Thursday, December 31, 2009

"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..."

2009 seems to be a year that most people I know are glad to see go. Too many of my friends lost too many people this past year, the world and national political scene was a mess (thanks so much for the legacy, Dubya!), the economy sucks, and I've been out of work for two years now (or will be on Jan.2). And yet there have been some good things to come out of this year as well, especially on a personal level. I got this blog up and running on a regular basis starting in January after only sporadic posting since I started it in 2006. And I had plenty of time to hone my photographic skills and enough confidence in them that I have calendars and a photo book on the market, and a listing advertising my photographic services on Craig's List.

And today 2009 gave me a parting present. It was supposed to rain here today, and I got out of the house as soon as I could this morning to get some last photos out of the year before it started. But it never did; it snowed instead! Not much, not even two inches, and it's that godawful wet stuff, but it was certainly scenic. So here are some photos of 2009's parting gift.

(Photos from top to bottom: 1) The quarry in Ballard Park; 2) Gooseneck Cove at Hazard Rd.; 3) A pair of Hooded Mergansers on Gooseneck Cove; 4) A Hooded Merganser drake (male) on Gooseneck Cove.)

And what better way to say farewell to the old year than to see it out with a bunch of Scots in the streets of Edinburgh singing Robbie Burrrrrrns' paean to past times, "Auld Lang Syne", on Hogmanay (the Scottish version of New Year's Eve). Happy New Year everybody!

Photos & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

On Being a Pedestrian in Newport

It's not easy being a pedestrian in Newport, RI. Part of the problem is that we're a tourist resort, and visitors from elsewhere seem to have that typical tourist attitude that local traffic laws don't apply to them because they're not from here (even if the same law applies in their home states). But that's not the only problem, and there are many ways a person walking around this town can end up being a target. I want to cover three particular issues in this essay.

The first issue is the thing with crosswalks, and that is a tourist issue. It seems that people visiting from outside Rhode Island think that because they're driving a vehicle that outweighs the human body they have the unquestioned right-of-way, despite the prevalence of signs like the one pictured to the left. The chief offenders seem to be Massachusetts drivers; drivers from other "foreign" states also violate the "stop at the crosswalk" law, but not as universally as Massachusetts drivers. In fact, Massachusetts drivers tend to ignore a wide range of Rhode Island traffic laws with impunity and are seen to be such a nuisance on our roads that they're known as "Massholes" from Little Compton to Chepachet and Westerly to Woonsocket. [Note: If there are any Massachusetts residents reading this who are offended, don't take it up with me; have a talk with your fellow citizens who seem to think they have a right to come down here to RI to act like idiots on the road.]

But as far as crosswalks go, out-of-state drivers (MA drivers especially) seem to think they're just meaningless painted decorations on the road, and any pedestrians walking on them are art lovers who have gotten carried away with their admiration and are in the way of people with places to go and things to see. They lean out their windows and yell, they lean on their horns, they flip you the bird... I even had a guy (wouldn't you know it, MA plates on the car!) swerve around me, beeping and screaming at me to get out of the road, in the crosswalk in front of the police station on Broadway. I got the satisfaction of watching him get busted on that one!

Another issue is roadside puddles and the urge in people with IQs less than 75 (how did they get a driver's license in the first place?) to drive through them to douse any hapless bystanders. This isn't a tourist issue, this is purely a local one. If you're ever in Newport and are walking near any low-lying areas where rain or snow-melt settle to create miniature lakes, keep an eye out for old, sagging cars or pick-ups full of kids who look like candidates for Jerry Springer's studio audience, because if you see one of those you're about to get soaked. And it's not an unavoidable accident; you can see them swerve out of their current path to deliberately hit the puddle, and you can hear the hilarity in the car as they pass you by. And believe me, if they get busted (and yes, it's a fineable offense; it's called "operating a vehicle in a reckless manner") they always try to claim it was an accident and they didn't know there was a small inland sea there. Yeah, right!

But by far the clearest danger to pedestrians comes in Winter. It's a sad fact that large segments of the population of Newport don't clear the sidewalk in front of their homes after a snow. It's not universal throughout town; the main commercial drags are easy to walk through afterwards, as are some of the older ethnic neighborhoods (the Irish, Portuguese, and Italian enclaves in town). But surprise, surprise! It's the ritzier neighborhoods of the moneyed WASPs and the yuppie enclaves in town who never, ever shovel or use a snow-blower. In the WASP neighborhoods they plow out their driveways so their cars can get out, but the sidewalk remains covered. And in town in the yuppie enclaves you can see the path cleared from the front door to their SUV, but the rest of the sidewalk remains untouched. It's as if their money exempts them from civic responsibility.

The one that really cracks me up is a house on the corner of two main drags in one of the WASPier neighborhoods. The black Lexus SUV that's parked in the driveway had a McCain/Palin bumper sticker during the last election, and its predecessor (a Saab stationwagon) had Bush/Cheney bumper stickers in the two previous elections. And the sidewalk in front of their house is never cleared of snow; they just clear the driveway. There have been times when I've wanted to knock on the door and ask if membership in the Republican Party engenders a laissez faire attitude toward civic responsibilty, or if it's the pre-existing attitude that leads to membership in the party.

In any event, walking around Newport in the aftermath of a snowfall can be a tricky proposition; you spend as much time walking out in the street because the sidewalk's impassable as you do walking off the street on a cleared sidewalk. And when the road is a busy one and slippery on its own account, that uncleared sidewalk enters the realm of being a public safety issue. In fact, there is a municipal ordinance that states that the sidewalk in front of your house needs to be cleared and passable within 48 hours of the end of the snowfall, and failure to comply results in a fine. I really wish the city would start to enforce that one; given the amount of uncleared walks I encountered after this last storm, the city could collect enough money to lower the property tax rate!

So there you have it, the perils of being a pedestrian in Newport, RI. Pass at your own risk!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Winter, Sea, & Fog

Some shots taken on the Cliff Walk this afternoon.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Christmas Day on Gooseneck Cove

So I went wandering down to my usual stomping grounds on Christmas Day. Not much going on in Ballard Park, and the pristine snow of the day after the storm was no longer pristine. Gooseneck Cove was a different story, though.

There are less Mallards on the Hazard Rd. end of the Cove, due to the increase in salinity from the restoration project, and Mallards are primarily fresh water birds. Where there used to be hundreds hanging around Hazard Rd., now there are only two or three dozen of them, and mostly in the less saline backwater to the east of the road. But there are plenty of other birds. This Great Blue Heron, also to the east of the road, saw me before I saw it, but it only flew a little way away, and we had a nice photo shoot.

Then there were two Mute Swans over on the main part of the Cove to the west of the road. They were feeding on water plants while this large flock of napping American Black Ducks floated around them. I've always wondered how ducks managed that; not only do they float there serenely with their bills tucked under their wings, they even move along, sometimes at a good clip. Absolutely amazing!

And finally, there was this Hooded Merganser hen. She stayed fairly close by, but she obviously was not happy with my presence, and kept letting out raucous croaks the whole time I was around, but she refused to retreat. So I got lots of good shots of her, but I chose this one because there was more personality in the face than in the other shots.

And that's what I was up to on Christmas Day!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Christmas in the Trenches

It's a sad fact that down through the ages the celebration of the birth of the Prince of Peace has been overshadowed by war, and men and boys (and now women as well) have spent that day trying to kill other men and boys. Despite the fact that Jesus advocated peace and advised his followers:
"You have heard that it was said, An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you.

"You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust." (Matthew 5:38-45)
Unfortunately humankind seems to find war necessary, and developed the theory of a just war in order to satisfy their need despite claiming to be followers of the man who gave that sermon above. And so men kill each other on a day which is supposed to be given over to peace.

But every now and then the spirit of the season overtakes the smoke and flames of war and something beautiful happens. At the very beginning of World War I just such an event occurred, on Christmas Eve of 1914. On that night German, British, and French forces facing each other across "No Man's Land" from their trenches, began singing Christmas carols, and joined in when carols shared between the cultures came up. Eventually the troops came out of the trenches and met in No Man's Land, sharing food, drink, and cigarettes, said Christmas Mass together, and collected the dead in No Man's Land and gave them a proper burial. Even the artillery fell silent, perhaps in recognition of the feeling sweeping that night. The High Command on both sides of the conflict were furious, and the British commanders actually ordered increased artillery bombardment on Christmas Eve for the remainder of the war.

But for one night in the midst of one of the most devastating conflicts in history the combatants laid down their arms and celebrated together. And that night has been celebrated ever since, on stage, in the movies, and in song. I want to share one of those movies and one of those songs with you.

In 2005 French film-maker Christian Carion wrote and directed Joyeux Noël, a film about this wondrous night. It focuses on French and Scottish forces facing German forces, how they came to leave the safety of the trenches to celebrate Christmas together in No Mans Land, how it affected individuals involved, and its consequences for some of those individuals. I first came across it two years ago, and I've made it a "tradition" to watch it on Christmas Eve every year since. You can read about the movie here and here. At the moment I just want to show you what the movie looks and sounds like. The first video is the trailer for the movie, and the second is a collection of the musical scenes. I highly recommend finding a copy to watch!

Probably the most famous song to come out of the Christmas Truce of 1914 is John McCutcheon's "Christmas in the Trenches", telling the story of that night through the experience of a British soldier, one Francis Tollever from Liverpool. I chose this video version especially because John prefaces the song with the story of the elderly German former soldiers who came to one of his concerts to listen in sheer joy; they'd been there that night but nobody would believe their tale, so it was good to hear someone verify their stories.

The most telling part of the song is the last verse, where Francis as an old man recalls the lessons learned that night:
"The ones who call the shots won't be among the dead and lame,
And on each end of the rifle we're the same."
Amen! Someone, I forget who, said that if the old men who declared war were the ones who actually had to fight it, we'd have world peace overnight. This song and the movie Joyeux Noël pretty much make that point! Enjoy! And have a Merry Christmas!

Photo & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Seasonal Scenes

Just some shots taken while walking the streets of Newport today and yesterday, catching the town in festive garb amidst the snow of the weekend storm. Even though the next two days may take us close to 40ºF (4ºC), most of that snow will still be there for a white Christmas.

Okay, I can't help myself. I deliberately mentioned a white Christmas up there because that's where my mind is these days. I just contributed a post to the Just A Song blog yesterday, the subject being Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" as sung by Bing Crosby, and I posted the famous clip from the movie Holiday Inn. So forgive me if I post the video again. I just can't help myself!

Photos & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Monday, December 21, 2009

Glad Yule! Joyous Solstice!

O Winter! ruler of the inverted year, . . .
I crown thee king of intimate delights,
Fireside enjoyments, home-born happiness,
And all the comforts that the lowly roof
Of undisturb'd Retirement, and the hours
Of long uninterrupted evening, know.
William Cowper

This year's Solstice video, featuring "In the Winter's Pale" by Tim Story:

And my favorite Winter Solstice song, Jethro Tull's "Ring Out Solstice Bells". I found this original promotional clip for the song, complete with great animation. Glad Yule! Have a blessed Solstice, by whatever name you give it and however you celebrate it!

Photo & lettering art © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger
PS - Check back on Christmas Eve, I have a very special post coming.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

One Year to the Day

Last year on Dec. 19 we got a monster snow storm which lasted into the morning hours of Dec. 20. I wandered around on the 20th taking pictures and posted a photo essay on Wouldn't you know it, but this year we got another monster storm on the same dates. So of course I was out with the camera today after I shoveled the walks here.

There were differences between the storms. Last year's storm happened in warmer temperatures and the snow was heavy and wet, so while it was heavy as all get-out to shovel it was also very scenic because it stuck to everything and it was warm enough for me to cover a lot of territory in comfort. This year it was much colder and the snow was lighter and drier, so while it was a joy to shovel, I couldn't stay out in certain places because the wind and cold were more than I was willing to put up with. I pretty much stuck to Ballard Park because the wind whipping across Hazard Rd. made it to tough to photograph due to frozen fingers. So here's Ballard Park in the snow again this year, and on the same date as last year.

The Wickham Rd. entrance to the park. As you can see, I was the first one to walk in that snow!

The Twin Ledges Trail above the Quarry.

Looking down into the swamp from the Joseph Cotton Overlook. As you can see, it was still snowing.

The path down to the small stream that runs through the middle of the park. I loved the lacy look of the snow on the shrubs.

The Southwest Trail. Still no footprints. I was all alone in the park with ALL THAT SNOW! This is called Roy-Heaven.

There were a whole flock of Robins feeding on the berries in this tree on the fringes of the Quarry.

The Quarry face in snow. If you look closely you can even see icicles hanging from the rocks.

The snow was very deep in the park, deeper than last year. There were times along some of the trails when it was up past my knees. Coming down the trail from the Joseph Cotton Overlook I found a hole that the snow had successfully hidden. I went down, and I found out that at that point the snow was waist deep to me, so figure at least three feet (approx. 1 meter). Heh, heh! It took me a while to get out of that one.

But walking in snow that deep (O how I wish now that I'd bought those snowshoes 5 years ago!) got to me; my back hurts (I have the heating pad back there as I type this) and I have no legs at this point. But I was well-dusted in snow and breathing nice, crisp, clean air. I'm tired and sore, but boy howdy am I happy!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, December 18, 2009

Is There Really a "War on Christmas"?

I've been hearing about this "war on Christmas" a lot in the past few years; a lot of people on Fox News, like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck, and the Dobson family's Focus on the Family empire and Don and Tim Wildmon's American Family Association (AFA) seem to think it's the real deal. And yet everywhere I look there are trees with lights, wreaths, Holly, people wandering neighborhood streets caroling... You get the idea. Somehow there doesn't seem to be any kind of "war" going on. So what's the beef?

One of the complaints is that the "Christ" has been taken out of Christmas. But if you really, carefully look at the situation, there's not much Christ in Christmas in the first place, at least concerning when and how Christmas has been celebrated down through the ages. Take the date: tradition has assigned December 25 as the date of Jesus' birth. But on what evidence? Certainly not on the Bible's testimony; there's no way to figure out when Jesus was born from the Gospels. Neither Mark nor John even include a birth narrative. Matthew's narrative is minimal at best, no mention of shepherds and their flocks, but we get the visit by the Magi (Matthew 1:18 - 2:12). Luke's is the narrative we're all familiar with - the shepherds and the multitude of angels (but no Magi) - but there's no way to tell when Jesus was born, even to the season of the year (Luke 2:1-20). [Note: Feel free to click on those links and read for yourself. I'll wait...]

So if there's no clue in the Gospels as to when Jesus was born, where did December 25 come from? Well, there just happened to be a lot of Winter Solstice celebrations around at the same time in the world Christianity developed in - the Roman Saturnalia from the 17th to the 23rd, the later Roman feast of Sol Invictus on the 25th, and the Germanic (Yule, Jul) and the Gaulish Celtic (Deuorius Riuri) solstice observances. Early Christianity was in direct "competition" with all of these contemporary religious cultures, and apparently it was seen as a best bet to make the birthday of the founder of their religion to be at the same time to establish legitimacy and eventually superiority. So the date of Jesus' birth was set on a date that had nothing to do with him and his teachings, but was a matter of convenience and "public relations".

Interestingly, very early Christianity seems not to have celebrated Christmas at all. I found this interesting little tidbit in the Wikipedia article on Saturnalia:
There is no evidence scripturally or secularly that early Christians in the first century commemorated the birth of Jesus Christ. In fact, in keeping with early Jewish law and tradition, it is likely that birthdays were not commemorated at all. According to The World Book Encyclopedia: "early Christians considered the celebration of anyone's birth to be a pagan custom." (Vol. 3, page 416) Rather than commemorate his birth, the only command Jesus gave concerning a commemoration of his life of any sort actually had to do only with his death (Luke 22:19). It was not until several hundred years after the death of Jesus Christ that the first instances of the celebration of Christmas begin to appear in the historical record.
Which, of course, coincides with the cult of Sol Invictus gaining supremacy in the Roman Empire, thus becoming Christianity's chief rival. And the birth of the god Sol Invictus was celebrated on December 25. Not too hard to connect the dots, is it?

As to how the holiday is celebrated... Most of the traditions and symbols of Christmas come from the earlier religions Christianity set out to supplant. An evergreen tree hung with decorations and lights? Taken from the German Yule tradition. Garlands and wreaths of evergreens and Holly? Taken from just about all the European Winter Solstice celebrations (including the Roman), as evergreens symbolized the continuation of life through the dark, dead months of Winter. Mistletoe? Taken from Celtic and Germanic solstice traditions. The giving of gifts? Taken from both Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, both of which included the giving of gifts in their celebrations. Santa Claus? The legend of the child-friendly Christian St. Nicholas superimposed on the pre-Christian Celtic and Germanic figures of the Winter King/Holly King, who ruled over Winter. And of course the whole thing with candles comes from the bonfires and lights which burned in the dark forests of Europe to symbolize the return of the sun on the year's longest nights.

So, to recapitulate: The birth of Christ is celebrated on a date that has nothing to do with him but rather with older traditions of celebrating the Winter Solstice, and using customs which have nothing to do with him and more to do with said older solstice celebrations. So how can you take Christ out of Christmas when he's not really in there in the first place? Christ may have been grafted onto the old ways with interesting results, but still, when all is said and done, Christmas is really Christian in name only.

Oh, and the whole "Xmas" thing? That's not all about x-ing Christ out of Christmas. In fact, it's an old Christian tradition - X in the Greek alphabet is Chi, which is the first letter of Christos (Χριστός), meaning the "annointed one", a direct Greek translation of the Hebrew Mashiakh (מָשִׁיחַ) - messiah. So much for crossing Christ out of Christmas, eh?

So, how else is war supposedly being waged on Christmas? Well, apparently it's persecuting Christians to say "Happy Holidays" to people instead of "Merry Christmas". Ditto companies who say "holiday" instead of "Christmas" in their seasonal advertising. The AFA puts out a list of companies to be boycotted because of this "persecution" of Christmas, which includes The Gap, The Home Depot, Best Buy, Target, etc. None of those companies seem to have suffered from the boycott.

So why say "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas"? Because unlike even 50 years ago, America has become much more diverse. We have increasing populations of non-Christian religions in the US, and many of them celebrate solstice or other holidays at this time of year: Hanukkah in Judaism, a growing trend of celebrating Kwanzaa in the African-American community, the emergence of Ameratsu from her cave among the Japanese, Soyal among the Hopi and the Zuni peoples, and of course the celebrating of the Winter Solstice, often referred to as Yule, by the steadily growing neo-Pagan community. Retailers don't want to offend prospective customers, so the polite thing to do is to refer to "The Holidays" rather than pick a specific holiday out of the crowd.

Besides, how can you tell what religion a person is just by looking at them? A blonde, blue eyed friend of mine who just happens to be Jewish is often wished a Merry Christmas this time of year, and she usually responds with "Thank you! And a Happy Hanukkah to you!" Nine times out of ten this is an occasion for laughter and further good-natured conversation. But there's always that tenth who feels that he/she has been insulted and "persecuted" by that response.

This thinking also applies to Christmas displays on public, government-owned properties, and to Christmas celebrations in the public schools. The First Amendment to the US Constitution forbids the government to adopt a particular religion. In the beginning this was meant to keep any particular religious dogma from imposing itself on the public in general. It still has this function, but it also functions as a means of keeping the peace in the culturally diverse society we've become. Personally, I wouldn't mind seeing a Nativity scene set up on the Town Hall lawn, as long as there are provisions that anyone else can set up a holiday display as well, such as a menorah for Hanukkah and such. But whenever such a compromise has been suggested, people start arguing even louder. So really, it's best that government stay right out of the whole religion business.

Of course, the retort to that solution is usually "Christians are in the majority, and the majority rules in any vote." And in fact that's wrong; the Constitution was written to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority. Everywhere you look in the Constitution and in Constitutional law, the law is always written to preserve the rights of the minority. Besides, Christianity is losing its edge as the majority in the religious make-up of the US; it's becoming just another face in a rather large crowd.

The worst part about all this is that most Christians have no problem with this. And many of us who are in the "minority" crowd have no problems, either. I've gone caroling in the streets of Newport with a diverse group of people that includes several flavors of Christians, some Pagans, some Jews, and even a stray Buddhist (albeit American-born) from time to time. We enjoy being together and sharing our customs for this time of year. And isn't gathering together and sharing of our own, adding warmth and light to the long, cold, dark nights of Winter what Winter Solstice celebrations are all about, anyhow?

Unfortunately there's a small but very vocal (and very media-savvy) group of hard-line "Christians" who insist that recognition of any belief or culture outside of their own is anti-Christian persecution. It's very passive-agressive behavior, this rolling up into the fetal position and screaming "VICTIM" whenever any belief outside their own is recognized and acknowledged; if you don't love only them then you must hate them, therefor they're victims of persecution. They remind me of not-very-well-behaved 3-year-olds - they haven't learned to share. In fact, they refuse to share and throw a temper tantrum whenever they're asked to; this is "their" country and it needs to be run according to "their" religion and anybody who isn't of "their" religion needs either to convert or go somewhere else. Anybody who has dealt with small children recognizes this reaction! "It's MINE! and I WON'T share it!"

So is there really a war being waged on Christmas? Actually, I think there is; it's being waged by the Dobsons and the Wildmons and the O'Reillys and the Becks of this world, ruining everybody's happy, warm Winter holiday with their scowls and their scolding and their selfishness. If they want to see the real Scrooge in all this, all they have to do is look in the mirror.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, December 17, 2009

A Lively Experiment (Re-post)

[Note: Lately I've been thinking about the recent moves by the religious right to try to assert dominance over the national scene, so I've decided to re-post two previous blog posts dealing with the issue of religion in American history. The first is a response to the move by the Indiana legislature and others to redefine "religious freedom" as the freedom to discriminate against those who aren't of their own particular belief. This was first published in 2008 and published again in December of 2009. I no longer live in Rhode Island, but to me this article represents the true spirit of freedom of religion and should be relevant wherever we live in the US. In a couple of days I'll re-publish another article on the uninformed idea that the US was created as a "Christian nation". Both of these articles got much positive response on this blog, but when published on the old they stirred up a bit of controversy.]

Rhode Island has a history of religious tolerance and freedom of conscience. It was originally a sanctuary for those fleeing the despotism of the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony; Roger Williams, founding father of the American Baptist movement, settled on the mainland at the head of Narragansett Bay, while Anne Hutchinson and her followers settled on Aquidneck Island (officially known as Rhode Island). In 1663 the two entities united as a single colony and were granted a charter by Charles II, the charter itself being written by Dr. John Clarke of Newport.

The key phrase in that charter declared: "... that it is much on their hearts (if they may be permitted), to hold forth a lively experiment, that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained... with a full liberty in religious concerns." The charter further declared: "... that our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony, at any time hereafter, shall be in any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences of opinion in matters of religion, and do not actually disturb the civil peace of our said colony; but that all and every person and persons may, from time to time and at all times hereafter, freely and fully have and enjoy his and their own judgments and consciences in matters of religious concerns..."

The freedom of conscience guaranteed in the charter created in Rhode Island, and especially in Newport, a truly amazing religious diversity that added to the cultural wealth of its society. The Society of Friends (Quakers) became a major presence in Newport (which was the capital city of the colony, and later the state, until well into the 19th Century), and their Great Meeting House (built in 1699) eventually became the host of the New England Yearly Meeting of the Society (the New England Yearly Meeting was one of the sources of the Abolition movement).

In 1658 fifteen Jewish families moved to Newport after hearing of the colony's "lively experiment" and founded the Congregation Jeshuat Israel. In 1759 the congregation purchased land and hired famed colonial architect Peter Harrison to design Touro Synagogue (named after Isaac Touro, the congregation's first spiritual leader). The synagogue was finished and dedicated in 1763, and is still standing today. Touro Synagogue also played a major role in establishing religious freedom in the newly established United States when a member of the congregation wrote to George Washington, who replied with his famous "To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport" , which stated that the government of the United States "gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance..."

The Quaker and Jewish presences in Newport aren't the only result of that colonial charter, just the most famous. Newport is dotted with old buildings that, at the start of their history, served as houses of worship for small gatherings of believers: the Union Congregational Church on Division St., the first free African-American church in America; the Sabbatarian Meeting House on Touro St., now the home of the Newport Historical Society; The John Clarke Memorial Church on Spring St., one of the first churches of the American Baptist movement (and now pastored by a good friend of mine, Paul Hanson, a very genial, easy-going guy with a dry, wicked sense of humor); St. Paul's Methodist on Marlborough St., the first Methodist church to sport a steeple; and a score of other former churches which, like the Union Congregational church, have since been converted to residences.

Because of the vision of the founders of the colony, and because of the guarantee of freedom of conscience written into their colonial charter at their request, Newport has a rich spiritual heritage and holds a major place in the development of the concept of religious freedom in the history of the United States. It's something we take pride in here, and something we celebrate.

But look back at that original charter, that guarantee that within the colony no one would be pressured, harassed, punished, or otherwise disturbed because they enjoyed freedom of religious belief. How refreshing that is! And how far from the current state of affairs in the contemporary US, where we have a major effort being launched by religious despots, direct descendants of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, to impose their beliefs and their methods of governance on the people and the government of the United States. People who consider freedom of conscience to be "slack", "lax", "lazy", and most important of all, a sin. People who think that those who believe differently than they must either be converted or punished and removed from "their" society. People who would re-write our history to accommodate their own vision of what that history should have been. People who view any kind of diversity as evil.

The colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations gained great benefit from their practice of freedom of conscience. Given the present situation, I think it's time that our entire country revived that "lively experiment." What say you?

Photos & text © 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Tuesday, December 15, 2009


The past two days I've been out shooting pictures to use in this week's Theme Thursday post, and while chasing down scenes that would fit my own take on the "History" theme, I also came across these off-topic shots I couldn't resist.

This pair of Red-breasted Mergansers were paddling along on Newport Harbor off King Park on the south end of the harbor. That's the male (called a "drake") in the front and the female (called a "hen") behind him. We get a lot of these here in the Winter, both in the harbor and in the quieter coves and backwaters along the ocean shore.

Nantucket Lightship WLV612, docked in Newport Shipyard. Lightships were anchored near the Nantucket Shoals to act as a floating lighthouse in a dangerous bit of offshore water. The lightship was replaced by a Large Navigational Buoy in September of 1983. For all intents and purposes 612 was the last lightship, but she was replaced one day before the station was taken over by the LNB by her sister ship Lightship Ambrose, which in the records became 613 and technically the last Nantucket Lightship. WLV612 has been converted to a luxury yacht (pretty good for a working ship built in 1950!) and does charters out of Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket, Newport, and New York, and her home dock is now in the North Cove Marina in NYC. It looks like she's at Newport Shipyard for a little fitting and sprucing up before going home for the holidays.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Weekend Birds

I've gotten some serious birding time in this weekend. Yesterday I hit the Cliff Walk with the intention of seeing if I could find any Harlequins and Goldeneyes. No luck there,but I did see a group of about a dozen Greater Scaup equally divided between male and female. Below is a decent shot of one of the drakes.

Today was the last Sunday bird walk of the year; we'll take the holidays off and start up again on January 10. Today we went up to Sisson and St. Mary's Ponds, a great place for birding. On Sisson Pond we actually saw 5 Great Blue Herons along with the usual Canada Geese. Both ponds were frozen, so there weren't many waterfowl hanging around, although we did see a great many Common Mergansers and Ruddy Ducks flying by overhead. The fields surrounding the ponds were a treasure trove, though. Today we saw: 3 Red-tailed, 1 Cooper's, 1 Sharp-shinned, and 1 Northern Harrier hawks; some fairly large flocks of House finches with some Goldfinches hanging out with them; a large flock of Mourning Doves in the trees; surprisingly, 2 or 3 Marsh Wrens; and Sparrows - Tree, Swamp, Savannah, House, and glory hallelujah, a Vesper Sparrow who I managed to get a decent shot of.

After the bird walk I ended up down at Ballard Park and Gooseneck Cove, where I got shots of a Black-capped Chickadee and some Mallards. I was beginning to think the Mallards had abandoned Gooseneck Cove because of the higher salinity brought by the restoration project. Today there were about 2 dozen, which was good but still far below their usual numbers, and all on the backwater to the east of Hazard Rd. where the salt content is lower. I stil think I'm going to have to go elsewhere if I want to see crowds of Mallards.

Below we have the Vesper Sparrow near Sisson Pond (left), and the Black-capped Chickadee in Ballard Park (right).

And some Mallards, a drake and two hens, on Gooseneck Cove.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Friday, December 11, 2009

Gooseneck Cove in Four Seasons

Not long ago Baino dropped a hint that she'd like to see a post on Gooseneck Cove through the seasons. Good idea, thinks I! Except I couldn't do it justice in my usual photo essay format. Of course, I do have a calendar for sale on dealing with that very subject (a reproduction of the cover is above), and I even have a photo album made up of the pictures used in the calendar. Still, only 12 pictures just doesn't do the seasonal changes on Gooseneck Cove proper justice. So I've put together this slideshow to really look at the effect the turning of the Wheel of the Year has on my favorite place in the world - Gooseneck Cove. The musical accompaniment is "At First Sight" by Paul McCandless from his 1992 CD Premonition. The tune is about love at first sight, and that was exactly my reaction to the Cove the first time I saw it. Enjoy!

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Theme Thursday - Snow

Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound's the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

– Robert Frost, 1953

And now to the videos! It isn't Winter up here in New England until the Boston Pops Orchestra plays Leroy Anderson's "Sleigh Ride". Here's the previous maestro, conductor and composer John Williams, doing the honors, accompanying shots of horses and sleighs in snow.

And of course there's always the "Winter" suite from Antonio Vivaldi's The Four Seasons, here accompanied by a slideshow (not mine) of snow photos.

Photos & non-poetic text © 2008 & 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger
[Note: The photos are from last year's "Solstice Storm" here in Newport, taken on December 20, 2008, the day after the storm (although as you can see from some of the shots there was still some light snow happening). All shots were taken in Ballard Park.]

Tuesday, December 08, 2009


My friend Bob came down from S. Carver, MA to visit today. She had bought two of my Yule photo books from, one for herself and one for a gift, and wanted me to sign them. But of course Bob and I don't just get together for such mundane projects; a visit from her means we go out to see stuff, and I'd promised to show her Fort Adams and Brenton Point today. On past occasions we went to places together that were new to both of us, so that we both took lots of pictures. But today we were going to places that are regular hangouts for me, and I was so busy playing tour guide that I didn't get to take many photos. However, at one point in our tour of Brenton Point Bob decided to go over the fence and investigate the old ruins of the stables, so I took the opportunity to take some interesting shots of some of the windows in the stables which had caught my attention. I think it was the angle the shots were taken from that intrigued me so. I had thought to do these in black & white, but you lose the moss and lichen and the graffiti in b&w, so I left them alone in color. The last shot is Bob in her normal mode, rushing from one photo opportunity to the next.

© 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger

Sunday, December 06, 2009


Seeds and berries are Mama Gaia's storage system to keep the means of getting Spring started again preserved through the cold months of the Winter sleep. Below are White Wood Aster seed heads and Winterberries in Ballard Park.

These things always remind me of the old harvest hymn, "We Plough the Fields and Scatter", especially the first verse:
We plow the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land,
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand;
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
This describes so well the cyclical nature of the growth process, with the swelling of the grain in the Spring, growing and coming to fruition in Summer, the harvest in Autumn, and rest in Winter. Here's the original hymn.

Of course, if you're a child of the '60s you probably recognize the words but remember a different tune to them. John-Michael Tebelak used the old hymn in his musical Godspell, and his collaborator Stephen Schwarz set the words to haunting, evocative new music.

Hmmm... Sometimes a simple picture can take me to some far-flung places!

Photos & text © 2009 by A. Roy Hilbinger