“The total size is approximately 3,000 acres making it Maine’s largest contiguous saltmarsh. It is fed by three major tributaries: the Scarborough, Nonesuch, and Libby Rivers.” Audubon Society website[i]
“The elms bent to one another, like giants who were whispering secrets, and after a few seconds of such repose, fell into a violent flurry, tossing their wild arms about…” David Copperfield, Charles Dickens
Recently we were walking in the historic section of Newport. In front of the Judicial Center near the Old State House or Old Colony House[i] on the east end of Washington Square we chanced upon a mature eighty-foot American Elm. Once common along so many New England town commons and main thoroughfares, they are now a rarity, especially one as large and old: a true wonder and gift to behold. The spread of the nearly vertical clean main leaders and branches draws the eye upward like few other species do. Like Chartres or Notre Dame, they lift the heart and spirit.
When I was first learning tree pruning crafts, elms were among the more challenging for neophyte nervous climbers. High unprotected foot-locking while gripping together two strands of climbing line to reach the lowest branches followed by some long, shin chafing, sweaty palmed scurrying up steep, sometimes slippery leaders made getting into one of these tall beauties uniquely difficult. But once tied into the sinewy, supple limbs in a secure upper central crotch, then balancing to reach outer limbs and swinging from limb to limb were exhilarating, unencumbered and fun.
The scourge of Dutch Elm Disease in the sixties and seventies all but wiped them out. American elms form natural root grafts, so once one magnificent individual was infected, the fungus could infect the arteries (xylem in this case) of every elm with overlapping root systems and lay waste to a whole street. Unlike many other species, elm trees are particularly vulnerable because they transport their water and nutrients only in one outermost annual ring. Once those fragile single layer vessels are clogged with fungi, the elm was usually doomed. As I matured in my tree climbing experience, so did the disease spread, and I spent many more days taking down and destroying these beautiful dead creatures than pruning live ones. A chainsaw is a poor instrument for fine pruning. The elm bark beetle overwinters in dead elm trees under the bark and fungus spores are spread stuck to their bodies when the hatched mature beetles fly to bore into healthy trees in the spring to lay their eggs. A perfect symbiosis: the fungus needs live xylem; the beetle needs dead bark to protect its burrows and nests over the winter. The shared unlucky host is the dying elm tree. Cleaning up and getting rid of dead elm wood is one of the more effective preventatives in the losing battle against the disease, so we muscled them to the ground. To spot the yellow telltale flagging of wilting leaves on a tiny limb was a portent, dispiriting, like the long, meaningful, silent gaze of an oncologist when the biopsy results come back, preparing to deliver the bad news.
Segue: The English word “truth” derives from the Old English “triewth or treowth” meaning trustworthiness, constancy or faithfulness. Ultimately it is believed to have descended from the ancient Indo-European word for wood or tree, “the semantic link being the firmness or steadfastness of oaks and such trees.”[ii] As the elm tree is perfect, true, consistent and faithful to its purpose, so, too is objective truth. As the elm tree dies of its own vulnerability and a tiny spore, so too in post modern times does the concept and common value of “treowth.” Truth has devolved to whatever is necessary to achieve the ends of the definers.
“In our time political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims,” one turns to “long words and exhausted idioms, like cuttlefish squirting out ink.” George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language,” in The George Orwell Reader: Fiction, Essays and Reportage (New York: Harcourt, 1984) originally published in 1948, 363
In 1948 to brilliant minds like Orwell’s, the future degradation of language was clear. No longer do news media, politicians or bureaucrats write the truth or even the facts as they understand them. Language is persuasive; symbolic acts are persuasive; film, music, political discourse, fiction and non-fiction are persuasive and always in service of the chosen narrative, the agenda. Whatsoever advances persuading others to strengthen the agenda is right. Right, objective right, what we ought to do to be true to the facts is secondary even accidental. Such adherence to fairness and objectivity is considered foolish, or worse, a betrayal. It does not even matter really if we convince others to change their minds, but we must stay safely in our concurring herd. To suffer rejection and mockery because we speak in criticism of the current accepted normality, no matter how abnormal, is our deepest fear. We speak and write and post bullet point posters to gain “Likes” from the likeminded.
The Kavanaugh circus is the latest episode. Someone’s lying, and it doesn’t matter so long as the agenda is promoted. That Senator Feinstein and her gang of bushwhackers held on to the letter from Dr. Ford with the uncorroborated accusations of sexual assault for over six weeks was part of the ambush. Grossly unfair to Justice Kavanaugh with the eleventh-hour sandbag job, and grossly unfair to Dr. Christine Blasey Ford because, while it riled up the likeminded in the media, filling all with self-righteous indignation, the surprise attack time frame left few prospects for proper investigation and vetting. Dr. Ford was left naked in the public square by her allies and the circling hyenas surrounding Kavanaugh, who were only interested in embarrassing the judge, undermining fair due process and stopping the nomination at any cost. Including awful cost to Dr. Ford: whether she is believed or not, her life is irretrievably changed. The truth, the true facts had nothing to do with the cauldron or the agenda.
Then we had the box of coat hangers delivered to Senator Susan Collin’s office. So many lies in that box, it’s hard to sort them out, but the nearly unbearable pressure was clear. Vote to confirm Justice Kavanaugh and soon will follow thousands of butchered and maimed women abandoned on bloody kitchen tables. That Kavanaugh would be one vote of an impossible to predict nine was not a consideration. Forty-five year’s weight of stare decisis since Roe v Wade was not a consideration. Should the extremely remote possibility of a reversal or a curtailment of the most liberal abortion ruling in the world occur, the law would revert for the states to establish in their various jurisdictions, and the great majority of the states allow abortion in almost all circumstances. Voters could vote. None of the facts mattered, only the emotional bludgeon.
Senator Collins stood strong against it all. A pro-choice Republican with the full onslaught of the abortion lobby storming her office, she stood strong. And she will be forever vilified for it, attacked politically in every way because she held that the facts did not support rejecting the nomination of a man with a thirty plus year history of brilliant jurisprudence and the support of every woman that he had mentored and advanced during his long career. Here is what she said: “Certain fundamental legal principles about due process, the presumption of innocence, and fairness do bear on my thinking, and I cannot abandon them. In evaluating any given claim of misconduct, we will be ill-served in the long run if we abandon the presumption of innocence and fairness, tempting though it may be. We must always remember that it is when passions are most inflamed that fairness is most in jeopardy.”
Fair minded? Principled? Thoughtful? What we say we want in our leaders, but rarely support in practice? Yes, yes, yes and yes. Senator Collins supported both liberal Justices Kagan and Sotomayor. She voted to sustain the Affordable Care Act. She voted for the largest government stimulus in our history submitted by President Obama. But when she held to principles, fairness and thoughtfulness with Judge Kavanaugh, that is the unforgiveable sin to the pack that wants to run her down and tear her to pieces. Such is the fate of treowth tellers.
“And this is why the great American Catholic writer Flannery O’Connor said that the truth will not only set you free, it will make you odd.” Charles J. Chaput (New York, Henry Holt, 2017, 110)
[ii] John Ayto, Dictionary of Word Origins (New York: Arcade, 2011), 543
“Time Magazine and Francis Fukuyama, Raquel Welch and a series of Popes, some of the world’s leading scientists, and many other unlikely allies all agree: No single event since Eve took the apple has been as consequential for relations between the sexes as the arrival of modern contraception.” ‘Adam and Eve after the Pill, Paradoxes of the Sexual Revolution,’ Mary Eberstadt, 2012
Quite a few years ago, because of our work with youth and engaged couples, we were asked to give a talk on sex to a group of high school age students. At one point during the talk, while Rita was starting to talk about HIV and the thirty or more sexually transmitted diseases ripping like a prairie fire through young and old alike, I was quietly off in the front corner of the classroom getting dressed.
I put on surgical room booties, surgical scrubs, mask, goggles, cap, and I double gloved with latex. By the time I was fully garbed, of course, even though I hadn’t spoken a word, I had their full attention. I held up my other prop, a sad, deflated condom[i]. In their health classes in public high schools, much had been made of “safe sex:” condoms being stretched over bananas and other directives of socially acceptable orthodoxy regarding such things for teenagers. I said, “What I have on is what medical practitioners do to protect themselves from AIDS and HIV infections (along with hepatitis, gonorrhea, syphilis herpes and all the rest). Holding up the shriveled latex penis cover, I said, “And this is what they tell you is going to protect you.” Let’s look at that a bit.
Theatrical, perhaps, but they weren’t hearing this anyplace else, so we may as well have made it memorable. I pulled out my other props: a basketball hoop with the net tied at the bottom with twine, a basketball, a two-gallon metal bucket and a package of BBs. We asked them what the failure rate was for adults within a given year for condoms to prevent pregnancy. The manufacturers will tell you 98%. The statisticians clarify. Yes, 98% if used perfectly every time, but in real life with real people, condoms, if used as the sole means of contraception, fail at a 15% rate within a year. Do you think young people in the heat of the back seat or couch or beach blanket are going to be able to attain perfection? More often or less often than 85%?
Next, I asked how many days a month can a girl achieve a pregnancy? The answer is two or less as her egg travels down the fallopian tube. Fertilized, the egg morphs almost instantly into a tiny, tiny human being with all the unique DNA information necessary for maturity. Next, the new minute human implants in the uterine lining, utterly transforms the young woman’s body into a perfect baby nurturing environment and begins the growth with which each one of us started. Basic embryology. Unfertilized, it is flushed out of her body in the normal cycle of menstruation. The male sperm lives for between twelve hours and at the outside seven days. Usually, it lasts less than five days. To be safe, let’s use the outside range of egg and sperm for a total of nine days. I then asked them how many days a month can a sexually transmitted disease transmit? “All of them,” our bright students correctly answered. If imperfectly used condoms normally fail at a 15% rate to block a pregnancy, how will they hold up against STDs? Not an inconsequential question.
What happened to the basketball and the BBs? The last piece for them. I popped the basketball into the tied net, and we all watched it hang up, trapped. Finally, I put the tin bucket under the net and poured in the BBs. Clamorous metal noise commenced. I asked what is the ratio in size of a human sperm to a Human Immunodeficiency Virus? Are you ahead of me? Basketball to a BB is the answer. How was that 15% looking now? Is Russian Roulette with only one bullet in the cylinder safer than two? We ended the science conversation by telling them that their best protection against pregnancies for which they were nowhere near ready to be responsible or against sexually transmitted disease, sometimes incurable, was not between their legs, but between their ears.
“She with whom I had lived so long was torn from my side as a hindrance to my forthcoming marriage. My heart which had held her very dear was broken and wounded and shed blood.” ‘Confessions, Book Six, Chapter Fifteen’ St. Augustine
After the science lesson, we discussed with them that sex had been both made too much of and trivialized in what they saw and heard everywhere in our oversexualized culture. Undoubtedly, sex is important to human closeness in men and woman relationships, but it is not the whole truth, or even the most important truth, about intimacy. In most of what they read and watch, sex is distorted, limited to a binary viewpoint- either fantasy graphic or fantasy romantic, utilitarian porn or Cinderella. What is the true end, the whole, the nature of, the ‘final cause,’ the purpose of sex? To strengthen the union between men and women in the most personal of ways? Yes. Also, to develop new human life, form families, continue our species? Just so. A two-fold purpose deep in our nature, inextricably entwined. Unitive and procreative. Who tells the young of this? What terrible responsibility do we shirk in not doing so?
The union of the sexual act is both profoundly real and profoundly symbolic.[ii] But it is only one aspect of the intimacy of man and woman. Total vulnerability and openness. Total gift of one to the other. Total trust and sharing of our dreams, hopes, fears and fragility. Total openness to new life, both within us and separate from us. Centered hopefully on vows of permanence one to the other necessary for family and optimum child rearing. Not quick hook ups: pneumatic encounters with quick fix orgasms to assuage our powerful drives or to prop up our drooping egos. Each urgent event possibly short circuiting other less urgently compelling communication so necessary to our long term mental, psychological and spiritual health. Each casual or frenetic sexual encounter with underwear quickly discarded on the floor requires protection, but not condoms: soul protection, cauterizing nerves, connections, sealing off part of our self that will diminish our capacity to truly share ourselves with another person. Each ephemeral encounter first exposing, then hardening by necessity those aspects of our uniqueness and personality that are best healed and nurtured by vulnerability and by love. Love of the other for the other, not a selfish yearning for reciprocity out of bottomless need, but sacrificial and total. Love as deeply desiring the good of the other, for the other, not ourselves. In the light, not the darkness. Therein lies the power and the presence. Sexual intimacy rooted in this love is all in. Nothing held back. No barriers.
In the end ‘sex’ and ‘safe’ are alien to one another. Sex is not safe. It is not supposed to be.
“In the ‘Republic,’ the well-nurtured youth is one ‘who would see most clearly what was amiss in ill-made works of man or ill-grown works of nature, and with it a just distaste would blame and hate the ugly even from his earliest years and would give delighted praise to beauty, receiving it into his soul and being nourished by it, so that he becomes a man of gentle heart.’” C.S Lewis quoting Plato in his “Abolition of Man” in the chapter “Men Without Chests.”
[i] Too many words needed to address the disconnectedness of condoms. They are a barrier method of contraception with all that implies. As cuddly, close and intimate as spooning with your beloved while wrapped in aluminum foil.
[ii] See Ephesians 5:31-33. Far beyond the scope or abilities of this blog post or blogger to investigate marriage as sign and symbol of God’s intimacy and love for His people.
“What was full was not my creel, but my memory. Like the white-throats, I had forgotten it would ever again be aught but morning……” Sand County Almanac, Trout fishing in June, Aldo Leopold, 1948
When I served on the Mount Vernon Conservation Commission in Maine, we had been charged by the Planning Board to recommend either authorizing or proscribing development along the boundaries of the dozen or so lakes and ponds that shared all or some of their shoreline in our town. The State of Maine legislature determined that the only way to change the ways of recalcitrant landowners, sometimes four generations into their titles on the land, was to force the issue by mandating that absent local zoning rulings by the Planning Board, all lakeshore was to be “resource protected,” which meant no development, no digging, no brush or tree cutting, no dredged sand to make it easier on swimmer’s feet, no septic systems, no camps, no anything. This served to give the local authorities some cover dealing with that contingent of land owners which held fiercely to the rule of ownership. Zoning was akin to usurpation, and land use regulations were the stuff of the politburo.
Moose Pond, Taylor Pond, Minnehonk Lake, Hopkins Pond, Doloff Pond, Parker Pond, Flying Pond, Inghan Pond, Long Pond, Echo Lake, Torsey Lake. Each had some or all its shoreline in Mount Vernon, and each had to be assessed. Each one recalls pleasant memories. The Planning Board was elected; the Conservation Commission was not, so the heat could fall on us without repercussions at the polling place. The Planning Board would submit the zoning plan to the state, but the Conservation Commission would provide the maps. In a small town, it was a true town meeting democracy, and all who served on their boards and commissions were paid the same. Less than nothing because we all incurred some costs as well as donated sometimes significant hours of our time. So, if it got nasty, and we got fired, we were ahead financially.
Few enterprises are as dedicated as unpaid volunteer labor, and we rose early on many weekends to study and map the soil types, vegetation and slopes of the land surrounding each of our clean water responsibilities. Eastern White Pine, Canoe Birch or Alder; Swamp Maple or Burr Oak. Each could tell a tale of its favored soil and how it may absorb or run off, how it would, in the parlance of the septic system builders, “perc.” Willows, River Birch or Silver Maple might indicate too much clay in the soil, so effluence would run off too quickly, would not “perc,” and a septic system might leach into the lake. Too steep a slope would do the same thing. We pored over topographical maps to locate shoreline of special concern.
Too much organic matter from run off, be it from human or farm waste, could prompt algae blooms or promote growth of invasive plants, choking off the healing sun, defeating aerobic natural cleansing, lowering oxygen levels and degrading the balance of the many species which dwelt in and around the lakes and ponds. If bad enough, it could kill the pond, turning it into a foul-smelling hazard. What was precious to life and beautiful to the spirit could be lost.
Getting it right was important. Too many restrictions would be unfair to land owners and buyers of dreams with their waterfront year-round or vacation homes. Too few or missed frontage could mean ruin for the source of those dreams.
We would unstrap our canoes from pickup truck or car roof and put them in early in the morning Saturday. The town provided us with good geodetic survey topographical maps that we would rely on for slope calculations. After our on-site inspections and map study, we would color code lakes with our invented zoning mark ups to present to the board. We’d crumple the soil in our hands, write notes on trouble signs like pipes running into the water from camps, notate streams, marshes and runoff to identify vulnerabilities to the complex ecosystems. While not professional ecologists, we had training in biology and forestry and did our best to accurately map them out in a good faith effort.
“A dawn wind stirs on the great marsh. With almost imperceptible slowness it rolls a bank of fog across the wide morass…. A single silence hangs from horizon to horizon……. A sense of time lies thick and heavy on such a place.” “Sketches Here and There, Wisconsin, Marshland Elegy” Aldo Leopold
While no money changed hands, there was more valuable compensation for the work. When intermittent rain puddled in low places and small dry streambeds bubbled to life, mist sometimes clung to the low hills – gossamer gray with persistent tendrils that unlike fast wind driven clouds remained as unchanging as a watercolor. Mothers and baby wood ducks ignored us if we were still, as did pairs of loons with their plaintive cries. The ducks and loons feed early among the reeds in shallow waters, as they, like serene, entitled nobility have ignored those that present no threats or promise no meals for millennia on these ponds and lakes. Occasionally a moose with similar disregard for human trespassers would wade into the water plants to graze, or perhaps swim a half mile across the pond without seeming effort to seek more promising forage. The flat still surface of the lake was broken only by a bullfrog jumping from its stone perch or a lake trout (called togue in Maine) or land locked salmon rising to surprise an unlucky water bug or dragonfly larvae. Although they prefer the abundant smelt, they are voracious eaters and, in the spring, when the water is still cold, these species will feed opportunistically near the surface. When a duck or a Great Blue Heron took wing to pursue some necessary purpose, the energetic beating was clearly heard as only profound quiet will disclose, yet the silence remained undisturbed.
“Joe Leaphorn still remembered not just the words but the old man’s face when he said then: ‘I think from where we stand the rain seems random. If we could stand somewhere else, we would see the order in it.’” Coyote Waits, Tony Hillerman 1990
Guest blog post – Rita Parquette
In the mid-seventies, I worked as an obstetrical nurse in the labor and delivery rooms of Augusta General Hospital in Maine. Post Roe v Wade, the transition was well underway from abortion as a rare medical necessity to save the life of the mother to common. We witnessed the practice grow from rare to wildfire – sixty million in the U.S. since those early days. The near religious fervor of the pro-abortion lobby seeking ever fewer constraints placed on killing their offspring, at first was a small minority, but well financed. They rode a wave of ironically named ‘liberation’ and ran over all compunctions and objections. Roe was the most liberal decision regarding abortion in the world at that time. It allowed abortion through all nine months of pregnancy.
During that time, nurses were sometimes demeaned by a few doctors, but they held firm as they were able. One firm stand for many of us was abortion. We observed with justified concern the decreasing empathy and hardening treatment of both mothers and babies from those doctors who shared one characteristic in their practices: they added abortion provider to their resumes. The doctors plying the termination trade were having difficulty finding OR nurses to attend them in the Augusta General operating room in the basement; at one point the head nurse on the upper OB floor asked us to “help out our doctors.” We refused. Our job was healing and preserving, not deliberately taking life. This was not a religious decision, but a humanitarian one and conformed to the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.
“Those eyes that had hardly opened to the light of the earthly sun forever and ever were closed to the light of the earthly sun…” From “God Speaks,” “Holy Innocents” Charles Peguy
One anecdote remains always vivid in my memory and haunts me to this day, nearly forty-five years later. On a typical busy evening, I was helping two young mothers in labor. We had moved on from the scopolamine doping of women to more humane and dignified obstetrical practices. My practice was to try and calm their fear, then guide them through controlled breathing and relaxation techniques. One of my patients was only about sixteen weeks pregnant, and we had no neo-natal intensive care facilities in Augusta. Optimally we would attempt to arrest her sporadic and weak contractions. Standard practice was to start an IV. Hydration and improved electrolyte balance at times could stop premature labor, and the pregnancy could proceed to term. Not that night.
Dr. R, one of the more zealous of the pro-abortion OB/GYN practitioners, entered the labor room and spoke briefly to the young mother; I was busy with another patient and not privy to the conversation. He then strode over and instructed me curtly to put an ampule of Pitocin into the IV. Pitocin is a synthetic version of oxytocin, which is a natural powerful hormone that induces more rapid and stronger contractions to intensify labor. We were trying to retard labor or stop it to give the baby her best chance, so I was surprised, then aghast. I refused and told him that if he wanted Pitocin into that IV, he would have to do it himself! We used metal folding clipboards for medical charts. While I was busy standing at the nurse’s high station writing my own notes, he flung this patient’s metal chart about five feet, hard, and hit me on my left side in the ribs. I never saw it coming. Then he added the Pitocin into the IV. The labor intensified. I was there for the mother and her baby. I monitored the babies heart beat with a fetal stethoscope and told the mother I was getting a good heart beat and added that information to my notes.
Inevitably she was ready for delivery and wheeled into the delivery room. At this point, Dr. R’s friend, an anesthesiologist entered the scene. We had many wonderful doctors at our hospital, but Dr. R and this particular anesthesiologist were not among them. This anesthesiologist’s favorite way to summon a nurse was to whistle with two fingers in his mouth. He put my patient deeply under, something rarely done because of risk to the newborn infant. The Pitocin accelerated labor, delivery ran its predictable course, and the unconscious mother delivered her tiny baby girl. Dr. R dropped the baby into a stainless-steel basin nearby normally used to receive the placenta. He finished up quickly and left the delivery room before the mother awoke.
Immediately, a nursery nurse, whom I had already warned about the coming of this small baby, rescued the baby from her cold metal refuse bucket, wrapped and carried her to the newborn warming station where she suctioned her in a futile attempt to clear her breathing passages and stimulate breathing. She then rubbed and did her best to comfort this tiny girl. After over ten minutes without a breath, her heart ceased its beat. The scene felt surreal to me; I was out of sync with the events and with the doctors – like a dream, a disturbing dream. I did not know what else I could do. Something like this had never happened to me or the other nurse.
When the mother woke from the anesthesia, I told her that her baby was born with a heartbeat but was unable to breath. Still somewhat drowsy, I tried to comfort her, but she seemed hard to reach. I think she too might have felt like she was in a surreal world and not sure how she got there. After her discharge, the mother called a mortician and a funeral was held. The funeral home director received the doctor’s notes, my nurse’s notes and the notes of the nursery nurse who had done her best for the baby. Both doctors described the little girl as macerated, born dead, indeed they agreed she had been dead for a while. Both sets of nurse’s notes described her true condition. Since medical notes can wind up as legal documents, the funeral director notified the hospital administrator of the discrepancy and conflicting narratives. When the nursing supervisor for our shift came to me for an explanation, I assured her the nurse’s notes were the accurate ones and explained exactly what happened. She gave me a knowing look, and I never heard another word.
A couple of years later, when we had returned to the faith of our youth, I confessed this incident to our pastor, who remains a dear friend to this day. He suggested lovingly that in the circumstances I tried my best and that I needed to forgive myself. Father Joe further suggested that I should name the baby and pray for her mom and for all that had happened around that difficult night. I named her Gabriella and do pray about this still. I hope to see her again some fine day and have a conversation.
A final related episode comes to mind. The equally troubled nursery room nurse had a discussion with an experienced and humane pediatrician the next day. She explained to him what had happened and asked if we had done the right thing in trying to save her and delivering all the professional care we could muster for that little girl. He smiled sadly and looked into her eyes. He assured her, “Where there is life, there is always hope.”
“I AM says God, Master of the Three Virtues. Faith is a faithful wife. Charity is an ardent mother. But Hope is a tiny girl.” “God Speaks, “Hope” Charles Peguy
“The world is not like a platoon advancing at the pace of a single commander. It’s a network of events affecting each other.” “The Order of Time”, Carlos Rovelli, 2018
In 1972 we lived with our toddler Amy and our infant Gabriel in a winter rental on Mashnee Island at the north end of the Cape Cod Canal across from the Massachusetts Maritime Academy. We had very little money and an old flat head six-cylinder Chevy pickup truck painted with house paint that we bought in Boulder, Colorado when we lived there. Our next-door neighbor was Fred Cheever, who was in his sixties. John’s brother and Susan’s uncle, Fred befriended this young couple, told us of local must sees and gave us his copy of the New York Times Sunday paper after he finished with it. Fred ran the advertising department of a local radio station.
That year I worked for Newell B. Snow, a third-generation land surveyor in Buzzards Bay. Newell was in his early eighties and had original surveyor’s notebooks from his grandfather in the Civil War era. Old school and meticulous, he required a cane to get from place to place, but cognitively had lost nothing off the two-seam fastball. He remembered half-buried marble markers to help in laying out old boundary lines. Finding these markers and proving boundaries by cutting a line and researching the old books could mean the difference between a land locked piece of property and one that was accessible and much more valuable to the owners. Detective work was the fun part; sometimes I would be allowed on a rainy day to help do the math to close the traverses, which had to be proofed within a narrow percentage. If one didn’t tie out, it meant going back into the woods to remeasure until the trigonometry of angles and measurements closed back to the starting point of the lot.
Newell’s son-in-law, Charlie was the crew chief, and Bob, a retired Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer in his late forties was second man on the crew. I was the third man, held the dumb end of the hundred-foot metal tape and cut brush and trees out of the line. Newell eschewed the use of noisy and expensive chainsaws, which regrettably for me, was one of the few things I was good at when I first started my year as a land surveyor. The century old design brush hooks cut the lines so that we could shoot and measure them with the manual transits. I soon learned how to keep brush hooks sharp and use their keen ability against tough, stringy vines and scrub shrubs. When working exposed to the onshore winds in January, maintaining core body heat was an ongoing struggle. Bob gave me a woolen Navy watch cap, a kind gift that helped. Twenty below in the Maine woods was not as numbing as North Atlantic wind that cored through and was impossible to ignore. The hard work of a brush hook helped to keep me warm.
Eventually I convinced Newell to buy a small Stihl chainsaw, and while it was less effective against vines and thick underbrush, it significantly improved the crew’s efficiency on the numerous scrub white oaks and red pines that blocked the sight lines of the transit. The Stihl immediately increased our daily production. Instead of detouring around larger trees with four short ninety-degree shoots and measurements as had been done for prior centuries, I’d quickly drop the old scrub oaks or red pines into the adjacent woods and leave them. I regretted my recommendation and its ramifications. A twelve-inch diameter tree that may have been forty years old was too daunting to attack with a brush hook, but a chainsaw put it down in five or ten minutes.
“And because Your years do not pass, Your years are today… All our tomorrows to the end of time You shall make to be in this Your day; and all our yesterdays from the beginning of time You have made to be in this Your day.” St. Augustine, “Confessions,” Book One, Chapter Six
Long cut lines through bramble-clogged Cape Cod woods made up two legs of what we called “spaghetti lots”: an elongated rectangle with two hundred feet of road frontage and a half a mile or so into the trees and vines on each side. A lot of hills, measuring, shooting the lines and cutting. The other surveyor’s skill that is mostly lost with encroaching technology is the plumb bob. Charlie would spot a wooden stake that we cut out of two by three studs sharpened with a hatchet on rain out days. I’d drive it into the exact location defined by the transit with a five-pound short handled sledge hammer, then nail a small tack into it as a temporary line marker for measurements. We used a metal hundred-foot tape stretched to an exact tension with a spring-loaded scale to make certain as exact a measurement as we could manage. Plumb bobs on both ends of the measurement with the other end of its string held against our tape suspended exactly over our tacks.
On inclines the tape had to be held level as well as with the proper tension. On steep hills, we could manage much less than hundred-foot measurements. Sometimes as little as a horizontal ten foot pull and we would need to place a new stake. The high end of the tape would be held precisely on the tack, the low end held high and level with straining arms and a nearly fully extended plumb bob string, the point of the plumb bob without a quiver held over the tack. The bob could not touch the nail because both the plumb and the exact dimension would be lost. On a half mile traverse, any accumulated small errors of inexactly taken measurements would ruin the closing back in the office.
Now, of course, all this is gone, along with four transit leveling screw gauges, meticulously adjusted by the crew chief at every set up. Electronic self-leveling laser transits and corresponding electronic target poles not only accomplish the exact measurements, the rectangular (or any other angled) multi sided traverses are closed and calculated as the surveying teams go along within the programming and screens of the transits. Plumb bobs, wooden stakes and tacks are forgotten accoutrements.
As I think about plumb bobs, straining arms held high to mark their precise locations to establish reliable borderlines, I ponder the lost plumb bobs of our bewildered culture, the objective moral norms held true and plumb for centuries, pointing by gravity towards the center of the earth, exactly defining with rigor and wisdom the boundaries we seem to want blurred. And I wonder about how human nature, unchanged, mocks both the convolutions and the ubiquitous noise of our technology, and marks as silly our fatuous, doomed attempts at materialistic perfectibility.
“Thus, He showed me, and behold, the Lord was standing by a vertical wall with a plumb line in his hand. The Lord said to me, ‘What do you see, Amos?’ And I said, ‘A plumb line.” Then the Lord said, “Behold I am about to put a plumb line in the midst of My people….” Amos 7: 7-8a
“This is the price you pay for having a great father. You get the wonder, the joy, the tender moments – and you get the tears at the end too.” Harlan Coben
I heard my father sing last night, which is infrequent since he died on his birthday in 1982. We have only three recordings of his voice, all done by my brother Barry with a tape deck brought up to the choir loft at Blessed Sacrament Church when my Dad sang at my cousin Mary’s wedding. Here’s one of them in a footnote: Sacrament Divine.[i]
He sang many times at that church. My earliest indelible memories of church are sitting in that loft alone with him and the organist as I watched the Latin Mass unfold below from a privileged vantage point. In last night’s dream, possibly prompted by visiting some new friends, one of whom, Caroline, still possesses the lovely Irish lilt of her girlhood near Derry in Northern Ireland. Or possibly my dream was a most welcome Father’s Day gift with a promise of singing once again with my Dad.
Dad had a rare Irish tenor with a good range and steady, but never a voice lesson that I know of, unless his mother taught him some things. He bemoaned excessive vibrato and would have been appalled at the current fashion of so many superfluous notes and flourishes that bedevil modern interpretation. The ability to hold a single note without unnecessary side adventures was a valuable attribute for my father. Mario Lanza and later the incomparable Luciano Pavarotti were favorites of his. To put it into his perspective, Bing Crosby passed muster, but Frank Sinatra was a bit too creative. And Elvis, well, Elvis was a pretender and a heretic. I’m happy for him that he missed Tupac.
He loved to sing to the crowd at any opportunity, especially the old Irish and Irish American songs. From “Mother Machree” and “Wild Irish Rose” to “Clancy Lowered the Boom.” After a few drinks he might venture to the piano and belt out an exuberant “Blue Moon” with some inexpert, but enthusiastic chords. But the show stopper of course was “Danny Boy.” There would always follow a silence with long stares and even some tears after his “Danny Boy.”
His mother was an Irish immigrant of the County Galway Lannons; she was a professional singer in touring vaudeville shows. She died young of tuberculosis, and he never knew his father, who disappeared into the mist during WWI. The Irish aunts never spoke of the father. Neither did my Dad. There was an interpretation that senior died in France in the trenches, but there remains the possibility he returned to his wandering ways as a vaudeville show manager. Despite some effort, I have not yet found out the truth, and all that know have long since left the stage. The aunts and uncles took her in and her baby in 1917, so the culture in which my father was raised with a French name was thoroughly Irish.
World War Two killed my father but took thirty-seven years to finish the job. Like many other combat veterans, he became deeply addicted to tobacco with the habit reinforced by free cartons of Lucky Strikes passed out by the American Tobacco Company and the U.S. Army. Captured in the Ardennes at the Battle of the Bulge, he endured terrifying threats from his captors. Twice he was lined up in the late winter snow with fellow prisoners, and his mocking guards dropped the tailgate of the truck that led them into the field, unveiled the machine gun behind the canopy and jacked home the first round. After a tense half a minute, they would laugh and move out. The second time, his captors simply left the prisoners in the field and drove off with Patton’s army in close pursuit, and my father was free.
He married his sweetheart within a few weeks of returning home. She was the twin sister of his closest Army buddy, my uncle Sonny Laracy, my Dad’s partner on scouting missions in a Jeep for the Ninth Armored Infantry. He finished up as a sergeant. With his love, Betty, now ninety-seven, they parented six children who love them still and miss their Dad.
Happy Father’s Day, Pop. You sang wonderfully in my dream – note perfect. I hope to sing with you again.
“I am going to try and pay attention to the spring. I am going to look around at all the flowers and look up at the hectic trees. I am going to close my eyes and listen.” Anne Lamont
In New England, spring always surprises. Not so much at its coming or pace or progression of blooming, which I’ve come to count on as the annual fulfillment of winter hope, but with its intensity. The utter greenness and resurrection, lush, with those fragile hues of new leaves that soon harden into the deeper, more lasting, larger leaves of summer. Welcome chores soon follow: planting gardens, fertilizing, then mowing the lawn. Perhaps cutting down and digging out roots from a disappointing shrub or planting that we tolerated through the summer, fall and winter, but could not abide when contrasted with the glory of rebirth.
With the colors and morning sounds of the returning doves and sparrows comes the smell of spring, a rich mixture of soil, flower scent, abundant varied pollens and rain at dawn. When nearby Escobar dairy farm workers spread cow manure on the corn fields, and the wind shifts from the east and Narragansett Bay, the moist, fecund odor offends some, but not me. The heifer yard fills as the late winter calves mature into adolescence but are not ready yet for breeding and the beginning of their lives in the big western field with the other milk producing cows – the daily rhythm of leisure, hanging out with the other girls, feeding and milking. On our sunset walks past the yard, they are curious, friendly, hoping for a treat and run to welcome us when I greet them.
“In spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt.” Margaret Atwood
As May slips into June, and summer beckons, the traffic on Aquidneck Island picks up on East and West Main Road with beach comers and Newport boating and dining visitors; Fort Adams hosts the Volvo sailing races, and Saturday evening polo matches commence in Portsmouth. The annual chowda cook off and contest are the launch: Newport is a foodie city. Soon will come the music festivals – jazz and folk at Fort Adams, and classical ensembles in the mansions. The clubs and restaurants host everything from quiet piano bars to hot, open window country rock, and sweaty dancers seeking an off-shore night breeze spill out on the sidewalk between sets.
For us, however, June and music carries with it a ballet recital at Portsmouth High School. When our daughters, Angela and Meg, were young, recitals and performances were in Providence at PPAC and the Veteran’s Auditorium: Festival Ballet and School: Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Firebird. Here, though, it is the Island Moving Company, Newport Ballet School and granddaughters. Three so far: Gianna, Ellie and Mary, but watching three-year-old Josie last night, swaying, laughing and jumping in tempo as her sisters danced, she will soon follow. Most likely, so will Adelaide, Meg’s baby daughter, in Southern California.
As their mother Angela and Aunt Meg before them, the sisters learn that music is not broken and is far richer than hip hop, computers and synthesizers can deliver: more complex, transcendent and cohesive with the true and the beautiful. The joining of their bodies to the grace of the music, as they experience and develop their own grace, is a spring wonder of its own, a planting and a greening for a lifetime.
“Though I do not believe that a plant will spring up where no seed has been, I have great faith in a seed…Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.” Henry David Thoreau
“Everyone is entitled to his own nostalgia.” James Wolcott
We have long favored funky short order breakfast diners in small towns; eggs over easy with crisp bacon and superlative home fries, especially accompanied by a ‘never empty’ cup of better than average coffee with the good company of diner regulars is one of our favorite dates and has been for fifty years. Only a slightly overweight waitress with a quick, knowing smile could improve upon the experience, and often does. Not sure why. This may indicate a skewed character with some undefined deep flaw yet identified. But I’m comfortable with the risk.
Earlier this week we headed to pick up our completed tax returns at the office in Swansea, where they have been calculated for us for over twenty-five years. I was coming from a predawn visit to the gym followed by a semi-annual doctor’s checkup. No prior time for breakfast, so we stopped at a local diner we had not previously tried. Another guilty pleasure is checking out new diners. One stop is sufficient to rate the home fries and coffee; the rest of breakfast is hard to ruin. Whether we ever go a second time is almost entirely based on those two criteria. The parking lot was full of clearly local cars with only a couple less than five years old. A good sign.
The menu was on the chalk board and one simple sheet of paper encapsulated in plastic. Each item was unembellished with elaborate description. The specials included an omelet with a spicy Portuguese sausage. The odor was coffee, bacon with a faint overtone of old grease and a combination of worn wood and linoleum curled in the corners. White eight by eleven notices were pinned to a bulletin board and taped on some windows advertising local handyman services, school plays and an upcoming meeting at town hall regarding changing rules at the transfer and recycling station.
The waitress was just this side of indifferent, but wary and quick to our booth. Perfect. Most of the tables were occupied and almost every round red Naugahyde stool on a stainless-steel post at the counter had an ample behind on it, even a few plumber’s cracks. Knowing laughter at the counter with a well-known customer. Our waitress pretended shock, smiled lasciviously, and proclaimed for the room, “And you kiss your mutha with that mouth!” She was not crabbing over towards a safe space. We were for the most part ignored by the regulars, but it was a benign neglect. Catch an eye and get a quick smile, but the furtive eye was not easily caught. Most were involved in conversation with two or three fellow diners, conversations that started twenty years ago with daily or weekly updates.
“I’d rather entrust the government of the United States to the first 400 people listed in the Boston telephone directory than to the faculty of Harvard University.” William F. Buckley
In my experience, the regular customers of a local diner are the same everywhere, just different in specifics. This week’s morning crowd was mostly north of sixty, more men than women, some seventies carry over long hair, a couple of beards and a few unshaven, but clean faced maybe a week or so ago. Although the place didn’t allow smoking inside, quite a few of the diners sported a pair of nicotine stained fingers and looked like they’d be more comfortable with a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray near their coffee mug. Without taking a poll, I assume most did not have many letters after their signature. A half dozen or so looked well educated in their green youth, but their schooling was not at Brown or Rhode Island School of Design, more likely in the Mekong Delta or Khe Sanh. Three or four of the tin ceiling panels had been replaced with posters honoring diners who no longer could eat breakfast there, grease dimmed posters with names, ranks, nicknames like Doc and Gunny, medals, military outfits and mottos. One customer sat by himself wearing jeans, a sweatshirt and a thousand-yard stare, drinking coffee, but had no breakfast on the counter.
The most recent candidate of the people famously classified the diner’s good folks as deplorables, and the remark may have cost her the presidency. Their hands are calloused, and their backs stooped a bit with wear and tear. They believe in a functioning border, but for the most part lack xenophobia; working hard was valued, not working was not. Marriage and family, even though some failed at it, was assumed to be the basic unit of a well-ordered society, and marriage is between one man and one woman with children the natural expectation and responsibility. Almost universally, they knew something vital was bleeding out in a culture they wanted desperately to preserve. Maybe it couldn’t be well articulated, but they would vote to try to stem the loss. I prefer their company to the sophisticated most of the time.
“I think there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Harper Lee
“Best way to live in California is to be from somewheres else.” ‘No Country for Old Men,’ Cormac McCarthy
We came to Ladera Ranch for a baptism. And stayed for a while. Our youngest granddaughter, Adelaide, took the plunge. Her parents decided for her at five months of age, but the indelible mark for all eternity is the same. She seemed to enjoy the experience, and the lunch back at Marty and Meg’s house, catered by a local Mexican food restaurant, was superb. The beer wasn’t bad either.
Father Angelos officiated and impressed on the five sets of families present both the permanence of the commitment and the fruits of the promise. He is a lovely guy and a good priest at St. Kilian Church in nearby Mission Viejo. A large parish, each weekend the seven masses have full pews for the most part. The homilies are inspired and loving, but they do not lack authoritative teaching. No Catholic Lite at St. Kilian. He greeted each family, as he did when we attended Mass the following day on Sunday. Big choir, well led, mostly traditional; the whole congregation sang. I’d estimate over nine hundred at the Mass we attended.
Marty and Meg are most gracious hosts, and we enjoyed many nights of leisurely, healthy and delicious meals. Perfect balance really, as we took some side-trips to Selma’s (excellent) pizza and In and Out, my favorite fast food burger joint, complete with chocolate shakes and something called animal fries (don’t ask, but wonderful.) Then there were Scott’s Donuts and Wendi’s Donuts, which in the interests of supporting local businesses, Marty and I felt we must patronize regularly. Lots of walking trails in their neighborhood, which we enjoyed daily with Mila (the best puggle in the universe), Adelaide (the best five-month-old on the planet), Meg and Marty when he wasn’t working. Desert vegetation, a nearby deep canyon with steep paths and a mountain lion. Mountains to the east.
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.” ‘On The Road, Jack Kerouac
We took two side trips to Laguna Beach for lunch at the organic vegan frozen yogurt place, ‘Active Culture,’ with quinoa avocado salads, again to balance out the donuts. One Sunday, we all went for a long walk on the beach around sunset. Rita and I spent a relaxed afternoon at the Mission in San Juan Capistrano the day before the baptism with a sumptuous lunch of salmon for Rita and a creative grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup at Sundried Tomato. But eating wasn’t all we did while we were there. Hours of conversation, watching Winter Olympics (at six o’clock instead of nine – just one of the West Coast advantages). Adelaide prefers hockey and figure skating. She eschews curling, as do most human beings, except Scandinavians, the Scotch and the British. Enough said.
We shopped various times at ‘Buy Buy Baby,’ Whole Foods and a quick trip to Nordstrom’s bargain outlet to pick up the shirt and tie I forgot for the baptism. Walking around the store with a baby in the stroller was enjoyable, as were hours of holding that warm, sweet smelling tiny girl while she played, cuddled, goofed around and fussed. A couple of times she fell fast asleep in my arms. I think that is an experience that never ages.
For our birthdays (we both turned 72) Rita and I ventured north for three days. First to the Reagan Library in the Simi Valley, which has spectacular views, a full-size well used Airforce One, a Marine One helicopter, replica Oval Office, a piece of the Berlin Wall and hundreds of displays of videos and President Reagan’s papers from handwritten high school essays to his presidency. One oddity: the brand-new suit with a jagged hole in it that was cut off President Reagan in the emergency room after John Hinkley shot and almost killed him while trying to impress Jodie Foster.
The second day we drove from Oxnard where we were staying near the Channel Islands Beach up to Santa Barbara and the Franciscan Mission there. At a noon Mass, we received our Ash Wednesday ashes and blessing. Reminded by some displays in the museum, we remembered from San Juan the Abraham Lincoln – Franciscan Missions connection. During the bloody Mexican Revolution, the new radical secular government decided that it would benefit their connected families to confiscate Church land and give it to their friends, turning them into instantly wealthy people. Of course, it is not unusual in revolutionary affairs to outlaw worship and kill worshipers and priests, but Mexico rivaled its spiritual forebear in France for brutality. A few decades later, the Mexican government lost a war to America, and in settling accounts also lost California. Just a few weeks prior to his assassination, President Lincoln returned the missions to the Franciscans. Not all the abundant, arable land, which had been dispersed, but at least the churches and immediate surrounds for gardens, vineyards and orchards, which remain to this day; the old buildings extraordinary havens of peace. Mass has been celebrated continually in the Old Mission at Santa Barbara (under deep cover during the revolution) since Saint Junipero Serra founded it in the eighteenth century. The litany of the missions is a litany of the history of California: San Francisco to San Diego.
On the third day, we meandered without haste south down through Malibu and Santa Monica back into Los Angeles down the Pacific Coast Highway, with the hills and mountains to the east and the vastness of the ocean to our west with frequent stops along the way. One striking feature of our stay in Oxnard were the miles of fields and orchards of oranges, lemons and avocadoes. The fields were full of vegetables and flowers that are sold at florists and supermarkets throughout the country. Nothing quite matches a lemon or orange picked daily locally. New England has no answer to those, except to cede this ground and come up with its own Macintoshes and Red Delicious pretenders.
The fields were also full of migrant workers. Hundreds and hundreds of them. Without them, America would be impoverished, and not just for lack of fresh produce. At one of the local churches in Oxnard, the Ash Wednesday services were scheduled at 5, 5:30, 6, 6:30 and 7 AM for the workers to be able to attend. This striking reminder of the universality of the Church resonates still. What a marvelous, warm and friendly people live here to bless us all.
A final memory is the crazed drivers of the eight and ten lane suicide runs called freeways. A moment’s hesitation while a stranger tries to figure out a lane change or turn earns an instant amplified horn ten inches off the rear bumper, or a ninety mile an hour Porsche passing on the right like it was Le Mans. I know New England drivers, especially in Boston, can be rude, but Bostonians can be generally abrupt and impatient on or off the road, so this is not a disappointment when they revert to type on Commonwealth Avenue. Californians are replete with smiles and polite friendly replies and pleasantries, but get them into their automobiles, and they reveal themselves as sociopaths.
Just kidding, Marty. Sort of.
“Americans will put up with anything, as long as it doesn’t block traffic.” Dan Rather