Category Archives: Concord, Mass.


At midday, my old friend W—— and I packed sandwiches and water, got into his canoe and paddled up the Concord River, and paddled upstream. It wasn’t as hot as yesterday, but it still was in the 90s. Sometimes we’d catch a light breeze, depending on where we were along the bends of the river. The hot sun was straight above us, and there was no shade except over water too shallow for us to paddle in. We saw Daniel Chester French’s statue of the Minuteman, passed under the Old North Bridge, passed the replica of the boat house where Nathaniel Hawthorne had tied up the rowboat he bought from Henry Thoreau,* and at last got to the confluence of the Assabet and Sudbury Rivers, which is the beginning of the Concord River.

“Which way do you want to go?” I asked Will. He didn’t have an opinion, so I suggested we got up the Assabet River because it was likely to be shadier. We passed some people fishing, and I asked them if they were catching anything. “Nothing,” they said, “just a few little sunfish. It’s too hot.” They were standing waist-deep in the water to keep cool.

The Assabet River is narrow, and just a little way up it we were in the shade. We went up stream just a short way before it got too shallow to go any further. We drifted downstream until we found a bend in the river that was in the shade, and which also caught the desultory breeze. Fish swam under us, and a Spotted Sandpiper bobbed on the opposite bank. It was the perfect place to beat the heat, and we talked about our families for a good hour until it was time to drift back downstream to where we put in.

* For my Unitarian Universalist readers, French, Hawthorne, and Thoreau were all raised as Unitarians, although Thoreau resigned from his church in his early twenties.


At about five o’clock, it had cooled off enough that I was willing to go out for a long walk. I walked out of my sister’s air-conditioned house in Acton, Mass., into the heat. At least it wasn’t unbearably humid; it was merely mildly humid and oppressively hot. When I got off the main road onto a side street, away from car exhaust fumes, I could smell the warm earth, the roadside plants and weeds, the occasional tang of pollen. I passed a hay field that had just been mowed, with all the cut hay raked into rows so the baler could scoop them up, and the sweet smell of fresh-cut hay overwhelmed all the other smells. Then I got back onto a main road again, and once again the hot summer smells were lost under the exhaust fumes. That evening, Dad said his digital thermometer had recorded a high temperature of 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit.

Preaching on July 4

This morning, I got to preach in First Parish of Concord, Massachusetts, the church of the Minutemen. Imagine preaching to that historic congregation on Independence Day! It was great fun, and I feel lucky to be invited to preach there on July 4th.

I wrote a kind of historical sermon on evolving notions of liberty, and since it’s Independence Day, I thought I’d share it with you — the sermon’s posted over on my sermon blog.

Road trip notebook: Massachusetts

We left the motel in Greenfield, crossed Interstate 91, and headed east on Route 2, the Mohawk Trail. Carol started playing the last bit of the Trollope novel we’ve been listening to on this trip. The road wound through some old paper mill towns along the river, and then up into the hills of central Massachusetts. Although I’m not usually sentimental, I did take a detour off the main highway into downtown Athol, past the little church where I was ordained; it looked neater and better-maintained than ever, and the signs out front had been renovated and repainted. The Trollope novel reached its inevitable conclusion, although it took forever for Will and Clara to finally get married, and we had to listen as Will crushed her passionately in his arms and kiss her brow, her cheeks, her lips; it was not a very satisfying novel, but it was good enough that we had to listen to the very end of it. At last the novel was done, and we wound down through the hills towards Concord, and met my dad at the house of Deacon Miller of First Parish of Concord. Deacon Miller is not a bit like the deacons they had 350 years ago at First Parish of Concord; first of all, she’s a woman (which would have been unthinkable in the 17th century); and she is a self-described Jewish atheist deacon (equally unthinkable in the 17th century). Carol and Deacon Miller and dad and I all sat down to a lovely dinner, and that was the official end of our cross-country trip.

The real April 19

April 19 is the anniversary of the Battle of Concord and Lexington in 1775, a minor military engagement that wound up having major political repercussions. Patrick Murfin has one of the best summaries of the events of that day that I’ve seen in a long time, and you should go check it out.

As someone who lived the first 42 years of his life mostly in Concord, and who worked for several years at the church on Lexington Green, it has been interesting to watch over the years as different political groups have tried to claim that the participants in the Battle of Concord and Lexington agreed with some narrow political ideology of the present day. In 1975, quasi-leftists staged a “people’s” celebration of the bicentennial of the battle, saying that the British colonials who presented armed resistance to His Majesty’s troops were in fact aligned with what was then called the New Left. More recently, right-wingers are wrapping themselves in quasi-colonial costumes, saying that the British colonials who presented armed resistance to His Majesty’s troops were in fact aligned with what is now called the “Tea Party” movement.

Both these claims, and all similar claims, have little to do with historical fact, and must be dismissed as silly. The 18th century men and women in the colonies of British North America inhabited a very different political and social world than we do in the early 21st century. Those 18th century men and women were colonials, subjects of the worldwide British empire. They were also subjects of an 18th century constitutional monarchy, and they owed allegiance to the person of King George. As colonials, they were subject to the laws promulgated by Parliament, yet they had no elected representation in Parliament. As colonials, whatever local government they had could be removed or replace by His Majesty’s government; in fact, that’s exactly what had happened, and the colonials had had essentially no political recourse when their elected officials were removed from office. Any recent citizen of the United States — and that includes the Tea Partyites and the old New Leftists — inhabits a very different political world than the colonials of British North America.

In my years living and working in Concord and Lexington, I saw plenty of political infighting; Lexington had a particularly nasty split between liberals and conservatives. But on April 19, we all tried to put aside our present-day politics. In Concord and Lexington, everyone is a patriot on April 19 (yes, even the guys who dress up as Redcoats in the re-enactments of the battle). We knew that trying to claim the battle for one or another present-day political ideology was bad form, serving merely to distract us all from the serious duties of knowing the historical facts as accurately as possible, and celebrating the courage and commitment of those long-ago men and women.

Even as I write this, the re-enactors have just moved across Lexington Green for the second time today, this time with the colonial militia and minutemen in hot pursuit of His Majesty’s regulars. There’s no one re-enacting the role of Tea Partyites, because there were no Tea Partyites back in 1775, no New Left, no small-minded politicians trying to claim a mantle that wasn’t theirs to claim. There were only men and women, both black and white, slowly and painfully, sometimes bloodily, working their way towards a new political system that was still only vaguely imagined.

Ark for sale in Acton, Mass.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island were hit by heavy rainstorms in March. Bristol County, where we were living last year, has been declared a federal disaster area; Middlesex County, where we lived seven years ago, is also a disaster area, as are Essex, Norfolk, Plymouth, Suffolk, and Worcester counties.

The photographs of flooding on the Boston Globe Web site show places that we know well: water pouring over the dam at Moody Street in Waltham, broken culvert at Route 119 in Littleton, Cambridge Turnpike in Concord closed due to flooding, Route 140 in Freetown closed due to flooding, duck boats helping people get to their houses in Wayland, flooding in Peabody, and on and on. My favorite photo was from Acton, the town where my sister lives — someone took a piece of plywood and some red spray paint to make a big sign: “ARK FOR SALE.”

If you’re in Massachusetts, I’d love to hear from you. Are you flooded out? Has it stopped raining yet?

A tale of April 19, 1775

Today is Patriots Day, a legal holiday in Massachusetts commemorating the Battle of Lexington and Concord, which is popularly held to be the first battle in the American Revolution. I used to be a licensed tourist guide in Concord, and I delighted in helping people get past the myths that have grown up around April 19, 1775: so I would help people understand that Paul Revere never made it to Concord (he was captured by the British in Lincoln); that there weren’t any Minutemen on Lexington Green but rather the Lexington Militia; and that nobody said “The British are coming!” because on April 19, 1775, the colonials had not yet declared themselves to be a separate country and still probably thought of themselves as British.

One of my favorite myth-busting stories told how there wasn’t a firm line between the colonial soldiers and His Majesty’s troops. By April 22, 1850, Amos Baker, the sole survivor of the Battle at the North Bridge in Concord told a story of how one of those who had gathered with the Minutemen and Militia companies in Concord decided before the battle that he just wasn’t going to fight. Here’s the story in Baker’s own words:

“Before the fighting begun, when we were on the hill, James Nichols, of Lincoln, who was an Englishman, and a droll fellow, and a fine singer, said, ‘If any of you will hold my gun, I will go down and talk to them.’ Some of them held his gun, and he went down alone to the British soldiers at the bridge and talked to them some time. Then he came back and took his gun and said he was going home, and went off before the fighting. Afterwards he enlisted to go to Dorchester and there deserted to the British, and I never heard of him again.”

Thus, contrary to myth, some of the colonial Minutemen and Militiamen had doubts about what they were doing — and at least one of them, James Nichols, acted upon those doubts.

Baker’s story comes from “The affidavit of Amos Baker, of Lincoln, given April 22d, 1850; he being the sole survivor of the men who were present at the North Bridge, at Concord, on the 19th of April, 1775, and the only man living who bore arms that day” (reprinted as an appendix to An oration delivered at Concord: on the celebration of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the events of April 19, 1775 by Robert Rantoul [Boston: Commonwealth of Massachusetts, 1850], pp. 134-135).


I had an hour to kill in the middle of the day, so I parked at the old rifle range, and walked up the abandoned railroad bed to White Pond. The air was thick with humidity, and everything looked incredibly green from all the rain that’s fallen in July. Cicadas buzzed. A few birds braved the heat of the day. I passed through swamps caused by beaver dams. In places, the railroad bed was almost overgrown and only a thin path led through exuberant green shrubs and grass and poison ivy. Brilliant green leaves brushed against me from head to toe on both sides. At one point I noticed where a stand of white pines had dropped enough needles and shed enough shade to kill off most of the undergrowth; aside from that, I didn’t think of much of anything at all. Once the swamp ended and the woods began, the undergrowth mostly disappeared.

On the way back from White Pond, a Golden Labrador Retriever lay panting at the side of the trail, attended by a white-haired woman.

“That dog has the right idea,” I said. “It’s too hot to walk.”

“He’s gone lame,” said the woman. She had an English accent.

“What, does he have something in his paw?” I said.

“He walks a few yards, and then he stops and lies down,” she said. “My friend has gone to get the car.”

“He’s hot, too,” I said, watching him pant. “It’s very humid.”

“It is clammy,” she said. “I’ve just come over from England last night. We’ve been having some of the same weather over there.”

We chatted a bit, and then I said, “I’ try to carry him up to the road for you, but I think he’s a bit heavy for me.”

She laughed. “Oh, I didn’t expect you to offer to carry him up. He’ll be fine.”

Of the whole hour-long walk I took, most of what I can tell you about is that three-minute conversation. Aside from that, there are only general impressions of walking hard, sweat, gentle heat, damp air, greenness, small animals in the underbrush, flies, smell of grass and leaves — but there wasn’t much to be said about such basic physical impressions.

Signs of wealth

Since I have to work on Sunday, my sister Abby said we should take my dad out for a Father’s Day dinner tonight. So I drove up to Concord to meet them for dinner. I wanted to go to the Barrow Bookstore, one of the best places to find used books on Transcendentalism, so I got to Concord before they closed, which left me with two hours to walk around the town. And, although I lived there up until five years ago, I was forcibly struck with how wealthy the town appeared. I know that the average family income is something like US$120,000. But, I asked myself, what were the visible signs of wealth in the town? I came up with five visible signs of wealth:

(1) No one I saw appeared to be particularly overweight or painfully thin. If you’re on food stamps, you buy cheap calories which tend to bulk you out; if you’re so poor you can’t even get food stamps you get very thin and wiry.

(2) I didn’t see anyone missing any teeth, no one at all. Everyone seemed to have access to excellent dental care.

(3) Nearly everyone, with only a few exceptions, looked trim and fit. People who do physical work get shaped by their work (e.g., when I worked for the carpenter, my right side was bigger than my left); or they may show the damaging effects of their work. But the people I saw in Concord looked evenly-shaped, very clean, with no obvious damage to their bodies; the trimness and fitness that comes through working out in a gym.

(4) The houses mostly looked to have been painted within the past five years, and very few houses had vinyl siding. Many of the houses were painted in more than two colors, e.g., one house with siding painted a dusty rose color, trim boards darker pink, window casings medium green, doors and windows dark green, porch railings off-white, black highlights here and there.

(5) The landscaping around most of the houses looked professionally done. Professional landscapers use bark mulch and mechanical edging tools freely, they don’t sharpen their lawn mower blades often enough, and there is a uniformity to everything they do.

As I walked around the town center, I passed one house that caught my eye because it did not look like the others. Instead of new, bright paint, it was clad with weathered cedar shingles and boards. Trees and shrubs and grapevines came together to make a shady inviting space, and the ground was covered with carefully laid pea stone. The house had unique and delightful details: a beautiful half-round window, probably handmade on site, each small pane reflecting light slightly differently; a delicate roof line on the sheltering eave over a door; a simple but inviting railing on a porch.

“She can’t still be alive,” I muttered to myself. Twenty-five years ago, I knew the carpenter who did all her work for her. He was a real craftsman, one of the few in town, and he told us about her. Madame would ask him to do something, then when he was done come back and say, in her French accent, “Oh, no no no no no, Bill, no not like that,” and Bill would listen to what she wanted changed, and take the just-finished work out, and do it again until it was perfect. He said he never minded because Madame was polite about it, she paid him by the hour not by the job, and besides it sounded as if they liked each other. He swore she was the richest person in Concord, by far — she was one of the Rothschilds, although she had a different last name — and she only spent a couple of months a year in the town, living in her many other houses around the world the rest of the year. She must have been so much wealthier than anyone else in Concord that by her standards they must have seemed no better than the working poor.

She must have been over seventy then; she couldn’t still be alive now. I should add that Bill died on Independence Day two or three years ago.