Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Transition and Wonder

“I'm so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”   author L. M. Montgomery

“Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.” Author Albert Camus

 “Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” Jim Bishop

     It is deep fall now, getting into late October, and the days are noticeably shorter. The hours of dark are slowly increasing and the hours of light are decreasing. Sunrises now occur around 7 AM, and sunsets are happening earlier and earlier. We will adjust for that somewhat with our re-setting of the clocks on November 6, but this is the time when we first really feel the changes in the season. It is also a time when leaves turn color and begin to fall, when the days generally start out cooler and crisp, and we look up and notice birds and other animals on the move.  It is a time of change; of transition. And like spring, it is a time in which the transition to a new reality is obvious and clear. We are witnesses to another turning of the cycle, and for me that is a glorious and joyous thing.

    One of the places that transition and cycle is most noticeable is in the sky. Different constellations have been slowly moving into view, and the added darkness make them more visible. While I am by no means an astronomer, I do remember certain notable constellations from my school trips to the Franklin Institute planetarium, and I love noting them as I look at the autumn night and early morning sky. Looking to the north I can see Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, the Big and Little Dippers and remember how to find the North Star. Every time I do that I think back to the song, Follow the Drinking Gourd, and stories of escaping slaves using that star to light their escape North in the 17 and 1800’s. That is a good reminder to me of the ways humans can interact with and use what we are presented with by nature; we are connected to the sky and not separate from it. Hercules, with his arm upraised and his broad chest, is to the northwest and I can imagine his great strength and power when I see him. Across from him toward the northeast I can usually spot Gemini and my favorite, Orion with his three-star belt. There are other constellations I sort of remember-Perseus, Cygnus, and Capricorn, and it is fun for me to try and locate them and name them. I know I am not always right, but looking up and trying to recall them brings me quiet joy. As fall changes into winter I know I will see these constellations more easily as they change position and that they will be with me on my early morning or night walks. It is a comfort and something I look forward to each night and/or morning.

   The moon is likewise more noticeable as the seasonal changes continue. The process of full moon to crescent moon plays out more clearly to me in the fall and winter, and it is wonderful to see it. Even in the city it is visible, and I get to see it magically appear on the horizon a little earlier most nights. The recent Full Moon-the Hunter's Moon was spectacular-and it filled me and man other observers with pure joy and wonder. I have no idea why the moon affects me more in the fall and winter than at other times, but it does. The sky seems to be closer and more intimate as the year progresses, and I can take delight in walking and looking up.

   So the progression of the fall is a wondrous transition for me. I can feel the cycle in a deep way now. It is around me, visible, and almost tangible. I do not know how and why it affects me as it does, but I am glad that it does. It feels good to be aware of and more in touch with what is going on around me; I am more present, and that is always a good thing.

Friday, October 7, 2016

A Brief History of US Voting and Why You Should Register and Vote

“When you vote it takes two people to overcome you. When you don’t, it only takes one.” Ruth Yates Davis”

“Thousands of people died over the years so that all Americans could have the right to vote. To not vote, then, is to say that the struggle of all these people does not matter; that they died in vain and their sacrifices mean nothing. Do you really want to say that???” Anonymous

“Voting must really matter. Otherwise why would so many people go through so much for so long to limit who can do it?” John C-D

   The United States calls itself a democracy. One of the things we talk about when we talk about advantages of living in the US and of being a US citizen is that people here get to vote. Many of us are glad about that, and we assume it has always been that way. Voting is simply one of the things that makes America America, and that with the exception of the struggle for women’s right to vote, decided in 1920, and the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s, it has all been pretty straightforward and clear; we just had to correct a few missteps. When we look a little closer at the history of just who could vote and when, though, we discover that it is actually a much more complex history than we learned about in school. Voting, for the longest time in our history, was something most Americans were not allowed to do. For most of our history, most American citizens could not legally vote.

   The US Constitution originally provided for elective offices to govern the nation. We had the three branches of government, and two of them were to be elected branches. But the Constitution did not lay out who could and could not vote; it simply said that citizens could vote for an office and how some of their votes would be counted. The 3/5 Compromise, for example, said that in determining population to figure out how many seats in the House of Representatives each state would have, slave holding states could count each slave as 3/5 of one person.  States, then, were given wide latitude in deciding who could vote. After the Constitution was ratified in 1787 all states gave voting rights to free white men who held a certain amount of property and/or paid taxes. Some states allowed free men of color who met the property requirement to vote, and New Jersey allowed women who met its property the right to vote. But the vast majority of US citizens at the that time could not vote. Historians estimate that when George Washington was elected President in 1789 only 6% of the citizenship at that time could legally vote.

   As states wrote and re-wrote their constitutions following the 1787 ratification of the US Constitution, different limits were placed on voting in them for some specific populations. Jews and Catholics were prohibited from holding office and/or voting in several states until about 1826. Property requirements for white males were removed by most states by the 1850’s, but several state constitutions kept them in place for free men of color or removed free men of color from the voting roles altogether. Throughout the 1800’s there were various limits and exclusions in most states placed on Native Americans, women, immigrants, and Mexicans who had been living in what was Mexico when the US won the Mexican War. Chinese and other Asians also faced discriminatory limits during this time and up into the 20th century. Whoever was considered “undesirable” in a state faced limits or prohibition on their right to vote. 

   The results of the US Civil War, though, led to Amendments that for the first time spelled out in the US Constitution some specific definitions of eligibility to vote. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments ended slavery, defined citizenship, and granted male ex-slaves the vote. But states still had the latitude to set the specific requirements for voting, and after the end of Reconstruction (1877) many Southern states imposed poll taxes, literacy tests and more to prevent people of color from voting. So it was not until the late 20th century, after women got the vote in the 20th Amendment and the Voting Rights Acts decisions of the mid 1960’s were passed, that the majority of American citizens were truly able to vote. And that was some 181 years after ratification of the US Constitution.

   Clearly, voting rights were gained with long and persistent struggles to overcome huge obstacles. People marched, protested, wrote letters and petitions, lobbied, went on strike, were beaten and killed and did all sorts of things to advocate for the extension of the ballot. And there are many people continuing to do those things around issues of voter ID, whether ex-felons can vote, when voting can happen, and more. Pennsylvania registration for the 2016 election ends on Tuesday, October 11, and I strongly urge you to show up and vote. I agree with the sentiments in the quotes above; it has simply been too long and too hard of a struggle to get Americans the right to vote for me to NOT vote. I, for one, do not want to dishonor the struggles of so many people who made it possible for me to have this right. Nor I do not want to make it easy for folks to ignore or defeat me.

    But even if that history of voting struggle doesn’t move you, I ask you to consider the results of the election of Dwight Eisenhower to the Presidency in 1952. Eisenhower nominated 5 Supreme Court Justices to the US Supreme Court, including Earl Warren as Chief Justice, and they were all confirmed by the Senate. Long after Eisenhower was gone from office, those appointments are still having a tremendous effect on the United States. The Warren Court ended school desegregation in the US with its 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision. It also established the rights of a person to due process when being arrested, i.e. the Miranda warnings. It also established the un-Constitutionality of mandatory Bible reading and prayer in public schools, decided that the US Bill of Rights applied to states as well as the Federal government, and much more. Some five decades after Eisenhower’s terms of office, his appointments are still having a direct impact on what our rights are and how we live our daily lives. These 9 people set the tone for decades of US life and of our understanding of the rights of US citizens.

   The next President will appoint at least two nominees to the Supreme Court, and whoever is in the Senate after November 8th will determine which nominees make it onto the Court. At least five decades of our basic rights, which we and our children will live under and be subject to, will likely be decided by this Court. So who wins the election for the Presidency and for Senate seats is indisputably important, not just for now but to the future of this country. For me, this election is much more than just, “Who do I like?” For me it is, “Exactly what type of country do I want myself and my neighbors and my child to live in? What rights do I want to see in place?”

    That is reason enough to vote for me. And I hope it is for you as well.  I hope you register and show up to vote. We citizens now pretty much all have the right to vote. It would be a shame, especially with so much on the line in this election, to waste it. I truly hope you don’t.

(Below is a link that can take you to an online registration site:

 If you are interested in the history of US voting, here are two timelines


Thursday, September 29, 2016

The Beauty of Fall

“The leaves fall, the wind blows, and the farm country slowly changes from the summer cottons into its winter wools.”=-Henry Beston

“Autumn carries more gold in its pocket than all the other seasons.” - Jim Bishop

The Continual Beauty of the Fall

    Autumn 2016 came  into the Northern Hemisphere on Thursday, September   22 at 10:21 AM.  At that time summer officially ended and our Hemisphere will   gradually moved into that time of shorter hours of daylight, cooler weather, the   movement of butterflies, birds and other wildlife species across state lines and   continents, and the slow, steady emergence of remarkable shades of color on     thousands of trees, flowers, and shrubs. I love fall. It is very special to me.       

     This region has approximately equal amounts of time in each of the four seasons and that means that each year I get to see fall come in and fully watch it make its slow and glorious march towards winter. As a walker, hiker, and        birder I have the time to fully take in and experience the changes just as they    happen: to delight in how this one street, a particular yard, tree or garden         makes its way through this cycle yet again. Fall is magical to me; it always        re-awakens my joy in my surroundings and my sense of the miraculous. I am     grateful that we get to have a full three months of this phenomenon. I treasure  this season.                                                                                                  
    It was not always like this for me. When I was a kid fall meant primarily back to school, and that was sometimes good and sometimes bad. It also meant the end of the regular baseball season, and as a life-long Phillies fan, that was usually a blessing. It also meant the drama and excitement of the World Series and then the start of professional football. There was also Halloween and trick or treat and my November birthday. That was the fall of my younger days. Of course a lot of that schedule has changed over the years-the baseball and football seasons have expanded to ridiculous lengths, so what seemed like a logical a link between the seasons of the year and the sports being played is long gone. And I haven’t gone trick or treating in decades, although I totally enjoy the giving out of treats on Halloween and the wonderful way my Mt. Airy neighborhood goes all out in decorating the houses and yards for the holiday. And my birthday? Aside from the Mermaid gig each year I like a quiet unspectacular observance. So while fall had a number of things that definitely recommended itself to me in my younger days, it had not really been a “special” time to me. It was nice, but not “special.” But that all changed one October when I was 20 on a trip to visit friends in Rhode Island. That trip totally changed my thoughts about and my relation to the fall.
   I was taking the old Penn Central rail line from Philly to Providence, RI.  A few seats in front of me was a couple that was apparently super-excited about the trip. They kept getting out of their seats, walking to one side of the train and then the other, and looking out the windows and “oohing” and “ahhiing.” I watched this for a bit and was mystified. It was just a train trip, after all; what was the big deal???  I then went up to them and asked what was going on; why were they going through all of this running around and looking out the windows? The man looked at me and said, “We’re from Los Angeles. This is our first time East-we have never seen fall before!  We read about it and saw some photos, but this is our first time actually seeing it! It is incredible!” Just then the train was crossing the Connecticut River. Looking down the view that hit our eyes was an unbelievable riot of all different shades of orange, red, green, and yellow. And through their eyes-their newness and amazement with fall- I suddenly woke to a new appreciation of the season.  It hit me like a sledgehammer-this is what fall was.  And I haven’t looked back since.

    That trip started my revised relationship with autumn. I spent the rest of the train ride marveling at the beauty outside the train window, and by the time I reached Providence I was hooked on fall. I then became a camper, and a few years later, a birdwatcher/ hiker. The “miracleness “of fall had become more and more a part of my life. I began to really appreciate what William Penn did when he designed the city as a “Greene countrie Town,” with its vast array of trees and parks. Walking in different parts of Fairmount Park and in tree-filled cemeteries became normal in October and November.  So did taking little trips to the suburbs and the country to see the colors on the trees. I went out to Longwood Gardens, and Curtis and Awbury Arboretums. I went on hay rides and out to apple orchards. Autumn had become something for me to enjoy and immerse myself in. It had become another vital way for me to connect to the world around me.

   I still revel in the fall. My wife and will go camping near some Wildlife Refuges in Maryland in a little while and track part of the Southern hawk migration, just as we did last year. I will take more early morning walks all through Mt Airy, Germantown and Chestnut Hill, taking in the gardens and some of my favorite Japanese and other maple trees  and watching them as they change.  I will visit a few cemeteries such as Woodlawn in West Philly and Laurel Hill in Hunting Park and walk the grounds.  And I will feel all the beauty and express gratitude and amazement as I once again realize what this world presents me with—the gifts that are there just waiting for me when I take the time to notice and appreciate them. Happy Autumn, everyone. Enjoy and experience the beauty and wonder of the mid-Atlantic fall.