The Age of Enlightenment, Smallpox, and Vaccines

The Age of Enlightenment prevailed among intellectuals in Europe and America in the 18th century. It was widely believed that human reason could penetrate the secrets of life and the universe and lead to new and better human societies.

In the words of our Declaration of Independence:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

History shows that nothing is really self-evident or unalienable, as these concepts have been fought over ever since 1776, just as they were before 1776; and it is hard to be confident that, over the last 50 years, our own culture and others have made progress in areas like democratic engagement, voting rights, respect for minority populations, or reliance on science and medicine.

One of the scourges of human history has been contagious disease. Smallpox, in the 18th century, killed about 400,000 Europeans a year (compared to about 1,000,000 Europeans dead so far from Covid-19 in the last 12 months). Variolation, preventative infection with a low-grade virus, long known in China, India and Africa, was introduced in Europe and America in the early 18th century.

Famed Puritan minister Cotton Mather encouraged vaccination in Boston in the 1720s, resulting in hate messages and an attempted bombing of his house. Many people were outraged at the idea of being infected with even a low-grade version of a virus, and some religious leaders felt it interfered with the divinely ordained course of life.

National leaders played a large role; for example, Catherine the Great of Russia, whose husband had been disfigured by smallpox, had herself inoculated in 1768, and later her son the future Tsar Paul I, and she launched a campaign to inoculate people throughout her empire. It could have been helpful today, as it turns out, if her accomplishment had been depicted in the gripping 2019 miniseries Catherine the Great starring Helen Mirren (descended, as it happens, from Russian nobility).

Abigail Smith Adams, early pro-vaxxer

In America, future president John Adams was inoculated in 1764, and his wife Abigail had herself and their children inoculated in Boston in 1776, including future 6th president John Quincy Adams. On the other hand, presidents Washington and Lincoln both contracted smallpox.

Modern mass vaccination against smallpox was introduced by British physician Edward Jenner in 1798. He in fact coined the word “vaccine,” derived from the Latin word for “cow,” as he derived his anti-smallpox solution from a related but much lesser disease, the cowpox. The importance of Jenner’s breakthrough is commemorated in the town of Jennersville in southern Chester County.

Even in later times, there was reluctance to take this protective measure; and as with many medical procedures there remained a tiny risk of adverse and even fatal reactions. My own grandparents must have still been among the resisters, because my aunt, born in 1914, bore smallpox scars on her face throughout her life.

Finally, by 1980, smallpox was considered eradicated worldwide. However, measles, thought to be eradicated in the US, is now recurring here due to refusal of many Americans to be vaccinated. Similarly polio, for which effective vaccines have existed for about 70 years, is spreading in some areas of the world that resist vaccination. The Bubonic Plague, which in the mid-14th century killed about 1/3 of the European population, despite the availability of vaccines still exists worldwide, including in parts of the US Southwest.

And then, there is the shameful history of the exposure, sometimes intentional, of Native Americans to smallpox and other European diseases. Those diseases were bad enough for the New World colonizers, but they were devastating to communities that had never encountered them before.

Of course, we can’t help thinking of Covid-19. How long will vaccine refusal delay or prevent adequate numbers of people being vaccinated? Will autocratic countries like China and Russia succeed before many democracies like the US and most of western Europe, which are unable to impose policies on skeptical groups? Will it take a couple of centuries — or more — to eradicate this scourge?

Human history is always interesting, because you never know which way it will turn. In my view, if people don’t trust medicine with their lives, they are endangering themselves, their families, and other people.

Maybe I have a special interest in this topic because on the other side of my family, my grandmother refused for ideological reasons to allow her college-age daughter to undergo an appendectomy (standard practice here since the 1890s), thus leading to the early death of an aunt I never knew.

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A Tale of Three Countries

Charles Dickens

It’s hard enough to understand what people are thinking in our own town or state, let alone the whole US. This seems like a good time to step back briefly from our current turmoils. We might try thinking of our country of 330,000,000 diverse people as an anthropologist examines a foreign culture.

That can be done. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities, which travels back 84 years before its publication, begins with the memorable words:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….”

That’s how one might well feel about the American 21st century so far: so much possible good, so much foolishness, so much light and darkness.

I am thinking our tale has become one of three countries all mixed together, and three long-rooted tendencies in American life are competing:

1) Fantastical beliefs. Americans love to believe something on an emotional basis without worrying why. They succumb easily to financial scams, internet deceptions, foreign or domestic disinformation, political demagoguery, and “alternative facts.”

Why do people play the lottery so much? They actually think they are going to win a fortune on their lucky number. A 2018 Pew poll showed that even when it is in manifest conflict with their own spiritual beliefs, 29% of Americans believe in astrology, a zodiac-centered system of prediction codified by the ancient Greeks.

This group falls into the long tradition of American anti-intellectualism; the Know Nothing movement, proud of its name, even became influential in 1850’s national politics. Climate? Virus? Not to worry, it will all turn out OK. And meanwhile, that confidence is mood-enhancing. People in this group are full of optimism, before it turns to disappointment and bitterness.

2) Absolutist thinking. Probably all of us feel a nostalgia for clarity. This group tends to rely on a canon of inherited texts, whether sacred ones or historical ones. Originalism, ascendant on the US Supreme Court, holds that the country needs to follow the Constitution as originally understood by the men who wrote it and/or by “reasonable” people of the time — as if today’s jurists could travel back and insert themselves into the late 18th century mind.

At their extreme, absolutist thinkers seem to adhere to the satirical sign that is popular in offices: “Don’t bother me with the facts, my mind is made up.” But they would not say that–rather, that they consider the issues carefully, listen to good news sources, and know what they think.

And they value a confident leader like George Bush II, who in one of the most brilliant presidential debate lines ever, said in 2000: “I may not know where Bosnia is, but I know what I believe.” A lot of Americans figured that if Bush was on the job, they too had more important things to do than figure out what and where Bosnia is.

3) The pursuit of reason. This group is well educated, reads lots of books and what they regard as balanced and reliable sources of information, are curious about the world and its variety, and like to follow the science to understand matters like natural history and current diseases.

No matter what the originalists may think, the country’s Founders fell into this group, although one might well wonder if it was reasonable for a bunch of colonials and frontiersmen to think they could defeat the world’s greatest empire.

This group probably admires Dr. Anthony Fauci, but may not have reflected whether his statement that “science is truth” needs further perspective. This group also probably believes in the “science” of polling, whose predictions went disastrously astray in 2016.

They tend to believe in merit as expressed in higher education and career success, and until recently they valued the global economy above traditional American industry and business.

Synthesis. Of course, individuals can combine in various degrees traits of two or all three groups; and any candidate for office who draws on only one group has trouble gaining broad appeal. Our greatest leaders have earned the devotion of one group and made inroads into the other two groups.

Paulo Freire

In my view, in the past decade the fantastical believers and absolutist thinkers have allied, creating a large movement that doesn’t much care about the concerns of the pursuers of reason, who in turn too often look down on groups 1 and 2 (members of which, in one of the most awful gaffes in campaign history, Hillary Clinton labeled “deplorables”).

The avant-garde Brazilian writer Paulo Freire (1921-97) believed that literacy in the broadest sense (today, obviously, starring media literacy) is the key to new thinking and liberation.

That is a worthy goal for members of all groups, all Americans, to pursue in the 2020’s. And, in January, we’ll gain some impetus toward that goal from a national leader who believes in respect, national unity, and literacy of all sorts.

Photo of Dickens public domain from Wikimedia Commons. Photo of Freire by Slobodan Dimitrov, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Autumn Day

At this time of year, I often think of “Autumn Day” by Rainer Maria Rilke (born in Prague, 1875-1926), who created an amazing series of formalist poems in German and French. The idea  of the “two days more of southern weather” needed to finish ripening the “final fruits” is a concept, it now strikes me, from before global warming. Today, anything can happen in autumn. We are almost used now to azaleas flowering in October (I spotted  several today on a walk in West Chester), but still I remain surprised to be gathering and consuming some really quite sweet October blackberries, normally ripe in late July and early August. In summer I had noticed one branch whose berries were slow to ripen, but I figured they would wither up and drop off as in the past. Not this year! They were just waiting for those two more months of  southern weather!

Autumn Day

Lord, it is time. The summer was a full one.
On the sundials lay your shadows down
and on the meadows cause the winds to run.

Command the final fruits that they be ripe,
grant them two days more of southern weather,
impel them to fulfillment now and gather
the final sweetness in the heavy grape.

Who has no house will not now be a builder,
who now is lonely long will be alone,
go without sleep, read much, write lengthy letters,
and go out in the streets to wander,
unable to find peace when the leaves blow.

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Beirut, 2020? No: Tulsa, 1921

After white residents with the complicity of city officials destroyed the 35 square blocks of the country’s wealthiest Black community in the Tulsa Race Riot, May 31 – June 1, 1921:

Photo from Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

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But have you
Caught, among small
Stars, his flute?
—Robert Francis, “Delicate the Toad”


The hosta, most dependable of plants
I know, when it comes to a bloom in hot
July, why is its praise so seldom said?
Why can daffodil and orchid not share
some turning of eye and head with this one
of quiet tones? It is more than a crush
of color that a whole plant gives itself
up to bring into the world: its green fans
spotted or striped yellow or white have grace;
and a virtue of seeds beads its grave stalks.

I love its self-sufficiency: sand, clay,
loam, it knows what it needs, does not aspire.


It is no iris whose fringed shawl and hooded
privacy bloom and droop in one day: if
you travel a week you’ll miss just a greening,
a swelling, a slightness of added height,
as a child left home so discreetly grows
that you, returned, can think no time is gone
at all. It unfolds so day-by-day, it
drinks the season’s calm, soaking in the shade
that is its bath. Its spike becoming flowers
loves to tantalize, making an art of
premeditation, as the tight-rope walker
edges overhead step by held-breath step
toward a spotlight of applause. Its buds,
off-white all the quiet weeks you watch their
getting ready, bring a purple surprise
gliding each night up the long raceme. Some
may call it stiff because it does not rise
high, sway, and set itself up for a tumble
of hollyhocks, or lean like tulips past
their peak, or snap at its knees in a breeze.

Never headstrong, it pays tribute to sky,
pointing by compromise in light’s direction,
half way from straightness to the open patch
whose blue is half the formula for green.


It must be tending always to its roots,
pacing itself. After its bloom is done,
it will not cry worn out, in need of rich
earth, staking, shelter from cold, the break-back
cares that rose and lily cannot forgo.

It can get on with the plants of the wild,
no house in sight, under maples and spruce,
its breath turned low, setting a patient clock.

It does not diminish others but holds
to its own, keeps sprouts and brambles at bay,
casts too much darkness for Virginia creeper
to fumble around in its roots. It travels
smoothly, wisely, each year gaining a modicum
but is no violet to send a host
against a lawn. Its slowness is its strength:
when all the fancy pampered one-day bloomers,
pale, spindly-stalked, in need of pulling strings,
get out of town, it will remain oasis,
serenity, thought furled into itself.

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Summer Solstice Report

Maybe it’s a coincidence, or maybe it just depends on happening to be here in the lower Delaware Valley, with a pretty temperate climate coming off a reasonable winter, but in the last few days I’ve observed:

My favorite forage food, the minty Creeping Charlie, has gotten on the tough side. Now just the newest leaves are edible (photo: April 21, when even the stems, and also the purple flowers, were tender and tasty).

But happily, my summer favorite, purslane, is taking its place! Purslane (left, below) is a succulent related to the garden plant portulaca. It’s an annual that seeds itself very efficiently whether you like it or not. So you might as well like it and consume it! It add a nice taste and crunchiness to salads and sandwiches, and has exceptional food and health value.

And (unfortunately not edible) canna lilies have started flowering! At least, this one to the left has. It spent the winter in a big pot in my study, so had a head start on the others, even though eventually, by April, its leaves and stalks died down to nothingness. The other cannas, those that spent the last 6 months stored in peat in the basement, didn’t go back in the ground till May, so their stalks are only a foot or so high now.

In the vegetable garden, this year, asparagus continued to produce edible shoots until about a week before the solstice, an unusually long season, no doubt owing to a relatively cool spring with a good amount of rain. But asparagus has now leafed out into the phase where it fortifies its roots for next year.

At exactly the same time, peas took asparagus’s place. I’ve never enjoyed such a big pea harvest! Here, my rustic pea trellis on June 13, just as the peas were starting to ripen. Now, with the hotter weather, they will probably finish up by the end of June.

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My view of composting

I have never figured out how to build a compost heap that would heat up enough to kill weed seeds. The compost manuals make it sound simple, but it isn’t! (See lots of really good composting advice from the Chester County Solid Waste Authority, though.)

For me, patience is the key. I just make a big pile and turn it over every couple of months (more often is better, of course!). If it’s not turned over, pockets of wet leaves or dry branch parts can form and sit for years.

My heap is long, narrow, and tall. I leave a blank spot from which I remove usable compost, and then I move the next 4-foot segment into the gap. it’s a once- or twice-a-year rotation. I do have a bad habit of putting sticks in, but try to break them up into small pieces, so that they will decompose faster and also so as not to create potential roofs for rodent lairs.

Any stick thicker than about half an inch I set aside to take to West Chester Borough’s Public Works for them to compost. Also, I take them my collected “gum balls” (prickly, super resistant seed pods of two extraordinarily productive sweet gum trees), which are almost indestructible, but which can serve as effective, though not really attractive, mulch. They also deter slugs from crawling into, e.g., strawberries.

How about kitchen foodcyclings? Those can’t be put in an open compost heap because they will attract rodents like rats and voles. I have observed those cylindrical composters. into which you pour your scraps and turn the crank to rotate and stir together the contents. My experience is that the composed matter becomes an unsavory black mass, very heavy to turn, and ultimately rusts through the cylinder. In short, an unpleasant operation.

Some cast-offs, like corn husks or pea pods, have little food value to rodents and can go into the ordinary compost heap. I have been burying other kitchen scraps in the ground and covering them with a large flat stone, or group of stones, to keep out scavengers. Theoretically, that produces some methane from anaerobic decomposition. but it also produces carbon-rich compost and keeps the scraps out of the trash flow. So, on the whole, a plus as far as I can see.

Kitchen scraps are a particular problem, because they can’t be put into yardcycings collected by your municipality. Burying them under a stone doesn’t take a lot of space. Just don’t include meat! And be sure the stone overlaps the hole you dig by a few inches.

Something else to keep an eye on: compostable packing materials, made out of plant materials like corn starch. I got a shipment of cereals from Bob’s Red Mill the other day, packed in the white blobs shown in the photo. Yes, it was compostable! I put some water on it and saw it begin to dissolve, then poured it out on the compost heap, where it rapidly returned to nature, as you see underway on the left. Below, as they arrived from Bob’s Red Mill.

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Sekou Sundiata on “the skin you’re livin’ in”

Sekou Sundiata was a poet I became interested in when teaching poetry at F&M College. We were trying to get him to come and perform but unfortunately it never happened. I did get to hear him live in New York once. He was a mesmerizing performer in the Spoken Word tradition, emphasizing a changing rhythm and the intensity of key syllables, singing as much as reciting his words.

Below is one of his most remarkable poems, from his album “The Blue Oneness Of Dreams,” which includes many great poems. I can still hear him hissing out a lengthened sibilant in “skin” and pushing the rhyme between “skin” and “in” in the refrain that recurs several times:

All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in

Driving while Black… jogging while Black… bird-watching while Black… it’s all in the news, with consequences for the individual and, as we periodically realize, for a society that has never recovered form its days peddling the fiction that one human being can own another.

And there is the sheer unpredictability of disaster striking from within that world of injustice:

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change

The poem (from is well worth reading and even studying. Its apparent simplicity hides a lot of lessons.

Blink Your Eyes

by Sekou Sundiata (1948-2007)

I was on my way to see my woman
but the Law said I was on my way
thru a red light red light red light
and if you saw my woman
you could understand,
I was just being a man.
It wasn’t about no light
it was about my ride
and if you saw my ride
you could dig that too, you dig?
Sunroof stereo radio black leather
bucket seats sit low you know,
the body’s cool, but the tires are worn.
Ride when the hard time come, ride
when they’re gone, in other words
the light was green.

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in

Up to the window comes the Law
with his hand on his gun
what’s up? what’s happening?
I said I guess
that’s when I really broke the law.
He said a routine, step out the car
a routine, assume the position.
Put your hands up in the air
you know the routine, like you just don’t care.
License and registration.
Deep was the night and the light
from the North Star on the car door, deja vu
we’ve been through this before,
why did you stop me?
Somebody had to stop you.
I watch the news, you always lose.
You’re unreliable, that’s undeniable.
This is serious, you could be dangerous.

I could wake up in the morning
without a warning
and my world could change:
blink your eyes.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in

New York City, they got laws
can’t no bruthas drive outdoors,
in certain neighborhoods, on particular streets
near and around certain types of people.
They got laws.
All depends, all depends on the skin,
all depends on the skin you’re living in.

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Rubbing in inequality

Not to dump on the New York Times again after my little who/whom grammar lesson for them but….

Really bad taste department: 4/10/20 p. A5:

• top half of page: “Isolating Against the Coronavirus Gives Rise to a New Threat: Starvation” (online title: “Indigenous Groups Isolated by Coronavirus Face Another Threat: Hunger”). That’s about Colombia, but we know a lot of people around the globe, including Americans are—however you like to phrase it—starving, hungry, or food insecure.

• bottom half of page: Sotheby ads for 2 properties “8 miles to Manhattan,” one for $32,900,000, the other a mere $21,500,000 (both are single family properties in Alpine NJ).

Nothing like rubbing it in to the less fortunate members of the human race, is there?

Or, remote possibility I guess: the person (or computer?) doing the page layout wanted to make a bitter political point about inequality?

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Joan Salvat-Papasseit and “the good that is everything”

Joan Salvat-Papasseit (Joan is the equivalent of John) was an avant-garde Catalan poet who lived from 1894-1924 in Barcelona, which 100 years ago, in an age when horse travel and airplane travel overlapped, was becoming a hub of modern influences. Many of his poems reflect his fascination with the emerging world of machines and industrial shapes; but this very accessible and humanistic poem (my translation, from the original in a volume published in 1921) shows in the simplest ways his affection for the things and people that make up everyday life, seen from a sick bed. “…Per veure el bo que és tot / To see the good that is everything”—what model optimism, what a feeling of uplift and lightness, in our own time of suffering from covid-19 and other maladies, both medical and societal! Salvat-Papasseit died of tuberculosis, which had no cure, at the age of 30.

Joan Salvat-Papasseit, All My Longing for Tomorrow

                                                                 To Marià Manent

Now that I’m sick in bed

I feel pretty good.

— Tomorrow I’ll get up

if I can,

And here’s what’s waiting for me:

City squares shining with brightness,

and garden beds with flowers

under the sun

under the moon of evening;

and the girl who brings milk

with a simple touch,

who wears an apron

with a lacy hem

and a bright laugh,

And the boy who sells newspapers

and runs on and off

the tram.

And the mail carrier,

who if he goes by without leaving me a letter makes me fret

because I don’t know the secrets

of what he’s delivering.

And also the airplane

that makes me raise my head

as if a voice were calling me from up on a roof terrace.

And the neighborhood women

early in the morning,

who go by in a hurry headed to the market

each carrying a yellow basket

and then they come back

with cabbages sticking out the top

and sometimes meat

or red cherries.

And then the grocer,

who brings out his coffee roaster

and starts turning the crank,

and calls to the girls

“Do you have all you need?”

And the girls smile

 their limpid smiles,

which are the balm given off by the sphere that he rotates.

And all the neighborhood kids,

who will make such a racket because it will be Thursday

and they won’t be in school.

And the sensible horses

and their drivers asleep

under the fabric

that flaps behind the wheels.

And the wine I haven’t tasted for so many days.

And the bread

set out on the table

And the red serving bowl,

giving off steam.

And you all                  friends

Because you’ll come to see me

and happily we’ll look at each other.

All this is waiting for me

if I get out of bed


And if I can’t get up

ever again

here’s what’s waiting for me:

—You all will remain,

to see the goodness that is everything:


and Death.

[Photo: Statue of Salvat-Papasseit by Robert Krier on the Barcelona waterfront, from Wikipedia]

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