The Writer's Almanac for May 11th
It was on this day in 1910 that federal authorities officially established nearly 1 million acres of Montana land known as Glacier National Park (books about the park). The park’s mountains began forming nearly 170 million years ago, and the stones on their face contain some of the most well-preserved early-life fossils found anywhere on Earth. The park’s namesake refers to the 150 glaciers that existed at the time of its formation in the early 20th century. Only 25 still exist today. Experts predict that by 2030, all glaciers in the park will be gone due to climate change.
Today is the birthday of American modern dance pioneer Martha Graham (1894), who once said: “No artist is ahead of his time. He is his time; it is just that others are behind the time.”
Graham was born in Allegheny, Pennsylvania, but it wasn’t until she moved to Los Angeles in her teens that she began dancing. She enrolled in dance school and got noticed by talent scouts, who recruited her for popular traveling shows like the Greenwich Village Follies. In 1922, when she was 18, she saw an abstract painting by Russian painter Wassily Kandinsky and said, “I want to dance like that.” She started thinking about classical forms like ballet, which she found emotionally and physically restrictive, and about the importance of breathing in dance. She developed what became known as “The Graham Technique,” which centered on the idea of the contraction and release of breath. She also founded her own company, The Martha Graham Center of Contemporary Dance (1926), which is now the oldest, continually performing dance company in the world.
Graham’s choreography was muscular, emotional, and visceral. In the beginning, most of her dancers were female and they wore stretch jerseys. A lot of audiences were dismayed and baffled by the dances Graham performed, but she also introduced a frankness to dance, especially in her willingness to portray grief, lust, and sexuality. She said: “I wanted to begin not with characters or ideas, but with movements […] I wanted significant movement. I did not want it to be beautiful or fluid. I wanted it to be fraught with inner meaning, with excitement and surge.”
She choreographed more than 180 works. Her best-known work, Appalachian Spring (1944), was in collaboration with composer Aaron Copland. Copland had no idea what the piece would be about, only that Graham told him she wanted an “American theme.” He was surprised, when he completed the score, to find out the title of the work: he’d never set foot in Appalachia. Other works drew on Greek mythology and biblical stories. Graham danced with her company until she was 75 years old. She died in 1991.
Martha Graham said: “Art is memory. It is the excavation of so many memories we have had — of our mothers, our best and worst moments, of glorious experiences we have had with friends or films or music or dance or a lovely afternoon on a sloping, green hill. All of this enters us and, if we are artists, must be shared, handed over to others. This is why it is so important to know what came before you. It is also important to understand that things will follow you, and they may come along and make your work look pedestrian and silly. This is fine; this is progress. We have to work with what life presents to us, and we have to work as well as we can while we can.”
The Diamond Sutra was published on this date in A.D. 868— it’s the oldest printed book in the world to bear a date. It is a Chinese translation of a Sanskrit holy text, and its full title is The Diamond That Cuts Through Illusion. The book was printed using wood blocks, one block to a page and seven pages total, bound together in the form of a scroll. It’s not very long, only about 6,000 words, and the whole thing can be recited in 40 minutes. It was probably printed so that multiple copies could be distributed to Buddhist monks, who would read it aloud on a regular basis.
A small inscription at the bottom of the scroll reads, “Reverently made for universal free distribution by Wang Jie on behalf of his two parents.” There is no more information on who Wang Jie was, but it was considered a blessing to disseminate the teachings of the Buddha, and the more copies that were printed, the bigger the blessing.
The Diamond Sutra was one of 50,000 texts and paintings sealed up in the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas in China’s Gansu province. The caves were carved out of a cliff face along the Silk Road, and monks would collect holy scriptures of various religions from the travelers that passed by. The caves were sealed up a thousand years ago, and the darkness and dry desert air preserved the texts and cave murals very well until they were discovered by a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan Lu in 1900.
It’s the birthday of Mari Sandoz (books by this author), born near Hay Springs, Nebraska (1896), best known for books like Old Jules (1935) and Slogum House (1937), which explored the harsh realities of pioneer life on the Plains. Sandoz was the eldest of six children born to Swiss immigrants. Her early life was hard: her father was violent and domineering and didn’t believe much in education or reading for pleasure. Sandoz’s life on the homestead involved daily hard labor. She had to sneak reading by candlelight.
She finally graduated the eighth grade when she was 17, took the rural teacher’s exam in secret, and when she passed, she hightailed it off the homestead, heading for Lincoln, Nebraska. She taught for a time, and worked odd jobs. Every time she’d earn 50 dollars from a job, she’d quit, so she could write, but she didn’t have much luck getting published, and got so frustrated she burned 70 manuscripts in a trash can.
It wasn’t until he father was dying, and called her home, that her life began to change. He asked her to help him write his memoirs, and she did. That book became Old Jules, which finally found a publisher years later and made Mari Sandoz’s name. People had no idea how hard life in the Plains was, and she got death threats from fellow Nebraskans who thought she made them look bad, but she didn’t care. She said, “You have no right to falsify life, ever. That’s the cardinal sin of the writer.”
Twenty years ago today, in 1997, the chess-playing computer Deep Blue beat human chess champion Garry Kasparov. The two adversaries had faced off in a six-game match the year before. The computer won the first game, but Kasparov won the contest. So IBM went back to work and upgraded Deep Blue.
When the time came for the rematch, Kasparov won the first game easily. And in the second game, he laid what he considered to be a foolproof trap for the computer — but the computer didn’t go for it. It made a completely unexpected move. That rattled Kasparov’s confidence, and he was confused even more when the computer’s next move was a really bad one. Kasparov was visibly frustrated, and eventually got up and left the stage, forfeiting the game. “I lost my fighting spirit,” he later said.
It turns out that that unexpected move by Deep Blue was probably due to a glitch in the software. It was faced with so many choices that it couldn’t decide which move to make, so it just picked a move at random. A later analysis shows that Kasparov could have played that game to a draw, but he had psyched himself out, convinced that the random move was a sign that Deep Blue had a long-term strategy that he, Kasparov, was unable to visualize. And in game six, with the match tied at two and a half games each, Kasparov misplayed his opening. Deep Blue took advantage and defeated him in 12 moves.
IBM’s work on Deep Blue led to the development of Watson, a computer that played against humans on the game show Jeopardy, and won. Deep Blue has retired and now lives in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.