Close to home


You looking at me?

I was tempted to skip my journal pages this morning, as I’d been hoping to comment on some more papers–always more papers–before leaving to teach today’s classes. But instead, I came across a line in Diane Ackerman’s The Human Age: The World Created By Us that stopped me short:

Finch

On the periodic table of the heart, somewhere between wonderon and unatttainium, lies presence, which one doesn’t so much take as steep in, like a romance, and without which one can live just fine, but not thrive.

This line comes in a chapter titled “Nature, Pixelated,” where Ackerman discusses the phenomenon of nature webcams and other forms of virtual reality. Simulcast betting is so last century: nowadays you don’t have to leave your desk to go birdwatching via webcam at any of a number of distant and exotic locales.

Black swan

Too much of our life is spent indoors staring at screens, Ackerman laments, and she doesn’t know the half of it. She’s talking about young people who stare at phones and tablets and computers for fun: the nature-deprived children whom Richard Louv describes as preferring to play indoors because that’s where the electrical outlets are. But what about those of us who are tethered to screens because our jobs demand it?

Baby gorilla throws hay on mom

It’s easier for me to comment on essay drafts my students submit electronically: instead of carrying stacks of folders with papers my students can subsequently lose, all the papers I need to read are online in the cloud, backed up and safe for the semester and accessible from anywhere via my laptop. My students submit their papers online, I comment online, and none of my comments get crammed at the bottom of a students’ backpack, as happened in the Old Days when I commented on student papers by hand. Now, when the end of the term approaches and my students get serious about revision, all their work is waiting for them online, along with my feedback.

Peekaboo prairie dog

Collecting and commenting on papers electronically is a huge improvement over the old method, but a it also means I spend a huge amount of time every semester glued to a screen, answering emails, posting homework assignments, and commenting on draft after draft after draft while the whole wide world transpires outside, where I’m not. I miss those days at Keene State where the topic of my first-year writing seminar gave me an excuse to step outside and journal with my students. In retrospect, I wonder whether keeping a nature journal was the most helpful lesson I taught those students: a simple technique for Being Here, Now.

Camel

So much of college isn’t about Being Here, Now: it’s about biding your time until you get he piece of paper everyone has promised will lead to the Good Job everyone says you need to Be Happy someday, eventually. College, in the interim, is too often a series of hoops you jump through on your way from A to B, during which time you’ll write too many papers assigned by part-time faculty who have to teach too many classes to keep themselves fed.

Baby wildebeest

Where do moments of presence happen in today’s college classrooms? I’m not sure I know. Sometimes I’ve started class with five minutes of writing–the old fashioned kind, done with pen on paper–and that has felt grounding, the pen serving as an anchor to the here and now. But I’m not doing this in my classes this year, and maybe that’s a mistake. Maybe I’ve missed a prime opportunity to show my first-year students how the practice of the present moment can be as enthralling as any technological gadget.

Today’s photos come from a trip to the Franklin Park Zoo J and I took the weekend before last, and the title of today’s post is an allusion to Brother Lawrence’s spiritual classic, The Practice of the Presence of God.

All out

When J and I went to Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, we had no idea it would be the last time we’d watch live horse racing in Revere. Last week the Massachusetts Gaming Commission granted permission for a swanky new casino in Everett, thereby dashing Suffolk Downs’ hopes of building a casino there. Casinos bring in big bucks; live horse racing does not. After the casino decision was made, Suffolk Downs made an announcement that saddened but didn’t surprise me: the 79-year-old track will be closing, with live racing ceasing at the end of the month and simulcast betting continuing through December.

They're off!

The part about horse racing that interests me is the horse part, not the gambling part, so neither simulcast betting nor swanky new casinos interest me. Had Suffolk Downs won a casino contract, J and I would have gone there to slide a quarter or two into the slot machines, briefly ogle the table games, and otherwise mind our business on our way to the track, where the horses are. But there will be no horses or horse racing at Everett’s new casino, so I’m unimpressed by the proposed development. Why do we need a casino in Everett when the casinos in Connecticut are such a short drive away?

Into the Winner's Circle

When J and I arrived at Suffolk Downs the weekend before last, there was a little girl loudly cheering for her favorite jockey as she made her way into the Winner’s Circle: Janelle Campbell, the same jockey I’d photographed last year as she sat beaming atop her mount. Being a jockey, I explained in that post, is every horse-crazy girl’s dream job. After Suffolk Downs is shuttered, who will horse-crazy little girls cheer for? Their favorite poker stars or blackjack dealers?

Winner's circle

Suffolk Downs is a place past its prime: it’s clean and well-kept, but clearly run down. Every time we’ve gone to Suffolk Downs, J and I have wandered the grandstand, meekly exploring the empty upper concourses and wide, carpeted entryways. In its heyday, Suffolk Downs was packed with enthusiastic race fans; today, sparse handfuls of people watch horses race outside while the serious gamblers stay indoors, where races from other tracks are simulcast on rows of TV screens.

Jockeying for position

Simulcast races are something you can watch (and bet on) anywhere, including online…and simulcast racing is where the big gaming money is. My personal preference to watch horse racing in person might be shared by horse-crazy little girls, but apparently it’s not shared by the adult population at large. Why do we need live horses racing at Suffolk Downs when it’s so easy to watch (and bet on) horse races on TV? Why even leave the house when you can gamble online?

The winner

It’s too bad that Suffolk Downs is closing, as it was a place with a history. Both Seabiscuit and Cigar raced there, back when horse racing was glamorous and fast horses were celebrities. The racetrack where my father used to watch (and, yes, bet on) harness horses in Ohio added a casino several years ago, and the place never felt the same. Men now drop their wives at the casino while they go to wager on simulcast races, and my dad stays home to follow the stock market: a different kind of gambling.

Muddied

I’m saddened to think of all the horse-folks who will be out of a job when Suffolk Downs closes for good. The new casino in Everett will provide jobs for waitresses, cashiers, and card dealers, but where’s a good groom, jockey, or trainer going to go for a new job?

A dirty job

The horses who raced at Suffolk Downs will move on to other tracks, or they’ll retire from racing and find homes with folks looking to adopt sleek saddle horses. It’s a slower life after you’ve been put out to pasture. The world races on, and you get left behind.

Roses through fence

My fall semester started yesterday, when I taught three first-year writing classes at Curry College; today, I’m teaching two classes at Framingham State. There’s something exhilarating about teaching the first few days of fall semester, when your freshmen are still truly “fresh.”

A fungus among us

The first few days of fall semester, there’s an air of excitement on campus as students meet new people and make new friends. I didn’t see this side of my Curry students last term, as I was hired in the middle of the second semester, in February, when my students were already tired, jaded, and yearning for spring. Soon enough my students at both schools will be settled into a regular routine, the same old habits emerging, albeit in a new environment. But right now, New England is gearing up for her prettiest season, and right now, first-year college students are full of resolve, determined to leave behind the baggage and bad habits of their high school years, when even the smallest mistakes or indiscretions quickly establish one’s reputation.

At the start of fall semester, one’s self seems supple, September offering an excuse for midyear rather than New Year’s resolutions. This year, students tell themselves, I’ll buckle down and keep up with homework. This year, instructors tell themselves, I won’t procrastinate grading. Hope (in other words) springs eternal, and not just in spring. September is as eager a time as any other, the start of a new school opening the door to ample opportunities.

Heading north

One of my favorite vistas in Boston is one you see when you’re headed northbound out of the city toward either New Hampshire or the northern suburbs. After you’ve snaked through the subterranean labyrinth that is the Tip O’Neill Tunnel, you suddenly are above ground and bathed in light as you ascend the Zakim Bridge with its gleaming white cables.

Zakim Bridge

I don’t know if heaven has a gate, but if it does, surely it can’t be any lovelier than the Zakim Bridge arching overhead on a sunny afternoon.

Technicolor hippies

As I type these words, a rafter of wild turkeys is scratching for seed beneath our backyard birdfeeder: two hens and their combined offspring, a true Boston marriage. We didn’t see much of our resident turkeys in the spring and early summer, when the hens were incubating eggs, but now that the poults are leggy and ravenous, we’ve seen them and their mothers more frequently.

Fantastic 'fro

The other day, J and I saw a small group of tom turkeys crossing a side street about a half mile from our house, one striding slowly in front of the other like the Beatles crossing Abbey Road. This is how turkeys live in August: the females band together to shepherd their combined young, and the males hang out singly or in loose-knit throngs, fattening up for breeding season. It’s a strict division of labor where the females look after the poults and the males do little more than strut and breed.

Birth-control pill chastity belt

A week or so ago, J and I watched an episode of the CNN documentary The Sixties that discussed the women’s movement. The episode discussed the advent of the birth control pill, Gloria Steinem’s stint as a Playboy Bunny, and the one-two punch of Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl. Once you acknowledge that some housewives are unhappy tending children and doing housework and some women are enjoying sex outside the bonds of marriage, you’ve crossed a revolutionary divide. Everything is possible between the sexes because everything has been called into question.

Eclectic

A strict division of labor between tom and hen turkeys has worked for eons: just look how many turkeys there are! But human beings aren’t turkeys. We no longer live as hunter-gatherers, when it made sense for larger, stronger males to pursue large game while bands of women gathered nuts and berries, their babies and children in tow.

His and hers

Nearly all of today’s jobs can be accomplished by either gender, and the job of gathering groceries knows no sex. This means each household is free to divide chores however works best for them, individually. In our home, J does yard work and cooks, and I do dishes, take out the trash, and shop for groceries. J and I don’t divide these chores by gender; instead, we’ve settled upon a routine that works for us, and we don’t expect that routine to be universally applicable to other couples. We’re talking about conscious choices, not binding cultural rules.

Braids

I don’t know if male and female turkeys are content with their lots in life: I suspect turkeys live the way they do because they don’t have much choice. Does an abundance of choice make us humans more or less happy in the long run? That’s a question for philosophers to decide. All I know is that once a choice is offered, you can’t take it back. Once you know other options are available, you’ll always want the freedom to choose between them.

Since I don’t have any decent photos of turkey hens and poults that have been visiting our backyard bird feeder, the photos illustrating today’s post come from last summer’s groovy MFA exhibit of sixties clothing, Hippie Chic, which I blogged last December.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Back in March when J and I went to the Harvard Museum of Natural History to see the famous glass flowers, I snapped several photographs of a more ephemeral phenomenon: several botanical specimens taken by Henry David Thoreau. Among the embarrassment of riches that is the Harvard Museum of Natural History, these pressed plants mounted on paper and labeled in Thoreau’s notoriously illegible handwriting seemed particularly fragile and astonishingly personal. When Thoreau picked, pressed, and preserved these specimens, he was acting as an amateur botanist. He had no way of knowing more than a century and a half later, someone like me would cherish these yellowed pages as a tangible connection with a long-dead writer.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Thoreau probably never suspected his meticulous botanical records—not only the 900-some specimens housed at the Botany Libraries of Harvard University or the two held by the University of Connecticut, but also the lists of first-flowering dates for the wildflowers he observed in Concord, Massachusetts from 1851 until 1858—would someday be used to study climate change. Thoreau intended to compile his seasonal observations into a project he called the Kalendar, by which he could ascertain the date simply by studying what was blooming in Concord at any given moment. Thoreau died before his Kalendar was complete, but even an incomplete project can eventually bear fruit if it is ambitious and accurate enough.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

I’m currently reading Richard B. Primack’s Walden Warming: Climate Change Comes to Thoreau’s Woods, which chronicles how Thoreau’s nineteenth century observations are contributing to twenty-first century climate science. Primack is a biology professor at Boston University, and he and a team of graduate students have spent the past decade comparing Thoreau’s first-flowering dates with modern observations of Concord flora. Because Thoreau kept such a meticulous record of what bloomed when in Concord, Primack and his colleagues are able to track the acceleration of the seasons, with species such as highbush blueberry blooming between three and six weeks earlier today than in Thoreau’s day.

Thoreau's botanical specimens

Primack’s book is grim reading insofar as it confirms the dire warnings of climate scientists. But part of me is cheered by Thoreau’s unintended contribution to the project. Thoreau liked to say he was born in the nick of time, but his death of tuberculosis in 1862 has always struck me as painfully premature. Thoreau was only 44 at the time of his death, and he left many unfinished projects. He didn’t live long enough to see the abolition of slavery, he never completed his Kalendar, and most of his book-length works were published posthumously, with only A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers and Walden appearing during his lifetime.

Thoreau's Maine Woods

Because of global warming, the spring wildflowers in Concord, Massachusetts are blooming earlier these days, but it seems that Thoreau himself was a late bloomer, becoming popular as a writer, philosopher, and citizen scientist only after his death. I often wonder whether Thoreau lamented on his deathbed the work he left undone: did it seem silly to have spent so much time gathering data for a project he couldn’t complete? I like to imagine that in his heart of hearts, Thoreau had faith that even a feeble seed would bear fruit, albeit years later. I like to imagine Thoreau himself wouldn’t be surprised his meticulous botanical records would be pored over and appreciated eventually, in the nick of (another) time.

Ship from shore

The weekend before last, J and I went to the Charlestown Navy Yard to see the Charles W. Morgan, the world’s last remaining wooden whaling ship. The Charles W. Morgan was built in New Bedford, Massachusetts in 1841 and represents the height of the New England whaling industry, when New Bedford was known as the “city that lights the world” because of the amount of whale-oil it produced for oil-burning lamps. The Charles W. Morgan remained active for 80 years and weathered 37 voyages. Her recent visit to Boston was part of a three-month tour of historic New England ports—her 38th voyage—ending at Mystic, Connecticut, where she serves as a museum ship at the Mystic Seaport.

Windlass

When I learned a nineteenth century whaling ship would be briefly docked in Boston Harbor, I knew J and I would have to visit. J is fascinated by big boats—every July, we tour whatever naval ship visits Boston for the holiday—and I’ve been interested in New England whaling ever since reading Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick when I was an undergrad. While many readers are frustrated by Melville’s frequent and factual digressions about whales and whaling, I loved learning about this aspect of American history. If you expect Moby-Dick to be a novel about a man called Ishmael, you’ll roll your eyes whenever Melville regales you with yet another chapter filled with facts and figures. But if you read Moby-Dick as a natural history of whales and the 19th century whaling industry, you’ll realize Ishmael’s story is just a tiny portion of a much larger tale.

Crossing the gangplank

You can read about whaling in books, but seeing actual artifacts brings home what it must have been like to be a young man on a ship that tracked, killed, and butchered whales for a living. During one of the class sessions when we discussed Moby-Dick, my undergraduate lit professor brought a harpoon to class so we could feel how heavy and cumbersome they are, especially when attached to the long, coiled ropes that connected injured whales to the whalers trying to kill them. Could we imagine standing in a small bobbing rowboat, trying to hurl a heavy harpoon into the eye of a creature large enough to crush your ship?

Harpoons

In a subsequent semester, my professor took things one step further, inviting his students for a backyard cookout where he floated a whale-eye-sized watermelon in a plastic wading pool he borrowed from the child next door. Students in that class learned how difficult it is to hit a watermelon with a harpoon, even if you’re standing on dry land…but even on dry land, it’s incredibly easy to destroy a plastic wading pool with your missed shots. The child next door got a new wading pool that year, and students got a whale of a tale to tell their grandkids someday. Surely no melon tastes sweeter than the one you had to harpoon yourself.

Whaleboat

J and I didn’t harpoon any watermelons aboard the Charles W. Morgan, but we did get to see several whale boats racing across the harbor. A whaleship is large enough to house a crew of men while they locate, hunt, and process the whales they’ve killed, but a whaleship is too big to actually chase a whale. For that, each whaleship carries a handful of small rowboats that are the actual vehicles of the hunt. Each of these whale boats is led by an officer who directs a crew of men to row as close as possible to the whale so that the harpooner can take a shot.

Whaleboats

When I read Moby-Dick, I was captivated by how vulnerable the men were as they rowed right next to enormous animals who could easily smash or capsize their boats. The most terrifying moment of the hunt happened after the whale was harpooned and subsequently fled, dragging the whale boat on a so-called Nantucket sleigh ride. Men in a whale boat simply had to trust their prey would eventually tire, rising to the surface to gasp for air while being pelted with more harpoons. This was the tragic moment of a successful hunt, when the men witnessed at close range the agonized expiration of their massive prey.

Try pots

One of the innovations of the New England whale trade was the idea to convert slain whales to whale oil at sea, in the whales’ own watery habitat, rather than towing entire carcasses back to port. This meant installing try pots on the main deck so squares of blubber could be rendered into barrels of whale oil: liquid gold. In Moby-Dick, Melville describes in great detail the try pots on the fictional Pequot and the messy, smelly, and downright dangerous act of using fire to produce a slippery, highly flammable liquid on a rolling ship. The try pots on the Pequot sounded huge, like something straight out of Hell, but the try pots on the Charles W. Morgan were modestly sized, more in keeping with the economy of space that any ocean-going ship must observe.

Crew's quarters

On a whaling ship, no inch of space can be wasted, and this was amply apparent when we poked our heads into the crew’s quarters, where bunks filled every available space. Whereas the captain and officers had more spacious quarters near the rear of the ship, the crew was housed in the front, right next to the so-called “blubber room” where casks of whale-oil were stored. The crew, in other words, slept in the dirtiest, most foul-smelling part of the ship whereas the captain and officers enjoyed more comfortable quarters.

Captain's quarters

Ironically, the thing that ultimately saved whales from whaling ships such as the Charles W. Morgan was the discovery of petroleum in Pennsylvania in 1859. In the 19th century, whale oil was the most coveted product of whaling: whale meat and baleen were far less marketable. As kerosene lamps and natural gas pipelines became more widespread, whale-oil became less popular: why go to sea to light your lamps when the earth itself bleeds fuel?

'Spouter' the whale

Now that we know the environmental costs of a petroleum-based economy, we might be surprised that Big Oil saved Big Whales, but sometimes the truth is stranger than fiction. Melville himself recognized the value of a true whale of a tale, the downfall of the fictional Pequot being based on the real-life demise of a Nantucket whaleship called the Essex, which was sunk by a sperm whale in 1820.

Spinning a whale of a tale

Both the Essex and the Charles W. Morgan were considered “lucky” ships because of the number of profitable voyages they weathered, but ultimately the Charles W. Morgan was much luckier. The Charles W. Morgan survives as a restored and cherished artifact from an earlier age, whereas the Essex survives only in the pages of the books (and the imaginations of the readers) it inspired.

Click here to see more photos from the Charles W. Morgan’s visit to Boston. Enjoy!

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