Category Archives: Summer

The Lakes District

My older sister, Jean, is back east from Indiana. Somehow or another, we decided to go fishing on the rivers in Concord. We had to get fishing licenses first, so we couldn’t get on the river at sunrise (the best time to fish in summer because it’s cool). But by ten thirty or so, we had my canoe in the water, and we were paddling up the Assabet River.

The river was low, and there were a couple of places where there was barely enough water to float the canoe. We had a hard time getting through a couple of shallow places. The river was low enough that it seemed unlikely that we would catch anything except small fish. But the great virtue of the Assabet is that it is lined by overhanging trees, which shade it even in the middle of the hottest of summer days. Since we were fishing in the middle of the day, on one of the hottest of summer days, the Assabet seemed like a good choice.

We skirted barely-hidden underwater rocks, and paddled silently over deep, shady pools. We ducked to get under branches, and in the shallow parts I admired the pattern of sun and shadow on the sandy bottom of the river. We heard an occasional lawn mower — lawn care companies hired by the well-to-do householders who live near the river — but mostly we heard nothing but a few hot and lazy birds, or the plop of a turtle dropping into the water at our approach.

At last we got to a place where the river was blocked by a tiny water fall, all of twelve inches high. We could have gotten out and waded in water up to our knees and carried the canoe over the tiny falls, but we decided to start fishing. It took Jean a couple of casts to get back into the rhythm of casting — she said that it must have been twenty years since the last time she went fishing — but pretty soon, we were drifting downstream with the current, lazily casting and retrieving our lures, hoping we wouldn’t catch anything.

Of course we did catch some fish, mostly sunfish — voracious little pumpkinseeds and bluegills who lunged at the lures and stared at us with their goggle eyes as we unhooked them and released them back into the river. Jean caught a calico bass, and I caught a little six-inch largemouth bass. We got tired of catching the tiny fish. We both put on larger lures, too big for the little sunfish to get their jaws around, although sometimes they still would attack our lures. We drifted along with the slow current, casting into deeper holes where maybe a larger bass was lurking. In one such deep hole, I cast and felt a bigger fish hit my lure down in the murk. We cast a couple more times in that hole, but nothing came of it.

Really, though, we didn’t plan to catch much of anything. We wanted to go fishing for the sake of going fishing, not for the sake of catching fish. We were out fishing in the middle of the day on one of the hottest days of the year, in a shallow river where there shouldn’t be any fish at all except minnows. But the Pennsylvania Dutch side of our family are anglers, and I swear I could feel some kind of Pennsylvania Dutch witchery in my fingertips. So we caught more fish than we wanted to.

We took a break in the hottest part of the afternoon, and went to a nearby art museum that was air conditioned. We ate a quick dinner, and drove over to the Sudbury River. We drifted downstream in the canoe, catching a few more sunfish, and I got a small bass. When we got to Fairhaven Bay, we started fishing more seriously. Though it was only an hour before sunset, it was still hot. We knew the fish were still lying on the bottom, trying to stay cool, maybe snapping at a tasty morsel that drifted too close. So we fished on the bottom.

Fairhaven Bay covers about forty or fifty acres, and though it’s not as deep as nearby Walden Pond, it looks much the same. Henry Thoreau used to fish here, and he said that Walden Pond, Fairhaven Bay, and White Pond are Concord’s Lakes District — which I suppose means that these ponds should be the haunts of writers, just as England’s Lakes District has been haunted by writers. Even though Jean is a writer, and a college professor of writing, we did not talk about writing, or about the literary associations of Fairhaven Bay. We just fished off the bottom of the bay. We caught some more sunfish, and Jean pulled in a largemouth bass that was ten or twelve inches long.

Thoreau wrote that he got to the point where he didn’t like to fish, saying he thought less of himself when he went fishing. For me, the point of fishing is to not think much at all, except to think like a fish — which pretty much rules out everything except figuring out where the food comes from, and where you can find a sheltered spot near a good food source. As we paddled back to the landing, Jean and I talked a little bit about the morality of fishing, and I said I was willing to go fishing because I do eat fish and meat, and fishing helps me understand that eating fish and meat means that something has to die to feed me. However, I don’t suppose that a largemouth bass thinks about the morality of eating when it eats an insect, another fish, or a mouse (a bass will eat a mouse if one falls in the water). In my experience, most human beings don’t think much about the morality of eating. Thoreau probably thought too much about a lot of things.

When the sun disappeared behind the hills, we each had a last cast. We paddled back to the canoe landing, put the canoe on my car, and drove home.

Jean’s account of the same trip: Link.

Day Hike

Katama – Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard, 8+ miles

When I got up and stuck my head out the window yesterday, it promised to be a perfect summer day — dry, warm but not too hot, breezy, perfectly clear. I spent most of the morning talking with my aunt and uncle (I’ve been staying with them for the past three days), and then told them I was going to take a good long walk. Uncle Bob gave me a map, showed me some possible routes, and I set off about 11:30.

It really was turning out to be a perfect summer day, the kind of day that energizes you. Except that on my second day of vacation, I wasn’t feeling very energetic. The grind of work had worn me down more than I had admitted to myself. For the first hour, I walked without paying attention to much except the bike trail in front of me. I did notice some invasive exotic plants: several big stands of Japanese Knotweed, and lots of Spotted Knapweed in full bloom along the bike trail. I also noticed huge poison ivy plants, some of which were bushes three and four feet high.

When I got to the business district of Edgartown, 3 miles and 50 minutes later, I bought a newspaper and went in to the Main St. Diner, which was the least pretentious restaurant I could find. The waitress, who looked to be in her late teens, brought me a menu, and looked at my newspaper. “The New York Times,” she said approvingly. “I read that paper.” I told her that I thought it was a pretty good paper, and thought to myself that that was a curious thing for a waitress to say.

After I finished lunch, I wandered around Edgartown, looking at the houses, and looking at the people. I had some pretty good people-watching. You could tell when a tour bus stopped in town, because suddenly the narrow sidewalks were full of people who all looked somehow the same and who all wore name badges around their necks. You could tell the upper class summer people because even I could tell that their clothes were far more expensive than mine. (That evening, Uncle Bob said he bet there weren’t any actual residents of Edgartown walking around that day, and I suspect he’s correct. The yards and driveways of all the houses were just about empty.)

I finally wound up down at the main pier in Edgartown Harbor, reading my newspaper, and now and looking up to watch the two little ferries go to and fro between Chappaquidick Island and the pier. Then it was time to start walking again. Instead of walking straight back via Katama Road, I headed off along Clevelandtown Road, and continued walking along some side streets, winding around towards Katama Airport.

It was not an inspiring walk. The few modest houses left on Martha’s Vineyard are disappearing one by one, either bulldozed so that a mansionette (or sometimes a real mansion) can be put up in the same spot, or renovated beyond all recognition. It’s not unusual to see a 3,000 or 4,000 square foot house going up. It’s no longer enough to have a dirt driveway, or one of crushed shell — the latest fad appears to be driveways paved with peastone, and lined with expensive paving blocks or curbstones. The more pretentious houses boast emerald green lawns with full irrigation systems, huge three car garages, and waist-high stone walls made from stones that have obviously been brought in from off-island. I saw one elaborate stone wall that included an enclosure about twenty feet square for the vegetable garden, with some tomato plants barely poking their crowns above the stone.

I could have been walking through and upper class or upper-middle class neighborhood in any one of dozens of wealthy towns around Boston or north of New York City. Was I in Weston, Darien, or Westchester County? I couldn’t be sure, except for the huge poison ivy plants along the side of the road. I would have thought that if you go away for the summer, you’d want to go some place that doesn’t look like home. Maybe if you see the poison ivy, you know that you’re on Martha’s Vineyard.

At last I made it to Katama Airport, a small airport with grass airstrips and no air traffic control. Both the airport and the adjacent farm are on town-owned conservation land. Mid-afternoon is when raptors like to hunt, so I walked down the dirt road between the farm and the airport looking at the sky. Sure enough, in the distance I saw a hawk gliding low over the tops of the grass and scrub. It was a female Northern Harrier hunting. She dropped down onto something a couple of times, but I never saw her catch anything. Once, a group of Red-winged Blackbirds mobbed her, pestering her until she flew away from their territories. Once she roosted for a minute or two on top of a tall bush, and then flew on again, her head going this way and that as she searched the ground below her for prey. I stood watching her for maybe half an hour, and all other thoughts left my mind.

“Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God”

by Richard Rorty, in Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4. Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007

When the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty died a month or so ago, I decided to add some of his writing to my summer reading list. The fourth volume of his selected essays, Philosophy as Cultural Politics: Philosophical Papers, vol. 4, contains the essay “Cultural politics and the question of the existence of God,” and this essay seemed like a good place for a minister like to me start reading.

If you’re hoping for a definitive answer to the question, “Does God exist?” Rorty will not only disappoint you, he will also tell you (fairly gently) that it’s a bad question. There are better questions to ask, and these better questions have to do with what Rorty calls “cultural politics.”

So what is “cultural politics”? Citing philosopher Robert Brandom, Rorty says that the social world is prior to anything else. There isn’t some larger authority out to which we can appeal to set norms for society. This in turn means that societies, and the people who live in societies, cannot make appeals to God, or Truth, or Reality that trump all other appeals or claims. Your God, or Truth, or Reality can’t be considered an ultimate norm, any more than my God or Truth or Reality. Cultural politics, says Rorty, “is the least norm-governed human activity. It is the site of generational revolt, and thus the growing point of culture.” If you want a good example of how things grow in cultural politics, think about the U.S. Supreme Court decisions of Plessy vs. Ferguson on the one hand, and Brown vs. Board of Education on the other hand. Forget appeals to some transcendent Justice — we’re stuck with “the ontological priority of the social” (really a misnomer, since there is no ontology) — i.e., society, the social world, comes before anything else.

This being the case, rather than ask, “Does God exist?”, it would be better to ask, as Rorty phrases the question, “Do we want to weave one or more of the various religious traditions (with their accompanying pantheons) together with our deliberation over moral dilemmas, our deepest hopes, and our need to be rescued from despair?” Another way to make the same point is to say that, instead of having some kind of public religion ( “All U.S. citizens shall believe in the God of the Christian scriptures, as interpreted by the Southern Baptist Conference”), it would be better to have only private religion that stays out of the public sphere.

To me, as a Unitarian Universalist minister, all this makes good sense. I usually do not choose to play the language game that asks whether God exists or not. Continue reading

The Keeper of Sheep

by Fernando Pessoa. Bilingual edition (English/Portuguese), trans. Edwin Honig and Susan M. Brown.Sheep Meadow Press, Riverdale-on-Hudson, N.Y., 1985.

Fernando Pessoa (1888-1935) was the greatest Portuguese poet of the 20th C., the greatest Portuguese poet in 400 years, and indeed one of the great modernist poets of Western literature. Because he wrote in Portuguese, there aren’t many translations of his work and most English speakers have never heard of him — even though, curiously, Pessoa himself was fully bilingual in English and Portuguese and even wrote some early poems in English. Actually, he was trilingual, and also published poetry in French.

Pessoa wrote his poetry in several voices, and even published his poetry under different names — not pseudonyms, but rather heteronyms:

Having accustomed myself to have no beliefs and no opinions, lest my aesthetic feeling should be weakened, I grew soon to have no personality at all except an expressive one. I grew to be a mere apt machine for the expression of moods with became so intense that they grew into personalities and made my very soul the mere shell of their casual appearance…. p. xvi

One of his heteronyms was named Alberto Caeiro, the heteronymic author of the book The Keeper of Sheep, who “exists solely in what he sees, in the diversity of nature, and not in his mind reflecting the outer world” (p. xvii). Take, for example, this poem:

The moonlight behind the tall branches
The poets all say is more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches

But for me, who do not know what I think,–
What the moonlight behind the tall branches
Is, beyond its being
The moonlight behind the tall branches
Is its not being more
Than the moonlight behind the tall branches.

This is not to say that Caeiro/Pessoa is a mystic, asserting some direct connection with a divine reality inaccessible to most. Continue reading

Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher

This past year at First Unitarian in New Bedford, we gave the book Hide and Seek with God to every Sunday school family with children aged 5 to 8. Hide and Seek with God has twenty or so stories that present the concept of God from a variety of vantage points — feminist vantage points, non-Western vantage points, earth-centered vantage points, as well as various Western Christian (usually heretical Christian) vantage points. Having this book in the home proved to be very helpful to families, as they figure out how to engage in nuanced talk about religion with their children while immersed in a culture that doesn’t value nuanced talk about religion.

In looking for a new book to send home with families for this year, I came across Meet Jesus: The Life and Lessons of a Beloved Teacher, written by Lynn Tuttle Gunney, and published by Skinner House, the Unitarian Universalist denominational publishing house. It may turn out to be the book we send home this year.

As the subtitle implies, Gunney emphasizes the life and the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus’s crucifixion and death take up only two pages out of the first twenty-two pages. Most of the text on those twenty-two pages simply tells the story of Jesus’s life, interspersed with examples of his teachings. We get two parables:– the parable of the Good Samaritan, and the parable of the lost sheep. We get some other teachings:– a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, and of course the Golden Rule.

On page 23, we get a short summary of how different people interpret Jesus’s death, in the form of: “Some people say… [but] Some people say….” When reading this book for the intended age group, parents (and Sunday school teachers) will want to be ready to say say, “We believe that…” — and then either pick one of the options in the book, or present yet another option. Children aged 4-8 tend to be concrete thinkers, and they don’t particularly want to hear adults hemming and hawing about theological abstractions.

The prose is clear, uncluttered, and straightforward — perfect for children in preschool and up. In fact, the prose is good enough that I would feel comfortable using excerpts from this book in a worship service. The illustrations are fine, particularly for younger children.

The book is good enough that I will show it to our new Director of Religious Education, and if she approves we will find the money to send it out to every Sunday school family with children aged 4-8. My only complaint is that the book is pretty short, too short to satisfy a family for a whole year.

July 4th. Woo, hoo.

It’s July 4th, Independence Day. Reading the news usually depresses me. But I managed to find good news in a couple of unlikely news stories.

Today I read an article by Niko Koppel in the New York Times titled “A Country’s Past Is Unearthed, and Comes into Focus.” It’s an article about an archaeological dig at 190 High Street in Philadelphia, right next to the home of the Liberty Bell, a mansion that was the home for presidents George Washington and John Adams when the federal capitol was still in Philadelphia. I knew that George Washington had slaves, but I didn’t know that he went to such great lengths to hold on to them….

Early efforts to end slavery in Pennsylvania resulted in the passage of the Gradual Abolition Act of 1780, which allowed Washington, as a citizen of Virginia, to keep his slaves here for six months, at which point they were entitled to freedom. But Washington circumvented the Pennsylvania law, Mr. Lawler [a historian with the Independence Hall Association] said, by rotating the slaves across state lines…. Link.

Yuck. I already know that many of our presidents have feet of clay, so I suppose it’s good for me to remember that the trend began with George Washington. On the positive side, it’s good to know that Pennsylvania passed abolition legislation as early as 1780.

Even better, the news story reveals that two of Washington’s slaves were able to escape from that presidential mansion in Philadelphia. Let freedom ring!

Then I turned to the arts section of the paper, where I read an appreciation of Beverly Sills, the opera star who died on Monday. It’s sad that Sills died, but I loved reading about how she appeared on TV in the 1970’s with comedian Carol Burnett and popular singers Eydie Gormie and Dinah Shore — and how the four of them argued about who was who’s best friend. Beverly Sills not only had a gorgeous voice, but she helped the TV-viewing public realize that “high culture” was a whole lot of fun….

Watching Ms. Sills schmoozing with her friends on television, hearing her sing comic duets with Ms. Burnett one moment and lyrical Donizetti arias the next, had a major impact on American culture. Millions of viewers who had assumed that opera was an elitist art form for bloated divas pretending to be lovesick adolescents experienced little epiphanies before their television sets…. Link.

What a great moment for America, as American-born and American-trained Beverly Sills showed both the intellectuals and the average TV-viewer that Art Is Fun. Makes me proud to be an American.

Plover patrol

My friend Elizabeth is up from Washington, DC, for a visit. As long as she was in New England, she wanted to go to the beach. We got over to Horseneck Beach in Westport by 8 a.m., and walked all the way up to the Westport River. On the way, I saw a young man looking intently through binoculars at the base of the dune.

“Looking for plovers?” I said.

He turned around, and I saw that his cap said “NWA Staff.” He was indeed looking for piping plovers, and he is one of the field biologists who keeps an eye on the plovers. He recently graduated from University of Indianapolis with a degree in wildlife biology, and is here in Massachusetts counting piping plover chicks until the grant money runs out.

He was a native Hoosier, and we got to talking about the differences between Indiana and New England. “People are a little more uptight here,” I said. He nodded, and said he had noticed that. He said, “I’m a little more laid back” than native New Englanders.

Then the three baby piping plovers, along with two adults, came out onto the beach, and we stopped talking for a while to watch them. Two other adult piping plovers came along, and started harassing the baby plovers. “I wish they wouldn’t do that,” he said, shaking his head. Apparently, these two other adults were not breeding, they were just harassing the babies of the other pair. I said, “Yeah, birds sometimes just aren’t very nice animals.”

He said that these babies were 20 days old, and all three had survived. “This pair did really well,” he said. The babies should be able to fly within a week or so. After that point, they will be able to escape from marauding predators and humans, and their odds of survival will go up. Here’s hoping they make it for another week.

Farther down the beach, I saw another three baby piping plovers.

Video postcard: Horseneck Beach

My older sister lives in Richmond, Indiana. She doesn’t get to see the ocean very often. I live in New Bedford, and see the ocean just about every day (OK, so mostly what I see is PCB-laden New Bedford Harbor, but it’s still salt water). So when I went to the beach today, I made Jean a video postcard showing sun, sand, flotsam, and jetsam.

Note: video host is defunct, so this video no longer exists.

Summer is here

No doubt about it, summer is here.

We drove down from Cambridge to New Bedford today during peak rush hour, and traffic on the highway was so light (comparatively speaking) that we made the trip in an hour and a quarter. In fall, winter, or spring, that same rush hour trip would take between and hour and a half and two and a half hours.

Then at 7:30 this evening, we went to Margaret’s restaurant in Fairhaven for dinner. They said the wait would be “at least an hour.” Clearly, the summer people are back.