Greater HoneyguideHome About Peter CashwellThe verb To BirdJournalResources/Bibliography

Greater Honeyguide About Peter Cashwell



I'm currently sitting at a table at my local cafe--for a revised definition of "local"--enjoying a brunch on this, the first day I don't have to drive back to Madison County to get more stuff out of the old house.


Life is good.

12:06 PM

The Way We Live Now

A few changes:

We're in a third-floor walkup apartment, sans kids.
We're down to two bedrooms and one bath.
There's a coffee shop within two blocks of us.
Next door to it is an African/Caribbean restaurant.
A bit beyond that is a convenience store, a bike shop, and a garage--all within easy walking distance.
Across the street from us is one of Richmond's best and least crowded parks.
At the far side of the park, about half a mile away, is the James River.
If we go a dozen blocks west, we find a pizzeria, a Chinese restaurant, and an Irish pub.
Near that are a library, a comics store, and an Italian restaurant.
We're a bit more than a mile from a bridge into downtown RVA, and we can be on Cary Street in under ten minutes.

I think I could get used to this.

9:03 PM

Last Night

To say I'm exhausted is to understate the case; I've been packing now for over a week, and tomorrow I get up to get the moving van, and when our helpers come at 9:30, we're off to start a new chapter of our lives in Richmond. The excitement that accompanies such a new chapter will doubtless start to seep back into our spirits sometime next week, but right now it's hard to do anything but look around this house and think about what's happened here. We moved in back in the summer of 2008, when both boys were still in high school, and now they've both graduated from college and are fully out of the nest. I cannot express my gratitude to both Ian and Dixon for what they've done this weekend helping us get ready for the move, and what they'll doubtless be helping us do as we settle into the town where they've lived for the last six and four years, respectively.

But honestly, right now I can't really process what's happening. I'm getting ready to leave the place where I've lived and worked for the last two decades, and what lies ahead is a great unknown. All I know is that I've loved a great many things about this school, not least because it was such a good environment in which to raise our kids. For all the stress, the unrelenting pace, and the frustrations of having to mix career and home life to an extraordinary degree, Woodberry Forest School helped make our children into the men they are, and that's not something we (or they) will ever forget.

Starting tomorrow, I'll look out my window on a very different landscape. I'll have different needs and different expectations, but I'll keep the memories of this place forever, and the ways in which it brought possibilities into being.

100_2475.JPGAmici usque ad aras.

11:33 PM

Quitting Time

With a click of my mouse, I just submitted my final comments ever as a faculty member at Woodberry Forest School.

The last message on my screen before I closed the program for the last time was:

"Are you sure you want to quit?"

A good question.

And here's my answer.

PC on Hawksbill.jpg

2:43 PM

First Principles

No one has ever asked me what my favorite Constitutional Amendment is, but if pressed, I'd have to say it's good old Numero Uno. The First Amendment offers a great many things I value, including protection of my rights to speak my mind, publish what I think, and assemble with like-minded individuals, but at its core, I think the most important guarantees it makes are those involving freedom of religion. I am not alone in this; it's arguable that the Founders put  religion in the first two clauses of the First Amendment because they too considered it the most important topic the Bill of Rights had to address, and there are certainly millions of Americans whose lives, liberties, and various pursuits of happiness depend on the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause.

One such group of people is the self-identified Religious Right. Obviously, if the first adjective you choose to describe yourself is "religious," then you'd better be pretty darned aware of what the Constitution says about the way that adjective works. Sadly, however, I see all too many cases where the "Religious" part seems subservient to the "Right" part--and this "Right" refers to a political wing, not to something protected by Amendment I.

This article by Damon Linker, appearing in The Week, discusses something called the "Benedict Option," a proposed withdrawal of the Religious Right from the political sphere. Speaking as an individual whose disputes with the RR have been legion, ranging everywhere from the science classroom to the movie theater to the boudoir to the justice of the peace's office, I can't say I'd be sorry to see this withdrawal take place, but I find myself fascinated by Linker's points about it. He begins with a history of the Moral Majority, a group whose very name makes two bold (and unsupported) assertions about America: first, that only those supporting Jerry Falwell's ideology are moral, and second, that said group makes up a majority of Americans. Linker rolls with it, noting that the evangelical Protestants were able to form a coalition with conservative Catholics, Mormons, Jews, and others to advance their shared agenda, overcoming the opposition of various elite powers (Hollywood, bureaucrats, universities, etc.) through sheer numbers.

Now, however, the numbers have shifted. Positions that the Religious Right has held fiercely--especially its opposition to gay marriage--have left them in a minority position. Attempts by state legislatures to permit anti-gay discrimination, most carefully couched as bills protecting religious freedom, have drawn intense and high-profile criticism from Democrats and business-minded Republicans alike. As Linker puts it:

Suddenly social conservatives began to think the unthinkable: Is it possible that we're now in the minority, with our freedoms subject to the whims of a hostile majority that will use the power of the modern liberal state (especially anti-discrimination laws) to enforce public conformity to secular, anti-Christian norms?

This is the fascinating thing: that in a nation where 70-75% of the people identify themselves as Christians (according to the 2010 census), the Religious Right is beginning to see itself as outnumbered by the roughly 23% who identify as irreligious.

Of course, it's correct, but not in the way it likes to think. The RR remains a part of a hugely dominant religious majority, one so ingrained into our culture that we don't find it even remotely surprising that our government shuts down to observe the birthday of Christ. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was famously surprised that a cross might not be the universal marker for every dead American, and every cent of U.S. currency proclaims the nation's trust in the Abrahamic deity. If the RR believes our modern nation is anti-Christian, all I can say is that our modern nation isn't doing a very effective job.

But while their religion is very much in the majority, the RR is increasingly outnumbered in a political sense; while millions of Christians worship in the same churches, using the same texts, singing the same hymns, and celebrating the same holidays, only a minority of them are engaged in trying to enshrine their beliefs in law. These people are certainly Religious, and they may even be politically on the Right side of the spectrum, but they also understand the First Amendment: that their Christian beliefs get government protection precisely because they give up government promotion.

The problem is, too many members of the RR see their politics and their religion as interchangeable. If they cannot use the power of the government to promote their own faith's teachings, they consider the government opposed to them. That's why, when a judge points out that a law violates the Constitution, I am so amused by cries of "Judicial activism!" from the RR; if a judge allows unconstitutional laws to stand, how can the RR's churches be protected?

But the most interesting thing about this article, in my opinion, is its anti-democratic (small D) philosophy. It's one I've observed in other areas of right-wing thought over the last twenty-odd years, to the point where I'm beginning to think it's a fundamental tenet of American conservatism: if victory can't be guaranteed, don't play.

We see this in the various GOP attempts to limit voting, whether by ID requirements, elimination of electronic registration, or even (while we're on the subject of Constitutional ignorance) the recent attempt by Ohio Republicans to reinstate a poll tax. We see it in the relentless gerrymandering of state and Congressional districts--an activity which is, I hasten to point out, enormously popular among Democrats as well--and in the Supreme Court decision that cut off the recount in Florida in 2000, a decision that basically said it's more important to declare a victor than to enforce the rules of the game. We even see it in the various attempts to deny President Obama's eligibility for office, the idea being that if he can't be beaten in an actual election, some authority will just have to vacate the win.

When Linker says this:

Then again, this may be the first time in American history that devout Christians have been forced by events to accept without doubt that they are a minority in a majority secular nation.

he reveals a number of misunderstandings. America is and always has been a secular nation--by design; the vast majority of the citizens aren't secular, but the nation itself is. Nor are "devout Christians" necessarily conservative Christians. For Linker to proclaim the Benedict Option as a necessary response to recent developments simply proves that he doesn't understand the Constitution, or Christianity, or politics, or even basic math.

If Linker and his cohorts withdraw from politics because they believe themselves too good for the rest of us, I can't say I'll shed a tear on their behalf. But if they can accept that they are a minority in the political sense, rather than the religious sense, then perhaps they can start figuring out what they need to do to attract more voters. Because that's ultimately what this is about.

The Religious Right wants God (or some similar authority) to give them the America they want by fiat; unfortunately, the gods of democracy help those who help themselves.

1:52 PM

Four for Four

As of May 8th, 2015, our household contains 100% college graduates. This was accomplished through several methods, one via addition, one via subtraction. The addition method culminating in a trip to Richmond to watch Dixon take his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree in Theater Performance* from Virginia Commonwealth University--a method which apparently caused him a bit of existential terror:

DSC02624.JPGThe subtractive method, of course, has involved reducing the number of people in the household by watching him leave it, on a basis which may not be total, but which will likely be permanent. He'll be in Richmond for a few more months, living in his own apartment while he and his roommates finish their production of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, but on top of that, his household is vanishing, too. Along with his parents, his brother, and his Special Lady Friend, he spent the last weekend rooting through our house trying to make decisions about what to keep and what to throw away.** Whatever else happens, we can be fairly sure that our four nuclear family members have spent the last night they will ever spend together in this house.

That's a little stressful to think about, particularly as Kelly and I have not found a place of our own in Richmond yet, and I still have a few more classes to teach, and oh yeah exams are next week, but at least we've been able to weed a significant number of books, as well as a number of clothes and a few items of furniture. It's a process we'll be continuing over the next four weeks or so.

But for the moment, rather than focusing on the way the additional college degrees have resulted in a net subtraction from the household, I'd rather focus on the fact that Dixon is now armed with a sheepskin and thoroughly prepared for whatever curves the spitball-happy world of theater is likely to throw at him. With his eyes currently on the theater and stand-up comedy scenes in Chicago, I judged it an appropriate time to give him some stylish footwear for the Midway area: my ancient, broken-down, original Air Jordans. Because I believe he can fly.

DSC02654.JPG*or, as he puts it, "I majored in Pretend."
**including giving stuff to our local Goodwill store.

5:03 PM

What May Come

As my final May at Woodberry ticks down, I must say that I've been especially aware of the need to get outside and see it up close one last time. It helps that getting outside is actually part of my job, what with my status as a faculty supervisor of the Rapidan program, which teaches students about rock-climbing, kayaking, hiking, and various other aspects of outdoor education. This spring those aspects have included skiing (EARLY in the season), geocacheing, and yes, birding. I've taken the guys out with binoculars and helped them spot everything from the locally common birds (starlings, grackles, robins) to the less common locals (Bald Eagle, PIleated Woodpecker, Belted Kingfisher) to newly-arrived migrants (Eastern Meadowlark, Spotted Sandpiper, Eastern Kingbird) and even a few true oddities (Horned Grebe).

Even when we haven't been birding as a group, I've certainly been birding myself. When Rapidan took a hike up White Oak Canyon in Shenandoah National Park, I made sure my binoculars came with me, and man am I glad I did. I spotted the year's first American Redstarts, Blue-gray Gnatcatchers, and Red-eyed Vireos, for one thing. Better still, I was able to spot the distinctive caramel-and-olive coloration (and head stripes) of a pair of Worm-eating Warblers--only the second time I'd ever laid eyes on the species. And last Saturday, when I was assigned to walk along the river to make sure students were not doing Inappropriate Things, I found a far larger population of birds than students, and their behavior was entirely appropriate. The trip began with the unmistakeable "queerp?" of the Great Crested Flycatcher, and in the course of my circuit I was treated to a number of other delights: the startlingly visible white "pocket-handkerchief" mark of the Black-throated Blue Warbler, the brilliant orange of the male Baltimore Oriole, and along the edge of the pasture of Brampton Farm, a chunky bird hopping from limb to limb and firing off vireo-like calls.

There was a reason for that: it was a Yellow-throated Vireo. My first ever.

Needless to say, that only encouraged me to grab my binoculars and hit the trails around the campus at every opportunity. And when I woke up for no good reason at 2:30 this morning, I decided that I should do the one thing I hadn't done yet this spring: bird during the Dawn Chorus. Birds are active all day, but the best time to see them is early in the morning, often before the sun has officially hit the sky, when they're usually awake, moving, feeding, and calling. When the sun rose at 6:09, I was out in the morning mist, walking trails still a little damp from last night's rains. Everything with feathers was making noise, I believe, most notably the main spring migrant I was still hoping to see: the Wood Thrush, whose fluting call is one of the most welcome signs of winter's end. Sure enough, I could both hear them in the trees and see a couple of them walking rapidly away from me on the path. The light was dim enough that I needed them to cooperate a bit, which they did periodically by turning back toward me and exposing their black-spotted white bellies, then spinning back around to show the rufous tops of their heads.

That color was essentially the same one as the river water; the Rapidan was high and fast, completely opaque and well out of the safe-to-kayak range, but the birds on its banks were unfazed. Yellow-rumped Warblers and Tufted Titmice were everywhere, taking acrobatic turns on the thinnest branches to get at the insects there. The black mask of the year's first Common Yellowthroat popped up, and soon after I was treated to a call-and-response session involving its "witchety witchety witchety" and the "teakettle teakettle teakettle" of a Carolina Wren up the path. A burred call from above led me to look into the highest branches, where I was treated to the sight of one of my favorite birds: the male Scarlet Tanager, a perfect combination of brilliant red body and jet-black wings. American Redstarts darted through the branches of a hackberry tree, and a pair of male Indigo Buntings set up a loud argument over which side of the path belonged to whom. It was an all but perfect morning.

Why not perfect? Well, I'm picky about my birding. I don't put a species down on my list for the year until I've actually laid eyes on it. That's partly a side effect of my less-than-accomplished skills with bird calls, but it's also just a prejudice: I don't feel as though I've really experienced a bird's presence when I've only heard it. In other words, if I want to log the Eastern Wood-pewee I heard calling its name, or the Acadian Flycatcher whose distinctive hiccup accompanied me along much of the trail, I'm going to have to see one.

Darn. I guess that means I have to pick up my binoculars and go out again. To that briar patch.

8:47 AM

On Bachelorhood

As of today, Kelly has been working in Richmond for three months. I got to see her on Thursday night, when I drove down to see Dixon's final performance at VCU: "Uncommonwealth," a sprawling and hilarious revue featuring fifteen senior theater majors showing off their talents for prospective agents and employers. After I returned on Friday morning, I felt a little lull in my mood, but I drove it out with a hike and a little birding (FOY American Redstart, Red-eyed Vireo, and Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, as well as only my second viewing of a Worm-eating Warbler.) And this morning, while looking back over past journal entries, I came across this:

Whenever Kelly's out of town, as she was from Friday until last night, I get rather listless. Instead of writing, or going to the gym, or even getting up and going birding, I sit around reading (often something I've read before), or if I'm feeling especially productive I might grade some papers. I never reach the end of our time apart feeling as though I've gotten much done.

I suppose part of that feeling is that her absence means I have to put aside larger concerns and take care of some chores that often fall to her--dishes, dog, laundry, etc.--but a lot of it, I'm quite sure, is simply being thrown off balance by her absence. Even if we're not doing anything together, I rely on the unconscious knowledge that she's at home, or at work, or maybe downstairs, and she come do something with me if I needed her to. She's not really ; she's just out of sight for the moment.

When she's out of town, though, I am constantly reminded of her absence; it's as though I can't see out of one eye, or have one ear blocked up. There may be nothing there for me to see or hear, but my inability to detect that nothing is in itself a huge distraction. I can't concentrate on what's there because of what isn't.

Since we've now been married a little over 20 years, I probably shouldn't be surprised at my reaction, but it's worth some thought.

Love, like nature, abhors a vacuum.

If I have learned nothing else over these last three months, I have learned how right I was in 2007.

Miss you, hon.

9:57 AM

Geek Out

Back in 2005, I took The Geek Test. I scored 44.97041%, making me technically a Major Geek, but well within the range of statistical error for being a Super Geek.

Incensed by the test's over-emphasis on computer-based geekery and failure to appreciate other geekish pursuits in sufficient depth, I immediately wrote a list of things with which I could prove my geekiness, but which weren't on the test. As you can imagine, my geekiness HAS ONLY INCREASED in the last decade--and the test has been updated, at least as of 2010--but here's what I came up with in 2005:

I know:

*all 13 dwarves who go with Bilbo in The Hobbit
*who the Big Three of science fiction are
*the names of the books on which Blade Runner and Total Recall were based
*both the order in which the Chronicles of Narnia were published and the order in which the stories occur
*the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything
*what "galad" means in both Sindarin and Quenya
*what Sindarin and Quenya are
*the air-speed velocity of an unladen swallow
*what is best in life (according to Conan the Barbarian)
*the entire membership of the Legion of Super-Heroes
*which writer/artist created each of the X-Men

I have:
*worked tech on over a dozen theatrical productions
    *worked sound
    *worked lights
    *designed a set
    *designed a light plot
    *hung a lightshow
*appeared onstage in over a dozen theatrical productions
    *appeared onstage in a singing role
    *appeared onstage in a devil costume
    *appeared onstage with a bullwhip
    *appeared onstage in my underwear
*played the guitar in front of a paying audience
*played the piano in front of a paying audience
*sung in front of a paying audience
*spent time birdwatching
*spent money to go birdwatching
    *persuaded other people to go birdwatching
    *adjusted travel plans in order to go birdwatching
*> 10 Terry Pratchett books
    *> 20 Terry Pratchett books
    *a Terry Pratchett map
*written a critique of a comic book
    *been paid for critiquing a comic book
    *had a comic-book critique published
        *more than once
*a wife who has
    *an English degree
    *a job in a library
    *an obsessive knowledge of Joss Whedon TV shows
        *Buffy the Vampire Slayer paraphernalia
                *yes, even the little Lego-style ones
            *soundtrack CDs
    *scored over 40% on this test
*two children who have
    *the ability to quote at length from geek movies/shows
        *The Critic
    *more than one videogaming system
        *on more than one videogaming platform
    *played D&D, Warhammer, Civilization, and fantasy football
*more than one fantasy football team
*kept vinyl albums that I also own on CD because I like the cover art
*more than one album by Yes
*more than one album by Barenaked Ladies
*more than one album by XTC
*no albums at all by Britney Spears, the Grateful Dead, Bryan Adams, or 50 Cent
*all three Wallace & Gromit shorts
*the extended ubergeek editions of all three Lord of the Rings movies

I can:
*say "I don't speak Welsh" in Welsh
*say "I don't speak French" in French
*rebut the major anti-Stratfordian arguments
*recite from memory:
    *lines from Shakespeare
    *an entire Robert Frost poem
    *the list of U.S. Presidents in order
    *Monty Python's "Argument Clinic" sketch
    *how to draw Trogdor the Burninator
*sing all the words to:
    *Monty Python's "Philosopher's Song"
    *The Ballad of Sir Robin
    *the Stonecutters' Song from The Simpsons
    *the CGNU Fight Song
    *every song from the "Once More with Feeling" musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
    *"They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha Ha"
*move Monopoly pieces directly to the proper square without counting each space
*probably find something better to do with my time than this

8:58 PM

Land Ho

Some years ago, according to one of my colleagues, the then-headmaster of Woodberry Forest School leaned back in his chair at a faculty meeting and said, "We're pregnant. Twenty-four hours a day... for nine months."

That was his metaphor for the role of a WFS faculty member, and I don't think it's a bad one. Certainly by the end of May, the typical teacher is feeling bloated, exhausted, and ready to drop his class load no matter much discomfort may be involved. The problem is this: does it adequately describe a life when you've been pregnant twenty times?

That Duggar-like situation is the one in which I find myself now, entering the last month of my last year at Woodberry. I arrived in August of 1995 and promptly killed the rabbit. From Labor Day to Memorial Day, plus or minus a few days, I was in effect on call for something. Classes at WFS begin at 8:00 every morning but Sunday, when your first required appearance is at advisee dinner at 6:15 p.m. Classes end at 3:15 on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, at 12:30 on Tuesday and Friday, and at 11:00 on Saturday, but if you're coaching or directing, you'll be working after school as well. You have to supervise a dinner table every Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Sunday evening, and once every eight days (or less, in some administrations) you're on dorm duty, which requires you to spend your evening supervising a dorm until 11:30 p.m. In effect, if you don't have a Saturday or Sunday duty, you may--MAY--have a weekly break from 11:00 Saturday morning until 6:00 Sunday evening. But that 31 hours doesn't leave you a lot of freedom, and you're always aware that you have to get back to work before the shadows get too long on Sunday.

And that's been my school-year schedule for the last two decades. The summers were often glorious, and I was sometimes able to get in a vacation during spring break as well, but the working week was relentless, and as I near the end of Year 20, I can't help trying to explain what it feels like to someone who hasn't done it.

Pregnancy may be a good metaphor, but I myself see a different metaphor at work. WFS is a small community of several hundred souls, one that is largely self-contained, having relatively little contact with the world at large, though we do have limited interactions with other such communities. We operate by strict rules that do not always apply outside its confines, and we have a clearly defined hierarchy of command. Each college-educated faculty member serves under higher-ranking (and typically more experienced) members and has the task of supervising newly-recruited young men without that education. Those young men sometimes resent our authority, as well as the strict discipline which we demand, but over time, we're usually able to show them how our system benefits them and the rest of the community. And eventually, after a tenure of several years, those young men embark for new horizons.

Basically, I'm in the navy.

The deck of the SS Woodberry is a mighty large one--1200 acres--but its officers are for the most part required to stay on it, except for occasional visits to port, where the ship's company is free to take shore leave. After a brief respite, however, we climb back up the gangplank and set sail once more. An awful lot of the life involves tying complicated knots, fretting about navigation, and barking orders at uncooperative young sailors, or even getting out the lash from time to time. You're provided with a berth and a trunk of your own, and the mess makes sure you won't go hungry, but you have to eat what the cook has prepared, and privacy is damn near impossible to come by, For every rich port you visit, there's a squall to get through, and occasionally you lose a man overboard. You have good shipmates who will look after you, but you leave behind all the friends you've known, and there's precious little time to visit them before you have to weigh anchor again.

It's been a good voyage, for the most part. I've seen whales spouting and heard the accents of many a foreign port since I signed on. But now I'd have to say it's time to disembark. I've spent too many years sleeping in this hammock, and I'm sick of hardtack and rum. After a twenty-year hitch, I need to be on dry land once more, to live among people who aren't in uniform, and to eat the fruits of my own labor.

I've still got a few days of sailing ahead, but I can already see hills rising ahead, and I look forward eagerly to walking them. And when I disembark for the last time, I'm going to listen to the humming of the bees, dig my hands down in the dirt beneath the grass, and feel the earth turning steadily beneath me.

12:20 PM


Home  |  About Peter Cashwell  |  The verb "To Bird"  |  Journal  |  Resources/Bibliography