In the beginning this blog was centered on San Francisco parks and open space issues with special emphasis on natural areas and natural history. Over time it began to range into other areas and topics. As you can see, it is eclectic, as I interlace it with topics of interest to me.

I welcome feedback: just click this link to reach me.

Saturday, May 5, 2012


No man should judge unless he asks himself in absolute honesty whether in a similar situation he might not have done the same. -Viktor Frankl, author, neurologist and psychiatrist, Holocaust survivor

1.   IPM Specialist job opening in Sunol
2.   Build backyard habitat for the Pacific Chorus Frog, May 8
3.   Coastside Land Trust Gallery opening Spring Art Exhibit May 6/other events
4.   Many full-time interns wanted by Restore Hetch Hetchy May 28 - Aug 15
5.   SF Supervisors consider weakening preservation protection May 8; includes GGP
6.   Wolves in California?  May 8
7.   Feedback:  Lands End Visitors Center
8.   Thinkwalks potpourri
9.   Acres for America Program accepting grant applications for conservation project land acquisition
10. New exec director for Audubon California--but oooooh, the Byzantine politics
11.  Maybe the pols should read the love letters sent by the wind and rain...
12.  Farm Bill is up for its 5-year renewal and Congress needs to hear from you
13.  USDA maps food al from SciAm
14.  Green@Home HouseCall Volunteer Training, May 9 and 15, Palo Alto
15.  Easy way to help Oak Woodlands in GGP May 19
16.  Obituary: Chuck Colson, point man for Richard Nixon and Jesus
17.  In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring


1.  Integrated Pest Management Specialist job opening in Sunol:


2.  Build back-yard habitat for the Pacific Chorus Frog!

During the Golden Gate Naturefest, we dug the hole for the pond but encountered Monterey pine roots that kept us busy the entire afternoon. So... get ready to join us for the fun part: sinking the tub, adding a pond liner, plants and tadpoles!

Tuesday, May 8 4:30 to 6:30 p.m.
Meet at 278 30th St. in Noe Valley
Enter through the side gate.
Suggested donation: $10 to $30. No one turned away for lack of funds.

Join Dylan Hayes with EarthArc (a longtime frog pond steward) and Amber Hasselbring with the Mission Greenbelt Project for a frog pond building workshop. Learn about the Pacific Chorus Frog's life cycle, relict San Francisco populations, and  Jim McKissock's special project to conserve and restore habitats for these San Francisco frogs. Build the pond together and, upon completion, add tadpoles gathered from Visitacion Valley Middle School, thanks to Charlotte Hill with Kids in Parks.


3.  This Sunday, May 6th, from 2-5 pm the Coastside Land Trust Gallery will be opening our Spring Art Exhibit. Please join us and the artists for the Grand Opening reception. We are part of SOMA Arts which is also hosting a Spring Art Stroll during this same time, come see us and 12 other Galleries open this Sunday, just in time for Mothers Day gifts!

Sunday, May 6th, 2-5pm
788 Main Street, Half Moon Bay
Light refreshments will be served

A portion of all art sales directly benefits our mission to permanently protect open space along the San Mateo County Coast.

Ongoing and Upcoming
-Vote for us at New Leaf: The month of May is time to vote for your favorite Envirotoken non-profit recipients at New Leaf Markets. Save some paper and help CLT at the same time! Each time you drop a token in our box we earn 10 cents, but we need to have a spot on the box so vote for us here 

-Restoration Work Parties every 1st Saturday and 3rd Wednesday of the month
-Gallery Hours: Thurs & Fri 11-2  Sun 9-1
-Seabird & Songbird Workshop & Walk, Saturday May 26th
-Please "like" us on our Facebook page or follow us @CoastLandTrust
-Native plants for sale, 1 gal, $10 each
-Plants and Plant Communities of the San Mateo Coast, by Avis Boutell, Toni Corelli and Nancy Frost, $20

For more information call Lindsey (650) 726-5056


4.  RECRUITING INTERNS - Summer 2012

Restore Hetch Hetchy, the national campaign to bring the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite National Park back to life, is recruiting talented, smart and funny applicants for multiple internship positions.  All internships are unpaid and based in downtown San Francisco.  This is a unique opportunity to work directly with the Executive Director and Board of Directors to develop environmental advocacy skills.
Interested applicants can apply to
    •    cover letter indicating which internship they are applying for and why
    •    a resume
    •    list of 3 references

Internship Opportunities
Communications Interns
May 28th - August 15th  Full-time
Provides support to RHH earned media campaign designed to strengthen advocacy efforts within San Francisco.  Interns will work in coordination with Communications Consultant and report to the Executive Director.  Day to day responsibilities will include but not be limited to creating a social networking campaign, drafting monthly e-newsletters, coordinating letters to the editor, outreach to neighborhood media, and rapid response.  This is a great opportunity to develop hands-on media and PR experience.  Applicants must be outgoing self-starters with a passion for the environment.

Special Events Interns
May 28th - August 15th  Full-time
Special Events Interns will focus primarily on organizing and implementing Muir's March and the RHH Restoration Picnic.  Muir's March is a 7 day, 45 mile trek (July 29 - August 4) across Yosemite National Park designed to raise funds and build awareness for the campaign.  The trip culminates in a rally at the O'Shaughnessy Dam.  Day-to-day responsibilities will include but not be limited to marketing event, recruiting participants, coordinating logistics, coordinating training hikes, recruiting volunteers and participants for the Restoration Picnic.

Field Organizing Interns
May 28 - August 15th  Full-time
Field Organizing interns will coordinate all public outreach and advocacy efforts.  Day-to-day responsibilities will include but not be limited to recruiting and training volunteers, leading volunteer outreach teams, scheduling outreach events and coordinating all logistics and organizing local neighborhood committee's.  Applicants must have strong public speaking/persuasion skills and enjoy engaging the public.

Research Intern
May 28th - August 15th  Full-time
Restore Hetch Hetchy seeks a research intern to assist in the development of a catalog of water system best practices in San Francisco, among customers of San Francisco's regional water system, and among other water utilities throughout California and possibly beyond. The research intern will work directly with Restore Hetch Hetchy's director of policy, and will organize and summarize existing and prospective water supplies and patterns of use. Attention to detail, quantitative skills, facility with Microsoft word and Excel are required.


Situated within Yosemite National Park, the Hetch Hetchy valley was described by John Muir as "one of nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." The pristine Tuolumne River once cascaded along the Hetch Hetchy Valley floor, surrounded by flowered meadows and ancient forests. Initially protected by the establishment of Yosemite National Park, the city of San Francisco won congressional approval in 1913 to build a dam and bury this extraordinary wilderness valley under 300 feet of water.
Modern engineering advances now afford us the opportunity to continue to deliver high quality water to San Francisco while creating one of the most ambitious and exciting environmental restoration projects in human history. A restored Hetch Hetchy Valley will result in the recreation of nine miles of the wild and scenic Tuolumne River, the regeneration of three square miles of extraordinary wilderness and the restoration of habitat for thousands of animal and plant species.


5.  From Cynthia Servetnick

Fellow Preservation-minded friends:

Update:  At its hearing on Monday, the Land Use and Economic Development Committee voted 2 to 1 (Supervisor Eric Mar voting no) to recommend approval of proposed amendments to Planning Code Articles 10 and 11 introduced by Sup. Scott Wiener and co-sponsored by Sup. Christina Olague.

The full Board of Supervisors will be considering the legislation on Tuesday, May 8th.

No public testimony is allowed at the hearing, but please let your voice be heard by emailing or calling the members of the Board of Supervisors now and telling them they should not approve the Wiener amendments until the outstanding issues have been resolved

Urge them to oppose Supervisor Weiner’s proposed amendments, which  weaken existing preservation protections that have been law for over 25 years.

Ask them to uphold the mandate of the SF voters who approved Proposition J in 2008 to strengthen preservation protections by making the revisions recommended by the Historic Preservation Commission (HPC), Heritage and the Preservation Coalition.

The following summarizes these proposed revisions (also listed in detail on the attached Articles 10 & 11 Chart).  Pick the issues that are important to you and tell the BOS why.

1.  Eliminate the requirement for a written vote of owners before the BOS can take action on proposed historic districts.
• No other zoning changes are subject to a required vote by owners and occupants. The proposed amendment singles out historic preservation for disparate treatment.
• This voting requirement would impose a significant procedural hurdle on any proposed new historic districts.
• This new requirement constitutes an “unfunded mandate.”  No analysis has been done of the cost and staff time of complying with this requirement.

2.  Allow members of the public to nominate landmarks and historic districts for consideration.
• The proposal discourages participation by members of the public in the protection of the City’s important historic resources.
• Why would a vote be required before a district can be designated, but members of the public are not even allowed to nominate properties for designation?

3.  Remove proposed new limitations on the authority of the Historic Preservation Commission to review proposed alterations in historic districts and conservation districts.
• The proposed amendments conflict with specific language in the voter approved City Charter (Prop J) that mandates HPC review of all work within historic districts and conservation districts.  Articles 10 and 11 cannot limit this authority.

4.  Eliminate the requirement for the Planning Department to develop -- and the Planning Commission to adopt -- “local interpretations” of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards.
• Not only is this inconsistent with the independent authority given the HPC by the City Charter (Prop J) to review all proposed changes to landmarks and districts, but this requirement constitutes an “unfunded mandate.”  No analysis has been done of the cost and staff time of complying with this requirement.
• The Secretary’s Standards are the nation’s standard for a sound preservation program and have been used by the HPC and the previous Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board for over 25 years. The Secretary’s Standards for rehab are broad and have flexibility. Supervisor Wiener has not demonstrated why “local interpretations” of these standards are necessary.

5.  Delete the proposed “exemption” from preservation requirements for affordable housing projects until it can be further studied.
• The proposed legislation exempts all “residential projects within historic districts receiving a direct financial contribution for funding from local, state, or federal sources for the purpose of providing a subsidized for-sale or rental housing unit.” This is an entirely new definition for “affordable housing” that has not been considered by the HPC or the Planning Commission and does not require a showing of economic hardship.
• Supervisor Wiener has yet to demonstrate that historic preservation adversely impacts “affordable housing.”

6.  Do not exempt streets and sidewalks from review.
• Alterations and public works projects impacting streets and sidewalks in historic districts should not be exempt from protection without first analyzing the potential adverse impacts on the integrity of the historic district.

To help navigate this complex legislation, please see the below-linked chart (revised) summarizing the outstanding issues that need to be addressed by the Board of Supervisors:

Thank you for your emails (and testimony) to the Land Use Committee.  And thanks in advance to everyone for providing written letters, emails and phone calls to the Board of Supervisors.on this important issue.


Wiener goes after historic preservation


Subject: Articles 10 and 11 - protect Golden Gate Park! Keep the Secretary of the Interior Standards.

Golden Gate Park is a treasure that must be preserved for future generations of San Franciscans to enjoy as it was designed and as it has been enjoyed for 140 years -- as a landscape park where everyone can escape urban stress.  As one of the last, large remaining contiguous pieces of open space in San Francisco, it has also become precious habitat for our wildlife.

Unfortunately, the Park is often viewed as empty land, just waiting for the pet projects that crop up every few years.  In 1915 the Panama Pacific Exposition would have destroyed most of the parkland; in the early 1950s freeways were planned to run through the Park.   Today the threat is from  the Beach Chalet soccer fields, with over 7 acres of artificial turf and 150,000 watts of night lighting, right next to Ocean Beach  -- where families go to enjoy the sunset, to sit by fires on the beach or to enjoy the dark night sky.

We are concerned that any weakening of historic preservation standards in San Francisco will result in the further commercial development and degradation of Golden Gate Park.  We are especially concerned about the proposed local interpretations of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards.  Cultural landscapes are important and add value to our city -- both for its citizens and for the tourists whom we are constantly courting.

Therefore, we are asking that you  eliminate the requirement for the Planning Department to develop -- and the Planning Commission to adopt -- "local interpretations" of the Secretary of the Interior's Standards.  The Secretary's Standards are the nation's standard for a sound preservation program and have been used by the HPC and the previous Landmarks Preservation Advisory Board for over 25 years. The purpose of having standards is to provide a framework for protecting our precious heritage for future generations.

Please consider protecting our parkland in all of the deliberations on Articles 10 and 11.   Please  do not approve the Wiener amendments until the outstanding issues have been  resolved.  And above all, please protect Golden Gate Park!

Katherine Howard, ASLA
Golden Gate Park Preservation Alliance


6.  Wolves in California...What can we expect?

Please join us next Tuesday, May 8, at 12:30 p.m. at the California Academy of Sciences for an on-site interview with Carter Niemeyer, one of the most well-known figures in wolf recovery in North America. The former Idaho U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service wolf recovery coordinator and Montana USDA/APHIS wolf specialist, and now the author of an award-winning book, Wolfer, Carter will talk about his extensive experience introducing, monitoring and managing wolves as well as dealing with the ever constant socio-political strife that surrounds the animal. What can California expect when wolves settle into the state? Come find out!

(Note:  You'll need to be a CAS member or pay the hefty entrance fee.)

7.  Feedback

Nancy De Stefanis:
Hi Jake,
I visited the Lands End Lookout Visitors Center twice since it opened.

While the Center has many interesting features, I noticed that children and families were ignored by the NPS planners.

The old visitors center below the Cliff House had lots of artifacts for kids to touch and feel - and at least one spotting scope
aimed at the variety of birds that occupy the rocks just outside. It was a very exciting place because there were ways to interact and connect
with the numerous birds, seals and whales going by outside.

San Francisco is becoming more adult-centric every day.  Surely there is room in the Center for activities that engage children 6 and up.

We still have families living in the city and many families outside the city will visit as well.  It would not take much space to make
the Center more family-friendly.

I spoke to the Supt. of the National Park Service, Frank Dean, a few days ago. He was very sympathetic to my concerns and said
he would try to find the space to make the Center relevant to children and families. He was open to adding a spotting scope and real
touchable artifacts.

Here’s hoping.

Nancy DeStefanis
Director, San Francisco Nature Education


8.  Joel at Thinkwalks:
Okay this is me out on a limb (especially to those dozens of you who just joined this mailing list!). I need some creative outreach assistance and I'm depending on you folks who've been on Thinkwalks tours.

I've got some excellent news to tell you in this email and some Deep SF Facts, too, but first the brow-knitting part.

The long range viability of this education project called Thinkwalks depends on finding an income anchor. I'm already expanding custom tours for team-building, company outings, nonprofit member groups, etc. But what would work best is to have a contract with at least one growing tech company based here or near, to give SF orientation walks and presentations to their new employees. People come to SF knowing it's cool but very little of importance or context beyond that. To integrate them as informed members of the community and build their arrival excitement, I'd like to offer specific nerdy overviews (and/or adventures) arranged with the Human Resources department of their employer.

That's where you come in. Do you know someone in a fairly influential role (HR or?) at an SF company like Adobe, AirBNB, Google, DropBox, Twitter, Facebook, or one of the smaller ones that's growing up? If so, I'd love to strategize an intro with you. I can offer a lot more than natural history info to their hires. I'm drawing up a prospectus in May. Please brainstorm with me!

Now for the refreshing fun!

Today, I'm installing the Tick Tock Backdrop outdoor exhibit (about twelve feet wide and nine high) at Divisadero Street and McAllister. The display tells about the first roads passing that spot, the roadhouse that was there, and the lake beside it. It's designed for you to make your own postcards by taking your photo in front of the giant 1924 photo, as if you were there. (Then you can post it to the Thinkwalks Facebook page or send it as a real printed postcard!) Come have a look! By tomorrow, the ticktock link on the Thinkwalks website will be up, I expect.

And speaking of tomorrow (Saturday the 5th), please do come to the free monthly Secret Creek Exploration (see calendar on the Thinkwalks site). We'll meet at 10:30 in Noe Valley and do a shortish (4 mile) but hilly walk to actual springs, one of which is still pouring out of the ground in its natural state. It should take about 3 hours round trip. If you came on last' month's walk, some of this will duplicate: The spring on Cuesta Street (very top of 24th Street, under the Market Street overpass).

On Sunday the 6th I'll be on the 900 block of Valencia during Sunday Streets displaying fun old photos and talking natural history. Come on by 11 to 2:30 or come at 3:30 to join the Everything Explained bike ride (see calendar page).

Deep SF Fact (1):

Just before the stock market crash of 1929, a plan was afoot to clear out all the houses in the Wiggle (lower Haight district) and put a car and truck boulevard from the Panhandle to Market Street. I found plans of it from 1928 at the Cal. Historical Society archive! If you come on a Walk the Wiggle tour, I'll show them to you.

Deep SF Fact (2):

Islais Creek (that still flows in Glen Park and used to flow where I-280 is) gets pronounced "Izz-less" *(see below, JS) by most locals, but it's named for the local species of cherry tree, with a French name, so I like to use the original pronunciation: "Izz-lay". There are Islais cherry trees, I'm told (I must go explore) on Bayview Hill, in the southeasternmost corner of the city. Let's go see!

I'll be out of SF for the middle two weeks of May, but other than that, please set up a time with me for your friends, classmates or co-workers to take a group tour. More detailed catalog coming soon, but the page tells all.

(Joel:  Are you sure about the "French name"?  My knowledge is superficial and I am here regurgitating what I've come across--none of it authoritative.  We usually spell the name of the cherry "islay".  And that word has been thought by some to be derived from Spanish, others from native Americans.  Does anyone know?  JS
Oh dear. I guess I didn't do a complete enough research project. I made some assumptions, but of course I thought they were excellent ones. Let me know if you learn anything more.  Joel)


9.  Acres for America Program Accepting Grant Applications for Conservation Project Land Acquisition
Approximately $2.5 million is available for projects that, through acquisition of interest in real property, conserve large, landscape-level areas that are important habitat for fish, wildlife, and plants....

Posted on April 30, 2012
Deadline: June 1, 2012 (Pre-proposals)


10.  Audubon Taps Mike Sutton for Key Western Conservation Role
May 03, 2012 10:59 AM Eastern Daylight Time
EMERYVILLE, Calif.--(EON: Enhanced Online News)--The National Audubon Society this week named one of California’s leading conservation advocates to lead its West Coast conservation efforts. Mike Sutton, who sits on California’s Fish and Game Commission and heads the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Center for the Future of the Oceans, has been appointed Audubon’s Vice President of the Pacific Flyway. He will also serve as executive director of Audubon California.
Sutton, who lives in Carmel Valley, will be charged with helping implement a new strategic direction for Audubon that seeks to perform large-scale conservation along the four major migratory paths, or flyways.
“Birds and other wildlife have been central to my working dating back to when I was a park ranger at Yosemite,” said Sutton. “I’m a...
Read the full news release on

Wait, wait, no dancing in the streets:

Miles Young:
 I realize my view point on this is not going to be very popular but I think I'm being realistic.  When is the last time you observed all the commissioners present for a full two day session Commission meeting?  Great for Mr. Sutton that he was honored with this appointment but how is this going to impact his time working on Commission items?  Everybody laughs at Weakland when as he did at the last Commission meeting he stated the Commission can't be taking the job seriously when half the members are absent.  Problem is he is dead right!   Mike Sutton even announced they would have to pass on several important voting issues until they had the full Commission.  So Mr. Sutton is VP of the Fish and Game Commission, is a VP and then a Director for Monterey Bay Aquariums Center for the Future of Oceans, is Executive Director of  Audubon California and now also Audubon's VP of the Pacific Flyway.   An impressive list of positions if they were at different times in his life but all at once?  I also see some big opportunities here for some serious conflicts of interest, I'm sure they are apparent to everyone especially with membership on the Commission Marine Resources Committee.
    They can make all the changes they want on the Strategic Vision Plan but unless you can get truly dedicated, unbiased commissioners willing and able to attend all the meetings with their focus totally on the subject matter at hand it will just be another feel good document.
Mark J Palmer:
It is likely that Jerry Brown and Resources Agency consider Michael Sutton their "environmental" appointment to the Fish & Game Commission, so they can appoint Kellogg as their "sportsman" appointment, too.  Brown pulled the same nonsense in his first terms as Governor, appointing a few throw-away big names to the Commission so that there was no consensus possible, allowing the Department and Director Charles Fullerton to run things the way he wanted to.
Miles Young:
Mark:     Tend to agree with your viewpoint the intent is to prevent any consensus.   That's why I said many months ago the perceived purpose of the Fish and Game Commission is to listen to the public and transmit the reasonable and prudent ideas to the Department in the form of direction.  The practical/political side is that the Commission provides a platform for the public to speak on resource issues; what if anything changes is only with the blessing of the Department and Gov's office.
     Sutton probably is considered the environmental appointment to the Commission but he is so heavily invested in the exploitation of the Aquaculture industry I would question which way he would lean if it were protecting an existing resource versus expanding an aquaculture enterprise.
Mark Palmer:
Yes, not only does it prevent any consensus that might alter the status quo for the Department, it also is the perfect foil for wildlife interests.  If we complain about Brown's appointment of Kellogg, he replies he appointed Sutton.  If the hunters object to Sutton, Brown notes he appointed Kellogg.  The perfect foil for any criticism of the Commission appointees.

And that, folks, is called realpolitik.  And most of the officials you and I vote for practice it, even our "good guys".  Believe.  JS



Every day, priests minutely examine the Law
And endlessly chant complicated sutras.
Before doing that, though, they should learn
How to read the love letters sent by the wind
and rain, the snow and moon.

~ Ikkyu ~
(Ikkyu and the Crazy Cloud Anthology, trans. by Sonya Arutzen)


12.  Write Congress Today!
What would the U.S. agriculture system look like if we actually planted what the government tells us we're supposed to eat? Check out our infographic:

Then urge Congress to support healthy, sustainable food production!

Billions of federal taxpayer dollars are used to subsidize unhealthy, processed foods instead of the fruits and vegetables recommended for a healthy diet. But it doesn't have to be this way.

Congress is currently debating practical changes to agricultural policies that can shift priorities to provide greater support to healthier food and healthier farms.

A new UCS report has found that farmers growing healthy foods, or those who want to farm with organic methods, face significant barriers that other farmers—especially those growing ingredients for processed foods—do not.

Simple adjustments to agricultural policies in the Farm Bill can help farmers overcome these barriers, which will benefit our health, protect the environment, and support local economies. Last week, the Senate began debating the Farm Bill, but much more needs to be done to include these recommendations.

Ask your members of Congress to support healthy and sustainable food production in the Farm Bill!

Take Action Today!


Jenn Yates
National Field Organizer
Union of Concerned Scientists Food & Environment Program

WEB EXCLUSIVES: How the USDA Maps Food Deserts
For some, fresh food can be hard to come by

OBSERVATIONS: Royal Society Calls for Redistribution of Wealth and More Birth Control to Save the Planet
How can the world balance the need for economic growth and forestall ecological disaster?

CLIMATEWIRE: Ecuador Asks World to Pay to Keep Yasuni Oil Underground
International climate funds might be one way for the world to convince Ecuador to not pump oil from underneath a biologically rich rainforest region

CLIMATEWIRE: Rising Groundwater May Flood Underground Infrastructure of Coastal Cities
Cities like New Haven, Conn., may face flooded basements and submerged water and electricity lines in the near future


14.  From Acterra:
Check it Out:  Asphalt to Ecosystems -- Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation

Bay Area schools are blossoming with edible and native plant gardens, small animal farms, and more. If you're interested in transforming your schoolgrounds into a creative, ecological, and educational environment, then check out this book from the Acterra Environmental Library. For more information about the library, please visit the Acterra Environmental Library website.

Green@Home HouseCall Volunteer Training
May 9 AND 15
5:30 pm - 9:30 pm
Palo Alto (exact location TBA)

Want to help hundreds of local residents reduce their energy use by providing free home energy assessments and installing basic energy saving devices? Then become a Green@Home HouseCall Volunteer! The next two-part volunteer training session will be held in Palo Alto.

For more information and to register for the training, please visit the Green@Home EventBrite website.


Special Event  - Saturday, May 19,  9 AM - 1 PM.

San Francisco’s Coast Live Oak Woodland’s new Nature Trail, the Fuchsia Hts. section, will be the focus of a habitat restoration work party .
All volunteers will get free lunch and T- shirts.

This is an exciting start to the restoration of the Oak Woodlands route that could become part of the Bay Ridge Trail.

The lead sponsor, SF Parks Alliance, will pledge $50 to ‘ Friends of Oak Woodlands GG Park ’   for each registered volunteer to fund continuing habitat restoration along the new Oak Woodlands Nature Trail !

Please connect to <>  to register.

Call or email Rob Bakewell, Friends of Oak Woodlands GG Park for more information.
415-710-9617 <>


16.  Charles Colson, political operative and prison reformer, died on April 21st, aged 80

Apr 28th 2012 | from The Economist

THOSE who knew Chuck Colson said he never changed much, to look at, from the age of 18 to the age of 80. The same owlish horn-rimmed glasses; the same liking for blazers and bow ties; and that same quizzical, half-laughing, wide-eyed look, as if another quip was coming.

He was a prankster as a boy, letting off stink bombs in cinemas and putting snowballs in hats. In young manhood, campaigning for politicians in Boston, he learned the art of “planting misleading stories…voting tombstones, and spying out the opposition in every possible way”. No surprise then that when he joined Richard Nixon’s White House as special counsel, in 1969, he was soon in charge of dirty tricks. He tried to get thugs to rough up anti-Vietnam-war protesters, and dreamed of firebombing the liberal Brookings Institution to seize incriminating stuff inside. He spread the false tale that Arthur Burns, chairman of the Federal Reserve, planned to enrich himself at taxpayers’ expense, and listed (with sexual foibles) Nixon’s enemies, to trap them later.

It wasn’t so much the trickiness that caught the eye, however, as the take-no-prisoners fervour with which he did his job. Mr Colson always went further than other people. He had fitted a truck horn to his first car, a Morris Minor, the better to barge through traffic. As a student at Brown, devising challenges for new recruits to the frat house, he ordered them to produce custard pies imprinted with the shape of a breast from a nearby ladies’ college. Desperate to get into the marines and go to Korea, he drilled and polished for weeks until he was good enough.

At the White House, too, coming up to the 1972 campaign, he planned total war against all that was leftist, peacenik, spineless and immoral. This was dog-eat-dog, and attack was the best possible form of defence. When the longed-for call from Nixon came, he left his lucrative law practice to do whatever he was asked. He would chew people up, and spit them out, for the president. He would break all the fucking china, as Nixon once suggested to him, to get an order ready to sign on his desk by Monday morning. “The president wants to see you, Mr Colson,” were words that set his spine tingling, as it did when he heard martial music, or the words “United States”. To be the president’s point-man, his hatchet man, taking down his hunched, muttered confidences on yellow legal pads, was the fulfilment of his life.

It could be argued that he won the election for Nixon by prising off large chunks of the blue-collar, Catholic, ethnic Democratic vote. His part in the downfall was murkier. The botched burglary of Watergate was “not his baby”, he insisted (not up to his standards), though he knew Howard Hunt, one of the “plumbers”, through the burglary of the office of the psychiatrist of Daniel Ellsberg, who had leaked the Pentagon Papers that did much to turn the country against the war. Destroying Ellsberg had always been Mr Colson’s aim, and it was to this that he pleaded guilty in 1974. By copping that plea, some thought, he avoided harder questions, which might have passed closer to Nixon’s head.

Point-man for Jesus

But between the Ellsberg incident and the prison Mr Colson had transferred his unstoppable, driving energies to another boss. This one had called him out of the blue on a visit to his friend Tom Phillips, head of Raytheon, to drum up business for his law firm after he had left the White House. Tom spoke of finding Jesus. Later they read C.S. Lewis together, about the “spiritual cancer” of pride, and the old tingling started in Mr Colson’s spine—soon followed, as he tried to drive home, by floods of repentant and refreshing tears.

Just a trick of the old Colson kind, his many enemies said. A play for sympathy, no doubt, as the wolves closed in around the White House. It took him three decades to convince the world that his conversion was sincere: three decades in which, building on his sobering seven months in jail, he set up a network of prison ministries in 115 countries, established a programme of restorative justice, and took over units of prisons to run them on Christian principles, with Scripture classes and prayer-meetings. (Re-offending rates, usually 20%, were a mere 8% in his programmes.) In hundreds of fetid cells he would appear in person, Bible in hand, to urge jailbirds to a new life. He was no longer a hatchet man, but still a point-man: doing whatever needed doing, when Jesus asked. On the same yellow legal pads, in his service, he would now jot down points of theology.

Many of his enemies were still the same. Immorality, secularism, pro-abortionism, lack of patriotism: all had to be battled. Fortified by the 27th Psalm (“He shall set me up upon a rock”), Mr Colson picked teams of Centurions to “change the culture” of the country, and founded a Chuck Colson Centre to help a “Christian worldview” take hold. Behind the prayer-language was still the boy whose pride had nearly burst his new suit as he gave his high-school valedictory speech; and the low-class non-Brahmin Bostonian who, in his vast-ceilinged office beside Nixon’s, had burned to destroy all non-believers in their cause and to make America great and good again. From Tricky Dicky to Jesus Christ was not, perhaps, as huge a change as everyone thought.

What's In The Temple?

In the quiet spaces of my mind a thought lies still, but ready to spring.
It begs me to open the door so it can walk about.
The poets speak in obscure terms pointing madly at the unsayable.
The sages say nothing, but walk ahead patting their thigh calling for us to follow.
The monk sits pen in hand poised to explain the cloud of unknowing.
The seeker seeks, just around the corner from the truth.
If she stands still it will catch up with her.
Pause with us here a while.
Put your ear to the wall of your heart.
Listen for the whisper of knowing there.
Love will touch you if you are very still.

If I say the word God, people run away.
They've been frightened--sat on 'till the spirit cried "uncle."
Now they play hide and seek with somebody they can't name.
They know he's out there looking for them, and they want to be found,
But there is all this stuff in the way.

I can't talk about God and make any sense,
And I can't not talk about God and make any sense.
So we talk about the weather, and we are talking about God.

I miss the old temples where you could hang out with God.
Still, we have pet pounds where you can feel love draped in warm fur,
And sense the whole tragedy of life and death.
You see there the consequences of carelessness,
And you feel there the yapping urgency of life that wants to be lived.
The only things lacking are the frankincense and myrrh.

We don't build many temples anymore.
Maybe we learned that the sacred can't be contained.
Or maybe it can't be sustained inside a building.
Buildings crumble.
It's the spirit that lives on.

If you had a temple in the secret spaces of your heart,
What would you worship there?
What would you bring to sacrifice?
What would be behind the curtain in the holy of holies?

Go there now.

~ Tom Barrett ~

(Keeping in Touch)

No comments:

Post a Comment