Category Archives: Summer

Summer impulse

A perfect summer day. It was so beautiful that after I finished visiting a shut-in, I decided to drive back to the church via back roads, instead of the divided highway. My route took me through Lakeville and Rochester, past farms and suburban sprawl and fields and woods and suburban sprawl and cranberry bogs and shopping plazas.

Driving back roads took me an extra fifteen minutes. When I got back to the church, I realized that I should have just driven straight back, and gone for a fifteen minute walk — that would have been much more satisfying, and would have burned less gas. On the other hand, if I had driven straight back, I would have skipped the fifteen minute walk and just gone on to make my next visit.

Death on the rooftops

The Herring Gulls who nested on our rooftop this year hatched out two chicks, but the chicks didn’t survive for very long. There’s a skylight in our bedroom, which goes up through a part of the roof with a very shallow pitch. That’s the part of the roof where the chicks like to spend their time. We have discovered that they like to sneak in under the skylight and stand on the insect screen above our bedroom, to get out of the sun and the rain. We don’t like them to stand their, because we don’t want their droppings coming down through the screen into our bedroom, so while the chicks are running around on the rooftop we keep the skylight barely open.

But somehow they crept in anyway. Then it started raining. The skylight has a rain sensor that closes it automatically. The chicks got crushed to death. It gave Carol a nasty shock when she went in to go to bed, and there were two dead gull chicks trapped between the insect screen and the sash of the skylight.

I got the stepladder and pushed them out of the way. While I was cleaning up the gull droppings on the floor under the skylight, the two parents stood on the skylight and screamed and hollered. I’m not sure I would attribute grief to Herring Gulls — they are fairly non-social animals. Yet the disappearance of their chicks, and then the sudden appearance of the dead bodies, must have been disconcerting to them:– all their energy had been devoted to parenting, and then suddenly it became quite clear to them that they were no longer parents. They screamed and hollered for about twenty minutes, and then flew away.

Carol felt bad about the dead chicks, but I told her that the mortality rate for Herring Gulls in their first year is something like eighty percent. In the three breeding seasons that we have lived in our apartment, only one chick out of six has even survived long enough to fledge and fly away — three fell off the edge of the roof, two were crushed to death by the skylight. Even with such a high mortality rate, the population of Herring Gulls is rising in Massachusetts, so I am not tempted to feel sentimental about it.

Sitting on the bridge at night

Coming home late at night from the supermarket, I saw the sign lit up to say “Bridge Closed.” I drove across Pope’s Island and pulled in behind a pickup truck stopped at the bridge, and turned off my engine. Damp cool air came up off the harbor. The driver of the truck in front of me turned off his or her engine. A few cars pulled in behind me.

To my right, I could hear the faint sound of a radio being played in one of the cars in the right-hand lane. To my left, I could hear two crickets chirping somewhere in Captain Leroy’s Marina. I don’t think I have ever heard crickets on Pope’s Island before. Usually, the sounds of traffic on the four lanes of U.S. Route 6 drown out most other sounds.

The bridge began to swing back. We all waited. I could hear two young women chatting and laughing in a car behind mine. A faint cool breeze blew in the window of the car. The crickets suddenly began chirping a little faster.

At last the gates blocking the bridge went up, we all started up our engines, the light turned green, we surged forward and were gone.

Dealing with the heat

On Saturday morning, it went from 55 degrees Fahrenheit at 6 a.m. to 85 at 2 p.m. High temperature yesterday was 90, today it was 95.

As always, Ted showed up first for choir practice tonight.

“Hot today,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “But what’s bad is that it went from fifty something to eighty something in a day.”

Talking about the heat was depressing, so we started talking about the economy. That got depressing, so we talked politics. That got depressing, so we talked about New Bedford. That got depressing, but by then there were enough people for us to start singing. The first really hot weather of the season always makes me depressed and crankier than usual. Good thing we had choir practice tonight, because the music made all that crankiness disappear.

At lunch hour

“Whoever’s next I can take you down here,” said the nice young woman who works at the cafe. I walked down to her cash register. “Hi hon, what can I get you.”

“Could I have a tuna salad plate please and…” I placed my order.

“That’s nine seventy, hon,” she said, friendly, but a little too busy to smile.

I paid, left a better tip than usual, and stepped back to wait for my salad. All of a sudden there was a long line. The two women at the cash registers worked as fast as they could.

“I can take the next in line down here,” said the nice young woman.

A man shouldered his way past the people in line. A woman at the head of the line looked at him, and sort of shrugged. She could see his face (I couldn’t) and apparently whatever she saw there made her decide not to challenge him. He was tall, a slight stoop to his broad shoulders, casually dressed but well dressed. He eased over to the register. As the nice woman at the register handed over some change and started to turn to him, he swung a bottle of juice back and forth, and it slipped out of his hand and smashed on the floor. He looked at it for a moment, kept his head down, and walked towards the table where the extra napkins are. But he kept walking past that table, and towards the door, and he slipped out the door with his head down.

Maybe he’s going to the security guard at the entrance to the building, I thought to myself. Maybe he’s going to ask for a mop. But he didn’t come back. The line was still long, and the two women at the cash registers just ignored the puddle of juice and the broken glass for now. Two women were standing waiting for their orders to come out, as I was, and one of them said to the other: “Did you see that? He just walked out!” The other woman shook her head.

“I can take whoever’s next,” said the nice young woman. A man with a grizzled beard and a worn t-shirt walked down towards her register and stepped on a piece of broken glass. “Watch out hon, don’t step on the glass,” said the nice young woman. “What can I get you?”

Two trees

The last thirty days have been dry here. The dirt in our little garden beside our building is powder dry, and half of the flowers have died from thirst. When you walk around our neighborhood, you can tell which people have automatic watering systems for their lawns, because their grass is green and soft, while everyone else’s grass is golden brown and crisp.

At church today, we had our usual ingathering worship service, where everyone is invited to bring a small amount of water from their summer adventures and add it to a communal bowl. When the worship service was over, we took the bowl out beside the church, and the children of the church helped spread the water around the big old cedar tree growing there.

More water probably got on the children than got to the tree, and as soon as we were done, the children tore off to run around in circles once again. Cora and I stood there watching them, and we talked about how dry the last month or so has been. Cora said that she had heard that trees older than a hundred years are beginning to have a hard time with the lack of water. She pointed out some of the signs of lack of water on our big old cedar tree: loosened bark and cracks in the wood, which can provide access to insect pests.

Trees are having a tough time of it in general these days. Trees face a variety of invasive pests — the Eastern Hemlocks are dying from Woolly Aldegid infestations, and if the Asian Longhorn Beetle escapes its present quarantine in New York City, we’ll lose the maples, willows, horse chestnuts, and more. There’s global climate change, which some people predict will adversely impact many trees. And trees face other human-caused problems, like road salt which builds up near roads and kills trees. It makes sense to keep our trees as healthy as possible, so that they will have a better chance of surviving road salt, global climate change, and invasive insect pests.

So I said to Cora that I guessed it would be a good idea to ask our church sexton to put a hose out this week and water our big old cedar, and the oak tree, too. She said she thought that would be a good idea. We went back to watching her daughter and the other children run around under the trees, and it occurred to me that Cora had played under those same two trees back when she was a child growing up in our church.

Many Middle Passages

Many Middle Passages: Forced Migration and the Making of the Modern World, ed. Emma Christopher, Cassandra Pybus, and Marcus Rediker (Berkeley: Univ. of Calif., 2007) takes some of its inspiration from the 2000 Beacon Press book Many-Headed Hydra: Sailors, Slaves, Commoners, and the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic, which argued in part that the Atlantic slave trade could be used as a way to understand other slave trades. The editors of Many Middle Passages felt that the Atlantic slave trade’s infamous middle passage — the disorientation, the violence, the occasional resistance — could help us understand other slave trades, in other parts of the world and in other eras. Eleven independent essays explore this idea further.

In “The Other Middle Passage: The African Slave Trade in the Indian Ocean,” Edward A. Alpers sheds some light on the lesser-known slave trade on the other side of the African continent. Alpers raises the obvious point that “it is a mistake to restrict analyses of the middle passage only to oceanic passages, assuming that enslaved Africans embarked from the African coast as if they were leaving their native country, when in fact their passage from freedom into slavery actually began with the moment they were swept up by the economic forces that drove the slave trade deep into the African interior.” [p. 21] Based on this assumption, Alpers traces the Indian Ocean slave trade into the interior of Africa. Relying primarily on freed-slave narratives, Alpers presents us with the horrors of the slave trade on land and by sea. The ocean passages were as horrible on the Indian Ocean as they were on the Atlantic Ocean, with the same high mortality rates and the same dehumanizing conditions. The commodification of human beings seems to take similar forms no matter where it springs up.

In “‘The Slave Trade Is Merciful Compared to This’: Slave Traders, Convict Transportation, and the Abolitionists,” Emma Christopher examines how England transported the earliest convicts to Australia. Some captains of the early ships that carried convicts to the penal colony in Australia had been slave traders previously. As slave traders, they had some financial incentive to keep as many slaves alive as possible. On the trip to Australia, however, there was no financial incentive to keep the convicts alive: “the captains could actually gain financially from the death of the convicts, as the food of the deceased was saved and could be sold once the ship reached its destination.” [p. 110]

Emma Christopher quotes from a letter sent to England by a soldier stationed in Australia at the time who said, “the slave trade is merciful compared to what I have seen in this fleet.” She then goes on to point out that whereas the incredible suffering on slave traders resulted from the commoditization of human beings, the absence of financial incentives helped create the incredible suffering on the convict transports: “Inured to the kind of cruelty that pervaded the trade in slaves, and with no financial incentive to check their behavior, [the ship’s officers] cared little for their charges.” [p. 122] Once back in England, the ship’s officers were tried and quickly acquitted, yet pressure from abolitionists and others forced the government to make sure the convicts were treated better thereafter. The real point, left unspoken, is that it would have been better if we hadn’t commodified human beings to begin with.

In “La Traite des Jaunes: Trafficking in Women and Children across the China Sea,” Julia Martinez studies the trade in sex slaves in and around the China Sea. This slave trade came to prominence in the late 19th C., peaked in the first half of the 20th C., and continues today. Many of the victims of this trade were children — some from destitute families who may even have sold their children out of desperation, but some kidnapped from prosperous families. The children sere sold as young as eight years old, and girls would be forced into selling sex at about age thirteen; they might be released from “debt bondage” at age eighteen [p. 214]; it is horrible to think that children treated as commodities, not as human beings, even if they were eventually released from bondage.

The China Sea sex slave trade was partially repressed through the middle 20th C., but there was a resurgence in the 1980’s as the times brought increased prosperity to the region. The sex slave trade continues today throughout the region. The final chapter of the book, titled “Afterword: ‘All of It Is Now'”, points out that more people are enslaved today (27 million) than at any previous point in history. The good news is that a smaller percentage of the world’s population is enslaved now than in earlier centuries, and that slavery is now illegal everywhere. But still — there are 27 million people enslaved even as I write this.

I was expecting this to be the usual boring academic book, but it wasn’t. Not all of the eleven essays were as powerful as the ones I have discussed, but all the essays are worth reading. The subject matter is so shocking and fascinating (in a horrible kind of way) that it overcomes even the occasional turgid academic prose. And the book is particularly compelling because several of the writers go out of the way to provide lengthy excerpts from first-person freed-slave narratives, so we get to hear the voices of slaves firsthand — at least, we get to hear the voices of those lucky slaves who somehow made it to freedom.

On giving up

Ferry Beach, Saco, Maine

It stopped raining late this morning, and by early evening the sky was almost entirely clear. With clear skies and a light wind, the conditions on Saco Bay were the best they’ve been all week. I decided to try to paddle to Eagle Island, about a mile off shore.

By six o’clock, I was pushing the canoe into the light surf. I waded out up to my thighs, jumped in the canoe, and started paddling. There were a few large cloud masses off to the southeast which might become thunderheads, but they were well to the south and moving away from me. I felt a light offshore wind on my back, just enough to ruffle the surface of the water. I figured the offshore wind would probably ease off towards sunset, so conditions looked good all around. I started paddling for the island.

When I was about halfway there, I saw a Common Loon off the port bow. I fumbled with binoculars — an old pair with broken eye cups, which would be no great loss if they got soaked — and as I fumbled, I realized that the bow of the canoe was slewing to port just as a particularly big swell came at me. I let the binoculars drop on their cord, grabbed the paddle, and brought the bow into the wave. It was suddenly clear that I couldn’t stop paddling, for if the canoe drifted broadside to the waves, the waves had gotten big enough that it would be easy to go over.

I kept paddling, and the swells kept getting larger. They were getting big enough that I began to worry how I would turn the canoe around. At first, I hoped that if I got on the landward side of Eagle Island, I’d be sheltered from the waves and it would be easy to turn around. But the farther out into the bay I got, the bigger the swells got. When I rode up and over one particularly big swell — about two feet high, and steeper than before — I gave up on Eagle Island, and looked for an opportunity to turn the canoe. Several good sized waves, then a short interval with small waves — I turned the canoe as fast as possible, and began paddling for shore.

But I wasn’t ready to go back yet. Once I got back to where the swells diminished in size, I decided to paddle over to the mile-long jetty that protects the channel of the Saco River. Sometimes Harbor Seals swim along the jetty — seeing a seal would be a nice consolation prize. The offshore breeze began to stiffen. I got near the jetty, reached for the binoculars to look at some Least Terns flying overhead — the wind blew me right towards the jetty. I grabbed the paddle and dug into the water to pull myself away the sharp rocks of the jetty.

That was enough. I paddled for home. It was tough going. With only one person in the canoe, the bow rode high, and it was hard work to keep it pointed just off the wind. I had to push myself harder than I liked. I rode a wave up onto the sand, jumped out, and grabbed the canoe to pull it out of the water. Muscles from my thighs up through my shoulders were quivering from the hard paddling — I just couldn’t lift the canoe right then, so I dragged it up the beach out of reach of the waves. A few more scratches on the bottom of the canoe wouldn’t hurt.

Eventually I carried the canoe up off the beach. Marty, the fellow who’s leading a sea-kayaking workshop here this week, saw me. “How’d it go?” he said.

“Well, I got two thirds of the way to Eagle Island,” I said. “But when the swells got higher than the gunwales of the canoe, it was time to turn back.”

He just laughed, and continued to tie his sea kayak on the roof of his car. His kayak would have ridden those swells with ease, of course. If I had had another experienced person in the canoe with me, I might have tried for the island, and paddling along the jetty wouldn’t have been a problem. But it was just me, in a too-small open canoe, with waves that got too big, and wind that got too stiff — so I gave up.

The Tatler

Before there were blogs, there were other periodicals with writing that ranged from the profound to the distinctly ephemeral. In 1709, Sir Richard Steele brought out the Tatler. According the Lewish Gibb, his motives were far from idealistic, which led him to create something new in literature:

Steele brought out the Tatler because he wanted money, and the result was something new in literature. Not that a periodical publication was in itself a new thing, but this one had unusual qualities. In accordance with its motto it took the whole range of social activity — quincquid agunt homines — for its province. [The Tatler, Richard Steele, ed. Lewis Gibbs. London: J. M. Dent (Everyman’s Library), 1953, p. vi.]

I’m reading through Gibbs’s selection from the Tatler. It sounds surprisingly contemporary. There’s a short piece on what will happen to the news-writers if the war with France should end. Speaking of a news-writer named Boyer (who sounds as if he could be a pundit on Fox News), Steele says, “Where Prince Eugene has slain his thousands, Boyer has slain his ten thousands….He has laid about him with an inexpressible fury; and made such havoc among his countrymen as must be the work of two or three ages to repair.” And so the war must continue in order to give the news-writers and pundits worthy subjects. Perhaps this is why on July 5th, 2007, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Associated Press didn’t question George Bush’s unsubstantiated claim that the Al Qaeda operating in Iraq today is the same Al Qaeda that leveled the World Trade Centers, as reported in Media Matters, for if the Iraq War should end, consumption of the news media would drop. Updating Steele for today’s world: “It being therefore visible that our society will be greater sufferers by the peace than the soldiery itself, insomuch that the New York Times is in danger of being broken, and the very best of the whole band of journalists of being reduced to half-pay; I would humbly move that proper apartments, furnished with laptops, Internet connections, and other necessaries of life, should be added to the Veterans Administration hospitals, for the relief of such decayed journalists and pundits as have served their country by reporting and commenting on the war.”

Of particular interest to the readers of this blog, the Tatler commented on the clergy of the day. Steele commented on a certain clergyman who spoke a little too harshly and gesticulated a little too wildly in the pulpit: “As harsh and irregular sound is not harmony, so neither is banging on a cushion, oratory; and therefore, in my humble opinion, a certain divine of the first order, would do well to leave this off; for I think his sermons would be more persuasive if he gave his auditory less disturbance.” Such sweet viciousness! Would that Steele were still alive to comment on early 21st C. preaching, which has sunk to lower levels than even early 18th C. preaching. But Steele commented on more than preaching, he also commented on the sloppy prayers offered by a certain vicar — “In reading prayers, he has such a careless loll, that people are justly offended at his irreverent posture; besides the extraordinary charge they are put to in sending their children to dance, to bring them off of those ill gestures.” What would Steele have said about some of the Unitarian Universalist prayers I have heard uttered? –to think of it makes me shiver with delicious imaginings.