Plain in the city

A plain Quaker folk singer with a Juris Doctorate in his back pocket, salt in his blood, and a set of currach oars in the closet, Ulleann Pipes under his arm, guitar on his back, Anglo Irish baggage, wandering through New York City ... in constant amaze. Statement of Faithfulness. As a member of the Quaker Bloggers Ad Hoc Committee I affirm that I will be faithful to the Book of Discipline of my Meeting 15th Street Monthly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends.

Friday, November 28, 2008

The Hawks of New York are dying...

I wrote this story last year. In the interim time, all the hawks I photographed in the East Village have died. Saturating our neighborhoods with poison does not seem to control rats, but does have a profound effect on Urban Raptors. I can't put the blame on the shoulders of city officials alone. We have to change the culture of litter in New York. Setting out on another ecological disaster, such as we saw with the use of DDT, decades ago, seems just not wise in these days where the planet is showing such hard use and wear.

For those who read the quotes attributed to me in the Villager this week, they were not accurate. I did not say hawks were eating the poisons, nor did I repeat the quote from the following article as my own, it was a quote from Francois Portman, and was taken out of context.

Red Tailed Hawk visits his park
Red Tailed Hawk Tomkings Square Park - Photo Lorcan Otway

In the parks of the Lower East Side, packets of Contrac are popping up in flower beds like crocuses. Francois Portmann, a Swiss photographer, told me where to find packets of Contrac, a second generation anticoagulant rodenticide, lying on the ground in parks throughout the Lower East Side. Each packet is found in a place often frequented by the pair of red tail hawks which have so delighted the people of the Village, and increased the number of "birders" coming to our neighborhood. Bird watching has become a local passion for many in the neighborhood. "I will be over at Union Square park," says Francois. "There is a Scott's Oriole there, a bird from Arizona/Mexico that has nothing to do with here, hordes of birders from the tri-state area came by through the weekend to see it." In Union Square. I find Dennis Edge, a local bird photographer, explaining the habits of local birds to knots of people. This morning, Dennis is surrounded by people with binoculars, or simply staring into the brush." There, among the large green leaves is the Scott's Oriole, a brilliant yellow bird, not found in New York, a tourist perhaps. Directly above, on a fire escape, one of our yearling red tailed hawks. Hawks are now common on every street in the Lower East Side.

There is danger for the hawks. In Stuyvesant Park, right in front of Friend's School, where young children play, a packet of Contrac lies in easy reach over a low railing. "It’s not only about the birds....this stuff is on the ground as you can clearly see. What if a dog or worst, a kid picks it up, or someone with bad intentions?" Francois asks. Contrac's active ingredient is Bromadiolone. a second-generation anticoagulant poison. It kills by causing internal hemorrhaging, usually after only a single ingestion. It can cause the death of any animal which feeds on a dead rodent which has ingested a lethal dose of the poison. In the early winter, Parks Department spokesperson Jesslyn Tiano stated that Parks follows "the Department of Health's rodenticide recommendations and primarily use products containing Bromadiolone, which has a lower secondary risk value than Difethialone."
Red Tailed Hawk and Mouse Meal
Red Tailed Hawk easts a mouse in Tompkins Square Park - Photo Lorcan Otway

The Zoological Society of London publishes a "good practice guide for landowners in England" called "Helping Red Kites". Like the red tailed hawk, the red kite is a raptor which feeds on rodents. In this guide, it states that birds of prey are "particularly susceptible to secondary poisoning as they will eat poisoned rodents and ingest the poisons they contain. These poisons may kill [the raptor] immediately, or they may accumulate in the body and cause eventual death." The article specifically names Bromadiolone. Parks’ Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh states that they, "suspend baiting when there is nesting or a significant level of daily activity by predatory birds. Baiting is still suspended at Tompkins Square Park, but there and in other places, if rodent activity spiked and other measures were ineffective, we would resume some level of pesticide use."

Dead rat Tompkins Square Park

However, there seems to be a gap in the sighting of predatory birds and action to stop poison programs. "There must be something we can do, call the Mayor's office, the city council?" says Dennis Edge, his voice tinged with concern for the birds which he cares so much about. He hopes people will understand the danger to the birds, and value what these birds mean to so many in the city.

Deputy Commissioner Kavanagh explains that, "Parks works with the Department of Health on rodent control strategies and follows Integrated Pest Management principles that include monitoring pest levels, eliminating food sources and harborage and judicious use of chemical controls that have the least possible risk to people, property, domestic animals and urban wildlife. There is no single perfect chemical control, but the materials we use, in combination with the other principles allow for safe and effective pest control. We do not use pesticides that pose the greatest overall potential risk to birds or mammals. We use low hazard bait formulations and application techniques when applying pesticides in parks and consider other environmental factors when deciding on the most appropriate control measures" Quintox is not an anticoagulant, and there is no antidote. The toxicant mobilizes calcium from the bones into the bloodstream producing heart failure. Quintox's state that "Since birds don't have bone marrow this product is the best choice for use around birds of prey (Eagles and Hawks)." Deputy Commissioner Kavanagh points out that, "both bromadiolone (Contrac) and cholecalciferol (Quintox) are categorized as having a low to moderate primary risk to birds. Cholecalciferol has a lower secondary risk rating for birds, but poses a different problem for mammals that are found in parks far more frequently and in much higher numbers than predatory birds. There is no antidote for cholecalciferol, as there is for bromadiolone, and accidental acute poisoning from cholecalciferol in dogs, cats and squirrels and other mammals can result in prolonged and especially painful deaths. Kavanaugh states that they do suspend baiting programs in parks where predatory birds are nesting or regularly visiting. However, these birds are seen constantly hunting on all the side streets of the Lower East Side.

Fire escape red tailed hawk
Red Tailed Hawk, Fire escape - Photo Lorcan Otway

Maggie Rufo, volunteer Assistant Director of the Hungry Owl ( project holds that Quintox's statement that birds do not have bone marrow is not accurate. "Most of the bones in a bird's body are 'hollow' but not all. They do have some bones with marrow, but not nearly as many as mammals . If Quintox stops calcium absorption in rats and mice, both mammals, does it do so to other mammals like raccoons, foxes, your pet cat or dog? If so, then it too, is not really safe for use around animals."

Children do have bone marrow, Even in "tamper proof" bait stations, the safety of these poisons is only as effective as the care with which it is applied. The sight of poison packets in easy reach in our parks leads me to ask if this is the best solution? Rufo questions the reliability of the tests which are used to establish the safety of the products. An example of how secondary hazard evaluation of poisons is carried out as follows. A laboratory gave fifty-ppm bromadiolone oat bait to California ground squirrels. After they died, they were fed to coyotes. Each coyote ate one a day for five days. Some sickened but none died. However, in nature, the primary target animal seldom eats only a fifty percent lethal amount. As reported in the Villager, experts explain that in single dose anticoagulant poisons, the target animal often eats many times the lethal dose, which is why animals such as mountain lions, which feed on the target animal die. According to Maggie Rufo, In San Francisco, exclusion and sanitation are used as alternative solutions.

Exclusion, the sealing off of buildings, is hard in New York City. In San Francisco, a big problem was uncovered trash cans in the parks and the fact that they were not emptied frequently enough. Another very big contributor to the problem were people who fed animals in the park, feeding birds and squirrels is in effect feeding rats and mice as well

In the past, cities hired people who trained terriers, dogs which provided efficient rat control without costing us hawks, and owls, or dogs and cats. Even today, dogs are used for environmentally sensitive rodent control. In Australia, Michael Bloch is the author and owner of Green Living, an online resource for earth friendly tips. ( He states that, "Fox/Jack Russell terriers are some of the best mousers and ratters around; far superior to cats. Terriers do not play with rodents like cats will, they kill them extraordinarily quickly and move on to the next one. I've seen old newsreel footage of mouse plagues in Australia where terriers were let loose in barns and the numbers of rodents they dispatched within a very short space of time is incredible. Unlike cats, terriers can also be trained very easily to discriminate between animals. . Our dogs will allow birds to eat directly from their food bowls; but any mouse that may approach is very quickly dealt with." Perhaps nature is a good teacher to look to in learning balance in New York's environment.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

A Quaker Family's Thanksgiving...

Black Thursday Table Setting

Yes, it is that time of year when people in the United States, or America, as we call it, give thanks that we are not Mexican or Canadian. We like to share our traditions with the rest of the world... whether or not they want them. And so, in that loving tradition (see the ballad "Bonny May") I share my family's Thanksgiving story again, with our non American, or as many say, our un-American friends...

Ever since the first Otway fell off the boat into the new world, we celebrate Thanksgiving by remembering the story of the first thanksgiving. They youngest child, generally the only one sober enough to speak, tells this story, before joining the adults in a gin and tonic.... Story of the First Thanksgiving.

It was the night before Christmas, and the Pilgrims where feeling a bit peckish, after the long swim from England, the Mayflower having hit an iceberg and sank. Captain Smith ordered the woman and children into the life boats first, as he knew that there were not enough boats for all, an old tradition in the British maritime, only to find they had forgotten the life boats all together.

Although they were still in the Themes Estuary and a scant 10 minute swim to Wapping, they decided that as long as they were already wet, they'd go for it and struck out for New York. On the way they talked it over and decided that as long as they were going through all the trouble they might as well swim to Massachusetts so that their grand kids would all be rich New Englanders in stead of poor New Yorkers, and who wanted to live in a city where the Mayor was a bad tempered Dutch guy with a wooden leg who called the place New Amsterdam anyway, so I am getting off the point, it was time for dinner.

So there were Indians there also, John Smith and his wife Pocahontas, because she was tired of her dad chasing her husband John around with an axe every time he made the same old joke "Hey, did the White guys pay the rent yet?".Christopher Columbus got the place of honor at the head of the table. He was very old at this point, and probably dead, but was such a figure of respect that no one told him, but rather made sure the head of the table was down wind from everyone and they didn't ask Chris to carve the turkey or they'd all starve. The Turkeys were much larger then, as it was a long time ago and they were still evolving from their Dinosaur ancestors, so one or two fed all of New England, and there was still some left to make clothes out of.

So, now you know why we pardon a Turkey at the white house every year, then chop its head off and eat it. Happy Thanks Giving to all and to all a good night, after a little Alka-Seltzer

The table is set for Black Thursday

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Have we plowed under our Quaker Utopia and salted the earth?

I have been eldered at times, for saying that "Quaker" schools are elitist and exclusive. Well, I must say, on one hand, I have a certain pride that the Obama family has chosen Sidwell Friends. On the other, I feel positively reinforced by NBC and CBS referring to the school as elite and exclusive.

Now, I find myself thinking, what part of simplicity and equality is described by elite and exclusive. Even if our schools were exclusive to Quakers, they would not be in keeping with the Quaker spirit. But, as they are so exclusive to exclude our own children should they not be clever or wealthy...

We are a utopian faith. It is the utopian nature of our faith that gave some Friends the strength to challenge the establishment of their day, including the elders of their own Meetings, to set about on a journey several hundred years ago, with others, not of our faith, a journey that resulted in there being a president elect, Obama. We dreamed above the prejudices and realities of our days. We dreamed an impossible dream, that we could end slavery, because it was simply wrong.

Today, we bend to both the "realities" of our day, and the prejudice based on testing and expectations, to exclude from Quaker schools, Quaker children for a variety of reasons. How sad, that we realize the best of our dreams for the rest of the world, while selling so cheaply the most understandable dream of our spiritual foreparents, that no Quaker child would be denied a Quaker education.

We are the artisan who makes something so precious we cannot own it. Unfortunately that things is close to the center of our faith - and means so much to the future of that faith. We cannot raise our children in this particular village, as we are in the process of selling it to the wealthy neighbors.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Are We Quakers a Community of Communion or Consumption?

What makes a Quaker Meeting a Quaker community? For some, it is meeting for an hour or so a week in a little silence and some chatter about liberal ideals or new age notions of spirit. Once that is accomplished the Meeting can get down to business like the rest of America in what has been called with humor but no irony, "the latter days of Babylon."

But where do we begin? Let's begin at the theological beginning ... shall it be the latter part of Exodus or the beginning of Genesis. We are, after all, one of the many streams which trickle down from the spring of Judaism. Starting with Genesis, Adam and Eve are told not to eat of the tree of wisdom, as it is against God's plan, or breaks God's rule, depending if one is a student of Hillel or Shamai. I would say a student of Hillel would say that is separates Adam and Eve from God, and in not cooperating - not being in unity with God's plan, it is an act of consumption, not an act of communion.

In the latter part of Exodus, a people who see their early history as one of enslavement commit acts of conquest and out right genocide in the name of God. How does one go forward after that with a sense of rightiousness? Well, one lays the responsibility for the orders on God... and tries to do better in the future... possibly. This seems to me to be a cheep short answer, but at 3 AM, it is the best I can do... to begin to get at do nothing to another which is abhorrent to thyself... a statement of communion rather than consumption.

I spent time among hunter/gatherer people in the far north east of Canada. There the difference between communion and consumption was rather profoundly visible. Innu hunters never cut trees in a straight line, the sin of having to take trees was mitigated by doing so in a way which preserved Nitassinan, the land. There was no sport hunting, hunting was a communion with the caribou, the seals, the salmon, the geese, the porcupines, the moose and when the equation went the other way, the protective spirit, the bear took you to your safe afterlife.

Innu fishers
Innu fishers "poaching" on their own land which they would share and others would take. Photo Lorcan Otway 1994

Over the years I watched the coming of the dams, and in their wake, drugs, alcohol, freedom from the work of production of consumption commodities became unemployment, cut off, and bought off from the traditions of communion living. I watched the march of poverty and consumption north and east devouring the souls of people as well as the land.

Power lines from Hydro dams built along rivers vital to Innu hunting Photo Lorcan Otway 1994

I had seen it before. Living in the west of Ireland in the seventies, people spoke of the coming of poverty to Ireland. The generation just before had no consumer products and felt itself complete and fulfilled.

Tommy Gibbons one of the last of the rare old kind, Mayo Ireland 1977
Tommy Gibbons - Irish Small Farmer 1977 Photo Lorcan Otway

The generation of the seventies felt the sting of third world poverty. There were still coops, and resistance to the promise of wealth through common market ... but I watched as salmon fishers became salmon poachers and up north and across the Irish sea, Scotland fisher folk had their boats ordered up to Scandinavia to be broken up and consumed along with great chunks of traditional culture, but the consumer culture of the common market.

Dingle, Co. Kerrly Ireland grey day 1979 or 80
Ireland 1978 Photo Lorcan Otway

Now, here I am. One of a few voices asking Friends to consider what it is to have a Quaker school, a Quaker meeting. I am met with a chorus of voices which chant the liberal agendas of the school associated with our Meeting, voices which never give an answer how it can be a Friend's school and exclude children from our Meeting who are judged not to be intelligent enough to go to a Quaker school. Since when do we only call the clever children in our Meetings "Quaker?" And in all of this, the school, where it is hard to find a Quaker in the faculty or the student body, consumes more and more of the physical space of our Meeting's property, and as happened among the Innu and among fisher folk in Ireland and Scotland, consumed the soul of our people at the same time.

Living off the land in Ireland - a harvest of communion 1978 Photo Eugenie Clare Gilmore-Otway

We may as well be corporately owned by Pepsi and sold in oatmeal boxes, I suppose.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Do all who go to war live by the sword? The Politics of God part 2

In the middle or at the root of the problemPhoto Lorcan Otway 1977 Belfast Ireland

This is part two of a conversation started, which I post in the post before this, it becomes, part two of The Politics of God.

In answer to my reply on Obama and unity, Bruce's response cuts right to the key of Quaker faith in my opinion, and is a really insightful place to be...

He writes:

Fine words my friend. I know God does not hate homosexuals nor do I have any hate. But I believe He does not condone it nor do I believe He would put someone in office that would not fight for life that he had created. As for war.... I'm a little torn on that. We are suppose to help those in need ( Iraq). Although that should be the intention, Whether that was the case or not I can't say. Now there's the problem that we are there. We can't just leave them unprotected. I believe that would be wrong even if the beginning was of wrong intentions.God has allowed many wars and protected His people fighting them. But then there is Jesus " He who lives by the sword dies by the sword." But maybe some who have taken to war don't really live by the sword but have just taken it up to defend themselves or the weak.

Thanks Lor.

I always find I start with "Well...." If we were in the same room, this would be drawing in a breath and out again... I will put aside the question of does God condone homosexual practice or not. I think the second part of the question raises a question with which I have wrestled from the time I was convinced of the faith in which I was raised.

I have found, as a history student, that I cannot point to a single war which was fought for the reasons given to the soldiers, or won the result promised to them. Most wars, if not all wars, including wars of aggression, are described by both sides as being fought to protect the right of the a people who need defending. The civil war did not bring freedom to African Americans - rather it was a struggle, not unlike that continuing today, over how much power the federal government has and how much power the individual states have. It was a war to determine if we are a confederacy, or a republic. The answer was not very clear. The limitations on the rights of Americans of African ancestry for the hundred years after the war shows that the rhetoric of liberty was simply a banner to make a crusade of a bloody and terrible war.

In the same light, not a single nazi death camp was liberated as a goal of the Second World War. Rather, our allies and our own nation took no steps to stop the trains going to those camps, and they were only freed when our troops happened upon them. Further the genocide against Romany people continued and continues as I write this. I could name war after war, from Ireland to Africa where soldiers fight or fought for truths and have been led to war for power that will never be shared with them.

I am not very persuaded that we went to war in Iraq for the sake of the people of Iraq. And I agree with thee, that now we are there, it is hard to leave. However, I am also not convinced that to continue a violent struggle is the best way to leave.

It takes courage and brilliance to find a way out of great darkness. Lyndon Johnson seems to have understood this. His strategies for pulling us away from the violence of the struggle over apartheid in the United States was brilliantly done. At the same time as he brought force to bear to enforce federal law, he injected huge amounts of economic opportunity into the American south, creating the "New South." If I were to go on for pages about this, I would write of a new third common market as part of the way out of Iraq and Afghanistan ... another post perhaps.

The point is that war does not solve problems. People fight until the cost of fighting brings one side or the other, or both to that point of exhaustion or loss that both decide speaking and bargaining is a better way. I believe a loving God would prefer we simply start with that negotiation.

The argument some make that the other side started any war is often historically hard to prove. This nation has been involved in destabilizing North Africa and Persia, and they have been involved in fighting us, oh ... hundreds of years. We can begin more recently with the American involvement in the overthrow of the democratic government of Iran to place the Shaw in power, or Jefferson's secret mission to over throw the Bey of Tripoli, or the piracy of that Bey... there simply is not a start to most wars.

So, I am rather convinced that as a political problem solving device, war simply does not work. As a mater of faith, war has not been about truth, and so I disavow war.

To paraphrase thy question, would God put someone in power who is "pro choice?" Well, that is also a complex question. In terms of a God who protects us from pain, does God cause earthquakes, or is there a force of evil which does everything which is painful to us? I think not.

Rather, this question is core to the Greco Roman view of morality, as opposed to the Hebraic view of morality. In the Jewish tradition sin is more a matter of separation, destruction of a relationship between the individual and others and God, than in the Greco Roman tradition, which might enter Christianity, not through Yeshua called Jesus, but through Paul. The way one approaches the question of sin frames the question.

In the Hebrew scriptures, in Numbers 5, one can find support for a belief that in the Hebraic tradition, for thousands of years, leaders came to power who believed that abortion was a sacrament in the face of a wife's unfaithfulness. Several modern English language bibles translate this now, in a way to defeat this interpretation, but to me, it seems to be one of the few unambiguous references to abortion in either the Christian scriptures or the Hebraic scriptures.

The interpretation that this is, in fact a reference to abortion, fits with the concept in the Hebraic tradition that the avoidance of sin is found in repentance, atonement and forgiveness. One cannot live a life in a world fraught with dilemmas, without harming another, so one mitigates the harm by looking within, acting to heal and forgiving.

The Greco Roman world was about order and simply following the state. It is impossible for me to imagine a moment such as Yeshua or Jesus' interaction with the woman at the well in the context of the state religions of Greece or Rome. Rather, the setting aside of the rule to make a new relationship is the core of a major theme in Hebraic tradition as defined by Hillel, "do nothing to another that is abhorrent to thyself, that is the Torah and the rest is commentary - now go and study."

For me this does not answer the question of which side a present and guiding God prefers. Rather, I think it leads to a degree of humility when I sit at a table with others who believe one way or the other. I think the best way to walk with righteousness before God, rather than to cloak ourselves in self-righteousness, is to follow our own light and teach by our actions, rather than pointing fingers and denying that God backs the actions of others. I try not to cast the first stone... or the next.

Thine in the light and thank'ee Bruce

Thursday, November 06, 2008

What are God's Politics?

As a comment to the above photo, I recieved the following and replied as follows...

Bruce Thomas Benda said: Why do WE need to redouble OUR commitment? I thought you all voted for this guy because you thought he has it covered. Even though we don't have a great understanding how. Just the HOPE. Why would God send someone who won't fight for helpless unborn babies or that supports gays or associates with a killer and PLO supporter. Not very Godly. I was just wondering. Nice photo though.

Well, Bruce:
No one has it all covered. As the son of a former coal miner, I hope President Obama will learn that there is no such thing as clean coal, and as a Quaker, I hope he learns that fear and the word enemy are related, and as Jesus reminded us, the way to perfect love is to abandon fear, and stop making war.

But, the world is not about absolutes. When we assign to God our own political beliefs and prejudices, though it might be a wonderful rhetorical device, after all, who can argue with God?! It does put God in a much smaller box than the infinite nature God must choose to be. In short, a God who can be quoted is hardly likely to be God at all.

This does not mean God does not speak to all -- in that still small voice, ever present voice of love. I am not sure that God does not love gay people or the PLO, anymore than God once allowed a world where people of Obama's complexion were once held in slavery. After the events of September 11, an Innu friend of mine sent me a letter reminding me that God sends these things to teach us to fly, not as a punishment.

What we do in the darkness of pain, such as that caused by the struggles of Israelis and Palestinians leads us to love and light, or fear and loss. To respond to the darkness of fear with violence digs the hole of revenge deeper and deeper, no matter which side you feel calls you to justice. War never seems to me to have been an answer, it always seemed to me to have been the problem expressed.

It is not an easy thing to live our faith, what ever that faith may be. It is not easy to face our fears with love, to grow towards those who cause us pain. Religious faith and politics are remarkably hard to juggle together. We Quakers turned away from that attempt after our failed attempt at a theocratic state, in the Pennsylvania colony. We found that politics is seldom about truth, it is about power.

I am very fond of your photos as well, they share a great deal of light.
Finally, a unified nation, like a unified family of God, does not mean one where we all see things the same, just that we eat at the same table, and feed each other.

In the light of God who loves us all