Wednesday, February 27, 2013


My friend Bill and I recently took a trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for the simple reason neither of us had been there in several years. My wife and I stopped going when the Big South Fork was being developed because traffic around the Smokies was so heavy. We could come to BSF and avoid the crowds. But it was winter and traffic was down so we gave it a shot. We did go on a Tuesday to avoid the weekenders.

We came through Townsend on our way home and I saw a church off the road that looked interesting. The church turned out to be pretty commonplace, but its setting was anything but common. It sits on the bank of the Little River, which was in pool, still and clear enough to see the bottom. Bright sunlight cast reflections of the far side of the river.


Sunday, February 24, 2013

Getting restless

As we head into the downside of winter, I'm feeling a need to hit the road. The days are getting longer and we're having more sun, yet the air remains chilled and the wind has sharp teeth. It's what they call "second winter" in the mountains of New Mexico. My thoughts, however, are jumping ahead to summer.

Not just summer, but to  the Shaker Village of Pleasant Hill. Since it originally was a religious community, let's start in the church or meeting house.

It's a large space with no interior supports to interfere with the movement of worshipers during their dances or marches. And the acoustics are unbelievable.

The Centre, or Church, Family dwelling is just across the road in front of the meeting house and serves as the major museum building on the site.

Step inside and you will be greeted by a tour guide who will give you an overview of the village and the museum. You are then free to wander about the three floors and basement at your own pace. There are always guides around to answer your questions.

The dwelling is essentially a large dormitory with its own kitchen, dining, and common areas. The photo above shows a typical "retiring room," or bedroom. At the height of the village, a room might sleep 3 to 5 Shakers. As membership declined, Believers eventually got their own rooms.

Unlike some Shaker museums, the items on display here are all authentic, Shaker-made antiques. You'll find no reproductions displayed here, although the lodging available to overnight guests has only reproductions, for obvious reasons.

Stairways flank the central hall on each floor. Women would have been restricted to using the one on the left; men would have been restricted to the one on the right. Although floors were coed, just like in college, the women's and men's retiring rooms are on opposite sides of the central hall.

The top floor was reserved for storage, here being cases for out-of-season clothing. Natural light illuminates the storage area.

I think it's time to get the calendar out and start planning a trip. Gotta find a cure for cabin fever.

Monday, February 18, 2013

The First Amendment

Much has been written recently about the federal government's possible response to the epidemic of gun violence in this country. The loudest negative voices, including those of the gun lobby, come from the political right and point to an erosion of second amendment rights. This comes while many of those same voices are actively engaged in restricting the nations' first amendment rights. Have you read the first amendment?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

 What bubbled this issue up to the top of my worry list was an article from The Associated Press about the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency confiscating three rattlesnakes and two copperheads from a pentecostal preacher who was transporting them through the state. Pastor James Coots of the Full Gospel Tabernacle in Jesus Name Church in Middlesboro, Kentucky, bought the five reptiles in Alabama to be used in church services. He was stopped by the Tennessee Highway Patrol because of a vehicle violation and the snakes were discovered in his car. It is illegal to possess poisonous snakes in Tennessee without a permit, and permits usually are granted only to zoos and educational organizations.

I don't know if the law under which the snakes were confiscated has been tested in the courts. But it does concern me that such churches located in Tennessee apparently are being denied the right to practice their religious beliefs by this law.

I am NOT a snake-handling pentecostal. I do not agree with the practice, either practically or theologically. I do think they should be allowed their practices, right or wrong, because of what the first amendment says.

The "freedom of religion" clause of the first amendment was a response to the Church of England having been "established" during the colonial period. Several of the states still had established churches following independence and even after the Constitution was ratified. What this meant in colonial America and the various states was that one particular church was officially recognized and all citizens were considered to be members of that church or denomination. Typically churches were supported by taxes paid by those citizens, whether they subscribed to that religion or not. The first amendment allowed citizens to choose their own religion and, with ratification of the fourteenth amendment, be protected from any and all religions. In other words, the nation's government is officially neutral with respect to religion.

There has been a continuing tension between the first amendment and evangelical Christians. The Scopes Monkey Trial was a famous example. It resulted from one attempt to impose conservative religious values on all citizens, irrespective of those citizens' beliefs. Religious groups have fought teaching of evolution in public schools because it conflicts with the creation story of Genesis. There have been continuing conflicts over prayer in public schools and government meetings, and over the posting of religious texts and symbols on public property.

Just this past week, some 50 churches in Anderson County, Tennessee, petitioned county government to be allowed to inscribe "In God We Trust" on the county courthouse. This motto is printed or stamped into our national currency, so the request would seem to be reasonable. But is it really? Is it not just another case of one group's religious belief being imposed on the whole? Is it really different from denying the "signs following" crowd their poisonous snakes? Does it matter if an issue involves a majority or a minority of citizens?

Repeatedly the courts have ruled against the imposition of religious values on an unwilling public. These setbacks have strengthened the resolve of evangelicals, who have become increasingly organized for political action. And their organization is paying dividends, especially at the state and local levels. In Tennessee, the very same state legislators who are promoting conservative Christian practices are also expanding the availability of guns to the public, promoting carrying of weapons in public places, including schools.

In 2012, former senator Rick Santorum made a credible campaign for the Republican nomination for President of the United States. Santorum's message was firmly grounded in conservative, Christian values. Since the President nominates federal judges and judges of the U.S. Supreme Court, a Santorum presidency could have had far-reaching effects on future court rulings on separation of church and state. But even the evangelicals should be careful; a pendulum swings both ways. Success gained now can be reversed in the future, and to their detriment. Do even they really want to open the door to theocracy? Do they want the United States to become a Christian version of Iran or Saudi Arabia?

Defend the liberties of those with whom you disagree, for if they can lose their choice, so can you.

Update February 16, 2014: Pastor Jamie Coots, mentioned in the first paragraph, died from a snake bite at his home in Middlesboro, KY, on Saturday, February 15, after refusing medical care. He had been bitten during a church service.

Friday, February 15, 2013


A news report out of Russia tells of nearly one thousand people being injured this morning when a meteor exploded overhead. The meteor was said to weigh some 10 tons and was traveling at 30,000 to 40,000 mph when it entered the atmosphere and broke up. Fragments left holes measuring 15 to 20 feet across in the ice over a lake.

The injuries and property damage from this meteor are sad, indeed, and the victims warrant our concern. The event, however, should not cause the rest of us to live in fear of death from the sky. Understanding the actual hazard from such events is the business of the field of risk assessment. Adler's book, above, was the first thing I had read on the subject. The earliest copyright date I've found is 1973, but my sense is I read it even earlier. Maybe not. Its subtitle, Death from Falling Watermelons, succinctly summarizes the essence of risk. The diagram below explains:

Risk is the product of the likelihood of an event's happening and the consequences of the event if it does happen. If an event is certain and it can be expected to lead to death, then the risk is clearly very high. Think "if you walk into that room you will be shot multiple times." A non-suicidal person would likely not walk into the room. Conversely, if an event is highly unlikely but the consequences if it does happen are minor, then we have no reason to be concerned. You get the point.

We  never walk down a street scanning nearby rooftops for watermelons because it simply doesn't happen. Yes, if one did fall on our head it would really ruin our day, but the risk is so low that it doesn't occur to us to be concerned. But there is a difference between perceived risk and actual risk. Sometimes we grow so accustomed to an action that carries significant risk that our perception of that risk is numbed. Consider riding in an automobile and not using the seat belts. Consider continuing to burn fossil fuels despite the evidence of global warming and it's impacts. Sometimes our perceptions of risk are heightened by the newness of a technology. Consider choosing coal over nuclear for electricity generation, when the cumulative impacts of coal are much greater than the nuclear fuel cycle. I once saw a cartoon of a bumper sticker on a coal truck that proclaimed, "There's no fuel like an old fuel."

Every action we take has risks, even breathing, and we all unconsciously do risk assessments on a continuing basis. But are we dealing with actual risk or simply perceived risk?

Sunday, February 10, 2013


Last Sunday Christine, at Mamabug's Nature Photos, posted a couple of shots of derelict fishing boats abandoned in a Florida marsh. That posting was just what I thought of when I passed this canoe earlier this week. I just had to wait for it to stop raining before I got the shot. Looks like it's been there for a while.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Boy Scouts and Gays

The Boy Scouts of America have delayed a decision on admitting gay boys and leaders into the organization. There have been strong opinions on either side of the question. Here are mine:

First, I was both a Cub Scout and a Boy Scout. I have been a Cub Scout den leader, Cub Master, and den leader trainer. I have been an Assistant Scout Master and Charter Organization representative for two sponsoring organizations. Both of my sons are Eagle Scouts. So I write with some experience and perspective.

Boy Scout troops, and Cub Packs to a lesser extent, reflect their Charter Organization, the church, school, or service club that sponsors the troop, plus the attitudes of their adult leaders. The national Boy Scout organization has its rules; the local units pretty much ignore them in their day-to-day operations. My nephew grew up in a Boy Scout troop on an Army base. His unit was like some paramilitary organization; nothing I'd want my sons in. We had troops in town that clung to the fundamentalist precepts of their sponsoring churches. My sons grew up in troops that were more relaxed and focused on boys having fun and growing into responsible men.

Were there ever gay boys in our units? Certainly. Did that create problems? Never. Did any of our gay boys ever earn and receive the Eagle Scout rank? Of course. There never was an issue, and as far as I know no Eagle Board of Review ever asked a boy about his sexual identity.

I'm not aware of ever having a gay leader in one of our units. Almost all of our leaders were parents, but that is no guarantee, of course. The units never worried about that issue. What we did worry about was having a pedophile associated with the troop, and did refuse the application of one young man on well-founded suspicion.

So my two cents worth is: let the sponsoring organizations decide for themselves. The boys will find a troop that meets their and their families' values. They already do that, anyway. It can be a great experience for boys.