Spring wildflowers

I’m still recovering from COVID — still feeling woozy and strange — but taking walks outside makes me feel better. (Vitamin D? exercise? partial cure for COVID-boredom? who knows….) And today was one of those perfect June days that we still get sometimes here in New England despite climate change — cool, dry air, puffy white clouds in the sky, gentle breezes to blow the black flies and gnats away. Carol and I walked for nearly two hours in Whitney Thayer Woods. Since we were walking slowly, I had plenty of time to look at the forest floor for spring wildflowers.

Sometimes it was an exercise in close observation, since some of the flowers I saw were quite small, like these tiny blossoms on a Narrowleaf Cow Wheat plant:

Tiny yellow and white flowers on a small plant.
Narrowleaf Cow Wheat (Melampyrum lineare)

Don’t ask me why this plant is called “Cow Wheat.” I have no idea.

Then there were the tiny flowers that came in clusters. These are easier to see, like the blossoms on this Solomon’s Plume:

Plant with plume of tiny white flowers.
Solomon’s Plume (Maianthemum racemosum)

I think this plant is called Solomon’s Plume, first because the flowers are in a plume, and second because the leaves sort of look like a different genus of plants known as Solomon’s Seal (Polygonatum spp.), which are called Solomon’s Seal because some of the plants in the genus have tubers that when broken are said to resemble the Seal of Solomon of the mystical traditions of Judaism and Christianity. The common names of plants often seem nonsensical. Actually, this plant is closely related to the Canada Mayflower, so perhaps a better common name for it would be “Mayflower Plume” or something like that.

Another plant that was in bloom today also had tiny flowers in clusters — Mapleleaf Viburnum:

Cluster of tiny flowers.
Mapleleaf Viburnum (Viburnum acerifolium)

At least it’s obvious where this plant’s name comes from: it’s a viburnum that has leaves that are shaped like the leaves of maple trees.

We were also lucky enough to see two or three Pink Lady’s Slippers, one of our native orchids:

Showy pink flower arising from two basal leaves.
Pink Lady’s Slipper (Cypripedium acaule)

You’d think that it would be easy to see such a showy flower, but I’ve found it’s actually quite easy to walk right past them.

Some flowers that were impossible to miss were the rhododendrons that Whitney Thayer Woods are known for. The wealthy people who owned the land in the 1920s had various kinds of rhododendrons plants along one of the woodland paths. Descendants of those original plants still bloom each year. Several of the plants were covered in blossoms that you simply could not miss:

Ten foot high shrub covered in clusters of pink blossoms
Rhododendron sp. (possibly R. maximum)

Even if you’re not paying attention, you’d find it difficult to miss a shrub taller than you are, covered with big clusters of light pink blossoms growing right at eye level.

Also hard to miss, though much shorter, was the iris growing next to a boardwalk over a stream:

Showy purple flower
Iris spp. (possibly I. versicolor, Northern Blue Flag)

While the soft pink of the Pink Lady’s Slipper can blend in among the warm brown leaves on the forest floor, the brilliant purple color of the iris does not blend in to the predominant colors of the woodlands.

The wisdom of P. T. Barnum

The great Universalist showman P. T. Barnum once said his success was due in no small part to self-promotion: “I thoroughly understood the art of advertising, not merely by means of printer’s ink, which I have always used freely, and to which I confess myself so much indebted for my success, but by turning every possible circumstance to my account….” (Struggles and Triumphs, ch. VIII)

Donald Trump has been convicted of felonies, and it’s the best thing that could have happened to him because he knows how to turn the circumstance of this guilty verdict to his own account. He gets lots advertising for which he pays nothing. And now he will be able to appeal the verdict, thus garnering even more free advertising, right up through the November election.

By contrast, Joe Biden doesn’t seem to know how to turn every possible circumstance to his account. As the incumbent, he should be grabbing headlines, but he’s not. He needs to learn from P.T. Barnum.

P.T. Barnum never actually made the statement, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity.” But it’s a principle by which he lived his life. People today could learn a lot from that sly old Universalist showman.

COVID, again

Carol came back from a conference a week ago feeling a little under the weather. Last Sunday, she tested positive for COVID. Our apartment is too small and is not laid out properly for quarantining, so I moved into a hotel. But yesterday morning, I tested positive for COVID.

Neither one of us is especially ill; we both feel like we have a head cold. But with COVID, it doesn’t matter how you feel, the main issue is that you don’t want to spread the disease to someone else. So we’re staying in quarantine until we’re sure we’re not going to spread the virus to others.

Which meant that I could not preach this morning. I emailed the sermon text (and everything else) to Worship Associate Eric, and then all I could do was sit at home watch the livestream. Eric did a fabulous job leading the service, with help from Worship Associate Nancy.

Prior to COVID, I almost never missed a Sunday. You just always showed up on Sunday. (I remember preaching when I had bronchitis. I think the only Sunday I missed was 15 years ago when I had a norovirus and had to be near a toilet.) But these days, if you have COVID or any respiratory ailment, the CDC tells you to stay home. I feel guilty staying home, but I’d feel way more guilty if I gave someone else COVID.


It’ blew up on TikTok’s blowing up on social media right now. Women are asked if they’d rather be stuck in the woods with a man or a bear. Most women answer, A bear. Which apparently has annoyed some male human beings. But the women are correct.

When I hada class in backwoods safety many years ago, we were asked to guess which was the most dangerous animal we’d encounter in the backwoods of New England. Of course we all answered, A bear. Not so, our (male) instructor replied. The human being is the most dangerous animal in the backwoods of New England, by far. Humans are big, smart, strong, and potentially vicious. Second to human beings, he said, we should be wary of moose. Why a moose, someone in the class asked. Because moose are big, near-sighted, stupid, and easily annoyed. If they’re annoyed, they might charge you. But if they charge you, just duck behind a tree. Free-roaming dogs can also be major dangers, and should be avoided. Bears, on the other hand, were unlikely to be a problem. The only bears in the New England backcountry are black bears. Black bears are bigger and stronger than humans, they might steal your food when you’re not around, but they are mostly peaceful, shy, and retiring. — So said our instructor.

Obviously, the original intention of the #manvsbear debate is to draw attention to the problem of male violence against women. And everything I’ve just said simply confirms that original intention. Of course women should fear a male human more than a bear. Human beings are way more dangerous than bears, and statistics show that male human beings are way more dangerous than female human beings. By the same token, however, just remember that if you’re a man who decides to go out backpacking in the backcountry alone, the animal that you need to fear more than any other is — another male human.

Some truths about “AI”

In an article on the New Scientist website, science fiction author Martha Wells tells some truths about “AI”:

“The predictive text bots labelled as AIs that we have now aren’t any more sentient than a coffee cup and a good deal less useful for anything other than generating spam. (They also use up an unconscionable amount of our limited energy and water resources, sending us further down the road to climate disaster, but that’s another essay.)”

That’s at least three uncomfortable truths about “AI” (or as Ted Chiang calls it, “applied statistics”):

(1) “AI” is not sentient, i.e., it’s not an intelligence.
(2) The only thing “AI” can really do is generate spam.
(3) In order to produce spam, “AI” takes an enormous amount of energy.

I’m generally enthusiastic about new technology. But not “AI,” which strikes me as a boondoggle start to finish.

Doing democracy in the UUA

I just received email from the folks running the General Assembly business meeting. They say in part:

“The GA business process has begun. It begins early to be more accessible, inclusive, and democratic.”

Um, well, no it’s not more accessible and inclusive to some of us. It’s not very accessible to parents of young children, or to people caring for elderly parents. It’s not especially accessible to people like me who are working more than full time (because that’s the sad reality for many of us these days, we’re expected to work long hours). So I guess this is more accessible for people who are retired, or who only have to work 40 hours a week with no child care or elder care responsibilities.

This, by the way, is one of the major threats to democracy today. Most of us can’t carve out enough time from job and family responsibilities to participate fully in democracy.

Honestly, given how little time I have to spend on democratic process, local government is going to be my first priority, with state and federal government next. And when it comes to Unitarian Universalism, my top priority is keeping my local congregation going. So I’m sympathetic to the folks running General Assembly — they have a minimum amount of time that they feel needs to be spent on the democratic process — but I just don’t have the kind of time they’re asking for.

The Universalist church in Assinippi

White clapboard church building with steeple

I stopped by the First Universalist Church of Assinippi; Assinippi is a village in Norwell, Mass. It is beautifully sited on a small rise just a few feet from the boundary between Norwell and Hanover. The congregation dates back to 1766, when people living in the area petitioned to be set off as a separate congregation. At that time, this was a part of the town of Scituate, and the people who lived here had to travel several miles to get to church. Their petition was denied, although they kept petitioning to become a separate congregation.

Over the next couple of decades, they built a spare meetinghouse. They also became convinced of the truth of universal salvation; both John Murray and Hosea Ballou were said to preach to the congregation, probably beginning in the late 18th century. Finally in 1812, Massachusetts allowed them to formally organize as a Universalist congregation.

In recent years, their numbers have declined. The latest UUA Directory places their membership at 8. But they have a long and proud history as a center for Universalism in southeastern Massachusetts.

I’ll include excerpts from some local histories below the fold that give more details about the congregation.

Continue reading “The Universalist church in Assinippi”


I was walking down the rail trail from the Cohasset train station through Whitney Thayer Woods when a brightly colored something seemingly caught in an oak seedling caught my eye.

Oak sapling with something fuzzy white with red spots growing on it.

Closer inspection revealed that it was a gall. I took a photo and uploaded it to the iNaturalist app, which informed me that it was probably a gall made by a Wool Sower Gall Wasp (Callirhytis seminator).

Closeup of the same fuzzy white object.

What a strange phenomenon galls are. Somewhere inside that fuzzy red-and-white ball is a wasp egg. Somehow, the wasp egg causes the plant to produce a protective growth. But why is the growth so bright and so showy? Is there an evolutionary advantage for the plant? Or is it just happenstance that something so beautiful grows around the wasp egg?

Garlic Mustard song

The invasive species problem remains one of the top threats to Earth’s life-sustaining systems. Yes, global climate change is scary, especially now that it looks like we’re now on track for a 2.5 degree increase. Sigh. But it’s also scary to watch familiar landscapes rapidly lose their biodiversity as they are overrun by invasives — native trees literally being pulled down by Oriental Bittersweet, native songbirds being driven out their nesting sites by invasive House Sparrows, native plants being killed off by the chemicals released into the soil by invasive Garlic Mustard…. Anyway, I decided to write a song about what we can do to Garlic Mustard.

Image of sheet music

(Yes I claim copyright, but I hereby grant you permission to sing it, reproduce it, record it, etc.)

Recipe for Garlic Mustard Pesto.

“Transcendental Meditation” lawsuit, and more

Yesterday, Religion News service (RNS) posted an article titled “Lawsuit alleges religious coercion through meditation in Chicago Public Schools.” The story tells about a former student in a Chicago public school who is suing the Chicago public schools and the David Lynch Foundation for engaging in religious instruction in a public school by teaching “Transcendental Meditation.” I put “Transcendental Meditation” in quotation marks because it’s a trademarked term for a specific form of meditation, originally taught in the U.S. by the self-styled Mahareshi Mahesh Yogi (birth name not known for certain). The RNS story is definitely worth reading, because the reporter makes clear the difference between teaching about religion, which is allowed in public schools, and actual religious instruction, which is not allowed in public schools.

The article also led me to the TM-Free Blog, which presents a critical view of “Transcendental Meditation.” This blog makes it clear, among other things, that “Transcendental Meditation” is a religious movement — I’d characterize it as a New Religious Movement based on Hinduism. Also of interest, a 2022 post alleges that “Transcendental Meditation” has links to right-wing politicians in India. And there’s a link to a document produced by the “Transcendental Meditation” folks titled “Introduction to the Holy Tradition,” which is worth reading by anyone interested in religious texts produced by New Religious Movements.

Another link from the article led me to a Penn State news release titled “People with anxiety may strategically choose worrying over relaxing” about a psychological study showing that persons with anxiety disorder or major depressive disorder may experience negative effects while using relaxation techniques — this is another study in a growing body of research showing that the benefits of relaxation techniques do not work equally well for all persons.