If you look at the Unitarian Universalist Historical Society’s online biographical dictionary, you’ll find the name of Mary Rotch. As is true of many of the names listed on the UUHS site, no one has yet written a biography of her. But she is an interesting Unitarian person, and worth knowing more about. Since she attended our church here in New Bedford, I decided to preach a sermon about her life and religious thinking. It’s not quite a real biography, but it does have footnotes and other annotations of interest to UU history geeks. The sermon appears below; scroll way down for the endnotes and other annotations.
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.”)
The youth group from First Unitarian spent Friday night visiting the youth group at the Nantucket Unitarian Universalist church. It’s a two-hour ferry ride out to Nantucket Island, and I spent most of the time on the upper deck, binoculars glued to my eyes, looking for birds. I saw dozens of Common Loons spread out over Nantucket Sound, looking very beautiful in their summer plumage; the ferry passed close enough to three of them that I could hear them calling to one another with that weird ululating sound they make. I watched Common Terns catching fish: cruising along until they spotted something; hovering for a moment; then plunging suddenly into the water, thrashing around, and more often than not flying up again with something clamped in their bill.
Then out of nowhere, a fast, dark bird flew at one of the terns, swooping up on the tern from underneath. It was a Parasitic Jaeger (Stercorarius parasiticus), a bird that eats fish it can steal from terns and gulls. The jaeger attacked the tern again; I didn’t see what happened, but there was another birder on the boat who said that it looked like the tern gave up, dropped the fish so the jaeger couldn’t get it, and thus avoided being harassed any further.
I was tempted to think ill of the Parasitic Jaeger for being parasitic. From my moral frame of reference, I didn’t like the fact that one bird was stealing food from another bird. Yet when I thought a little more, I realized that I am quite happy to eat other mammals, and I don’t worry too much about the way my human needs destroy the habitat of other mammals — surely what I do to other mammals is more reprehensible, morally speaking, than the jaeger stealing an occasional meal from another bird. Nor am I entirely sure how to apply moral judgements across species boundaries — is swatting a mosquito the same, morally speaking, as killing another human being?
Even after thinking about it in this way, I still didn’t much like the Parasitic Jaeger; clearly my human morality lacks logical consistency. Whatever my moral feelings, it was quite something to watch the jaeger swoop up and harass the tern; it was, in its own way, spectacular and even beautiful.
It has been an exhausting week. At church, a long-term member died suddenly. In my family, we had a memorial service for my cousin on Friday; and then on Saturday two graveside committal services, one right after the other, one for my Uncle Dick and one for my cousin Becky (daughter of one of Dick’s sisters), both in the family plot in Nantucket, Massachusetts. I have to say I feel pretty drained. Maybe if I could just catch up on some sleep I’d feel like doing something more than just sitting….
Work has been keeping me a little too busy, but I finally have time to describe the trip to the Nantucket dump….
It was Alyzza’s idea to go to the dump on Nantucket Island. “It’s the best dump in the world,” she said.
On Friday, two members of our youth group, Danielle and Jarrod, met Emma and me at the church; Alyzza was going to meet us on Nantucket, where she was playing in a lacrosse game with her school. We left New Bedford at 3:18, leaving, we thought, plenty of time to drive out Cape Cod and get to the ferry terminal in Hyannis. But we got lost, and the wrong turns became nightmarish. Finally we were there with only minutes to spare; Emma dropped us off so I could buy the tickets; one last late couple came after us, delaying the ferry just long enough; Emma had to run the last hundred yards. The ferry left at 4:46, a minute late.
Dani and Jarrod had never taken the ferry over to Nantucket. Jarrod said, “I’m going to stay on deck the whole time, I’m not going to waste the trip sitting inside.” We followed his lead, and all stood out in the sun and the cold wind watching Cape Cod recede and Nantucket loom closer in the haze. At last we were in the harbor, rounding Brant Point. I pointed out the gold-topped steeple of the Unitarian Universalist church where we would be spending the night.
We met the Nantucket church’s youth group, and played some games including “Evolution,” one of our youth group’s favorite games. I said playing “Evolution” was a religious matter, because it proves that we can talk about evolution in our church. (If you want to know how to play the game, instructions are here.) We ate dinner together, we all got along, and found we had plenty to talk about.
Saturday morning was the big day: the trip to Nantucket’s dump. Most of the Nantucket youth had to leave, either to go to work or for other obligations. But Alex, Jessie, and Lynnie joined us in our trek to the dump, while Sally, one of the Nantucket adult advisors, kindly drove us all.
To get to the dump, you head down Madaket Road. You can see the mound of the landfill from a ways down the road; it’s now the highest point on the island, higher even than Altar Rock. You turn in, stopping where the bike path crosses the entry road, and then you can see a number of buildings. The recycling shed is first, with doors where you can throw in every conceivable recyclable item. Trash disposal is a serious problem on the island — it’s too expensive to ship garbage off island, and the landfill is getting bigger every day — so there are strict laws that everything possible must be recycled. A buzz of activity surrounded the recycling shed: cars and light trucks pulling up, people going back and forth with bags and boxes. Sally said she had just been to the dump with a bag of bottles and glass, and the bag had broken, and it had been quite something to clean up.
If you drive past the recycling shed to get to the landfill’s face, but we didn’t go there. Instead, we went to the left of the recycling to our true goal: the “Take It or Leave It” shack. It’s a building about thirty feet square, with some shelves around the edges and a big central table. Two rather disreputable hippy-types sat outside: scruffy facial hair and disreputable clothes that had once been expensive. Sally said, “You’re not supposed to linger but people do.” The two hippy-types waited for people to bring fresh new items into the shack, and pounced upon the good things and put them in a truck with Vermont plates. Sally said, “There’s a couple of good yard sales today. They’ll close at eleven so they can leave off whatever’s left over before the dump closes at noon.” The hippy-types were obviously waiting for something just like that.
We went in the shack. The central table was filled with clothes; true to gender stereotypes, some of the girls went for the table, while Jarrod, Emma, and I explored the shelves. The books were pretty good: along with the usual Reader’s Digest versions of everything, I saw Tolstoy, Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air,, and, strangely, Canadian author Thomas Raddall’s Roger Sudden. I grabbed the Raddall book.
The big items were left outside. Sally found a great folding screen, cloth stretched over a wood frame; and a hanging lamp; and one or two other things. She had to take it all home and come back, because we could not have fit all eight of us and her treasures in the minivan.
After a while, we had all picked everything over pretty well. We stood in a circle talking, waiting for Sally to return. Everyone showed what he or she had found. Alyzza had a pretty good sport coat and a shirt. Emma found a Nancy Drew book for Sally (who loves Nancy Drew). Jarrod had half a dozen Steven King books. He sat down in a wicker chair that someone had just dropped off and started to read. The rest of us stood around and watched a pair of Barn Swallows swoop in and out of the “Take It or Leave It” shack. The sun started to come out. You could smell the compost from the big windrows out behind the equipment shed. You could smell the ripe garbage from the open face of the landfill. Gulls circled overhead, content with life, for a gull loves nothing better than a good open dump.
At last Sally came back. The big part of our adventure was over. We spent the rest of the eating lunch (at the resturant where Janine, one of the Nantucket youth, works) and walking out to Brant Point to see the little lighthouse there. Jessie found a wing from a dead bird. “My mother works at the Maria Mitchell Association,” she said, “where she stuffs birds for scientific specimens. She’s going to teach me how this summer.” Which sounded to me like a great way to spend a summer. Jessie and I looked at the bird wing — only bones and skin and feathers were left — and Jessie pointed out the radius and humerus.
The four of them came down to the pier to see us off. We waved to them from high up on the ferry deck. “Come back soon!” they shouted up to us. Then we were out in the harbor, and rounding Brant Point. I threw a penny at the end of the jetty, because our mother said to us that that’s what you’re supposed to do when you leave Nantucket. Jarrod and I stood on the deck, taking turns looking at Common Loons and Harbor Seals through my binoculars. “This was a great trip,” said Jarrod, who is often vaguely cynical. Who would have thought a field trip to a dump could be so much fun?
Yesterday was a brilliantly warm May day. Perhaps a little too warm, for in this ear of global climate change every bit of weather that seems out of the ordinary reminds me (rightly or wrongly) that we’re headed for very different weather patterns over the next few years.
Today, I’m headed off with the First Unitarian youth group on a retreat. We’re going to meet up with the youth group at the Unitarian Universalist church on Nantucket Island. Then we’re going to make a field trip to the dump. The Nantucket dump has some of the best “antiquing” (a.k.a. trash-picking) you’ll find at any dump anywhere. Since landfill space is at a permium on the island, they make a huge effort to recycle everything, and anything that’s remotely useable is set aside so it can be picked through.
So we’re taking a kind of an ecojustice field trip with the youth group. And maybe we’ll be taking a look at the future: already, our consumer society is so glutted with things that you can get just about whatever you want on the used market for free.
After thinking about these kinds of things, I’d be pretty gloomy if it wasn’t such a beautiful day outside.