The Clicker

The Clicker

Instead of moving to the Library for the heat this year, I can’t. It’s going to be a bit of a job site with some of the work it’s going to have to become a lab/classroom. It won’t look too different however!

So, that said, I needed to find a new home for the winter. I will miss my view of Mitchell House and the Observatory as I sit at the original library desk but now I will be in the Observatory – or at least the 1987 seminar room. So now I will be looking back at the Library building instead. A new view.

So anyway, I was over there cleaning off the desk and cleaning out one drawer of probably 20 years worth of office supply debris and what did I come across? The clicker! And I really did exclaim out loud “Oh look, the clicker!” For the tow of you who read this (haha), this clicker was used at open nights all through my youth (and perhaps Vladimir used it too, I don’t remember). But I noted its use by Lee Belserene the MMA’s Director of Astronomy in the 1970s and 1980s. She used to let my brother click us in when we arrived for an open night – I think she had a soft spot for him. I had written a short piece about her a few years ago. So nevertheless, I was very excited to see it and maybe I was exclaiming to her or to Maria, who knows what was going on in my unconscious. But now, for the winter anyway, I will look at it as it sits over my winter desk. I will have to introduce it to our new Director of Astronomy who starts in January – Regina Jorgenson – she may have met it before too when she worked with Vladimir but maybe not. We will find out!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

November 30th. {1857} France did not burst upon me suddenly as I had hoped. We took the route from Folkstone to Boulogne, and when we arrived in Folkstone the sea was awfully rough . . . But we came into Paris in the dark. I came to the Boarding School, and was met by servants who chattered away like parrots but they understood “eau chaud” {hot water} and “feu” }fire}, two very important considerations, for France seems to me the coldest country I ever knew . . . .

Being cold seems to have been a theme for Maria Mitchell while in Europe. Given the warmer but damp climate in which she grew up on Nantucket, I always find it slightly humorous that she complains about the cold. But France, Paris in particular, is a place she took in full stride and loved very much, exclaiming that she saw nothing because there was so much to see and noting how there was so much space in Paris that she could see everything and take in buildings fully. Whereas in crowded London “A building . . . is seen by corners.”

NOTE: I chose and wrote this commentary a few weeks ago, before the incidents in Paris.  I have no good words.  Except PRAY to your higher being and PEACE.  We all live in this tiny space together.

Answer To Do You Know Where This Is?


The image is a portion of the face of the Mitchell family’s tall case clock. Built by John Deverell in Boston in 1789, the clock was a wedding gift to William and Lydia Coleman Mitchell from William Mitchell’s father, Peleg Sr. William and Lydia were married on December 12, 1812 or as Quakers would write it the 12th day of the 12th month 1812. It is a heavy brass works clock that shows the phases of the moons (it rotates with the clock) and the date – useful for a family of astronomers! William and Lydia gave the clock to Phebe Mitchell Kendall, a younger sister of Maria, when she married Joshua Kendall. Phebe then left the clock to her son, William Mitchell Kendall. Willie, as he was called by the family, left it to the Mitchell House in his estate in the 1940s. It still works – I wind it twice per week!

Edith: My Friend and Mentor

Edith Banding at Mothball Pines.

Every time I see a Yellow-rumped Warbler, I hear Edith say, “I call them Butter butts.” I don’t think I ever look at one and don’t hear her say that. I don’t think I will ever not hear her say that until I don’t see one anymore.

I was probably nine or ten when I first met her. My parents took my brother and I on a MMA nature walk. I think there were probably some groans from the adults who saw two children coming along – little did they know how enthusiastic we were about this walk. Clint was there as well and my brother made some discovery that got a very excited response from Clint, a quite and shy man.

I quite literally learned at her knee as she sat in the old black rocker in the Mitchell House. I was twelve, she was in her early seventies. What people tend to forget, or simply don’t know is that Edith Folger Andrews began her MMA career in the Mitchell House, as an assistant to the curator; herself working with Maria Mitchell’s cousins. That unique touch – that connection to the family is what I grew up with learning from Edith when I first began volunteering in the Mitchell House at age twelve. Over time, Edith became curator and served for many, many years and at several different times as curator – into 1980. She knew about the Mitchells and the House inside and out.

Yes, ornithology is more than most certainly her life, her passion, but she was also passionate about the Mitchells and the MMA. Her life was very much about those two things – and her family; her husband, Clint; her daughter, Ginger; and all the birds, dogs, Barn Owls, auks, owls, and other animals that had the good fortune of being a part of her life.

I always knew Edith in connection to the Mitchell House. After all, that is my world. It was not until maybe four or five years ago that I became more involved in the bird world of Edith Folger Andrews. She and Ginger asked if I would help to organize and compile Edith’s journals – written in composition books, to small little purse sized day planners, to scribbles on an envelope if that’s all she had with her when she saw something. For several hours a week, we organized together, found all sorts of treasures, and dug through wonderful photographs. I typed up journal entries, Edith reading many of them to me aloud, took dictation about certain birding events, and learned all about the Reef Heron, Rocket, and of course dear, sweet Owlbert. I quickly learned her short-hand for different birds and got better about my own amateur birding – it helps that when you get a name or bird identification wrong the ornithologist yells at you – not meanly of course! We birded from the living room, sitting in front of the sliders looking at the feeders. Those feeders that have fed birds for over sixty years I believe. The mulberry tree where I finally got to compare a Hairy to a Downy woodpecker as they sat there together on the same tree, a Flicker there for good measure. I learned more about birds during those several hours a week over those few years than I could have imagined. I also learned more about Edith, her life in her younger years, all sorts of great stories about the old days at MMA, and some of the other things that made her tick like mallomars – which we laughed about one day when we realized they were actually older than her! My Mom and I even learned how to help a hummingbird to recover from cold when we found one one day in the driveway, lying in the gravel. Edith told me, “X and I used to put them between our bosoms to keep them warm!” My Mom and I just looked at one another. We chose the other option Edith gave us – a brown paper bag under a lamp (and it was not because we had a fear of putting the hummingbird where Edith suggested – we just didn’t have much to provide warmth!).

This is not an easy post to write, and it’s a bit rambling. There is so much I would like to say about Edith. One thing is for sure though; she had a good and very long life that was very active almost to the end – very much like Maria Mitchell herself.

Thank you, Edith for everything you have given to all of us with brain, with heart, with hand. You have left a tremendous legacy and a path to follow. I love you.


The step, however small, which is in advance of the world, shows the greatness of the person, whether that step be taken with brain, with heart, or with hands. – Maria Mitchell

If you would like to learn more about Edith, you should read her book: Excerpts from a Nantucket Journal.

Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

October 17, 1854 I have just gone over my comet computation again and it is humiliating to perceive how very little more I know than I did 7 years ago when I first did this kind of work. To be sure I have only once in the time computed a parabolic orbit but it seems to me that I know no more in general. I think I am a little better thinker, that I take things less upon trust but at the same time I trust myself much less. The world of learning is so broad and the human side is so limited in power! We reach forth and strain every nerve but we seize hold only of a bit of the curtain that hides the infinite from us. Will it really unroll to us at some future time? Aside from gratification of the affections in another world, that of the intellect must be great, if it is enlarged and its desires are the same.

Maria Mitchell discovered a telescopic comet on October 1, 1847 and was awarded a gold medal from the King of Denmark for her discovery – the first woman and the first and only American. I think this quote also reveals a little more about her personality and the fact that she was always very hard on herself – she was a “plugger,” one who had to work hard but she did have an incredible mind and a unique way of looking at everything.


View from My Desk


The other day when the sun finally decided it was done napping over the past week and would make a few peeks out from under its blanket of clouds, I had a visitor outside my window. He was a little surprised to see me through the window but he remained awhile – even curling up. I suspect he was prowling for the poor birds who (I know, animals should be “that” but to me they are who) are now even more prevalent in the backyard as Peleg Mitchell’s grapes have ripened. But the cat finally left bird-less thank goodness.

He reminded me of Maria mentioning a cat who came to the Vassar Observatory and stayed. She named her Sarah Bernhardt and made her a collar of a purple ribbon.


Maria on WGBH


On October 1st, I was interviewed by Edgar B. Herwick III of the “Curiosity Desk” on WGBH about Maria Mitchell’s comet discovery on October 1st, 1847. On October 2nd, it could be heard on 89.7 FM and also (still) by visiting the WGBH website. Each week, he features a piece called “What Happened this Week in Massachusetts History.” He always seems to find something new, interesting, or forgotten and he has been featured on “WGBH News” on television as well – he is that snappy dresser!

So a thank you to Edgar for the coverage and recognition of Maria!


Maria Mitchell In Her Own Words

Maria Mitchell, ca. 1865

Sept. 25, 1854. . . . The best that can be said of my life so far is that it has been industrious, and the best that can be said of me is that I have not pretended to what I was not.

I think of two things when I read this. One is that Quakers believed in being industrious and not wasting time. The second point makes me think immediately of Holden Caulfield – The Catcher in the Rye if you don’t know that character’s name – and his various references and discussions to “phonys” as he refers to them though Maria’s mention here is not entirely in the same vain.

A materially successful Quaker was one who was living “in the light,” as Quakers referred to it. Even if gifted with material wealth, Quakers still lived frugally and were a hard working group of people. As Hector St. Jean de Crèvecoeur noted, “Idleness is the most heinous sin that can be committed in Nantucket . . . for idleness is considered as another word for want and hunger.” If you were not productive and industrious, you would starve – and it would affect others in the community since isolated Nantucket acted as a corporate family economy – everyone was relying on one another for survival. While Maria is also not necessarily going to this depth of industrious it is a Quaker ethic that was strongly imbued in her. She certainly was a hard worked with numerous accomplishments to her name and many different projects completed even by 1854 at age thirty-six.

And don’t forget October 1st is the anniversary of Maria’s comet discovery – October 1, 1847.


A Star of One’s Own for Maria Mitchell and her Father, William Mitchell

Maria and Father

Standing under the canopy of the stars you can scarcely do a petty deed or think a wicked thought. — Maria Mitchell

One of Nantucket’s most famous Daring Daughters – and her astronomer and teacher father as well – could get a star (MariaMitchell) and a planet (WilliamMitchell) named after them with your help! Now, how exciting would that be for Nantucket!

The International Astronomical Union (IAU), the largest organization of professional astronomers in the world, is sponsoring a contest to rename twenty stars and their associated planets. The IAU is the official naming organization for astronomical bodies, and the public gets to vote on the names. A star currently known as Andromedae 14 could be renamed “MariaMitchell” and its accompanying planet named “WilliamMitchell” should we get enough votes!

Voting began online the week of August 10, 2015 and will continue until October 31st. PLEASE encourage everyone you know – from Nantucket and beyond – to vote in support of renaming the Andromedae 14 system as “MariaMitchell” and “WilliamMitchell.”

Here’s a link where you can vote to rename Andromedae 14 in honor of Maria and William Mitchell:

There is still time so vote! This would be an incredible honor for these two remarkable astronomers – and Nantucket’s own!