Amhersts of our minds

Which Amherst do you live in?

town hall photoThe current charter debate reveals that there are many different Amhersts. If the number of signs around town reflects the level of our passions, we are living through a stormy period of competing visions.

Our perceptions of Amherst are shaped by our life experiences, our personalities, our tribal memberships, our information silos. We can live right next door to each other, yet feel we live in different Amhersts.

Is Amherst:

  • a small town threatened by urban development?
  • or a town, no longer small, that has outgrown its historical governmental structure?
  • a university and college host struggling to live comfortably with its student guests?
  • or a town enriched by the presence of colleges and university which provide employment and cultural events?
  • a desirable place of possibility with good schools, green spaces and cultural richness?
  • or a town in decline where communal needs and cultural desires outstrip reasonable tax revenues?
  • a place of ethnic, economic and racial diversity where neighbors get to know each other and look for our human commonalities?
  • or a historically white town where non-white people often feel marginalized and targeted?
  • a place of increasing economic stratification with tensions between homeowners and renters?
  • or a town where people share many hopes for our life together and feel confident we can govern ourselves for the common good?
  • a place where opposing camps are locked in bitter combat and where winning is all that matters?
  • or a place where we listen to each other’s thoughts and feelings, try to understand each other and work together toward solutions to the challenges we face?
  • a place where we question the motives of people on the opposite side of issues and ascribe corrupt purposes to our opponents?
  • or a place where we can engage in civil and respectful discussion and disagreement about issues facing our town?
  • a place of fear?
  • or a place of hope?

Is there an objective reality of “Amherst” around which we can come together for the common good?

Let’s all step back and take a deep breath. Now, what Amherst do you live in? Can we find our way to a common vision? An Amherst that works for all of us?

If you want to learn more about the proposed new town charter from dedicated people who are seeking to improve how our town government  works, I recommend the blog A Better Amherst.


Reaching across the divide

Do you ever wonder about people who voted for Donald Trump? Has the country become so polarized that we can’t imagine what motivates people whose life experiences and attitudes are different?

On Saturday morning, I attended an extraordinary event in Leverett, a small town six miles north of where I live. Eleven people who live in Letcher County in eastern Kentucky were visiting for three days as part of a cultural exchange. The goal  was for Leverett people and Kentucky people to listen to each other and break down stereotypes they’d formed of each other.

hands across hills logoThe two places couldn’t be more different. While 79.8 percent of Letcher County voted for Trump, only 14.4 percent did in Leverett. Forty percent of children in Letcher County live in poverty, and 34 percent of residents smoke cigarettes. Leverett, a rural but wealthy town where most people commute to jobs elsewhere, is host to Buddhist, Sikh, and Quaker houses of worship, as well as Christian ones. Life expectancy in Letcher County is more than eight years lower.

“I can see better by the light in your eyes,” sang local recording artist Sarah Pirtle with two Kentucky women to open the program. They sang a song Pirtle wrote called “Hands Across the Hills,” the name of the exchange program.

Leverett resident Paula Green, who has brought together disparate groups for dialogue all over the world, praised the visitors for “the bravery it took to come here.” The goal of the weekend is to “discover each others’ cares and joys and build on our common dreams.”

She explained that after the election, many Leverett residents sought a way to respond that would be from the heart rather than from anger and frustration. They discovered Letcher County through a Connecticut-raised community organizer who has lived there for two years and wrote an article on called “Building Democracy in Trump Country.”

Green, who founded the Karuna Center for Peacebuilding, said she wants to “move from demonization to humanization” and encourage other groups to accept a similar challenge. She encouraged the hundreds of local residents who came to the presentation to be curious and friendly with the Kentucky visitors, and not try to convince or change them.

The visitors introduced themselves. Letha Dollarhyde said her stereotype of New Englanders as cool and distant was totally shattered. Valerie Horn said that although Letcher County is poor, there is a program for free food at a farmers’ market. Teenager Alyssa Helton said that in Letcher County “everyone knows everyone,” and showed slides of a mountain, a waterfall, a lake and the school where she learned to play the fiddle.

They were asked about climate change and coal, which is Letcher County’s only industry. Tyler Ward responded that he and his neighbors are not averse to science, but many people are concerned more with daily existence and coal companies are among the few employers.

There were presentations about Leverett’s history and how it is now populated by longtime families, aging hippies and cosmopolitan professionals. The Leverett Community Chorus sang songs to celebrate folkways of Appalachia and New England, and there was a potluck lunch. A contradance was scheduled for the evening.

I was deeply moved by the event, even though I didn’t get a chance to talk to any of the Kentucky visitors. It made me think about how useful it would be to seek reconciliation with those I disagree with in my own town. Since the election, I have tried to understand the rural mindset better by reading books like “Hillbilly Elegy” and “Strangers in Their Own Land,” and this event helped me realize our common humanity.

It reminded me of my friendship with the head police detective in the town where I live, who I got to know through my newspaper work. He and I couldn’t be more different culturally, but we bonded over a common interest in baseball trivia. As our conversations got deeper, I came to realize that he wasn’t quite as conservative as I thought, and he realized that I wasn’t quite as liberal as he thought.

I think we could all benefit from listening to people who are different from us, and looking for common ground.

For new readers of this blog, here’s a quick way to access more than 150 past posts, separated into categories such as simplicity, frugality, living without, cooking, gardening and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.



Nature bathing

IMG_20170812_091023829One of my adventures this summer has been going out and taking it all off under the open sky. No, not vacationing at a nudist colony or skinny dipping with friends. I am far too modest for that.

This summer I indulged a desire to create an outdoor shower in my back yard where, surrounded by protective walls of reclaimed wood and exposed to the blue sky of summer, I can revel like a wild creature in the open air, as I shower off the sweat and dirt of gardening.

IMG_20171006_104524570Using this shower, some tight place within me lets go, far more than when I take a shower indoors. Maybe it’s due to the fragrance of the cedar flooring, or the songs of birds or cicadas.

Or perhaps this relaxation response is akin to what happens when you engage in the meditative outdoor practice of forest bathing, called shinrin-yokuj in Japan. First developed in the 1980’s by Japanese government agencies of forests and agriculture, forest bathing involves leisurely walks in natural settings outdoors. Participants slow down, tune their senses to the surroundings, breathe deeply and begin to experience stress reduction, lowered blood pressure, raised immunity and elevated mood.

IMG_20171002_132410813_HDRMy first taste of this joy came when using the outdoor shower constructed by my sister-in-law and her husband on Cape Cod.

IMG_20170909_180349571I then  became a connoisseur of outdoor bathing set-ups, and studied outdoor showers in books, online and wherever I went. I was reminded that my grandfather had an enclosed outdoor shower  at the cottage in Deerfield where we visited when I was a child. Wow, is this an inherited propensity?

After years of planning, I got to work digging, and my builder friends framed the enclosure and hooked up the water.  I cut and sanded wood salvaged from a fence at my parents’ former home in Deerfield, and nailed it up for the surround.

IMG_20171006_104558230Unlike many outdoor showers, this one is not plumbed into the house hot and cold water system. Instead, a hose connects it to the outdoor faucet, and pipes diverge so that some of the water gets heated as it runs through a 100 foot coil of pipe on our black metal shed roof.

Admittedly, the water is not always that hot!  But on a sunny day it gets so hot that you have to be careful to mix in cold water to keep from getting scalded! And frankly, in the hot,i humid air of high summer, I prefer a cold or tepid shower to cool down my body temperature. Refreshing!

With the end of the warm weather, I realize I will not be taking any more showers outdoors until next summer. And I will have to drain the hoses and pipes so they don’t burst when the water freezes.

But I will dream of summer, when once again I can enjoy outdoor showers,  another part of the good life here on Earth, the pleasure planet.

For new readers of this blog, here’s an index of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as frugality, gardening, cooking, simplicity, living without and climate change. Or hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.

A piece of paper from the City Hall

Thirty-eight years after our wedding, we became legally married on Wednesday, exactly 40 years after the day we met.

We remember Joni Mitchell singing in carefree 1972, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the City Hall.” Turns out Joni was wrong; you do need that piece of paper. And life is seldom as simple as it seems.

Our wedding was on July 14, 1979 at the First Church of Deerfield. But because of some  glitch that we still don’t understand, no marriage certificate was filed. Since then, we have bought a house together, raised two children, filed joint income tax returns, and thought of ourselves as being married.

We didn’t discover the problem until Betsy turned 66 and applied for spousal benefits from Social Security. She was told she must present a marriage certificate, but she couldn’t find one in our records.

She wrote to the Massachusetts Registry of Vital Records and Statistics, which could find no evidence of a marriage certificate. She contacted Deerfield Town Hall, and the county seat in Greenfield, and the answer was the same.

We were living in Worcester in 1979. Fortunately, we had applied for a marriage license there, though we don’t remember doing so. This was from a time before the Worcester city clerk digitized the records, so someone had to search through dusty old books to find evidence of our application.

Without that, we would have had to hire a lawyer and go before a judge. But even with this filing of “marriage intentions,” we had to gather notarized statements from two witnesses to the wedding and a statement from the minister of the church.

So we went back to the church in Deerfield to meet the Rev. Liza Knapp (who, like Betsy, had been a religion major at Swarthmore). Liza had talked on the phone to the minister who officiated at our wedding, now retired and living in California. She signed a document stating that we had, indeed, gotten married in 1979 in her church.

Marriage certificateSo on Wednesday we drove to Worcester, where we met with the assistant city clerk. We showed him the documents, photos from our wedding and the newspaper announcements (“Former area newsman takes bride in Deerfield” was the headline in the Greenfield Recorder).

We raised our right hands, swore that the information was correct, signed our names, wrote a check for $24, and received a “certificate of marriage.”

It’s a humorous story, but it got us thinking about some serious things. For years, gay and lesbian couples could have a wedding in some churches, but couldn’t get that piece of paper that entitled them to benefits that straight couples take for granted. And it reminded us of a Russian visitor who said that in his country, marriage is a two-part process, with a civil marriage performed first and, if desired, a later religious ceremony.

So we jumped through the hoops, got the piece of paper and we are good to go. It’s been an adventure!

For new readers of this blog, here’s an index of more than 150 past posts, divided into categories such as simple living, cooking, gardening, living without and climate change. Or hover on Index above to read all the posts in a particular category.






Dear deer: You’re welcome, but…

Dear deer,

Welcome to the wet area in the back of our property! We’ve caught glimpses of you and your faun, and the sight has filled us with wonder at your wild beauty.

At the same time, we are dedicated vegetable gardeners, and as our crops ripen, we respectfully request that you observe our boundaries.

IMG_20170705_080200841We have enjoyed looking for evidence of your visits to our back yard. We’ve seen the jewel weed you’ve decapitated and the four-foot-high leaves of wild grapes that you’ve chomped on. We’ve seen your hoof marks on the wood chips that define the paths through our back-yard wilderness. (We took a photo of the jewel weed to show our friends.)

We have marveled that you are so adaptive that you have found a livable habitat less than a mile from the center of Amherst.

To help you know where the boundaries are, we’ve installed some signals that you can discern with your eyes, nose and ears. We’ve hung up bright, shiny objects (compact discs) at the back of our garden. We’ve placed some bags of human hair and scented soap nearby. And we have repaired some old wind chimes to give you audio cues.

IMG_20170705_080632704We do have a three-foot-high fence around our garden, and another three feet of string trellis, but we’ve heard that you’re quite capable of jumping over it. Please remember that you are welcome to browse on any of the vegetation growing outside the fence, but we’d like to reserve our veggies for ourselves and our friends. Thanks.

We like having wildlife around. We seem to be in flyover country for many bird species, and there’s been a baby bunny boom, bolstered by the buffet of red clover and other plants in our yard. We have seen foxes. Except for woodchucks, who have not dared come near our yard this year (with good reason!), we get along well with our fellow creatures.

We are happy to share the bounty of our land with you. There’s enough for everyone, but we don’t want to give away the vegetables we like to eat and work so hard to grow. So please, when you see those shiny objects, smell that hair and soap, and hear those chimes, know your limits.

And the next time we meet face to face, please don’t run away. We’d love to take a picture of you.


Nick and Betsy

Here is an index of 170 past posts on this blog, in categories such as frugality, simple living, gardening, living without and climate change. You can also hover on “Index” above to read all the posts in a particular category.