Jul 30, 2014
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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!
Jul 26, 2014
Not far from our house, a pair of paths comes close to crossing, their two courses running along a pair of underground aqueducts that once brought water from the outlying suburbs of Boston into the thirsty city. During the proverbial dog days, the aqueduct trail nearest our house offers a welcome spot of shade, and year round, it provides a green corridor for the wild creatures who find shelter in the suburbs: the turkeys who stride through backyards, the hawks who perch over parking lots, and the raccoons that doze in the forks of fat pine boughs, visible only to the folks who look up and into the trees.
I used to walk Reggie religiously on the segment of trail nearest our house, using it to circle our block: a quiet place for an elderly dog to sniff and pee. I still walk this trail several times a week, either with J or with our beagle, Melony: it’s a shady shortcut to other places, or a green detour around the block. I’m sure we have neighbors who have never set foot on this trail, which wends through backyards and occasionally skirts quiet driveways, the trail seemingly ending at a stranger’s house. But the path predates any of these backyards, driveways, or houses: the path continues on, further than I’ve ever walked on it, ending at a reservoir several miles from our house, a lingering sign of urban thirst.
Whenever I walk along the aqueducts, I encounter people I seldom see elsewhere in our neighborhood: dog-walkers, joggers, mothers walking their backpack-laden children to school, and pairs of women pumping their arms as they walk-and-talk their daily workout. One morning while I was walking Reggie, who was old and arthritic at the time, we passed an elderly woman wearing a neck brace sitting on a log, as if her caretaker had planted her there to rest a while. “You’re so patient with him,” the woman said, nodding toward Reggie: one old soul recognizing another. “What other choice do I have,” I thought but didn’t say, returning her silent nod instead.
We live in an age where most of us don’t know where our water comes from. We turn the tap and water magically appears, or we buy water in plastic bottles at the store, our empties choking the ocean for all eternity. In our neighborhood, household water coolers are popular, so we see a steady stream of trucks delivering large jugs of spring water for home consumption. Water from one state is trucked into another to perpetuate an illusion of purity: if you can’t see where your water comes from, you don’t have to worry about where it’s been.
I seldom think about the old aqueduct while I’m walking the path that marks its course, but sometimes I do stop in my tracks, imagining the pipes that still lie buried like a bony spine beneath my feet. My walks trace an abandoned way of water, but does the water itself remember how it once flowed?
Several years ago, a catastrophic leak in the present-day water supply for the greater Boston area forced local officials to draw water from the Chestnut Hill Reservoir, which was formerly fed water from Framingham sent along one of these old aqueducts. I’ve walked past the reservoir in Framingham, I’ve walked along the old aqueducts here in Newton, and I’ve walked around the reservoir in Chestnut Hill, my feet tracing the ways that water once wended to quench the thirst and douse the fires of Boston. Now that the western suburbs suck water from even more westerly communities, we drink the water in our own backyard only in an emergency.
In the natural world, water carves its own channels, finding the lowest course and following centuries-old paths. In the natural world, water has a memory so long and strong, Native Americans made promises intended to last as long as the grass grows and river flows. The way of water is steady and resilient, effortlessly returning to its accustomed flow. We humans are the ones who forget the way of water: we humans are the ones who don’t know where to quench our thirst or how to wend our way home.
Although I did indeed walk on the aqueduct trail today, I didn’t take any photos. The picture at the top of today’s post comes from last October, and the other photos are from July, 2011.
Jul 22, 2014
Our backyard dog-pen is fringed by a row of towering spruce and pine trees that serve as a curtain between our yard and our neighbors’. They say good fences make good neighbors, but a line of towering trees makes the best fence of all because it shelters an assortment of nonhuman residents. By day we’ve seen red-tailed and Cooper’s hawks in “our” backyard conifers, and after dark we’ve heard both screech and barred owls. At least one raccoon occasionally naps in these trees, and year round they harbor chickadees, nuthatches, and downy woodpeckers.
Right now, our backyard spruces are particularly attractive to our neighborhood gray and red squirrels, who have been feasting on spruce cones. Squirrels eat spruce cones the way humans eat corn on the cob, sitting on a comfortable perch and biting off one scale at a time to expose the tasty seeds within. What’s left behind is a pile of green and brown scales and the central “cob” that held them together. These castoff piles of inedible detritus are called “middens,” and they serve as an undeniable sign that squirrels have been feeding here, just like the snack wrappers and soda cans left by hungry litterbugs.
I read that red squirrels in particular can build middens large enough for them to burrow into, like human hoarders wedged between piles of salvaged newspapers and pie tins. If you’re going to assemble a trash heap as large as a garage, you might as well get some use out of it. Our backyard dog pen is right next to our garage, and so far the scattered piles left by snacking squirrels haven’t come close to rivaling its size, but I’m still surprised at how many middens I found this morning once I started looking for them.
I knew our neighborhood squirrels are voracious things, gladly cleaning out our bird feeders as quickly as we fill them. Now I know that squirrels are as messy as they are insatiable, leaving behind spruce tree “empties” to map the geography of their appetites.
Jul 19, 2014
Whether you sit by yourself at home or with others at a Zen center, meditation is an intrinsically solitary activity. As soon as you settle onto your cushion, there is nothing to entertain you but the parade of thoughts in your head. Regardless of who might be sitting, squirming, or sleeping on either side of you, what happens in your mind during meditation is entirely your business. Nobody can save you from your thoughts, and nobody can either blame or praise you for them, either.
Several weeks ago, headlines highlighted a study that revealed many people would prefer to shock themselves than to sit quietly with their own thoughts: presumably we’ve reached a point where our collective consciousness is so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic gadgets, we can no longer tolerate simple solitude. What future does meditation have in a society where we can’t stand our own quiet company?
We might blame smartphones and other high-tech devices for eroding our collective attention spans, but the problem predates these devices. Henry David Thoreau decried his generation’s interest in news stories and light reading, even the low-tech entertainments of books and newspapers serving as mindless distractions. Years ago, before smartphones were ubiquitous, I remember walking through the Public Garden on a sunny afternoon when every lone person I saw was listening to music on headphones: an endless parade where each person marched to her or his own personalized soundtrack. Even a homeless man had a battered boom box perched atop a shopping cart piled high with his possessions, the volume loud enough to drown out any semblance of solitude. Why spend quiet time with your own thoughts when even entertainment is easily portable?
Over the years, I’ve learned I actually enjoy solitude. I like sitting and doing nothing; I like the sheer boredom that comes from simply observing whatever thoughts roll by. Meditation is the formal practice of doing nothing in quiet isolation, but there are plenty of other things I do that are similarly solitary. Although sharing your writing is a social task, the act of writing is inherently solitary. A lot of novice writers like the attention that comes from having an audience, but many of these writers crumble when faced with the quiet loneliness of the blank page.
I’ve often said I was fated to become a writer because I like the sound of pen scratching paper. It’s fine and good to enjoy any attention or acclaim that might derive from something you’ve written, but at a certain point, you have to enjoy (or at least tolerate) the lonely hours it takes to produce, revise, and polish that work. There might be people who are born with a natural talent for meditation, writing, or both, but I’ve certainly never met any. In my experience, both writing and meditation are deep-rooted things that flourish with sustained attention. If you’re going to last as a meditator or a writer, you’d better like spending time with yourself, your closest companion being the cushion beneath you or the blank page before you.
This is my contribution to yesterday’s Photo Friday theme, Solitude.
Jul 17, 2014
This morning while I was taking out the trash, I happened to look up at the very moment a Northern flicker was flying from one pine to another, the yellow undersides of his wings flashing in the morning light. We’ve seen flickers in our backyard before: although flickers are woodpeckers, they love to forage on the ground for ants, so suburban yards and parks with mowed lawns provide ideal habitat. While larger woodpeckers prefer deep woods, flickers don’t mind living on the woodsy edge of suburbia, where ants and other insects abound.
After this morning’s flicker disappeared into the trees, he squealed then cackled. Flicker squeals (a call often transliterated as “kyeer”) sound similar to the calls of red-bellied woodpeckers, and their high pitched cackles sound similar to those of pileated woodpeckers. Whenever I hear a flicker, in other words, I automatically think of the other woodpeckers it could be, with “flicker” being (unfortunately) the least exciting alternative.
Compared to seeing a red-bellied or pileated woodpecker, seeing a flicker isn’t hugely exciting: these are, after all, birds that don’t mind frequenting yards and parks. But on a day when all you’re doing is taking out the trash, just happening to look up at the very moment something other than a sparrow or grackle flies by feels fortuitous: a flash of fortune on an otherwise normal morning.
Jul 14, 2014
The other night, I made a list of demons. I suppose “fears” is a more accurate term for the items I typed into a private Google document, but “demons” is also a fitting description. Now that it’s summer and I have time to work on the nonfiction book I’ve been largely procrastinating over the past few years, I decided to grab my personal demons by the horns by listing all the fears that have been keeping me from writing.
In about 15 minutes, I came up with about the same number of fears, many of them contradictory. I’m afraid I won’t finish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll finish and it won’t be perfect. I’m afraid I’ll never publish the book, but I’m also afraid I’ll publish and face the letdown of not knowing what to do next. I’m afraid that if I finish and publish the book, nobody will read it…but I’m also afraid people will read it and think I’m pretentious, hypocritical, or self-absorbed. I’m afraid, in a word, to write the book, but I’m also afraid not to write it.
With this particular menagerie of demons in mind, I went back to a list I wrote sometime in the late 1990s, when I was hopelessly mired in the middle of a PhD dissertation that refused to be written. What I wrote then sounds entirely familiar:
I scare myself when I think that…
1. I won’t finish my dissertation.
2. My dissertation won’t be good enough, or scholarly enough, or theoretical enough.
3. I won’t be able to get a job after graduation.
4. I’ll leave something out of my dissertation.
5. I’m already too far behind.
6. I’ll get stuck.
Apart from the fear about getting a job after graduation, the demons I wrestled with while writing my dissertation more than a decade ago are pretty much the same as the fears I face today, as I try to write a book-length piece of creative nonfiction. The fear-demons that plagued me when I was working on my dissertation didn’t, in retrospect, have anything to do with that specific project, which I did indeed finish. Instead, they had everything to do with me tackling a big, daunting task that threatened to take forever to finish. That task could have been a dissertation, a marathon, or a mountain: regardless of the goal, the demons kept whispering “You can’t” and “You won’t” and “Who are you to dare think you could?”
It shouldn’t be surprising that I or anyone would face this sort of insecurity, as even the Buddha himself wasn’t immune from this kind of thinking. One of my favorite stories about the Buddha involves him sitting down to tea with his arch-nemesis, Mara the tempter. Mara is the demon who besieged the Buddha with doubts and fears the moment before his enlightenment, trying to distract him from his meditation with lascivious thoughts, arrows of fear, and the niggling question, “Who do you think you are?” The prince who would become the Buddha wasn’t immune from such thoughts…but he became the Buddha because he persevered in the face of his fears, touching earth to ground himself.
In his later years, Buddha went a step or two further, actually befriending Mara. According to one legend, Mara the tempter visited the Buddha late in life, after they’d each settled into their roles as Enlightened Teacher and Cosmic Distractor. Instead of rejecting Mara, Buddha asked him into his home for a cup of tea, and Mara complained he had grown tired of his job. “It’s so frustrating to be the bad guy who everyone hates,” Mara lamented. “It’s so tiring to be the good guy who everyone worships,” the Buddha countered, “with people constantly invoking your name and seeking your assistance and approval.”
After a pot of tea and conversation, Buddha made peace with Mara, the two of them deciding they weren’t that different, after all. Buddha, in fact, beseeched Mara to continue in his role as tempter, because without Mara the tempter, there could be no Buddha the teacher. Instead of enemies, Buddha and Mara are a kind of couple—a cosmic Good Cop, Bad Cop—who work together in tandem, each working off the other.
So who am I to think I could write a big, daunting project without sharing a cup of conversation with my own demons? Without fear, there can be no accomplishment, and as every gym-rat knows, without pain, there is no gain.
It’s important and helpful to count your blessings, but it can be fruitful, too, to count your fears. Buddha knew that he couldn’t hide or escape temptation; instead of even trying, he was wise enough to befriend his demons. Now that I know the things I’m afraid of when it comes to writing this current work-in-progress, there’s no reason not to write it. That is, after all, what I’m doing right now, with both the Buddha and a gaggle of demons looking on.
Jul 12, 2014
It’s just after noon, and I’m sitting on the screened porch listening to a grackle flap and splash in our backyard birdbath. It’s too late to sit on the patio, which is now drenched in sun, but it is comfortable on the shady porch, where I can hear the rustle and flutter of birds.
A single cicada sang this morning, emitting a shrill and simple whine. That sound will grow and expand as the summer moves to its climax, the sound of insects and birdsong being one surefire way to place oneself, temporally, in the season.
Right now, I hear two separate birds clucking and chuckling, but I can’t name either. Alarm calls sound similar across species, so the grackle clacking by the birdbath sounds akin to the chirping squirrels. One gray squirrel moves from the bird feeder to drink from the birdbath, perching on a stone rim the same color as his fur. Another squirrel hangs from the feeder, only his tail betraying his presence. Blue jays call from a distant yard, and a cardinal whistles intermittently, its song too placid to seem insistent.
Along the perennial bed, chipmunks dart and scurry. Even a quiet suburban backyard isn’t very quiet, instead bustling with activity. The soundtrack changes with the season, and the seasons themselves cycle and repeat. There is nothing particularly special about today: it is an ordinary July day, the likes of which happen every year. But today, unlike other, more hurried days, I stepped outside, ready to listen.
How many mornings did the Buddha, then a mere prince, see the morning star rise as he sat in meditation? One day the morning star rose like any other, but the Buddha finally saw it, his mental clouds parting to reveal a hitherto-hidden truth: everyone has it, they just don’t know it. It’s a statement so simple as to defy credibility: is this all the Buddha attained after six long years of striving and seeking, after having renounced his throne, his wealth, his family, health, and even sanity?
Is this present moment all the Buddha attained? Yes, indeed. All the Buddha attained was the entire world, and his entire life, delivered in the instant that is Now. If we don’t attain the present moment, whatever else can we attain? If we don’t live in the present moment, where else can we possibly dwell?
I wrote this entry earlier today, during a free moment I had before lunch. The photos illustrating today’s post come from past summers, the hydrangeas, day lilies, spiderwort, and spirea that are blooming today looking just like those from seasons past.
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