Sunday, November 23, 2014

Darkness, Darkness, Our Old Friend: the Garden of Time

            It's beginning to look a lot like December.
            I keep trying to take photos of the sunset. But it's always too big and too far away, and my camera is too little.
            And it comes so soon!
            Here it is, a quarter hour short of four o'clock, and I can already spy pink beginning in the south-western sky.
            And why is everybody in such a hurry to get to this point?      
            About three weeks ago, the human beings in this part of the world agreed to a collective decision to go back to a "standard" time-setting convention that does not serve our best interests, called Eastern Standard Time. Massachusetts is at the far end of the Eastern Standard Time zone. All of New England sticks out into the ocean a ways further than the rest of the East Coast. That means sunrise comes sooner and dusk comes sooner here than it does in New York City, Buffalo, Pennsylvania, and lots of other places including Ohio, where our son lives, and even Detroit somehow edges itself into eastern standard time. Indiana is in "eastern" time zone!
            In Cincinnati it's about an hour later (on the clock) when the sun goes down than it is Boston.
            Not being (and never being) an early morning sort of person, many of my worst memories have to do with periods of employment that required getting up at absurdly unsympathetic hours. One of the biggest, and longest enduring. problems with American public education is that it always starts too early.

            Our collective societal notion of time management is still based on getting up at dawn to take advantage of natural light, the way farmers understandably still do and as most other occupations and industries had to before the widespread availability of artificial light, i.e., the sort of illumination that has been widely common for more than a hundred years by flipping a switch.
            Let's face it. Very few of us start the day by milking impatient cows.
            Up a little farther north, Canada's maritime provinces, which stick even farther east into the Atlantic ocean than we do,follow the Atlantic Standard Time zone, which sets the clock year-round to measure what we call Daylight Savings Time. The inhabitants of these time-wise precincts don't turn their clocks back, or "fall back" in the autumn, because their "standard" time is already better aligned to their location on the face of the earth. For the same reason, to give us more daylight when we need it, the Atlantic zone is the standard time zone that New England ought to be part of. (I'm borrowing this idea from a piece in the Boston Globe a month and a half ago by Tom Emswiler; the link is
            Last weekend I slept too late on Saturday morning. After the usual leisurely weekend breakfast accompanied by a lengthy newspaper perusal, the clock said about noon before I made any motions to get out fo the house or "do anything" with my day.
            I drove to a park, took a walk, discovered a path that wasn't there the last time time I'd walked in that part of Quincy -- it's another extension to what Quincy waterfront walking activists are calling "RiverWalk" -- and so I explored it, and found myself walking along the Dorchester Bay shoreline as it headed south to the mouth of the Neponset River. On a clear day, with cold clear air, I could see the Boston skyline and across the bay I could see the Sister Corita gas tank (see photos) .
            Then I did some errands and by the time I got home I could see the pink in the sky.
            Light draining from the sky at four o'clock is just too soon.
            We use up enough energy as it is -- too much, as we now all know (or should) -- even in the best of seasons. Why force us to go indoors and turn on our lights and our devices and our toys and our heating systems sooner than we need to?
            Of course I could always adapt better to these quirks of "falling back" and "springing forward" in our "standard" time zone by getting up earlier on our brief northern wintry days.
            But I will never train myself to get up at dawn.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

The Garden of Deceit: The Good Old Days of FBI Surveillance and Other Civil Liberty Abuses

            The publication of a new book on how Americans learned of civil liberty abuses by the US intelligence community, essentially the FBI, during the Civil Rights and Vietnam War era sheds some light on what can happen when government agencies decide, in secret, what they are allowed to in the name of national security.
            The book is "The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover's Secret FBI" Betty Medsger, the Washington Post reporter who covered the story of the break-in that led to the publication of shocking FBI documents. Unsurprisingly, the Attorney General warned their publication could "endanger lives." This should all sound a little familiar.
            In an age of less extensive media scrutiny, though hardly less intense in its political divisions, a handful of antiwar activists broke into an FBI office outside of Philadelphia in the hope of finding evidence that the FBI was using illegal or otherwise reprehensible means to destroy the anti-war movement. The burglars, who managed to conceal their identity for 40 years, had reason to believe that J. Edgar Hoover's "secret FBI" was keeping records of its campaign to suppress the growing antiwar movement by surveillance and harassment.
            The background to the burglary includes thousands of federal prosecutions of opponents of the war, particularly draft age men who burned their draft cards or refused to serve after their local draft boards rejected claims for conscientious objection. Other prosecutions targeted prominent critics of the war, notably Dr. Benjamin Spock (then America's "baby doctor") and Yale Chaplain Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. in a Boston show trial in 1968.
            This last name rings memory's bell for me. I handed Bill Coffin my draft card a few months before that trial in a protest ritual on the Yale campus involving a score or two of others. Some months later the FBI telephoned my roommate on our dorm room telephone.
            Beyond legal prosecutions, Hoover's FBI employed secret means of surveillance and "taking names" of war critics -- the sort activities generally regarded by American courts as unconstitutionally "chilling" dissent.
            The FBI collected the names of everyone who reserved places on chartered buses to go to the November 1969 anti-war demonstration in Washington by pressuring a bank to show them the checks. They probably missed my name then because I drove down with a couple of companions. My lasting memory from that experience is running from the tear gas.
            In another case, the US Army itself deployed 1,000 soldiers to conduct surveillance on war opponents, a practice challenged in court by the ACLU.
            The antiwar activists who burgled a local FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania, outside Philadelphia, on the night of the Muhammed Ali-Joe Frazier heavyweight championship fight (March 8, 1971), found records in the office files of other targets for surveillance: all Black Student Unions and organizations that "project the demands of black students," according to a directive signed by Hoover himself. A bureau advisory urged agents to "get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox."  Other agents were told to prepare a dossier on every black student at Swarthmore College, relying on informants that included a campus security officer and the college switchboard operator, among others.
            They also uncovered the existence of the FBI's "COINTELPRO" campaign to "disrupt and otherwise neutralize" old left, new left, antiwar, black, American Indian and other groups. Techniques includes 'dirty tricks' -- fraud, that is, and other practices regarded as crimes when committed by people who are not part of a government organization -- such as sending anonymous 'poison pen' letters to break up marriages, encouraging gang warfare, arousing suspicion and resentment among members of target organizations by spreading rumors, whispers and lies, and burgling these organizations to gain material or spread confusion. In an absurdly flagrant example, the FBI tired to persuade Martin Luther King to commit suicide.
            The FBI also used its resources -- and its apparent freedom from oversight -- to smear and blackmail critics. A smear campaign against a rare Congressional critic,claiming he visited prostitutes, cost him his seat. Officials met with newspaper publishers to try to persuade them to fire reporters who wrote stories about questionable FBI activities.
            It was Nixon who took these techniques further, leading to the Watergate burglary that drove him from office. Nixonian indulgences included unauthorized wiretaps and targeting 'enemies' for tax audits. The era's extremes led to the exposure and eventual unpopularity of government surveillance of private citizens. Surveillance programs were dismantled in the late 1970s. Congressional reforms also led to the creation of the National Security Agency.
            A generation later, following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, the passage of the USA Patriot Act and the resources of the Digital Age have enabled previously unimaginable levels of government surveillance of the private activities of American citizens.
            Well, we say, things could always be worse. Imagine what Hoover and Nixon could have done with the contemporary resources of data mining. If we do imagine this scenario, we can't help but see the dangers. The 'state' -- a supreme corporate entity entrusted with certain powers over its members -- always poses a danger to the human beings who fall under its authority.
            That's why we have rules to limit and 'check' those powers.  

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Brief, But Glamorous November Light: Nothing Weeps But the Cherry Tree

            It's November: it's too cold to spend hours out of doors. And the day's too short to waste daylight. A late afternoon flare-up in the back yard (of course late afternoon comes early). The weeping cherry burning brighter than other autumns. That's the year, 2014 -- the growing season at least -- going up in flames. It's a great color. (Top photo.)
            When the weather is nice I go to the salt marsh by the shoreline at Wollaston Beach. Despite the fact that I've been there probably a couple of hundred times now, the marsh still smells and feels like a new world. Just far enough away to make a contrast with a city, the world of people, my world: my own private world of home gardening and desk sitting as well. Last week somebody opened the flood gates, and the marsh filled with water. It wasn't an astronomical high tide, we weren't having one, and it certainly wasn't a rain storm of biblical dimensions because we hardly had any rain either.
            But we had plenty of water. I watched it flow, a long circuitous current from the Quincy Bay into another piece of salt marsh, then into a a permanent sort of lagoon called Black Creek; then turn about and flow seaward, perhaps under the influence of an outgoing tide from the estuarial Furnace Brook, and flow seaward toward the salt marsh where I walk. It won't reach the sea. It gets trapped by the marsh and fills it.
            High water, high enough for kayaks and canoes, possibly even for party boats,  means no wading birds. They have place to stand in low water, waiting for a fish to mistake their skinny legs for a stem. High water sometimes brings geese and ducks to the marsh. Not this time. A great elemental smell in the air -- water, fresh air, and wet, wet spartina grass -- but a no-bird week in the marsh .
            Best color on the local foliage front this week, with the possible exception of that weeping cherry, is the reddish turn on the hydrangea. I don't know what the other hydrangeas do in November, but this one is a lace-cap variety, meaning the flowers have a white lacy center with a kind of coppery-color larger blossom circlet encircling the "cap." 
            This week those blossoms turned reddish. I don't know any name for this color. (Fourth photo down)
            I kept trying to capture a red sunset sky behind the red-orange leaves of the young maple tree in front of our house without much success. What I got was either too light, or too dark, or with no clear discrimination between colors of nature (fifth down).
            Indoors, the best color came from some branches I scrounged off the big annual hibiscus that I kept alive for two years, but was too slow to save this year. The plant, spending a summer outdoors in a big plastic pot, is sensitive to the cold, and the a couple of chilly nights put the death in its leaves before I did anything about it except to try to rescue its neighbor, which promptly died from shock when I brought it indoors.
            I cut the stems on the old hibiscus where the buds were largest and brought them inside to sit in water. We were rewarded with a handful of short-lived but touchingly fragile blossoms. Short-lived but sublime. They shared a table with the mail (sixth down).
            Not wasting a moment of November light, I go back to my beginning. The sun lights up the the weeping Japanese cherry tree behind the house and I race outdoors to see it. The effect was far more ravishing that the photo.
            It was brief as the hands of November's clock. 
            The November sunset comes quickly. The moment is there and you drop everything and seize it. Or try. 

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Walking All Over the River: The Neponset RiverWalk in Quincy

            A likely never finished vision: walking the length of the Quincy shore, its peninsulas and beaches and the altogether many miles of a shoreline continually interrupted by everything built on it by people and now in private ownership.
            The Neponset River Watershed Association is nevertheless pursuing its own vision. Opened just a month ago, the Quincy RiverWalk is a 2 mile-long walkway along the Neponset River on the Quincy side of the Neponset Bridge (home of the infamous Neponset traffic circle), starting from a familiar landmark, the gazebo of the Adams Inn. From there you walk underneath the bridge and continue on a stitched series of paths and paved sidewalk that runs along the edge of the Squantum Peninsula, connecting to Marina Bay and Squantum Point Park.
            Squantum Point is the end of the line; also the mouth of the Neponset River where it discharges in the Dorchester Bay. That's the name for the part of Massachusetts Bay (or Boston Harbor) where you can look across from Quincy and see the famous Sister Corita Gas Tank in Boston.
            I am also told, by the Watershed Association, that the Quincy RiverWalk is "part of" the Neponset River Reservation, a collection of open space preserves that includes the relatively new John Paul Park and the Neponset Greenway on "the other side of the river." We have walked both these places; they don't appear to connect to each other. The side of the river still keeps secrets from me. The Neponset Greenway is on the Boston/Dorchester side of the river. The little streetcar that runs through a cemetery and goes from Ashmont to Mattapan. As for the Pope's Park, someday the many little trees they planted there will grow big and make the place something more than good open dog-walking space.
            Back to the new RiverWalk (no space permitted between these two words in the official spelling; they must have preserved it). Since the up-river terminus at the gazebo is used for outdoor functions by the Adams Inn, it surprised us to find it open to the public from dawn to dusk. (Top photo shows the view from the gazebo: a pier with cormorants.) Heading downriver, the next feature is called Neponset Landing Park, a nice little spot almost directly under the Neponset Bridge; it includes a bench, some plantings and a fishing pier (second photo). You can park for the spot under the bridge.
            You can also climbs the stairs up to the bridge from this point and walk over to the other side. I'm not sure what you find when you get there.
            Then you walk along a bit of marsh -- we saw a heron there on our first foray a few weeks back -- with a view of the river. But then the sense of "path" runs out as the RiverWalk sends you across a lightly traveled roadway to a sidewalk on the other side of the street.
            This bit of tedium is broken by the Billings Creek salt marsh spur trail that leads you to the interesting discovery of a who-knew? development of naval housing off a road called Commander Shea Blvd. We saw some birds up ahead in this marsh, which eventually sidles up to Marina Bay.(Last photo gives a view of the salt marsh.)
            The spur includes a small canoe or kayak launch. Or, the Watershed Association tells us, we can find a fishing spot along the shore. The spur is supposed to become a loop, but it hasn't yet, as we found out.
            Back on the sidewalk, it's steady on to Squantum Point Park, a site with its own attractions. The open space here was an airfield a century ago, preserving it from development. The park is good for wildflowers and birding and people from Marina Park with dogs and, rarely, kids.
            Then of course you can congratulate yourself for taking a walk by wandering over to the Marina Bay Boardwalk for a snack or, in the right weather, a drink at an outdoor table looking over the bay.
            The great thing about the RiverWalk, or any of these other walks and trails and reservations along the waterfront in Quincy, Boston, or anyplace, especially any urban place, is that they're public. People need to live in cities, in densely populated areas, for a host of reasons including more efficient use of resources. But they need to live close to nature as well, to go on being "human beings" and not hi-functioning soulless machines. And they need to be able to get at it.