Wednesday, August 1, 2018


On Friendship, Peace, and More

Monday, July 30, was the United Nations' International Day of Friendship. When I first saw a notice about that in an e-mail I got from a friend, I was taken aback-there is an effort not only nationally but internationally to promote and celebrate friendship. That seemed to be weird to me. Do we really need a “Day for Friendship?” Is friendship in trouble or something?

    Doing some research about this I found out that the day grew out of a 1998 UN project dedicated to promoting a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence for the Children of the World.” Wow-a decade dedicated to peace and non-violence for children! That is a bold idea. And out of that effort the UN proclaimed its first International Day of Friendship in 2011, with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can inspire peace efforts and build bridges between communities.”  Again, wow! Those are giant, noble ideas, and it is interesting that the UN thought that these ideas could be served, in part, by recognizing, celebrating, and promoting something as direct and seemingly simple as “friendship.”  I was intrigued.
    Then I got an e-mail from NPR celebrating the International Day of Friendship that featured several stories of unusual friendships that in this time of such fear, suspicion and partisan strife resonated deeply with me. They were unusual stories about unusual friendships, and they set me to thinking about the whole idea of friendship- what it is,  ways it has been an important part of my life, and some of the powerful things it can mean and lead to. Can it be possible that something as large and as daunting as a “Decade for the Culture of Peace and Non-violence” can somehow be connected to this seemingly simple thing we call having and being a “friend?” Can they be connected?
  When I initially think about friendship I am taken back to my growing up in West Philly and to my early school days of the 1950’s. For me, like I think it was for most of us when we were children, friendship was a question of, “How can I fit in?  and, “How can I be a part of the group and accepted?” My most regular question from that time was, “Do I fit in yet?” The answers involved things such as what clothes I wore, what my haircuts were like, could I play sports, what music did I listen to, and the like. I wanted to connect with other kids, and being like the other kids in the neighborhood seemed to offer the best chance of doing that. Standing out, unless it was in one of the socially acceptable ways such as being a great athlete or the toughest kid, was a risk As I grew up I became aware that there were some “weird” things about me; I walked down the street reading books, for example. But I was a good enough athlete and was tall enough, so I tended to fit in rather well. I had some good friends and generally had what I would describe as a “good childhood.”

   “Sameness” played a big role in all of this. Being like other kids was important to having friends, so I tried to be somewhat the same as my friends. But sameness also played a role in ways I did not understand as a young kid. Philly really was a “city of neighborhoods” then, and that generally meant a lot of socio-economic “sameness.” The city was largely separated into areas by color, ethnicity and class; there were very few neighborhoods where people of different colors, classes, religion and/or nationalities lived together. There were a couple of spots like, but I definitely did not live in one. However, for junior high and high school I went to schools that drew from neighborhoods across the entire city. Suddenly I was spending my days with people from a number of different ethnic groups, of different colors, from different social classes, and who practiced different religions. Or none. It was quietly mind-blowing for all of us. Junior high and high school friends spend time in each other’s houses, for example so I was exposed to new foods, new ways of doing, thinking, and learning. And many of my new friends were having the same experience. Barriers we did not know were there got lowered and erased somewhat. Stereotypes got looked at and a lot got discarded. All of us received new eyes though which we could look at larger things and view the world in new ways. It was the time of the Civil Rights Movement and the Viet Nam War, and these new experiences wee not just about being friends in new ways-they connected us to these larger issues as well. No, it was not an idyllic, perfect time-there were rough patches, misunderstandings, and there were some things that some of us could not fully accept or see. But by and large the friendships in junior high and highs school changed and affected us all in profound ways. It expanded our sense of the world and who we could be. And that is something you want something as important as a friendship to do.

 I thought about all of that because the NPR e-mail looked at friendships in a way that really raised the possibility of friendship being a way of getting beyond superficial differences and challenging us to be different and possibly better. That, ultimately, I think is what the UN Day of Friendship is really about-friendship can be a way of taking us into new territory and ways of being that can safely alter some small parts of the world in lasting and profound ways.

 Below are links to some of the stories from the NPR e-mail. I would be interested in hearing your responses to any of them and to hearing your thoughts on what means and/or allows. Friendship. Please write back about your reactions to the stories; I’d love to come back to this topic in a future newsletter and share some of your responses. Happy Belated International Friends Day. And I hope you get to spend some good time with good friends.

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

Penny Colgan-Davis 1945-2018

Memorial Service for Penny:
    I want to take this opportunity to thank those of you who were able to make Penny’s memorial service last Saturday at Germantown Monthly Meeting. It was truly a joyous celebration of the life and lasting accomplishments of a very special educator, spirit, leader, community builder, friend, and inspirational presence, who was also a hell of a lot of fun. It was an exhilarating overview of her entire life and career-there were people there who knew her from before I met her in 1979 as well as people who had only met her recently. It was a true love fest. The stories about lives she touched and how she touched them from friends, colleagues, students, parents and more were heartwarming, amazing, and inspirational. She made profound differences in so many ways in so many lives. And many of the stories people told were totally unknown to me, soI was able to get an even deeper knowledge of the friend, partner and traveling companion I was fortunate to know and love for nearly 40 years. Yes, there is a lot of pain, grief and sorrow connected with Penny’s death. And my son and I will know that for a while. But there is also great joy and exhilaration and tons of smiles as I am even more fully aware of the wondrous person she was and the full and rich life she led. Thank you for that and for helping pay tribute to one of the very special people anyone could ever hope to know. I know that it made her eyes twinkle even more and brought another smile to her face. Thank you.


Saturday, June 23, 2018

My Favorite Traveling Companion...

My Favorite Traveling Companion……

  I don’t know exactly how long I have been writing and sending out these Dukes newsletters/blogs- I think I started in 2008 or 2007. It is something that I enjoy doing, and I am glad that so many of you enjoy my musings and experiences. It is something that is important to who I am. The performer in me likes having an audience and putting out good energy, and the educator in me loves sharing ideas, experiences and more with people. It is just who I am, and I am grateful that so many of you let me into your inbox on a regular basis. I sincerely thank you for that.

  If you have been reading these missives for a while you know that one thing John Colgan-Davis loves is traveling and seeing new things. You have read, for example, about birding trips to Magee Marsh in Ohio, Cape May, NJ, Heinz Wildlife Refuge in Philly and more. You have followed along on many of the camping trips to Wellsley Island, the Finger Lakes, Golden Hill State Park, and Lake George all in NY. I told you about finding wonderful wildlife refuges in Maryland, museums and gardens in Orlando and Key West; night skies, elk and seeing the Perseid Meteor Shower on a deck next to a mountain in New Mexico. Lotus blossoms, monuments, and museums in Washington, DC. Times spent at Ivylea Provincial Park, the Grand Canyon, and in the wonderful cities of Kingston in Ontario and Chestertown in Maryland. I have brought you with me to small towns, hills, music festivals, campsites, lakes, and more.

   Through all of these travels I have been with my favorite travel buddy and friend, my wife, Penny Colgan-Davis. Some of you have met her at gigs and some of you knew her from some of her many other activities and involvements; she was a very busy woman and involved in many things. But most of you do not know her except through these missives and my telling of our travels. I am sad to say that I have lost my partner, my best friend and the greatest travel buddy ever. Penny passed away Tuesday morning at about 5:30 AM at our home in Mt. Airy. She had been ill for a while, battling melanoma since November of last year. She died peacefully and lovingly with my son and myself there with her. It was a sad but lovely passing. We were fortunate to be with her though the whole illness, and it was a fitting end.

  Penny and I were married for nearly 38 years, and we traveled together and birded together almost from the beginning. We would go to Tinicum (now called Heinz Refuge), down to Brigantine Wildlife Center, (now called Forsythe), Cape May, NJ, and places in Delaware. We had a camping honeymoon through upstate NY, Maine, and Canada. And as a young family we camped in the Poconos and spent several years at Lost River State park, a lovely spot in West Virginia. Penny herself was a great traveler long before she met me. She and her sisters had been to Ireland, the Netherlands, and England, so she was ready to go places. And like me, she loved to not just go to a place but to explore in and around it. We would camp in a spot and bird and hike the trails there. But we would also spend times in nearby towns and cities, eat at diners where the locals ate, visit cemeteries, gardens and historical sites and visit the libraries. She got me into gardening and trees and plants, and we could spend hours at an arboretum, nursery or public garden. I still remember going to the National Botanical Gardens, Kenilworth Park, and the National Arboretum in DC. several times with her. I will miss traveling and exploring and having funny and sometimes scary adventures with her. And I am so grateful for all of the things we saw that took our breath away and will stay with me forever. Seeing thousands of monarch butterflies and hundreds of sunflowers on Amherst Island in Ontario; looking down from above the clouds and seeing circling vultures after hiking up Craney Crow in West Virginia; watching the sun play off a waterfall with circling cedar waxwings on Cape Breton in Canada; standing on a bluff in the Grand Canyon and looking around at so many different shades of brown and red, unreal clear blue skies, and so many differently shaped rocks. And much, much, much more.

  So there is a hell of a lot of pain, a lot of loss and some big hurt going on right now. I do not know when and how the tears are going to come; they just do. And I do not know how long they will last each time they come. My breath gets short, some anger comes out, and I lose it for a while. And all of our family and good friends are also feeling that pain, going through this along with my son and myself. This grief thing is so much more than just a solo enterprise, and I am so glad for that. And at the same time, there are the memories, the images, and the smiles brought about by looking at pictures and maps and brochures and remembering and talking with people about our many wonderful travels. They are just as important as the pain, and just as real. And they are treasures. My mom used to say that when people felt and expressed great pain and hurt and cried their eyes out, there was also joy hidden in there. For to be felt that deeply, the love and loss had to be real and truly, deeply felt. To have known and experienced a love that deep and real was truly a great blessing in my life. Thank you, Penny. Thanks so much. And today, it feels like camping weather.  

It's The Small Things...

It’s the small things….

  We live in a complex world these days, one that is moving at a rapid pace and seemingly headed in every direction at once. We have a lot of new technology and objects in our lives today that simultaneously make things more complicated and help us try to manage this world we have just made more complicated. We have computers, digital connections, the cloud, smart phones, apps, Bluetoooth, drones, Skype, and so much more. Yes, many of these technologies and objects are enabling us to do so much more than could have been imagined a few decades ago. And they are filling our lives with more and more objects. We are a profoundly material rich culture, and sometimes that seems to be to our benefit and sometimes to our detriment. We are interacting with so much “new” technology and “new and improved” objects that we can easily overlook and get away from appreciating the more “mundane” and “ordinary’ things-the “basic” or “simple” things that have been around for years. And when we do think about them, we often think they are beneath us and/or not “important.” But as a curious person and an ex-Ancient Civilizations teacher, I love examining the ordinary. Most important developments in a civilization are building on something basic and ordinary, and these ordinary things have affected us and unconsciously influenced us in many ways.. Finding the stories behind these ordinary objects and processes is one of the things I love about history. It is often fascinating, curious and surprising to trace the “how” and the “why’ behind something simple. II always told my students that, “Nothing comes from Nowhere: there is a story behind everything.”  Exploring that story and where it goes almost always leads in surprising directions and to wondrous conclusions.

   What brought this on was another encounter with author, designer, civil engineer and professor Mr. Henty Petroski. I first encountered Mr. Petroski some 19 or 20 years ago when I came across his book, The Pencil. I was fascinated, not only because someone wrote a book about the lowly pencil, but because someone wrote a 400+ page book about the pencil. I just had to read it, and I am so glad it did. Among other things, I learned that what we call the “pencil” can be traced back to ancient Rome; that there were at least two wars in Europe fought over access to stores of “leaded ore” that makes up the writing substance of pencils, and that writing with pencils was a key part of Napoleon’s military success. Napoleon wrote his battle plans on horseback in pencil as the battle progressed: he did not have to dismount and get a table and ink to use a quill pen as did other generals. Therefore, he could change his battle plans quickly as he witnessed from horseback what was actually happening on the battlefield. It was a huge advantage.

     I also learned the some 60% of the members of the American Society of Civil Engineers thinks the #2 pencil with an attached eraser is the best designed product of the last 200 years. I was hooked by all of this, and I quickly read two other books by Petroski. The Evolution of Useful Things looked at certain design features of common objects and how they developed over time and also noted links between culture and design. He traced, for example, how and why forks got their tines and how paper clips and post-its came to be. To Engineer Is Human looked at design and engineering as part and parcel of what it means to be human and how failure and unhappiness, and not necessity, are more often the mothers of design. We as a species seem to need to tinker, explore and re-invent. Both books opened my eyes to new ways of looking at the world around me.

   Recently I picked up his The Toothpick and started another voyage into discovering the extraordinary the lies at the heart of the ordinary. I have just started the book, but I have already learned that the toothpick, be it made of grass, wood, gold, or quill, is one of humanity’s most universal and oldest tools. And that toothpicks became common in American dining establishments because Charles Forester, the father of the US toothpick industry, hired students from Harvard to go into Boston restaurants and relentlessly demand them, thus manufacturing a demand for his product. When we think of the Renaissance we think of art and literature, but it was also a special time for toothpicks as well. Owning a variety of the tool and cleaning one’s teeth with them after a big meal were seen as indications of one’s wealth, class and sophistication. Even European monarchs had toothpicks made from precious materials and displayed them on their clothing. This is just want I have gleaned from reading the prologue and the opening chapters of the book. I can’t wait to find out more.

  So I am happy: I am on the way to new discoveries and new realizations. I never tire of finding out new things, and I especially love the plain and direct way Petroski writes and organizes his books. To me, he is a poet in the sense meant by the anonymous poet who said, “The purpose of poetry is to make the extraordinary ordinary and the ordinary extraordinary’.  That is what he does, and In that there is great joy and great fun.

   Dukes fan Ruth Brown is doing a food drive in conjunction with Philabundance. The donation boxes are in place and the drive will go until June 30th. Locations:

·         South Kensington Community Partners (1301 N 2nd)
·         PlayArts (1241 N Front)
·         Spot's Spot Pet Grooming (123 W Girard)
·         Chestnut Hill Library (8711 Germantown Ave)
Among Philabundance's most-needed items are canned fruits & veggies, canned tuna, meat & soup; cereal; PB & J; rice; cooking oil, non-perishable milk, and whole grain pasta. Please donate

Monday, May 14, 2018

The Joys of A Greene Countrie Towne

When I stand on a corner in my neighborhood and look in any direction down almost any street I am met with the most wonderful explosions of color and shapes. It is almost May now, and Germantown, Chestnut Hill, and Mt Airy are bursting with trees, bushes and gardens showing off all their shades and shapes to the passers-by. I am in no way an arborist; I do not know the names of that many trees. But I am familiar with the ones that have taken root in the northwest section of the city and bring so much delight and joy to me each spring. Pink magnolias, white magnolias, dogwoods, ornamental cherries, Japanese and lacy leaf maples, weeping cherries, redbuds-the northwest is awash in these trees, and I love them. They are the final, visual proof that spring has really arrived and that our days will be long and pleasant ones. And as I move through these areas on my daily jaunts, I also see tons of people outside on hands and knees digging in the dirt-gardening. Planting pansies, daffodils, tulips and more, they help the lawns and streets come alive with more color and scents. Especially on sunny days these trees and gardens bring a smile to my soul, enliven my walking, and put me in a totally different place. It is spring in Philadelphia, and that is always a wonderful thing.
One of the many things I love about living in the city of Philadelphia is that many neighborhoods still hold to founder William Penn’s idea of a “greene countrie towne.” There are trees, gardens and green spaces in just about every neighborhood. Even the downtown still holds to Penn’s idea with four of his five original plazas. Rittenhouse, Franklin, Washington and Logan Squares still exist as green spaces. As the city expanded in all direction from between the Schuylkill and Delaware Rivers, it has, for the most part, kept to Penn’s idea. We have an extraordinary amount of green space and trees even in some densely populated areas. Spring and fall really bring those things to the fore, and there is a profusion of shapes, smells and bright colors to be seen and experienced. Philly is a wonderfully walkable city, and just about anywhere one walks in the city one can easily see all the different trees, plants, and gardens. This makes the city attractive and manageable; it seems “human.” And if I am open and aware of these things, they can rescue me from getting too caught up in “life” and missing the quiet power of a tree lined street or a park or a garden. They can get me out of myself and connect me to larger, important things.
Philadelphians have always loved gardens and there are tons of lovely gardens all over the city. Many of them are public gardens; the Philly area, in fact, has the highest concentration of public gardens in the United States. Some of them were private spaces that were open to the paying public for festive occasions and entertainment. In fact the idea of “outdoor concerts” in Philadelphia seems to go back to colonial times with the “Cherry Garden” and “Spring Garden” sites in what is now Center City. As the years have gone by many wealthy garden owners have also opened their private estate gardens to the public and/or donated them to the city. Philadelphians seem to have always associated gardens with fun and good times, and we have many public gardens for people to enjoy.
Philadelphia is also widely known as a city of neighborhood gardens, and weather such as we have had recently has been getting entire communities out and into the dirt. This brings neighborhoods together, and it also beautifies them. These gardens also do an important job in providing fresh and nutritious food in urban food deserts. Community gardens in sections of North Philly and Southwest Philly have been doing that for years, but there is some concern about the future of these gardens. The rapid growth of the city and the press for development seems to be threatening the existence of some of them. Fortunately, there are some forces working on behalf of the gardeners and the gardens. I am hopeful that they can be maintained and continue to play the important roles they are playing in their communities. They are an important part of the “Philadelphia story” and we need them. (
This week will bring more great May weather, and I hope you can all make some time to get out to walk, stroll, plant, or just look and admire. We are very fortunate to be in or around this greene countrie towne” and I hope you can take advantage of it. It is one of the quiet joys of being a resident of this city.
(If you are interested in Philadelphia gardens, the role of gardens in communities, or anything else about the social history of Philadelphia I recommend the website, The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia. It is a wonderful site about all the things that make Philadelphia Philadelphia, written by folks who know about and care about the city: )
Some Special Gigs featuring John
Friday, June 1 Johnny Never & John Colgan-Davis at Jamey’s House of Music, 32 S. Landsdowne Ave; Landsdowne, PA; 8-10:30PM $15 advance; $18 door;
I started playing harp in coffee houses with folk musicians back in the 1960s, and while I normally play in band settings now, I still love playing good old country blues with a great guitarist. Johnny Never is such a guitarist, a master of Delta and other early blues styles. Great slide and finger picking work, a wonderful voice and a great repertoire make playing with Johnny fun and exciting for me. Jamey’s is a wonderfully intimate club which seats 60, has a great sound system and is the perfect place for this gig. Come out and hear some Son House, Robert Johnson and more as done by Johnny Never and John Colgan-Davis
Saturday, June 16; The Blues Social Club at Jocelyn’s for the Media Blues Stroll;109 W. State Street; Media, PA.
Bert Harris, bass player with Philly Gumbo and one of the best bassists in the area, put together a group last year with the great Delaware guitarist Roger Girke, myself, and a couple of other folks to play a concert for the Rose Tree Park Summer Concert Series. It was so much fun we decided to do it again as part of the Media Blues Stroll. The Blues Social Club is the band and we do a variety of genres from Chicago Blues to New Orleans to soul to rockabilly. We have a great and fun time and you can too. Come catch us that Saturday evening at Joclyn’s

Mother's Day


   Sunday was Mother’s Day, one of the most widely observed and celebrated holidays in our culture. People of all ethnic groups, colors, and even religious denominations observe it; among Christians it is the day with the 3rd highest church attendance after only Christmas and Easter. As a major holiday it is all over our popular culture. TV shows have plots that revolve around it. There are songs about both the day and the person known as “Mother” in just about every genre, and radio stations play many of them in the week leading up to the holiday.  Comedians tell endless “mom” jokes. Even politicians refer to it in political ads, thanking their own moms and trying to appeal to the moms of voters. And as it is a major holiday, it is very commercialized and has a huge economic impact. It is one of the biggest days in any given year for the sales of flowers, candy, and greeting cards. More long distance calls are made on Mother’s Day than on any other day. Restaurants make a lot of money on the day, especially on breakfasts and brunches. It is truly a big deal in our culture. But where did this day come from? How did it come to be? Why does it exist?

    The idea of honoring “mothers” is not just an American idea, and it is not really recent. Ancient peoples in many parts of the world had a variety of observances that paid tribute to the idea of fertility, birth, and mothering. The ancient Greeks and Romans had festivals that celebrated Mother Goddesses such as Rhea and Cybele, who gave birth to various gods and represented the power of divine fertility. These were important, powerful ideas, and the celebrations of these holidays lasted for days in the ancient world.

    Roman, Greek and many other polytheistic religions were eventually eclipsed by monotheistic ones. But many of these important ideas found ways of being expressed in monotheistic beliefs. While there is no “Mother’s Day” in Islam, children are regularly instructed to pay honor to their mothers. Some Jews honor Rachel, Jacob’s most beloved wife, on the eleventh day of Cheshvan as the symbolic “mother” of the Israeli household and nation. Some early Christians took to celebrating the Virgin Mary during Lent as a way of honoring a divine mother-the mother of Jesus. The idea of “birth” and “mother,” then, are important human concerns. These need to be accounted for and recognized in every religion.   

    In 16th century England that recognition turned into something called, “Mothering Sunday.” Initially a day to honor the Mother Church and the Virgin Mary, it eventually came to include children being told to pick wild flowers to give to and pay tribute to their own earthly mothers. This represented an expansion of focus; not only divine mothers were looked at with honor. Earthly mothers came to be seen as representatives of the divine order, and they could be acknowledged also.  The American idea of Mother’s Day draws most directly from this.

     Two women, Julia Ward Howe and Anna Jarvis, are considered the "mothers" of our present celebration of Mother’s Day. Howe, an activist on many social issues and the composer of the Battle Hymn of the Republic, wanted a day for women to be listened to as a way to establish peace. Women gave birth to all the men who died in wars on either side, she argued, so they had a special need to both be active and be listened to as a way of ending war. In her famous “Mother’s Day Proclamation” (1870) she argued for and later established a “Mother’s Peace Day” to be celebrated each year. The idea caught on and was observed in several parts of the United States. But it did not grow to be a national holiday. Perhaps it was too political.

   Anna Jarvis, born in West Virginia, had a beloved mother who was deeply religious and involved in social issues via her church. Ann Reeves Jarvis had worked as a nurse during the Civil War, and like Howe, she believed in peace. She once spoke about wishing for a day when the work and contributions of mothers to humanity would be recognized and celebrated. Anna remembered this, and it inspired her. In 1908, 3 years after her mother’s death, she sponsored a memorial service in the town of Grafton, West Virginia for her mom and all the moms who attended the service. She also provided white carnations, now the symbol of Mother’s Day, for all the mothers who attended the service. Her mother’s words had become a mission for Anna; mothers needed to be recognized. After the memorial service she began to organize nationally. She called on people to write legislators and influential people to encourage them to lobby for a day to honor all mothers. And somehow, state by state, it began to happen. By 1911 most states in the country had some type of yearly holiday recognizing mothers. She and her supporters then turned their attention to the national stage. Again, it worked. In 1914 President Woodrow Wilson signed the proclamation that established the second Sunday in May as Mother’s Day throughout the nation. Anne Reeve Jarvis’ wish had become reality.

    Mother’s Day is a major part of US culture now, and it is firmly established. Ironically, Jarvis came to dislike Mother’s Day, or more specifically, the way it came to be celebrated. The commercialization of the day, first by the greeting card industry and then florists and candy manufacturers, angered her. She spoke out against this regularly, and even considered trying to rescind the holiday.  A further irony was that as she aged, Jarvis needed hospital care. It was people connected to the greeting card and florist industries who paid for her hospital stays in West Chester, PA. She died in 1948 and is buried locally in West Laurel Hill Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

   Regardless of what one thinks about how the day is observed these days, Mother’s Day has become an important day in our culture and in the lives of many people. And it resonate with the same reasons the ancients celebrated all those centuries ago. We all begin with a birth; that is how we start. Yes, sperm and egg need to unite to bring that birth about. And there are many ways the uniting of those two can happen. But when you come down to it, we are all ultimately the result of a mother carrying and delivering us. It has been that way for centuries and centuries. While we may understand a lot about the mechanics of how it happens, it is nonetheless wondrous. It is both ordinary and worthy of being honored. I hope Mother’s Day, however you observed it, was good for you. And thanks to all of you who are mothers.

Sunday, March 18, 2018


   Mike is an old friend of mine who can be very wise, and one of my favorite sayings of his is, “If you want to make God laugh, tell him you have plans.”  Last weekend for me was a perfect example of that saying- on steroids. The plan for last weekend was simple-really simple. We had finally secured tickets to the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture for Friday, March 2, and we were also registered to be part of a winter bird walk Saturday. March 3 at Eastern Neck Wildlife Refuge outside of Chestertown, MD one of our favorite towns which also has two of our favorite restaurants. It would all combine into a wonderful weekend out of Philly and away from regular life. We would start Thursday in Baltimore, so we would not have a Friday with a long drive down to DC, hours spent in the museum, and then having to drive another hour and a half to Chestertown. Great plan, well thought out, solid. Routes had been mapped out by Google Maps, and we knew what time we would leave to get the weekend started. Thursday morning came, and we were ready to go.

  We spent Thursday at a hotel at BWI Airport and ate at Olive Grove, one of our favorite restaurants in the Linthicum, MD area. Our wonderful weekend away was off to a great start and we were psyched. But the truth of Mike’s saying started making itself felt subtly and shortly after we awoke. The first indication that things were not going to be as we had planned came when the rain, wind and snowstorm that hit last Friday caused all of the Smithsonian museums-indeed all of DC- to shut down that morning.  DC was pretty much locked down, and we had to re-think our Friday. No problem; Baltimore is home to the Reginald Lewis Museum of African American History in Maryland, a great museum that I have loved for years. It is just off Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and its main permanent exhibit uses photos, charts, excerpts from diaries, maps, models, and artifacts to show how people of African descent have been involved in every aspect of life in Maryland, from interactions with Native Americans in the 1500’s up to the current day. I always find something new in that exhibit, and it is always worth seeing again. The museum also had two wonderful changing exhibits: Reflections: An Intimate Portrait of Iconic African Americans, and Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched. Reflections is a photo exhibit by photographer Terrance Reese who wanted to get to know his subjects by photographing them in the rooms in their dwellings that mean and say a lot about them. The focus is at first on the rooms-each subject’s portraits are hidden in a reflected image in a mirror in the room. But in looking closely at the rooms, the search to find the reflected images takes on on journeys into and around the details of people’s bedrooms, studies, workspaces, kitchens, living rooms, and parlors and provides great insight into how these people lived and saw themselves. The 1500 word captions Reese composed also gave you a sense of who these people were and what they did. Some of them, such as Gordon Parks and activist Daisy Bates, were quite familiar to me. Others, though, such as activists Esther and James Jackson and journalist Marvel Cooke, were new people to me. But as I looked at the photos all of them came alive in a new way to me, and I learned a lot about each of them. It was both a powerful exhibit and a unique way of looking at people. And we had not planned on seeing it.

  Freedom: Emancipation Quilted and Stitched is a series of story quilts done by Joan Gathier, a gifted quilter who sees the form as a way of telling important stories, both personal and beyond, and also as a way of drawing people together to make powerful statements.  From her personal reflections of life in the decades from the 19340’s to the 1990’s, to her examination of how people in and around Baltimore reacted to and took part in Barack Obama’s campaign, her work just sang. Gaither used established traditional quilting stiches, forms  and shapes combined with original design approaches to produce works of  stunning complexity, beauty, and power. My wife, who is a quilter, was awestruck, as was I. I studied each quilt for a while, and it was a joyous, moving and exciting exhibition.

  So we had made changes in our plans, and happily so. The visit to the Lewis was wonderful and inspiring, and I was sort of glad for the switch in plans. Then it was time to leave Baltimore and drive south towards Chestertown. And that is where Mike’s words really hit home. It is normally a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Baltimore to Chestertown. Four hours later we were stuck in a line of very slowly moving traffic on route 50 and listening to the news that the Bay Bridge, the link across the Chesapeake Bay toward Chestertown, was closed- again. For the third time. We were surrounded by the snow, wind and rainstorm and had only driven some 50 miles. We decided to try to re-trace our route, go north around the Bay, and get to Chestertown that way. But the lines of traffic heading north were as long if not longer as the ones we left on route 50. It was clear that was not going to work. After another hour and half, we decided to turn around and head back to Philly.

   We thought having Google Maps on our phone would be a big help to us-it updates routes regularly and suggests better, faster routes. But almost everyone now has Google Maps on their phones; what was at 6PM the fastest route somewhere quickly became the most crowded one by 6:15PM. And we were again in another miles-long jam. We stopped at a gas station, filled up and got a snack, and that was good because the storm continued unabated and we were in a number of never-ending jams for hours. The Philly area may have been spanked by that storm, but Eastern Maryland got absolutely, royally smacked. Over a quarter of a million people lost power in the Baltimore area alone. Hundreds of power lines and trees were knocked down, damaging houses and vehicles and blocking roads. Winds of 60-70 miles an hour battered homes, tearing off roofs and shingles. Every bridge in the eastern portion of the state was closed at some point on Friday afternoon and evening as tractor trailers crossing bridges were blown onto their sides. I-95 was closed three different times. We may have had plans and even had technology with us. But the sheer power and force of nature ruled the day. Fortunately, my wife and I travel very well together, even during hard times, and we managed to support and comfort each other without losing our tempers. And some 11 hours after we first left Baltimore for the wonderful Chestertown, MD we limped into our driveway in Mt. Airy, exhausted, hungry and very, very grateful.

  I gave Mike a call on Sunday and shared our little adventure with him. He laughed and told us how his place in Abington had a tree down in the yard, some minor roof damage, and had lost power for a few hours. We spoke of our gratitude that it was not any worse for either of us and thought about people who lost homes and more and still had no power. And we thought about those who were homeless during all of this and had little or no shelter. And we once again realized that for all of our human smarts and intelligence and technical knowledge, we are but small players on a much bigger and much broader stage. And that broader stage will do whatever it is going to do, humans be damned. Yes, we affect nature in many ways; we may be making serious changes to it. But in the end, on the broader stage, we are almost irrelevant. We can make changes in nature only in small ways Nature will be here long after we a species are gone. In the final run, we are not really in control. And nature finds its ways to remind us of that.  Hopefully we can listen and respond. For as another friend of mine, Kevin, once said, “With nature, the game is never over. It is always the bottom of the ninth, and nature always has the last at bat.” I hope the storm did not cause you too much difficulty.

   (Reginald Lewis Museum
    Dr. Joan Gathier
    Project Home )