In order to watch the solar eclipse this afternoon, I set up binoculars on a tripod next to the Parish House at First Parish of Cohasset. This is the same set-up I used to project the transit of Venus back in 2012. Here’s what it looked like:

Binoculars taped to a tripod with gaffer's tape, with a large shade collar attached.The binoculars are projecting an image of the sun on a white sheet on the ground.

I used an old pair of inexpensive binoculars, so the image quality wasn’t perfect. But the image was good enough that we could see at least one sunspot. The size of the projected image was about 4 inches across.

The eclipse reached about 92% of maximum here in Cohasset. Some high thin clouds passed over, but they weren’t thick enough to block the sun. As the eclipse progressed, it didn’t get dark, but the light was dim enough to make it feel like dusk. Some robins started singing their evening song. The air grew noticeably cooler.

I took photos showing most of the progress of the eclipse, and assembled them into an animated GIF. Two notes about this GIF: First, the amount of time each image of the GIF is displayed is proportional to the amount of time elapsed between photos. Second, the GIF shows the image as projected; but the projection was inverted from what we saw through the protective glasses. Also, notice the chromatic aberration when the eclipse is at the maximum, presumably from refraction.

Animation showing the progression of the eclipse using projected images.

Half a dozen people from First Parish came over to the Parish house to watch the eclipse. Everyone else had a pair of those protective glasses. It was fun to be able to view the eclipse both through the glasses and with the projection. Hosetly, we probably did more talking than looking at the eclipse. We kept inviting random passers-by to join us. A parent with a couple of preschool-aged kids came over, and it was interesting to see that they were too young to understand what a projection was, or really even to understand what they were seeing through the protective glasses.

See also my post on the 2017 solar eclipse.

Native American members of a church that became UU

(I don’t usually link to my sermons, because reading sermons can be about as interesting as watching paint dry. But today’s sermon had some interesting history in it, and I’ll provide direct links to the interesting bits so you can skip the boring bits.)

In the 17th century, our congregation, First Parish in Cohasset, had at least two Native American members.

Sarah Wapping joined our church on January 7, 1738 [N.S.], exactly 296 years ago today. Not much in the historical record, but I found a few things to say about her.

Naomi Isaac joined our church on September 19, 1736 [N.S.]. I may have found out more about Naomi Isaac’s life — though you have to read the footnotes so you can see why much of what I say is only tentative.

None of this is to imply that either Naomi Isaac nor Sarah Wapping was a Unitarian Universalist. Our church was not Unitarian in the 1730s. It was a fairly liberal Christian church for its time and place, since it was under the influence of Ebenezer Gay of Hingham; but it was not yet a Unitarian Universalist congregation.

Nevertheless, it’s still very interesting that our congregation had Native American members i the mid-eighteenth century. There were Black members, too. Thus, in spite of a rigid racial hierarchy, in the mid-eighteenth century ours was a multiracial congregation. Then by 1790, the town of Cohasset had become entirely White (the 1790 U.S. Census reports no non-White population at all), and the congregation was also entirely White. The town and church went from moderately racially integrated, to entirely segregated in the space of half a century.

Changes in a New England Meetinghouse

First Parish in Cohasset, where I work, has a meetinghouse built in 1747. When you come at it from the north and see it across Cohasset Common, it looks like the classic white New England church with a simple steeple:

White clapboard New England church set amid lawn and autumnal trees
Cohasset Meeting House from the north

But the tower and the steeple weren’t added until 1799, over half a century after the meetinghouse was first erected. Let’s go back to 1773, the year of the Boston Tea Party. There were three young men from Cohasset who participated in the Boston Tea Party (after being encouraged by their Patriot minister), and they might have seen something like this when they came at the meetinghouse from the north:

Line drawing of Cohasset meetinghouse before the tower and steeple were added
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1775

Instead of the tower and steeple, there would have been small belfry on the north end of the building. (When you go up into the attic today, you can see timbers in the north end that now serve no special purpose, and it’s possible they served to support the belfry.) I haven’t found any record of what Cohasset’s belfry looked like, but there are drawings of other eighteenth century meetinghouses with belfries. The sketch above shows the north facade with a representative eighteenth century belfry.

This still isn’t the original appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse. Originally, there was no porch on the west side. That porch was built in 1761. In order to create more floor spaces for pews, the original stairs to the gallery in the northwest and southwest corners inside the main building were removed. The porch was added to house a new set of stairs to the gallery. Prior to the addition of the porch, the Cohasset Meetinghouse looked something like this:

Line drawing of meetinghouse
My visualization of the appearance of the Cohasset Meetinghouse c. 1760

As you can see, prior to the addition of the porch the meetinghouse was just a simple rectangular building with a small belfry on the north end. Mind you, we don’t really know the exact appearance of the building. In my visualizations, I’ve added triangular pediments above the doors, but who knows if there was even that level of ornamentation.

The earliest drawings we have of the Cohasset Meetinghouse date from the mid-nineteenth century. They are fairly consistent in showing the tower with crossed balusters at the bell level, and a steeple with a rounded section before the actual spire — quite different from the present steeple. The meetinghouse was not painted white; it was pea green. In fact, most New England meetinghouses were not painted white prior to the Colonial Revival in the late nineteenth century; documented colors include various shades of yellow, red, and green; there were even a few meetinghouses painted orange. Here’s my digitally edited version of an 1850s woodcut showing the Cohasset Meetinghouse:

Reproduction of a woddcut

There have been several other changes over the years. The clock was added in 1764. Shutters (or more accurately, exterior louvered blinds) were added around 1765. The steeple was completely rebuilt after 1869; it got shattered by a lightning strike in that year. The shutters were removed again around 1986.

In short, like most historic buildings the Cohasset Meetinghouse has changed considerably over the years.


I went for a walk to Wheelwright Park this afternoon. I still forget that the time change means the sun sets pretty early. By 4:30, it was already getting dark. As much as I enjoyed listening to the Great Horned Owls calling, there have been reports of Coyotes in the woods at dusk. So far, the Coyotes have done little more than harass small dogs, but just in case I now carry a whistle and a bright flashlight.

Woods path at dusk.
Wheelwright Park Trail, 4:31 p.m.

The woods were lovely, dark, and peaceful. Since I had several miles to go, I began walking faster.But I had to stop twice, so I could take photos of the yellow and orangey-brown leaves of American Beech saplings looking surprisingly bright against the dark pines and oaks.

Woods path at dusk.
Wheelwright Park Trail, 4:34 p.m.

And I couldn’t help thinking how much better I’d like it if we stayed on Daylight Savings Time all year long. The woods would still be lovely, dark, and deep, but I’d have an hour longer to enjoy them.

Joe-pye Weed

Perhaps my favorite fall flower is Joe-pye weed (Eutrochium spp.). There’s something about the color of the flowers and the color of the foliage that gets me, I don’t know why. I often have a strong emotional response to certain colors, and when sunlight catches the dull purple of Joe-pye Weed, I can feel it in my chest. I have no idea why this is so, I just know that it happens.

On a walk this afternoon, I came upon some Joe-pye Weed nest to a rushing stream in the Whitney-Thayer Woods in Cohasset. About a hundred feet of the trail, near one of the crossings of Brass Kettle Brook, was flooded from the torrential rains we had last week. I was teetering along on logs and stones that someone had conveniently placed alongside the trail, when there it was by the side of the trail: those dull purple buds almost ready to burst into bloom.

A capitulesence of Joe-pye Weed showing purple buds, but as yet no blossoms

I’ve been trying to figure out which species of Joe-pye weed this was. I think it’s Coastal Plain Joe-pye Weed (Eutrochium dubium), but I admit that I get confused by the online dichotomous key of the Native Plant Trust (—are the leaf blades triple-veined? —are the stems spotted or streaked with anthocyanin? —what exactly is the shape of the capitulescence?). Admittedly, I didn’t try as hard as I might to figure it out, since the dichotomous key tells me that E. dubium is “difficult to distinguish from related species.” Nor do I really need to know exactly which species of Joe-pye Weed it is — they all have similar flowers which evoke the same emotional response in me.

Declaration of Independence reading

According to tradition, Rev. John Brown, the minister in Cohasset during the Revolutionary War period, gave a stirring reading of the Declaration of Independence from the pulpit of the meeting house to the gathered townspeople not long after July 4, 1776.

I haven’t been able to find out the exact date when Brown read the Declaration to the people of Cohasset. But the Boston Gazette and Country Journal printed the complete Declaration of Independence on July 22, 1776. John Brown had a copy of that printing, and his copy (with his signature) still exists; it was auctioned by Christie’s in 2003. Since Cohasset was a port town, it seems likely that Brown would have received the newspaper by Sunday, July 28. That may be the date on which John Brown read the Declaration of Independence to the town, when people gathered for Sunday worship.

We decided to commemorate the first reading of the Declaration of Independence to Cohasset townsfolk on Independence Day weekend. So we held our reading on July 2 — not historically accurate, but this wasn’t a re-enactment of the original. Instead of having one person read the whole Declaration, in true democratic fashion we had ten readers, beginning with a 12 year old from our Sunday school.

Fifty people showed up, many more than our usual 15-20 people for summer services. This was a true community event, and somewhere between a third and half of those present were not part of our congregation. Our 1747 Meeting House was originally built by the town, and we feel we hold it in trust for the whole town. So we made this a truly non-sectarian commemoration, with no over Unitarian Universalist content.

We had people across the political spectrum, all of whom gathered together to honor the highest ideals of American democracy. It was a surprisingly moving event. We plan to do it again next year.

Two people standing in front of the high pulpit of the Cohasset Meeting House, with others in pews in front of them, all singing.
Singing “This Land Is Your Land” before the reading of the Declaration. I’m standing at right. Faces have been blurred (except mine) to protect privacy

Words of wisdom to media representatives

We’re having an interfaith prayer vigil this afternoon, for Cohasset resident Ana Walshe. (I just tested positive for COVID, so I can’t go.) Since this is a story that’s been in the news, as soon as word got out about the prayer vigil, our church started getting calls from media representatives.

One of the media representatives who called First Parish was just plain rude. An email we got sounded pushy and not at all sympathetic. Another church got a call offering to help publicize the event for us, something we really don’t want. The attitude of media representatives seems to be, “We need news, and you’re going to provide it for us!”

So here are some words of wisdom to media representatives:

  • It would be wise for you to remember to follow the norms of ordinary politeness. If you are rude, we won’t forget.
  • It would be wise for you to remember that you may be talking to someone who has strong feelings about this issue. If you sound callous or uncaring, we won’t forget.
  • It would be wise for you to remember that we don’t need you any more to publicize local events. Social media and word of mouth work better.

All of which can be boiled down to: Treat people nicely.

Update: This afternoon, I received email from a reporter asking for an interview. I replied that I had COVID and was not able to give an interview. The reporter said they hoped I’d feel better. How nice! You can be sure that I remembered that person’s name, and if they contact me again I will be predisposed to talk with them.

Posts and beams

Some photos from the attic of the 1747 Meeting House in Cohasset:

Truss joint

This image shows the joint in the middle of the second truss from the north end. The ends of the trunnels (treenails) are clearly visible, as are the adze marks.


This photo shows an unusual joint between a beam and a post. This kind of joinery probably resulted because the carpenters also built boats. This photo was taken along the north wall where the Meeting House butts into the tower. The beam across the top of the photo is sawn, not hewn, and is from a later repair. In the background, you can see a PVC pipe, and coaxial cables running up to the cell phone antennas in the steeple.


Early New England meetinghouses, used for both public worship and for town meetings, differ from later church buildings in a couple of ways.

First, meetinghouses lack the axial orientation of churches. A church is rectangular, and you enter through the main door in one of the short walls. The congregation is aligned along an axis facing the pulpit. Meetinghouses are either square, or the main entrance is on the short wall; typically there would be entrances on three walls. Instead of an axial orientation, a meetinghouse has (to my mind) more of a communal orientation. You can see the lack of an axial orientation in the photo below, which shows the interior of the meetinghouse of First Parish in Cohasset, my new congregation.

Interior of the meetinghouse, First Parish in Cohasset

Second, meetinghouses were typically not built with a bell tower. If a bell tower was added to a meetinghouse, it would often be placed to the left or right of the pulpit, not opposite the pulpit. A church, by contrast, typically has the bell tower over the main entrance, opposite the pulpit. The placement of the bell tower in a church has the effect of reinforcing the axial orientation. The meetinghouse of First Parish in Cohasset has the bell tower off to one side, which to my eye tends to diminish any sense of an axial orientation in the building.

Front of the building with the main entrance, First Parish in Cohasset

A final difference: meetinghouses typically have less ornamentation than a church. A meetinghouse tends to place the emphasis, not on the building, but on the people in the building.

I’ll be interested to see whether the form of the building makes any difference in the way people interact. Ask me about this in six months or so….