. For North Americans who want to be Druids for a day, Baltimore, Chicago and Toronto also have their -henge days.

The events would only coincide with the vernal and autumnal equinox only if the grid plan were laid out precisely north-south and east-west, and perfectly aligned with true north as opposed to magnetic north. Someone should plan a new city for that to happen.

 

I will look for the Full Moon low in the eastern sky around sunset tonight, July 8. It will be highest around midnight. In my neighborhood it technically was “full” at 12:07 am EDT, but most of us only count it as full when we see it at night no matter what time the scientists tell us.

July is typically the stormiest month of the year for the Northern Hemisphere. The hot weather makes thunderstorms fairly common, so the Thunder Moon is a good name for most of us this month.

Thunder is the sound caused by lightning. Depending on the distance and nature of the lightning, thunder can range from a sharp, loud crack to a long, low rumble. As we learned in science class, the sudden increase in pressure and temperature from lightning produces rapid expansion of the air surrounding and within a bolt of lightning which creates a sonic shock wave, similar to a sonic boom.

Thor

The name of the Germanic god Thor comes from the Old Norse word for thunder. Thor is the most well-known of the many thunder gods in world mythologies.

Thor is also the origin of the weekday name Thursday. During the Roman Empire period, the Germanic peoples adopted the Roman weekly calendar, and replaced the names of Roman gods with their own. Latin dies Iovis (‘day of Jupiter’) was converted into Proto-Germanic Þonares dagaz (“Thor’s day”), from which stems modern English “Thursday.”

The July moon that is also called the Buck Moon or Deer Moon because deer begin to show antlers which are in their “velvet” stage. That is a name that both American Indians and colonists might have used. Some farmers refer to it as the Hay Moon as they take in their first cutting of hay.

Some Indian tribes, based on location, treated this as an early harvest moon. The Choctaw called it the Little Harvest Moon. While the Cherokee of the Southwest called this the Ripe Corn Moon, the Potawatomi (people of the Great Plains, upper Mississippi River and Western Great Lakes region) called this the Moon of the Young Corn.

The European Mead Moon name didn’t hold over in the colonies although this would be a time when increased honey harvest would lead to mead making.

Venus, is the queen of planets that rules the early morning hours in July. Our closest neighboring planet glows brightly because it is close, and because its atmosphere is composed of thick clouds of carbon dioxide that reflect sunlight back into space.

If you look to the eastern horizon two or three hours before dawn, you should see it easily. On July 20 in the early morning, you can also watch the waning crescent moon pass by Venus.

Photo: Mayak Satellite

If you want to spot something manmade up there (and with all the talk about Russia in the news), you can see the Russian satellite Mayak which will be almost as bright as the moon on the 14th. Why so bright? It will unfurl its reflective solar sails after its launch on July 14th.

Mayak (meaning “lighthouse”) goes up in a Soyuz-2.1a rocket and once in orbit, the pyramidal solar reflectors open and it becomes one of the brightest objects in the night sky.

Some sky gazers are not thrilled with that because this crowdfunded project (designed by students from Moscow Polytechnic) will not help the dark skies that astronomers cherish. The New Moon on July 23 is the kind of dark night sky that telescope gazers see as a perfect opportunity.

You can look for the Delta Aquarids meteors to light up the early morning skies on July 27 and 28. They are the pre-show for the better known Perseid meteor shower in early August. To catch the shower at its best, look up on the morning of the 27 or 28 between 2-3 a.m.

The meteors get their name because they seem to originate near the constellation Aquarius the Water Bearer in the southern sky. We say “appear” because the shower is debris from Comet 96P Machholz, a short-period sun-grazing comet that swings our way every five years.

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Latest time-traveling verse from my continuing #ronka project at https://writingtheday.wordpress.com Family Guy pinball.  I have lost all claim to being a wizard. Easier to spot them in the morning after it rains Nice walk in the woods but more wildlife in neighbor's yard Paterson Light and Shadow tells the story of Paterson, NJ through Maria Mazziotti Gillan's poetry and Mark Hillringhouse's photography. #patersonnj #mariamazziottigillan #markhillringhouse Feeling as lazy as a daisy
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