Monday, February 26, 2018

The Garden of History: A Nation of Immigrants With a Knack for Forgetting

           The American Paradox: A nation of immigrants with a shameful history of hating and opposing successive "new immigrant" groups that arrive on our shores or cross our borders in conspicuous numbers. 
             The United States of America was formed from 13 Atlantic Coast English colonies; at one point proud British empire-builders were referring to their country as 'the Atlantic nation.' That British Empire genesis means that English-speakers enjoyed in-group status from the get-go when a country called the 'United States of America' was being invented.
            English speakers weren't the only national group on the Colonial ground before independence. Those colonies included Dutch, Swedes, French and plenty of Germans and Scots (the last group inclusively 'British' since the merging of England and Scotland in the early 17th century) in addition to those with English ancestry,
            People of Northern European, Protestant backgrounds were largely accepted by the English-speaking majority of the new country, while other nationalities, even if they were European, faced antagonism, prejudice and a significant hazing period before they were accepted as American citizens like the rest of 'us.'
            This proved especially true for immigrants who came in large numbers, such as the Irish, Italians, Eastern European Jews and other nationals from all the other countries of Southern and Eastern Europe.
            English, Scandinavian, German, and the so-called Protestant Scotch-Irish immigrants continued to find acceptance in 19th century America. If, however, you were Catholic (or Jewish) and did not speak English, the doors to social acceptance were barred. It took a lot of battering, over decades, or generations, to force a way in.
            The concept that best accounts for the degree of acceptance or rejection newcomers faced in America generally goes by the name "race," a word that has no scientific definition. Scholars refer to race as "socio-political" construct. And while the US is hardly the only country to reject and 'otherize' some group of people on racial grounds, the United States defined itself from its beginning as a "white" nation.
            After a new form of government embodied in the US Constitution was adopted by the independent American 'states' in 1789, the first law to address the concept of citizenship, The Naturalization Act of 1790, defined those eligible to become citizens as "free white persons" of "good moral character."
            The concept of 'white,' those who study its history tell us, was created to distinguish an 'us' from the 'black' peoples encountered in Europe's age of exploration, colonization, and -- of particular importance to the US -- slavery.
            When 'white' Americans resisted Irish immigration (the first large influx of Roman Catholics) in the first half of the 19th century, the pejorative stereotypes used on the Irish were borrowed from those already abroad. As Noel Ignatiev explains in his intriguingly titled book, "How the Irish Became White" the "drunk and belligerent foolish Pat and Bridget were stock characters on the American stage" in the pre-Civil War period. The memes of this type -- "happy, lazy, stupid, with a gift for music and dance" -- were clearly borrowed from from the racist typography applied to the African-Americans brought to this country in chains. To which anti-Irish prejudice added drunkenness and criminality.
            While Irish immigrants worked their way into the fabric of the American mainstream -- building churches, schools, laboring on the country's ever-expanding infrastructure, claiming space in the big cities, electing councilors and mayors -- a new major challenge to the definition of whiteness was posed by the heightened stream of immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe drawn to the promise of work in American factories following the Civil War.
            Writing on the large wave of Italian immigration during this period author author Ed Falco states, "America has a proud tradition as an immigrant nation, but it also has a long history of marginalizing those it marks as 'other.'" That darker heritage "includes suspicion, hostility, abuse and even death, leveled against ethnic groups as they arrived one after another in waves over the past 2½ centuries."      
            Falco focuses on an egregious example in which Italian nationals living in the US were treated to an American custom widely bestowed on black Americans: lynching.
             "...(T)he largest mass lynching in U.S. history took place in New Orleans in 1891 — and it wasn't African-Americans who were lynched, as many of us might assume. It was Italian-Americans."
            Eleven men were dragged from a New Orelans jail and lynched, after a court found them not guilty of killing the city's mayor. As shameful as the act was, Falco writes, the reaction of 'white America' made it worse. The victims were described by news sources in racist terms as "sneaking and cowardly Sicilians, the descendants of bandits and assassins." The crime was praised by Theodore Roosevelt as "a rather good thing." The New York Times opined that "Lynch law was the only course open to the people of New Orleans." 
             The lynch mob's leader was later elected governor of Louisiana on an openly racist platform. Italians, he said, were "just a little worse than the Negro, being if anything filthier in [their] habits, lawless, and treacherous."
            What Falco calls "marginalizing," and I'm calling "otherizing," is hardly uniquely American, but it has been a prominent feature of America's 'socio-political' history. Other examples include widespread prejudice against Jewish immigrants in the early 20th century and the similarly 'race'-based antipathy to immigrants from Southern and Eastern Europe such as Poles, Russians, Greeks, Serbs, and Turks during the same period.
            This is the kind of racially driven "otherizing" we to see today when, for example, an irresponsible politician such as the current occupant of the White House refers to Mexicans as criminals and "rapists."
            And when the same racist seeks to exclude all residents from a number of Muslim-majority countries from traveling to America -- even as students, valued employees, and eminent scholars -- because they're likely to be terrorists.
            Long ago, as a college freshman, my American History discussion group considered the institution of African slavery and wrestled with a scholarly theory that different races find it impossible to live together without absolute institutional boundaries. I don't believe that theory any more now than I did then; and I don't believe that "racial" characteristics make some national groups especially difficult to integrate into American society -- as the makers of restrictive immigration laws have argued whenever Americans have taken to scapegoating minorities for fundamental problems such as economic injustice.
            But I do believe that our history shows certain groups have had to pay a steeper price for acceptance into the mainstream by the recognized 'white' in-group than others. Maybe if we learn this history better than we have in the past, we can avoid repeating it.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The Garden of Wings: Episode of a Sparrow

          I carry the bag of sunflower seeds by hand out to the feeder. A warm day, even by my soft standards. The first time I've felt that, said that, since I don't know when.
         Approach the raspberry thicket, leafless all winter, to pass between the branches the ten feet or so to the feeder. I stop as the flutter of nearby wings scatters the local brunch crowd, the rhythm of small, brownish birds darting to the feeder, then darting back to the safety of densely branched, overgrown shrubs.
            But one of them heads the wrong way, landing on a bare raspberry cane a few feet away from me. One of the sparrows.
            Brown, as ordinary as a bird can be. Yet at this distance fascinating. I stand perfectly still.
            Then my eccentric bird hops-flies -- not away, but toward me -- to land on a bare horizontal-tending branch directly in front of my stomach, inches away from my body. Nearly touching me.
            I imagine myself a scarecrow.
            I am not a living creature to this bird. I cannot be, or he would fly away as his ancestors learned to do millennia ago, if they wished to go on being birds.
            Instead I am, perhaps, a shadow. A large, blank stillness, blocking his view in one direction.  
            The bird adjusts its spatial orientation a little to one side, and then to another. It turns its constantly-scanning head to one side, and then to the other. As birds do. Watching for the signs. Watching to see how the others are moving. Or not. Or have hidden somewhere out of sight.  
            The way all small birds seem to do, continually looking out.
            Where are the others? Where are the signals that would clue its next move.
            But though my bird moves his head continually, and I can see his greenish eye searching the world, he does not see me. He sees perhaps a wall. A grayish shadow.
            Perched on the horizontal branch, his tail feathers, angling one way and then the other, are about two inches from my fuzzy-clad stomach.
            I am tempted to extend a finger and touch those feathers. But I do not wish to frighten my wild visitor away. I watch its eyes as its head moves back and forth,
            I have never been this close to a bird in the wild. Its habitat, its world.
            Does this bird's vision have a blind spot? Not fatally, at least not yet, since it is alive. And in all other visible respects it appears to be identical to all the other sparrows who enjoy pecking at our feeder, and perching nearby, with great regularity.
            This is a 'special' bird, perhaps. Running, flying, surviving with its cohort. Mainstreamed with the flock.
            All the other birds give me the conventional wide berth when I approach their whereabouts. They are not pigeons, or domestic fowl, who might gather around a human feeder dispersing the seed.  
            Still I am motionless. Still 'my' bird looks from side to side, but does not move away.
            I have never examined a bird at so minute a distance. I can see strands of brownish-color feather in wings that otherwise appear a single unified, feathered wing. Its color, for which I continue using the 'featureless' word 'brown,' reveals itself as a complex mass of variations in color. Intricate patterns. Lighter, darker, tan, black-brown; arrows, diamonds.
            Its perfect little head, the needle-sharp beak.
            And that unreadable eye that fails to see 'me.'
            I try to examine that eye for a flaw. Even at this range it's too small for a human eye to name its color, or parts. I sense something greenish, brighter than what I see at ordinary distances.
It's still looking 'around' me. For something behind, or through, me.
            I'm not 'there' to it yet. As a creature. Something that moves and is best kept away from.
            I am tempted again to lift a finger, slowly, and try to touch this bird. But it seems more respectful to wait and watch what it does.
            It sweeps its head, yet again, from side to side. But nothing is moving in its world.
            Eventually it flies, or jumps -- the distance is so short that 'flies' doesn't seem the right word -- the three or four feet of distance to land on one of the feeder perches.
            Unmoving, I watch as its beak jams into the seed-hole and pulls out seed after seed. And then -- chews? The beak somehow grinds down on the sunflower shell sufficiently to loosen it. I have never observed this act closely enough to see this detail. Little bits of shell go flying out of the beak. Somehow that narrow tiny instrument is breaking the shell from the seed and discarding the chaff.
            It keeps pecking and eating. Left alone, it pokes and grinds. Is it hungry? Do birds' gullets know when they've had enough?
            Finally I cannot go on spoiling the natural sequence of events. What ordinarily happens is a bird abandons its feeder perch because another arrives too near. But nobody is coming now because I, the threateningly large creature, am standing there.        
             I take a half-step toward the feeder. This movement apparently wakes 'my' bird to the presence of a large creature and it makes the swift and sudden leap and fly-away that I observe more often than I can count, day after day, all winter.
            My close encounter? A chance in a thousand?

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Birds of Winter: Companions in All Sorts of Weather, Are they Harbingers of Change as Well?

We've seen cardinals in Massachusetts for years. Pretty much everyone does. At one time cardinals were a bird found widely in the South, but not in the Northeast. Bird feeders -- like us -- is one of the reasons the species was able to spread north. But so is the changing weather pattern. The last week is a good example.

          As the first two photos on the left side suggest, cardinals (a female in the top picture), are extremely picturesque against New England snowfalls. But most winters snow comes and goes. Last Saturday night's snow was half melted by Sunday noon, and almost completely gone by Monday. Today's temperature topped off at a record-territory seventy. We used to call that an 'unseasonable' temperature -- but does that expression really make sense any more? As global warming makes our winters a little more welcoming for migrants from the south, it also causes more frequent and extreme fluctuations in weather conditions. 
            We see many egrets (top right) in Florida, where these wading birds are common. But we also see them in coastal New England, as in the photo here, enjoying a mild autumn afternoon in a salt marsh adjacent to Quincy's Wollaston Beach. Egrets often nest here in the summer; a few winter over along the estuarial waters of the Massachusetts shoreline.  
           The chickadee in the next photo down has been a big fan of the bird feeder this year. They're quick to the feeder, competing with sparrows and other bigger birds, and quick to get out of the way when the next seating arrives. The chickadee's cousin, the Carolina chickadee, is reportedly on its way north. 
           The perching bird with strong gray markings and a long tail (fifth photo down) is an occasional visitor. He stuck around recently long enough for us to try to identify him. Mockingbird is my best guess. Another relatively new Southern transplant, the mockingbird has sung in our summers fairly regularly, but if he's here this winter as well, that's a first. 
          The osprey (seen perching above the nest) is not, to my knowledge, a winter visitor. This photo is from the end of last summer. Still, people build nesting platforms in Quincy and other towns these days to attract breeding pairs, and for the last three years, an osprey pair has found this one. The greatest number of osprey I've seen was in the shoreline preserves of St. Augustine, Florida. 
            I remember being told that the best time to see hawks was during the seasonal migrations. But in recent years I've encountered red-tailed hawks in all seasons. Some winters, though not this one, the encounters occur in the trees above our bird feeder. On one occasion, the "big bird" was simply standing in the middle of our neighbor's grassy lawn, a good perspective on the traffic around our feeder -- or maybe he was just tired. This year we hadn't seen one all winter, until a couple of weeks ago when we found him perched above, but not very high above, a walking trail in a city park. He saw no need to move as we stared for a while, then walked past him on the path. I stopped to take photos from both sides (I think this one was his better).
           For really big birds, it's best to let them come to you. It's been a couple of years since the turkeys turned up on our street, but when they do it's always an occasion. Here they peck at a neighbor's lawn, looking for gleanings in the bare ground of a mild February week. 
            I won't call it 'unseasonable.' Half of Boston was wearing shorts today.  

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Garden of Death: Slaughter of the Innocents, Cheered on by Corrupt Gun-Loving Rulers

My poem on a nation's complicity in the unchecked serial murders of its young. 

Slaughter of the Innocents, Cheered on by Corrupt Gun-Loving Rulers

Nation of shame
Monument of hate
Begetter of falsehoods
Despoiler of truth
Bringer of early death
Child-killer, Love-stealer, blood-spiller
Eater of death, Denier of life, Destroyer of hope
Extinguisher of the flame of life, Bringer of ash, Digger of graves
Consumer of all that is good and kind and healthy, Cup-bearer of tears
Cry, the once Beloved Idea, weep for the love that was, the honor, pride, and
truth of a world, a place, a country any just soul would fly to in time of need. Now all we
need is a shovel, a plot of bare earth, a tired muscle, a withered heart, to bury all that once we loved

Friday, February 16, 2018

The Garden of Verse: Wisdom in Gurus, Mothers, Vermont, and Flecks of Cappuccino Foam

             I found not only a lot of fine poems in the February edition of Verse-Virtual, but a lot of wisdom. Poems live in our thoughts not for what they say so much as how they say it. We may 'know' these truths, or realize we've been told them (or shown them) before, but now we feel them as well.

            In his poem "Mahayana in Vermont," Sydney Lea is telling us that 'nothing' happens in the course of a long hike taken "with three dogs through the rain." But we know what 'nothing' means after hearing about the grouse, and the deer flies, and the "late trillium," and the counted steps. We know that 'nothing' actually means 'everything,' and are not surprised, but in fact happily gratified when the poem sums this 'nothing' up as "a mystic sense of well-being/ in quietly chanted numbers."


            In Alan Walowitz's poem "String Theory," a guru morphs into a Jewish mother when he responds to a bill of complaints with the advice "Things could be worse." It's a pleasing conjunction, offering an insight into both roles. Our guru may not know everything; and our mothers (Jewish or otherwise) are likely to know something valuable about their children. This recognition leads to a slightly shocking, but worthily eye-opening embrace of peace from an unconventional perspective (which I won't completely spoil by quoting it here). Aging brings complaints, but it beats the alternatives.

            In Penelope Moffat's poem "My Cat is the Buddha," the pleasure lies in how the proposition is advanced.

Yea though I do call her Smoke
her name is God.
Though I murmur “silly child”
she is intellect made flesh.

Serious things can be said lightly, and the wonderfully ear-pleasing arcane vernacular of sacred texts is out there for us to play with, as this poem so pleasurably does.

            The fleshly intellect of the cat called "Smoke" is realized in warm fur, a "nubbly tongue," and the virtue of breathing her "honest breath" into a bedside water glass. Animals too can be a sacred text. What pleasure to read about this one.

            Playful and fun as well, Kate Sontag's poem “The Many Lives of Foam,” invents a new world of "karma," the February issue theme that got me noticing the wisdom of these poems. It turns out that foam gets around. It's "a fleck of cappuccino... a white mustache on my future lover’s upper lip," also the "lather on your father's face," and the bubbling creation of "soap & glycerin" that finds a kind of ultimate release in a "roving rainbow." And a lot of other stages in between. Sometimes in the karmic journey of rebirths, everything  is relative. Sometimes the thing to do is just look at it from a different angle.
            Judy Kronenfield's moving and impressive series of poems "Saving the Dead" suggests to me that we 'save' them best by remembering them. I'm particularly moved by a poem about the acute memory loss in parents or other aged relatives (that many of us have already experienced in family members), a condition described in the acutely titled "The Withering of Their State."

"...the scales fall
from their eyes, and they fall asleep
in each other's chairs, and thine
is mine, and now is then, and mildly,
with the most gracious of oh?s,
they allow themselves to be

            The wisdom here consists of seeing things as they are, offering the compassion that we would wish shown to ourselves... and simply letting be.  
            Tom Montag's fine contribution to the February issue of five concentrated reflections includes a couple of unblinking looks at the persistence of darkness in all lives. A kind of insight and wisdom that perhaps flows from "the stranger/ angel in my nature," to quote from his poem "The Sadness of Happiness." As this poem says, "between kiss and climax/
there is always this darkness."
            The somewhat longer lyric "Walking the Tracks on a Warm December Day" suggests a particulary Decemberish insight consistent with the time of year when the light is at its briefest, the dark its longest. The poem asks, "Train in the distance, or not?" But the poem knows the train is always out there, and will someday arrive.
            These are a few of the poems that spoke me in the February Verse-Virtual. Many other fine poems can found at