Category Archives: Nature

Walking the Walk?

Please welcome guest bloggers from the Ferry Beach EcoAdventures workshop….

Based on observations by long time attendees and staff, it is clear that Ferry Beach Conference Center is an exclusive community and lacks diversity by race, age and wealth. While concrete numbers are not available for citation, a glance around confirms what the interviewees suggested: a majority of attendees are white and generally young children or middle aged or older. The cost of attending, in excess of $700 per person per week, is de facto evidence of the wealth of conferees. Members of the Eco-adventure workshop who have attended Ferry Beach conferences for years, cite lack of financial means as a deterrent to coming annually. This same group said that the lack of young adult programming was also a factor in keeping them away. In fact, the eco-adventure group that combines high-school students with adults (all of which have their own young children) has an eleven-year age gap. This exclusivity is clearly unintentional. Not only do the UU principles center around the inherent dignity and worth of all people, but also anecdotal evidence abounds of the openness and friendliness of the Ferry Beach community. So what can be done to remedy the situation?

One area in which UU’s and Ferry Beachers “walk the walk” is sexual diversity. Conferencees are open in their sexuality. The Gayla week provides scholarships up to 5,000 dollars for expanded attendance for those who may not be able to experience Ferry Beach on their own. Initiative should be taken from this conference to create a Ferry Beach scholarship fund to promote a more economically diverse community. Individual conferences should be open to creating and/or continuing their own funds. Taking the lead of attendees is the “In the Company of Women” week, who have successfully held annual craft auctions to create scholarships for their conference. These women mostly likely work on their crafts all year, a mentality which should be adopted by more Ferry Beachers in order to work toward a year long funding program.

Another way to combat exclusivity at Ferry Beach would be to reach out and advertise to more racially and economically diverse communities. Through publications in currently not targeted areas, we would hope to expand the diversity of Ferry Beach attendees. A Ferry Beach crew member identified the lack of diversity as possibly stemming from advertising only to ourselves, resulting in specific demographics. More research needs to be done to explore the interest of the groups targeted, in order to move from an unintentionally exclusive conference to an intentionally inclusive one.

“EcoAdventures” — Day three

Today, I felt that the group really gelled. It was one of those days where everything just went smoothly, and we all (including me) deepened our understanding. This was in spite of the fact that I had to totally re-arrange my carefully planned session for the day, to make more time for the project we started yesterday.

I don’t have time to write a good narrative account right now, but I’m going to post the session plan anyway, just to get it up…. Continue reading

“EcoAdventures”: Day two

Our EcoAdventure group took some time to assemble, because several parents had to drop of their children at children’s programs. We had one new participant as well. So while we were waiting for everyone to assemble, we played another round of the Ecosystem Game, to help our newcomer learn other people’s names. (By now, I find myself calling people by their ecosystem name, e.g., OK, Katherine Kelp, are you willing to write all this down on the flip chart?)

Next, we put together very simple journals with paper and file folders and binder clips.

When everyone was present, we headed out to the same spot in a pine grove where we were yesterday. We did two sensory awareness activities. For the second activity, “Prickly Tickly,” the participants find two things, one that will be prickly and one that will be tickly, and then participants pair up to share their prickly thing and tickly thing with another participant. After everyone was done, I asked: Anyone want to show their prickly and tickly things? “This piece of bark was prickly on the outside, but it’s kind of smooth on the inside.” “I found this chunk of moss that was tickly. And it’s in the shape of a teardrop, which is kind of cool.” Any other insights? “They had pine needles as prickly things, but I had pine needles as tickly things.” “It depends on how you touched them to your hand.” “In our pair, we both had pine needles, but one of us said it was a tickly thing and the other said it was a prickly thing.”

Next it was time to choose favorite places, places where we will have time each day to sit in quiet and write or draw in journals (or just sit!). After about ten minutes, I called everyone back: How was it sitting alone? “I found that my mind wandered, I kept thinking about things I’m supposed to be doing.” It sounds like you think that’s bad? “I tried to not let my mind wander, and just focus on the outdoors.” Just so everyone knows, I don’t have an agenda for your alone time — it’s yours to do with what you will. But (turning back to the person who spoke), it sound like you have discovered your priority for alone time. Anyone else? “It was good!” “I realized how long it’s been since I had time alone.”

Anyone want to share something from their journal? “I drew a picture of some pine needles.” “I designed a dress for Emory, and drew a picture of it.” (Emory is the preschool-aged daughter of one of the participants.) One participant read a poem about being on the beach with a younger sister. Another participant read a haiku about learning how to drive.

Then it was time to start the big project (see below for a full description of the project). Because the group is so big, we split the group in two: one group was assigned to document and write about possible exclusivity in the Ferry Beach area (who gets to come here? what human groups are kept out?); another group was assigned to document and photo/video possible environmental disaster(s) in the Ferry Beach area. The two groups headed out to talk with people and look at the neighborhood, in pursuit of their two assignments.

We gathered back at our home base for a closing. It was clear that everyone needed more time to work on their respective projects, so we will continue the projects tomorrow morning.

For full session plan, see below… Continue reading

“EcoAdventures”: Day one

Ferry Beach Conference Center, Saco, Maine
Religious Education Conference

Once again, I’m at the annual religious education conference at Ferry Beach, the Universalist conference center in Saco, Maine. This year, I’m leading a 15-hour workshop called “EcoAdventures.” Group participants range in age from seniors in high school up to age forty or so. The workshop is on ecojustice.

Today was the first session. We spent the first half hour or so introducing ourselves and getting to know each other’s names. We played a variation of a well-known name game (sometimes called “The Grocery Store Game”), with a twist that ties it in to the local ecosystem (complete session plan is after the “Read more” link below). We also lined up by age, but we did it without speaking. I introduced my vision of the workshop, ending by saying: “If I had to sum all this up, I’d say this:– I think it’s time to really shake up Unitarian Universalism. Too many of our churches act as if it’s still the 1950’s. Too many of our churches are filled with white upper middle class Baby Boomers. It’s time for our churches to welcome all ages, and enter into the 21st century.”

Participants then had a chance to say their hopes and expectations, which ranged from “Have fun” to “I want to do something in ecojustice as a career and am looking for ideas.” Other hopes were to deepen knowledge of Unitarian Universalist faith, and to find activities and curriculum to bring back to a local congregation.

After the introductory bits, we went outdoors and found a tree. We lay at the base of a tree and looked up in the branches. What creatures might live up there? “Birds.” “Spiders.” “Squirrels.” “A mouse might run up the tree.” Do you see any creatures up there right now? “I see a spider’s web.” “I hear birds.” Then we turned over on our stomachs to look at the base of the tree. What creatures might live there? “I see a slug.” “There’s a hole here!” “Beetles.” “Ants.” “A weasel could live here.” Now imagine that you can see through the ground, and see all the roots of the tree. The roots go down almost as far as the branches go up. What creatures might live in among the roots? “Worms.” “Moles.” “Ants.”

We went back inside and drew a six-foot high picture of our tree. Abby drew a line half-way up the paper for the ground, and someone drew a blue line to show where the sky was. We drew the tree, and started drawing in all the creatures we had seen and imagined living on the tree. It was hard to get all 18 of us around the table, so we had to cycle in and out from drawing.

When the drawing was pretty well filled in, we hung it up, and all looked at it. We talked about how all the creatures associated with the tree are interconnected. We’ve drawn lots of creatures in this, but where are the human creatures? Lots of good conversation about this, and the final conclusion was that humans communities are interconnected with Nature, and with other human communities — in fact, it’s impossible to separate human creatures from Nature; there is no separation. “It’s arrogant to think that we humans are somehow separate from Nature.”

I summed up by saying that ecojustice is a concept, a tool, to build connections between human communities, and to help human creatures become aware with their connections with all living things.

Session plan follows. Continue reading

Nesting season

To get to the supermarket, I walk from the apartment where we’re cat-sitting through Danehy Park in North Cambridge. Danehy Park is built on top of a landfill. It has soccer fields, baseball diamonds, a couple of playgrounds, and a few picnic tables under the trees that grow along the main bike path. There are generally quite a few people, and some dogs, in the park — not the kind of place where you’d expect much in the way of wildlife.

Yet without even looking very hard, I saw three bird nests on my walk across the park: two American Robins nesting in trees right over the bike path, and a Northern Mockingbird nesting in some shrubs right next to one of the playgrounds. I also heard a Flicker, some Common Grackles, several Song Sparrows, and several Red-winged Blackbirds — presumably, these were all males singing to define their nesting territory. It’s remarkable that so many birds could live in such a heavily developed landscape, in a limited ecosystem with apparently very little biodiversity. This made me wonder about the fecundity that I might have seen in pre-Columbian times.

City singers

Readers of this blog may know Charles Hartshorne as that process theologian who wrote books such as Omnipotence and Other Theological Mistakes (1984), and used terms like “panentheism” (I first heard about him as one of the editors of the complete works of Charles Saunders Peirce, but then I was a philosophy major). But Hartshorne also was a serious amateur ornithologist who published a number of papers in the field, and wrote Born To Sing: An Interpretation and Survey of World Bird Song (1973).

In Born To Sing, Hartshorne begins by dismissing strict behaviorism as “inadequate, at least in the study of human beings; moreover, in view of the evolutionary continuity of life, and the ideal of a unitary explanation of nature as a whole, it seem unsatisfactory dualism to make man [sic] a mere exception.” Hartshorne does not believe that we can attribute human motives to non-human animals, but he does feel that animals can find aesthetic enjoyment in their own ways. This leads him to a serious consideration of the aesthetic elements of bird songs.

As part of his argument, he establishes criteria for determining highly developed or “superior” bird song, and based on these criteria he develops a list of 194 species of superior songsters. Less than twenty of these species are indigenous to North America, and only eight of those species breed in our immediate area.

On a walk today, from urban New Bedford over to densely suburban Fairhaven, we heard three of these eight species: Northern Mockingbird, Northern Cardinal, and Song Sparrow (links go to USGS site with recordings of their songs). And I heard at least one other of these species, the Carolina Wren, near our apartment earlier this spring. Suburbanites dismiss cities as bleak, forbidding places, but if you’re willing to look, it’s possible to find incredible natural beauty.


A cold front was supposed to move through New Bedford today. In the early afternoon, the sun came out, the air got cooler and drier, my mood lightened and got cheerful: maybe the cold front had come through. But a couple of hours later I suddenly became aware that my mood had darkened; I couldn’t figure out why, until I realized that the gray clouds moved back in, there was some light rain, the air was heavy and thick. The vacillations of a cold front over our region changed my mood significantly. The effect on my mood was aggravated because all my joints ached from the pressure changes; it was annoying enough that I took some acetemenophen. This is one example of weather having a direct and immediate influence on emotional state. i would say that the expressions “my mood lightened” or “my mood darkened” are more than mere analogies between emotional states and fair or overcast weather conditions; these expressions also represent observations that the passage of a weather front can have a direct effect on the physical body which can in turn lead to a mood change.

Now the weather forecast says the cold front is due to pass over our area at about ten at night, which is just about now. Time to take another acetemenophen tablet.

The joy of science

I’m reading a new biography of Maria Mitchell, Maria Mitchell and the Sexing of Science: An Astronomer Among the Romantics. Mitchell, the first American woman who was a professional astronomer, and probably the most famous American woman scientist of the 19th C., said this about the joys of watching the skies:

“The aurora is always a pleasant companion, a meteor seems to come like a messenger from departed spirits and even the blossoming of the trees in the moonlight becomes a sight looked for with pleasure. And from astronomy there is the enjoyment as a night upon the housetops with the stars as in the midst of other grand scenery. There is the same subdued quiet and grateful sensuousness — a calm to the troubled spirit and a hope to the desponding.”

I suspect I’ll have more about this biography after I finish it.

(Mitchell plays a minor role in my mother’s family folklore. My mother’s family comes from Nantucket, where Mitchell spent the first four decades of her life; and Mitchell left the Quakers to join the Nantucket Unitarian church where my mother’s family attended worship. I remember hearing about Mitchell as a child — mostly I remember learning to pronounce her first name “muh-RYE-ah,” not “mah-REE-ah.”)

Spring watch

at a ministers’ retreat, Wareham, Mass.

After the high winds died down midday, I went out for a walk in the woods around the retreat center. There were birds everywhere: after spending twenty four hours hunkered down in shelter from the gale, they were out busily feeding and defending their nesting territory. They were so busy that they paid little attention to me. I managed to get within eight feet of a Blue-Gray Gnatcatcher, a tiny little bird: it was carrying a feather in its bill, presumably to add to its nest. And then I rounded a bend in a trail, just as a Wood Thrush started singing in a tree nearly over my head: that ethereally beautiful call, those four liquid notes, so close: it provoked a deeply emotional response, a surge in my heart, a lift in my spirits, a feeling of sudden intense joy. It sang twice, and flew away, and the moment was over.