I’ve been at a religious education conference for most of a week now. It has been very nice to be able to talk with colleagues in person, face-to-face. But it’s also exhausting. I talk with people for an hour over breakfast, then teach a class where we spend a lot of time talking, then talk for an hour over lunch, and often for another hour after lunch — and then I’m ready for a two-hour nap.
Others at the conference are having similar experiences. It’s really good to be able to be in a big group of people for the first time since March, 2020, but it’s also really tiring.
I’m at a religious education conference at Ferry Beach Conference Center in coastal Maine. They’ve had quite a bit of rain in the past month, and not surprisingly quite a few mushrooms have spring up — like this one:
So we’re still stuck in lockdown, and maybe you’re getting bored with your daily walks. The British Pilgrimage Trust has a suggestion: turn your walks into mini-pilgrimages. Their Web site has a list of “holy places” in the U.K. that you can walk to. Next you set a spiritual “intention,” then treat your walk as a kind of “focused meditation.” In an interview with Religion News Service, Guy Hayward, director of the Pilgrimage Trust, says more about those “intentions”:
“Pilgrimage is about traveling, about being a stranger in a strange land, according to [Hayward]. The pandemic flips that on its head. ” ‘Staying still is actually even more of a strange experience,’ he said. ‘It’s like, how do you make yourself be a stranger in a place you know really, really well? How do you make yourself see it fresh and see it in a new way?’ “
This, by the way, sounds a lot like Henry Thoreau’s essay on “Walking.”
For us Unitarian Universalists, what might constitute a “holy place” to which we might make a micro-pilgrimage? Back when we lived in downtown San Mateo, I would walk to different houses of worship. As is true of many small American cities these days, San Mateo has quite a diversity of faith communities, so from our old apartment I could walk to a Hindu temple, an Islamic masjid, a couple of historically Black churches, a Pure Land Buddhist Temple, a UCC church, a Catholic church, a Pentecostal storefront church, and several other places of worship. I’d think about — maybe I should say, do “focused meditation” on — the religious diversity of the world, and my place in that diversity. It proved to be both uplifting (“A masjid? how cool is that!”) and humbling (“Gee, Unitarian Universalism is not as important in the world as I’d like to believe”).
Now I live next to a cemetery. Walking in cemeteries was something of a tradition in New England, in part because they plow the roads in cemeteries in winter so it’s one of the few places you can walk safely without skis or snowshoes. But it was also a meditative practice: you’d read the inscriptions and wonder about the person who had died. This is another exercise in humility, and a lesson in perspective. How well am I living my life now, knowing that I’m as mortal as that person lying under the gravestone? But perhaps you have to be from New England, with that grim New England worldview, to appreciate this kind of micro-pilgrimage.
You can also follow Thoreau’s lead, and look at the world of nature around you. Even when you live in the city, or in the inner suburbs, places where humans utterly dominate the landscape, there are still plenty of non-human organisms worthy of human attention. Recently, I find myself looking for flowering weeds, like this chickweed:
Or this flower, which is not a dandelion, but a related flower from the Cichorieae tribe (probably a Sow Thistle):
Why do I look for weeds? Maybe because of the same sentiment that Malvina Reynolds expressed in her song, “God Bless the Grass”:
God bless the grass that grows through the crack, They roll the concrete over it to try and keep it back…. God bless the truth that fights toward the sun, They roll the lies over it, and think that it is done….
The real point in all this is that any walk, even a walk around your neighborhood, can become more than just a walk. It can become a spiritual journey, where even though you stay in your neighborhood, you travel very far in spirit.
Just before noon, Abby and I took a walk along the recently-opened Bruce Freeman Rail Trail that runs from Chelmsford, Mass., through Acton. The part of the trail we walked, around the Route 2A crossing, passes through several wetlands, with a few small areas of open water and some nice cattail stands. I was mostly looking (and listening) for birds, and even in the heat of the day there was a nice variety of birds, from Red-winged Blackbirds, Common Yellowthroats, and other swamp-loving birds to forest-nesters like American Robins and Chipping Sparrows. Abby was most interested in the Red Squirrel population. However, it was hot enough that there weren’t enough birds or Red Squirrels to keep us occupied, and we both began noticing insects in the order Odonata (dragonflies and damselflies) along the trail; I do not know much about about Odonates, but it sure looked like there were quite a few different species flying around us.
I am intimidated by the challenges of identifying Odonates; I find them hard to track in my binoculars, and I find it difficult to observe the level of detail required for identification down to the species level (sometimes you have to be able to see the shape of the male sex organs to get a definite identification). But my new camera has a really good zoom lens, and I find it easier to try to make an identification from a photo. I managed to get one reasonably good photo of an Odonate. A tentative identification might place this insect in the Aeshnidae family, or Darners, according to A Field Guide to the Dragonflies and Damselflies of Massachusetts by Blair Nikula et al. (Westborough, Mass.: Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife, 2003), p. 69. Unfortunately, the photo does not show how the insect’s eyes come together, a key identification point for this family.
Later the same day:
After taking care of some business we had to deal with, Abby and I went for a short walk at Great Meadows National Wildlife Refuge, one of our father’s favorite places to go for a walk. I did a little birding, until Abby and I both became fascinated by the dragonflies and damselflies flying around us. I was able to get pretty good photos of a few of these odonates.
The photo above shows, I believe, a young female Eastern Forktail (Ischnura verticalis); I’m fairly certain about the genus, less certain about the species. I’m basing my tentative identification on the species account in Nikula et al., p. 56. And I’m somewhat more confident of this identification because on p. 30, Nikula et al. state that the Eastern Forktail “is probably the most widespread and common odonate in Massachusetts.”
And above is a photo is of an older female of, I think, the same species; older females of this species, according to Nikula et al., “become extensively pruinose blue-gray.”
The photo above shows one of the many Blue Dashers (Pachydiplax longipennis) patrolling the marshes and the edge of the river in Great Meadows. I’m fairly certain of this identification, and this is quite a common dragonfly in Massachusetts.
We also saw a couple of Monarch Butterflies, and an unidentified sulphur butterfly. I didn’t find many birds today, but the spectacular Odonata and Lepidoptera we saw more than made up for the lack of birds.
In Salem, Massachusetts, yesterday, we spent a half an hour wandering around the old burying ground. There are some seventeenth and eighteenth century stones there, and I could have spent a couple of hours looking at them. While I’m most interested in the carving, the inscription on one of the stones caught my attention:
In Memory of
Miss SALLY GRANT,
daughter of Cap. SAMUEL
& Mrs. ELIZABETH GRANT,
who died Sept. 16th 1789:
in the 26th year of her age.
I long[,] she faintly cries[,] to lose my breath
And gently sink into th’embrace of death
Adiue [sic] vain World[,] a long adiue[,] I go
Where joys that have no bound forever flow.
I have been unable to find a source for the short verse on this gravestone. It sounds like it might be a verse from a late eighteenth century spiritual song or hymn, perhaps remembered not quite accurately.
IN MEMORY OF THOSE WHO DIED IN THE
SWAMPSCOTT TRAIN WRECK
FEBRUARY 28, 1956
WALTER D. ALLEN WALTER B. LEE
RUTH F. BEAN PAULINE PAVLO
FRANCIS E. BOETTNER GEORGE S. SILLARS
ALBERTA L. HALEY DONALD K. TAYLOR, JR.
RAYMOND F. JONES ERNEST A. TOURTELOTTE
PENELOPE KOTSOVILLIS GARDNER S. TRASK, SR.
GEORGE V. WARREN, JR.
DEDICATED NOVEMBER, 2005
The memorial is relatively small, and sits at the bottom of the wheelchair access ramp that leads from the parking lot up to the train platform. The actual wreck took place about a half mile farther up toward Salem, along an inaccessible stretch of track.
Our grandfather’s name is the first one on the list: Walter D. Allen. He died before my mother had children, so neither my sisters nor I knew him. Even so, I found it affecting to see his name there.
Tide pool at East Point Sanctuary near Biddeford Pool, Maine. Tentative identifications of organisms in this tide pool: Common Periwinkle (Littorina littorea), a snail that is an invasive exotic species introduced in North America in the nineteenth century; limpets (mollusc spp. in family Lottiidae); Blue Mussel (Mytilus edulis); barnacles (crustacean spp. in subclass Cirripedia); Knotted Wrack, a seaweed (Ascophyllum nodosum).
We left Redding, in the narrow upper end of the great Central Valley, and headed south towards home. In the late morning, we stopped just south of Willows at the Sacramento River National Wildlife Refuge to walk the two-mile marsh loop.
There is something about being near wetlands that I find soothing: perhaps the big vista of sky you get from being in an essentially flat landscape; perhaps the nearness of an astonishing number of nonhuman organisms. Carol felt like walking fast and charged on ahead. I walked as fast as she, but stopped now and then to look at or listen to something: a mixed flock of White-fronted Geese, American Coots, Northern Pintails and other ducks swimming cautiously away from me; Marsh Wrens calling in last year’s dead and grey tule reeds; swarms of Red-winged Blackbirds flying across the marsh and up into the trees and back down into the marsh.
I stopped to look west towards the Coast Range in the distance, and the nearer ridge of the Great Valley Sequence, which, according to Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California, 2nd ed., “defines the boundary between the flat valley floor and the gaunt ruggedness of the Coast Range.” For someone raised among the smooth glaciated hills and mountains of New England, the mountains and ridges of California always look strangely ragged. This is a landscape defined by ongoing tectonic movement, not by the glaciers of fifteen thousand years ago.
A little later on, I stopped to spend ten minutes looking at an alkali meadow. The soil was almost white in places, the vegetation low and scraggy. It was not a very attractive place. Yet there were a number of game trails criss-crossing the meadow, and earlier I had seen a jackrabbit lopping off towards this meadow. In the distance, through the moist and hazy air, I could just see Sutter Buttes, the old defunct volcano that sits in the middle of the Central Valley.
I finelly caught up with Carol near the parking lot where we had started walking. It was time for lunch. We sat and ate at a picnic table near half a dozen bird feeders. The birds were cautious of us at first, but when they saw we probably wern’t a threat, they swarmed out of the tule reeds and nearby trees: White-crowned Sparrows, Yellow-crowned Sparrows, House Sparrows, Song Sparrows, Lesser Goldfinches, House Finches.
The rest of the ride home was unremarkable and dull. I read aloud from a bad murder mystery while Carol drove. The traffic got bad as we approached San Mateo. At last we arrived at home.
We dropped off Saba at the Montessori school where she works, and started driving south. It was a gray and dreary day, and before long it started snowing. Pretty soon it was snowing hard enough that the ground was white on either side of the highway, and in a few places slush accumulated between the lanes. We saw some accidents: a couple cars spun out and off the highway, something on the northbound side of the freeway with several tow trucks and emergency vehicles and traffic backed up for a mile or more. South of Eugene, the snow stopped, but the forecast for the Siskiyou Mountains was for snow tonight and snow tomorrow morning. We decided to drive as far south as we could before we got tired. Wes topped briefly in Ashland so Carol could collect mineral water from the public fountain in Ashland Plaza. Then we started driving again, winding up over the mountains and back down again until we reached Redding, where we stopped to spend the night.
As for the lithium water, it smells sulphurous, like slightly rotten eggs. The water also has quite a bit of barium in it, so you’re not supposed to drink more than a few sips at a time. If we decide to drink it, we should do with it what they do with “Crazy Water” from Texas: dilute it; “Crazy Water” tastes pretty yucky, too, but once diluted it’s at least drinkable.