This was our very first live recording of the Ukestra for Advent in 2013. The pictures are of the various ukulele playing members and our music ministries.
I used to be really into the ukulele. For a time at church we had a youth-led "ukestra". Many adults played as well. I always found it to be a solid instrument for people who want to sing. It is uncomplicated. It does its job with little fuss. While learning to master an instrument takes a lifetime, it doesn't take long to get a genuine musical sound out the uke. Of course, for some reason many people see this as a weakness. The great Pete Seeger, a paragon of DIY music, lumped it in with the autoharp as "the easiest to get started on and the hardest to continue with past kindergarten". I suspect in both cases his year at Harvard was showing a bit. The fact is, people do play these--and other--apparently "simple" instruments their whole lives while continuing to gain satisfaction from them.
In another way, though, he is not wrong. It takes a lot of work to push past their initial limitations. That said, it is worth it. I also have found it to be a sustainable exercise, at least in part because of how good it sounds playing simple things. After getting frustrated trying to do some complicated maneuver on the uke, one can settle into some three-chord folk songs. Then we hear the ukulele say "you're not that bad, you sound lovely now..."
It is also worth remembering the importance and the history of the ukulele. A similar and smaller instrument--called variously a Cavaquinho or "machete"--was brought to Hawaii by Portuguese sailors who settled there. the body was adapted to maximize the resonance of the native woods of the islands. The construction methods were also refined. Perhaps most important, "reentrant" tuning--in this case placing the second highest string where normally the lowest string would be--became the dominant style. This gave the instrument its intriguing brightness and "pop," not unlike the 5-string banjo. Over time it was adapted by the Hawaiian people to become their national--even royal--instrument. It still has a place of honor on the islands and the most gifted players live there.
Like the banjo, it was born out of adversity and oppression and became something beautiful.
I play the ukulele, mandolin, tenor banjo, and guitar. Each has its own strengths and function. I know I will never be all that good at any of them. That said, I find myself drawn to different ones at different times. For me--and I don't really know why--Advent and Christmas are prime ukulele seasons.
At our most intense we recorded Dance of the Sugarplum Fairies from the Nutcracker on three ukes. We played it live in Advent 2014.
Maybe it is the power of memory. The charm of the instrument--its very appearance is charismatic--makes it a good bet for hospitals, nursing homes, and worship. It is, as I have mentioned, good for both children and adults who are just learning. As such it forms part of the soundtrack of numerous public and private carol-sings. It is portable and easy to bring along to events. It is relatively durable (at least the cheaper ones) and can be played outside without too much fuss and bother.
Also, it doesn't push itself on anyone which--when we are thinking about the stress of this season--is really nice. When I play the banjo and the mandolin I have to be careful not to overwhelm all the "silent nights" and minor chords. The uke rests right where you want it. It points the way for the singers without racing on ahead.
During the late moments of the plague last year we opted for a Christmas Eve ukulele carol sing out in front of the church. We aren't doing that again this year. However, it will remain one of my favorite memories of the season ever. So many people came and so many songs were sung. My biggest regret was overburdening it with readings and such. If I ever get another crack at it we will do much more singing.
I say "if" but in a way we actually are doing it again, on the top of a local hill for the winter solstice. It will be fun...I hope.
It may be an odd thing for a bunch of New Englanders--accustomed to the frigid-though-globally-warming climate of our winter home--to reach to the warm climes of Hawaii for Christmas inspiration. Still, that is how it is. Somehow it works. That is the miracle of the holiday. It is also the miracle of music. Some things just speak to you, right?
Still, it is best for leading Carols. Here we are just this past Sunday on Advent 1!
Anyway, I hope you have a good Advent and I hope you play music. If you are unsure, maybe a uke would help. In the past I wrote a "buyers guide". This link gets you to an update of even older posts that can be accessed from it. The ukulele is a great way to get into music at any age. Get Caroling!
HIKED ON NOVEMBER 14, 2022
Yesterday was "Thanksgiving Sunday" which is the Sunday before Thanksgiving. It was lovely and peaceful and--at least for me--quite moving. Today, however, I am on screech. Thursday is actual Thanksgiving, then Sunday is the beginning of Advent. There is so much to do. All I see is a long string of tasks stretched out until December 26. This is not unusual for any of us, particularly for clergy, so I am putting my head down and getting on with it...
That said, I did hike Mount Jackson and Mount Webster a week ago in a freak snow situation. The weather--which was unseasonably warm--had turned on a dime. Al got sick. I had a reservation in New Hampshire. All this added up to a very beautiful, very cold, very slippery hike!
There are plenty of things that I would do differently. I would have perhaps not gone. I would have done better research (I was planning on a different I hike with Al). However, I did go. I do not love snow but I have done quite a few winter hikes at this point. I knew it would be gorgeous at the top and that the trails themselves would have a lot to offer. The only thing that gave me any pause was that I was by myself. With that in mind, I double checked my pack, put on my microspikes, and went on up.
It turned out that--while I passed two people heading down Webster--I was the only one hitting Jackson on this particular day. It is a popular mountain. It is rare to have it to oneself. The sound of the high wind in the trees and the rush of water under (and over) the ice created the background music to my solo climb as I negotiated some deadfalls and, of course, the icy stream crossings. I was careful and took lots of breaks, too.
Finally, I reached the tree line. What followed was a brief period of complete chaos! I was pushed around by the wind. I later learned that the wind chill put the temperature at -2 degrees Fahrenheit. My hat almost blew off. I got turned around and--most exciting--I fell and slid on the ice while trying to avoid the worst spot. It was dangerous but--thanks to the speed of falling and the need to figure out what to do so as not to freeze to death--I kept moving. In fairly short order I found my way to the peak and then started down toward Webster.
Those few moments of free-fall, though, became my reflection for Sunday. Every once in a while I have the experience of a sermon or prayer coming to me in its whole form. This was one of those times. Collecting myself before trying to stand, the first few ideas came to my head. We humans are always grateful for the peace--in this case an extremely dramatic and windy peace--after a fall. Time stopped while I sat there on the edge of the earth. All I experienced was the smallness of me and the vastness of what was around me. Nature doesn't really care about you. Sometimes that is properly frightening. Sometimes it is liberating.
There are a lot of different ways to fall. Each time we are saved we crave welcome and assurance. We are grateful for how we made it through the crisis or the climb. We give thanks and praise the acts of kindness and love--from ourselves and others--that we experienced in the darkness.
After taking that moment where I fell, the rest of the hike unfolded before me. What a blessing to be alive on this dynamic planet! I slowly brushed myself off and continued on to Mount Webster.
In a way there isn't much to say, except that the ridge between peaks was spectacular. So, too, was the view--from a much more secure perch--off Mount Webster. On the way down I passed a few more people sensibly just doing the smaller mountain. None of them were by themselves.
I also witnessed a beautiful waterfall on the way down. Snow really does its job on the landscape, making it feel other-worldly. This is our world, though. That is another thing to be grateful for.
Winter hiking, itself, is beautiful. Solo hiking is special and dramatic. However, I will keep my solo winter hikes to the 52 With a View list and look for companions on the big mountains going forward.
I always expected that hikes and posts would drop off once work started up again, but I guess I didn't realize how precipitously. I promised myself to do a "big hike" every week or so and post regularly on various topics. Instead life caught up. Ministry is an emotional business sometimes. The various arenas of parish life require commitment in multiple ways. Essentially, there are things that must be done to aid a changing church and changing lives of church members. I haven't been able to get away for extended periods of time.
Man...I would love to though...
That said, I have been able to take a few smaller walks and hikes. The most challenging one involved a treadmill and an elliptical at the YMCA. The most meaningful one for me was Wolfe's Neck Woods State Park, just outside of downtown Freeport in Maine. This is one of those places I went often as a young person. It was relatively close to where I grew up. We would have picnics here regularly. Later, when I went to a private high school, the park was on my way home. Back then I would sometimes go running here to stay in shape for the worst cross-country team in the state.
Then, when I, my siblings, and our significant others worked in the "outlet heck" of Freeport, we would sometimes take our picnic breaks here. Family members who worked at a sandwich shop would bring the food. Then we would drive home...to the same house, because we lived with our parents. In that group a number of our "first dates" happened here. Oh yes, there was camping involved, too...
Through the trees you can see the innocent-looking island where the ospreys nest. One of the first lessons I ever got about the power of nature was a warning not to go over there because the ospreys would attack you. There have been plenty of stories about people--sometimes arrogant, sometimes drunk and arrogant--doing just that and ending up in the hospital.
The path, itself, is not all that difficult. It winds from the picnic area along the coastline. There isn't a beach (thank God) so it is a hiker's park, mostly. The range of the tides is pretty extreme, so the view constantly changes. Also, there are many spots where one can turn back to the parking lot if necessary. It can be a pretty convenient feature if schedules or abilities differ. During this most recent trip on an unseasonably warm day, my niece had to head home after a while to get ready for school, so she just turned off and we continued on.
There isn't much to say about the walk we took. It wasn't very technical. I nabbed a geocache. We spent time with family, like we always have here. Then we went back the way we came. However, it does bring up a subject that I have been reminded of frequently in this project. That, my friends, would be accessibility.
Many of the hikes I list on Sabbath Walks can be challenging for some people. I forget that. Probably that is because the hikes are also challenging for me and I do not think of myself as much of an athlete. As a slow hiker, there are plenty of people to remind me on every trip large or small that it is harder for me than it is for them. That is how people roll; one-upping each other with abandon.
It turns out that there is a degree of difficulty in what I do--even on Mount Cube or Hedgehog--that is worth recognizing. It might be that for some people the challenge makes those hikes less relaxing than they should be for a sabbath walk.
The big accidental secret is that I take a lot of shorter or easier walks. It's not just Wolfe's Neck! I just didn't know anyone would be interested. With that in mind--and to reveal where I go when I am not climbing a mountain--here are some of my other favorite easy (or easier) hikes, some of which I have done more times than I can count...
OK...one further note. No walk is really "easy." There is always a challenge. The trick is knowing what you are up for and what you think you can manage on any given day. When I injured my back all the hikes on this "easy" list were off the table for a while. For some people they may always be just manageable or not manageable. Know thyself, thy interests, and thy ability. If these seem a bit too easy, I recommend my Easyish Hikes list.
Also...again...know you are hiking your own hike. Sometimes someone else thinks you are a loser for accomplishing something they think is beneath them. I have been on the receiving end of hiker toxicity more than once, myself. That is on them. You don't need their insecurities to harsh your vibe.
Ridge Hill Reservation, Needham, MA
I credit this trail with much of the progress I made rehabbing my back. However, my relationship with it starts way before my injury. When I need to think and then get right back to work, this is where I go. The trails here can sustain a hike of anywhere between 1/4 mile to 3 miles. It is dog-friendly and--unlike some parks not on this list--the dog walkers keep their furry friends relatively under control.
There are no epic views here. However, there is a lovely boardwalk through a wetland. Most importantly: do not miss the area across Charles River Street from the parking areas! It is oft-forgotten so there are fewer people. Also, it takes you down to the Charles River, which is always pretty.
Oliverian Brook Trail, WMNF, NH
I hiked this one in the rain, but I have to say that the river was very pretty and--in an area of relatively tough climbs--it was a good cool-down. I sat by the brook for a while. On a pretty day I could see spending even more time there quite happily. If you are stuck in the White Mountain National Forest and don't want one of the many riskier hikes available, just tell your friends you are doing this and will meet up with them after.
Note that this is an out-and-back. The same trail leads to some relatively easy--but more challenging than this list--ledges. Also, if you make the wrong turn you could end up on the butt-kicking slopes of Mount Passaconaway. Turn around when you are ready. You really call the shots.
By the way, it gets a mention on my Mount Hedgehog post. Hedgehog, itself, is "easyish" and these trails could make a nice two-day combo.
Broadmoor Wildlife Sanctuary, Natick, MA
In the Covid era this extremely popular sanctuary required a reservation. It may still. Also, if you are not a member the Audubon Society, it will cost a you a tiny bit. That said, I love this place! I have hiked/snowshoed here in all kinds of weather. There are trails that make cute 1/4 mile loops and longer arrangements as well.
This also borders the Charles River. I have passed the farthest flung trails from time to time in my canoe. If you like turtles do check out the various observation areas in the wetlands near the parking area. Finally, be warned, since the plague this place has been packed on the weekends.
Cochituate Rail Trail, Natick/Framingham, MA
One warning about this one...it is paved. This is a multi-use trail that is probably best on a bike but walkers can enjoy it too. It serves as a pedestrian/bike path for commuters. You can hit the mall. It leads to the back gate of Cochituate State Park. I made a loop of it from my house--which came to around 9 miles--in order to train up for the Great Glen Way road walk portions. Worked great.
Be warned that the hard surface can do a number on your feet if you go the whole way.
Mount Agamenticus, York, ME
This is the "hardest" of these easy hikes and it is the only one that has its own entry on this blog. I will refer you there for details. Still, it was very accessible and there were plenty of trails that skirt the mountain, itself if that feels like too much.
Long Pond Loop (Tully Lake Reservation) Athol, MA
This loop is also on the challenging end of easy. There is an optional tiny mountain to consider. That said, it is one of my absolute favorites of all time. It follows Long Pond just north of the much-busier Tully Lake. There are views both over the pond and up on the tiny mountain. It is also the longest on this list at about 7 miles. Unlike the rail trail, you cannot really bail out, which is a consideration. That said. it is very doable if you give yourself enough time.
Bradbury Mountain State Park, Pownal, ME
I have mentioned this one before as well. I spent a huge amount of time here growing up. One of my brothers worked as a summer ranger here as well. This tiny "mountain" has a great view of the towns and villages where I grew up. Trust me, though, you will like it even if you are from away. Also, yes, my high school cross-country team ran here from time-to-time as well.
As with Wolfe's Neck and Broadmoor, there is a fee to get in. The shortest trail to the top is about .4 miles. However, I usually take the perimeter trail that makes the whole experience closer to 3 miles.
That is all for now! It was nice getting to think about these special places. I have already been to Ridge Hill once this week. Maybe I will head over again soon...
I am a full-time pastor in a small, progressive church in Massachusetts. This blog is about the non-church things I do to find spiritual sustenance.