Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Garden of the Trees: The Hawk About Town

       Red-tailed hawks are the consensus pick for "most common hawk in North America" and are found throughout the country. I'm pretty sure they're common in Quincy, Massachusetts, because that's the kind of hawk I keep running into in the green places where I walk near the ocean. 
       Red-tailed hawks are large hawks with what one authoritatively titled source ("All About Birds") calls "typical Buteo proportions: very broad, rounded wings and a short, wide tail."
           They make a bulky presence perched on a leafless branch in winter, particularly the 'wide' lower half, that strikes me as one of the bulkier proportions on a creature that aspires to fly under its own power. In fact, red-tailed hawks fly like the wind. All About Birds comments: "Large females seen from a distance might fool you into thinking you’re seeing an eagle. (Until an actual eagle comes along.)"

           I've never seen an eagle in Quincy, but lately I've been seeing either a lot of red-tailed hawks or a lot of the same red-tailed hawk. Last week on a sunny day pretending to be early spring, though the city-owned salt marsh near Wollaston Beach where someone laid out a snug nature trail right along the border of a hummock with trees rising above the winter-flattened Spartina grass of the marsh. The path was still sodden from the melt-off of snow that fell earlier this month, so I was picking my spots for each footfall. 
            Coming around a slight bend where the footing was passable and a new perspective afforded every couple dozen feet, I looked up and spotted a large presence amid the branches of the bordering trees (top photo). It was good perch for keeping an eye on the open landscape of the marsh. I suspected, having had similar experiences before, that whatever was sitting in that tree would be worth looking at it, but the hawks and other large birds who choose to spend time in these outposts don't necessarily wait around for your inspection.
           This one did. He let me walk up to his perch and photograph him as much as I pleased. I passed directly under the branch where he sat viewing the world about 20 feet above me, then turned around and took his picture from the other side. The hawk appeared content with the entirely correct notion that I was not about to climb a tree 20 feet up to disturb him and that whatever object I was holding up in his direction could not hurt him. I was tempted to start a conversation.
            Two days later on an even brighter day, I visited another 'nature spot' a mile or two northward along the coast where the landscape was also still drying out from the same snow melt and was, if anything, even a little wetter. That same impression of something in the middle distance at the edge of the trees greeted me as soon as I stepped out of my car on the shore side of expansive and almost entirely empty (as always) apron of pavement that serves as parking for Squantum Point Park. 
           The walking trail was drawing as many visitors as I've ever encountered there. The park is mostly used by residents of the bordering Marina Bay development to walk their dogs. So it was that afternoon. People were walking their dogs. A few dogs appeared to be walking themselves. Some dogs were permitted off leash. Dog walkers encounter other dog walkers and talk about their dogs. Otherwise, little birds flutter and scatter through the thickets, not much concerned about dogs. Wading birds, however, keep their distance. I see heron flying overhead on some occasions, but they don't land near this trail.
             No one, to my surprise, lifted their eyes to the trees and stopped to look at the hawk. No one, as far as I could tell, lifted their eyes once from the earthbound drama of dogs and mud or showed any sign of registering so palpable a presence as a hawk sometimes confused with an eagle. 
            Nor did anyone pay any attention to my fumbling efforts to photograph the big bird. It took me forever to get a decent shot because in direct sunlight that bright the viewfinder of my camera turns into a mirror. I tried shading it with one hand, fumbled, aimed the camera randomly, while the hawk permitted me to pay court beneath him about twenty-five feet off as long as I wanted. I finally walked about 180 degrees around the copse to get the bulk of my body between direct sunlight and a hawk perched on his branch to get a clear image in the viewfinder and snap a shot.
              The image greatly reminded me of the hawk I had snapped a couple days before. The color differences in the two images you see here (the first one in the salt marsh; the second in Squantum Point Park) are illusory; the product of different light, different skies, different angles. 
               I'm concluding this hawk gets around, though so far he has shown affinity for Quincy. That must be why we keep running into each other. 
               I'm also posting a few others I took of the bay and the Boston skyline under a dazzling sky. 

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Garden of History: The Whole World Knew Their Name

           From "Trial of the Century: Local Amnesia" (published in 2002 in Beyond Plymouth Rock): 
           "Plymouth has always been ambivalent about Vanzetti, arguably the central figure in one of the most famous criminal trials of the 20th century. By the end of the 20th century even long-time Plymouth residents had largely forgotten that he lived here among us, at 35 Cherry St. when he was arrested on a Brockton streetcar in 1920. But for many years the name of Vanzetti was known throughout the world. People who had never heard of John Alden, Gov. Bradford or Myles Sandish, or who may not have known much else about America in the 1920s nevertheless knew who Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti were -- the workers who were framed and executed for their opposition to capitalism."
              When I came across the surprising information that Bartolomeo Vanzetti had lived in Plymouth, Massachusetts, home of the Pilgrims and the first real community of English speakers in what became the United States, the first place I went to learn more was Plymouth Public Library. This was so long ago that the library was still on North Street. We could walk to it, and did, from our house up on a hill over Plymouth Harbor. Everything in Plymouth Center was historic. The plaque on the corner of our street named, not coincidentally, Massasoit Street and Mayflower Street stated that this was the place the first embassy from the Wampanoag Indian sachem Massasoit met with Pilgrim representatives led by Edward Winslow. The Pilgrim colony was fortunate to have Winslow, a natural diplomat, in its company. 
              But living on a corner where something from the history books took place is not unusual in Plymouth. Plaques and statues abound. A couple of blocks toward the harbor, on the way to the library on North Street, lay the park built along Town Brook. Town Brook was the fresh water source the Mayflower colonists were desperate to find before they would leave the ship (in whatever weakened state) and put up stakes. 
             So maybe when you have history to burn it's not surprising the town could forget about the early 20th century residency of one of the most well known names, worldwide, of his era, the seven years from the arrest to the execution (1920-1927) of Vanzetti and his anarchist comrade Sacco, like him an Italian immigrant and a believer that the widespread social injustice and poverty faced by masses of human beings in America, as in Italy, would not be overcome until the world turned to the path they termed "the beautiful idea." 
             However, while there is no public, physical acknowledgment of Vanzetti's presence anywhere in the town, Plymouth library knew about him (as it knows about most things). Reference Librarian Lee Regan, for whom local history was a passion, took me upstairs to the "local history room" and showed me the shelf where she kept books specifically related to the Sacco-Vanzetti case. I found more than enough there, notably the mammoth Francis Russell history of the case, titled "Tragedy in Dedham," to get me started. 
              I was familiar with the general outline of the story, the way someone with an interest in radical American politics is likely to know the headlines of the story -- two immigrants of suspect political beliefs nabbed for an outrageous daylight robbery and murder, and convicted because of the prevailing societal prejudice against everything these men appeared to represent, rather than on any solid evidence. I am being sentenced, Vanzetti said (to paraphrase his remarks to the court before sentencing), not for the case brought against me, but because I am an Italian and because I am a radical. 
               Yet the more details I learned about the case, about Vanzetti's life, and about the world he and millions of working class laborers and their families inhabited, it seemed to me that the story of a man whose name was known to everyone in the world  90 years ago, but whose story was ignored in the town he lived in, still has much to tell us.
              Both about the way things were back the, and -- remarkably, unhappily -- about the way some things still are.
              The excerpt below is from my novel "Suosso's Lane":
             Late in the evening of August third, waiting until almost midnight so that reporters hovering all day outside his door would have no time to gather reaction to his decision, Governor Fuller released the report of the commission affirming the conduct of the court and the verdict of the jury. He set an execution date for two weeks away. 
            The newspapers reported the decision with a two-word headline: "They Die!"
Two words were all that were needed. Everybody in the world able to read a newspaper knew who "they" were.  
 (Suosso's Lane available at

Friday, February 19, 2016

The Garden of Memory: 'The Boat'

         My story "The Boat," published this week on the Every Writer's Resource website's "Short Stories" page is a very short story about a very long subject. Memory.
( Here's the link:
         In a relatively few words (the rules for this publication call for stories under 500 words) I tried represent some impression of my mother's last years and our visits with her. In those years after my father's death, she lived first in a senior independent living center, a self-contained semi-paradise of a place in Suffolk County, N.Y., and then, when her health seriously declined, in a nursing home.
         Whenever Anne and I visited we tried to take our of her residential facility, give her a change of scene, some stimulation, maybe something new to think about. Her facility was located on the north shore of Long Island, not far from the coast. We'd take her 'out for a drive,' our little excursions tending naturally to the shore.  In earlier days we walked in parks, visited beaches, fed the ducks on a Stony Brook pond neatly surrounded with a carefully constructed boardwalk, ideal for slow walkers and wheelchairs. When she could no longer walk much, we wheeled her in a chair.               
           When conditions were not right for a wheelchair, we stayed in the car. 
           "Let's go for a drive," we said, those last few years. We found little parks or town beaches with parking areas. We parked close to the water, sat in the car, and looked for ducks or birds. Boats or clouds. Flowers or people. 
             We remembered things. We talked about the past. Since in those years not much 'new' was happening in Mom's life, and not too much about our life was likely to make a lasting impression, we turned to memory.

             "What about your memories, Mom?" we asked, one way or another. We tried to remember stories she had told us. 
             When you look at water a lot, a likely subject is boats. Hence my story.
              In it, the narrator (basically me) asks Mom about a recollection of a 'boat' owned by one of her relatives and kept on different Long Island shoreline. I asked her which uncle had owned it. Had they not taken her out for a sail, or a cruise, on the bay one summer day? 
              Her response was vague. 
              When, after it appeared on line, my sister read the story , she told me whose boat it was -- which uncle, paired with which aunt, kept the thing on Flushing Bay.
               I'm not remembering the details of these fleeting bits of family lore as well as I used to. It's one of the 'meanings' of a story, even your own, that can sneak up on you. The 'boat' in the story exists not only in Mom's memory, but in mine. And the story is fading. 
              We're all in the same boat.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Garden of the Past: Vanzetti Plants His Hopes in Plymouth

       I wrote these words a decade ago about the street in North Plymouth, Mass., where Bartolomeo Vanzetti lived (published in "Beyond Plymouth Rock:Ties that Bind," an anthology of essays and memoirs about 20th Century history in Plymouth):
            "It's paved today, but Suosso's Lane is still a narrow public way off Court Street in North Plymouth, where Valente's Florist sits on the corner. Across Court Street are neighborhood fixtures like Charlie's Hardware Store. St. Mary's Church is just two short blocks north. Suosso's Lane is a short street, cut off almost immediately by High Cliff, the bluff that Bartolomeo Vanzetti and his North Plymouth neighbors climbed in order to look down on the seashore..."
            Published by Plymouth Public Library Corporation in 2002, edited by John Chaffee and Plymouth library staff members such as the late Lee Regan, reference librarian Bev Ness, and current library director Jen Harris, the 20th century history anthology was a great project for a town with a deep and (one of the few occasions when this adjective is appropriate) unique history.
            Given the glare of attention paid to the Pilgrims, the first real English-language community in what became the United States (pay no attention to those disreputable gold-diggers in Jamestown, Va.; I never have), it's easy for the town's later generations to get lost in the shadows.
            With memoirs by then-contemporary (now deceased) residents such as Alba Thompson, Peter Gomes, and Karin Goldstein and essays by many other local voices, the "Beyond Plymouth Rock" anthology remains a gold mine of local perspectives on change and growth in a growing community through a century of industrial breakthroughs, advances, losses, foreign wars, other challenges, and sustained vitality. (The books is available at                 Plymouth's 20th century, like America's, was fired by the expansion of new immigrant communities. North Plymouth, where Vanzetti found a home in 1913 after five years of disappointment in the promise of the 'new world' spent in New York City and a few smaller cities, was the center of the Italian community and other immigrant groups.
            Vanzetti, to continue the narrative, found a home on Suosso's Lane with the family of Vincenzo and Alphonsina Brini and their two children in a simple two-story house on Suosso's Lane:
            "There's an old garage behind it on one side of the lot and a garden area on the other side -- maybe the same garden where the Brinis grew vegetables and Vanzetti, their boarder, pulled weeds. At the street's dead end, railed concrete steps lead upward to a townhouse-style senior housing complex. The view from the bluff is still magnificent, though screened by trees. Parked cars in a black-topped lot take up space across the street from the Brinis' house. The unpaved lane would have seen few cars when Vanzetti came there to live in 1913."
            Across the street sat the the old wood frame building that served as the Amerigo Vespucci Hall, a social club and gathering place in the old days for "Plymouth's Italian colony."
            The essay I wrote for the anthology (Titled "Trial of the Century: Local Amnesia") continues with an incident I found in a book of oral histories.
            "Beltrando Brini, then age 13, chased a ball into a neighbor's vegetable garden on the last day he spoke to his friend as a free man. Vanzetti told him -- very gently, Brini recalled -- not to trample people's gardens or speak rudely to adults."
            Just one more point, the premise for distaff piece of that title: local amnesia. Vanzetti's arrest, conviction, and ultimately execution for a crime few people believe (or have ever believed) he committed remains a part of history the town of Plymouth has largely expurgated from its past. To quote again from the anthology:
            "Plymouth has always been ambivalent about Vanzetti, a defendant and arguably the central figure in one of the most famous criminal trials of the 20th century. By the end of the century even long-time Plymouth residents had largely forgotten that he lived [in Plymouth]... when he was arrested on a Brockton street car in 1920."

            My recently published novel, "Suosso's Lane," picks up from the factual account presented above. The novel departs from the historical record in inventing fictional characters who people Vanzetti's 1920s Plymouth, including the Mayflower-descendant suffragist who becomes his English teacher and eventually his lover. The story's 21st century characters include a nosy reporter digging into an old murder, a sharp-minded octogenarian who knows more about the events of Vanzetti's life than she's telling, and an African immigrant struggling with the starvation wages of contemporary service workers
            The book is available at: