by Polly Howells
Eco-philosopher Joanna Macy, in her seminal work Coming Back to Life, outlines the inner work that each of us must do if we as a species are to transition from what she calls the Industrial Growth Society to the Life-Sustaining Society. She outlines four necessary steps on our spiral of grief, growth, and reconnection: Coming from Gratitude, Honoring our Pain for the World, Seeing with New Eyes, and Going Forth. In 2008, author and ecologist Trebbe Johnson, following the spirit of the second and third of these steps, founded Radical Joy for Hard Times. Once a year, on summer solstice, this organization sponsors the Global Earth Exchange, an event at which people all over the world go to places they care about that have been damaged, tell their stories there, and make a bird out of materials they find on site.
On June 20, 2015, as part of this worldwide Radical Joy experience, nine people from the Hudson Valley towns of Woodstock, Glenford, Saugerties, and West Shokan—Transitioners all—gathered in the woods of Saugerties to honor a piece of land that has had a long history of wounding, dating at least back to the middle of the 19th century. On a stream tributary of the Plattekill Creek, this spot is the site of a gunpowder mill that was built in the early 1800s and violently exploded on May 25, 1854, killing seven of its employees and destroying the town that had grown up around it. The fame of the explosion spread far and wide during that century via a well-known ballad written and sung by the itinerant Bard of Saugerties, Henry Sherman Backus.
For thousands of years before Europeans arrived here, the Esopus people made their summer encampment in these woods, migrating yearly from their Hudson Riverbank winter homes. In the early 19th century, there were more people living in this now completely wooded area five miles west of Saugerties than in the village of Saugerties. Strategically located on the Hudson River, Saugerties was then a prominent industrial center, and gunpowder was an important commodity, promising security and power to westward-moving settlers. After the mill exploded it was never rebuilt, since the once plentiful hickory trees on the stream’s banks that were burned to make charcoal, a necessary ingredient in the manufacture of gunpowder, had all been cut down. Later in the 19th century the forest was again clear cut to provide firewood for the brick factory in Saugerties, on the ruins of which Diamond Mill presently stands.
So those of us who gathered in these woods on the afternoon of June 20, 2015, were standing among trees that were probably third growth, the banks of this little stream having been denuded at least twice since the first settlers came. Many stone walls of the original six mill buildings still stand, though crumbling, and the sluiceway through which rushing water powered the mill wheel is evident.
Honoring the former native inhabitants of this land, we began our ceremony standing in a circle with a bow to each of the four directions and to the elements of earth, air, fire, and water, all so prominent on this piece of land. We then took some time to wander in silence, letting ourselves notice and feel whatever came up for us. Some of us, sitting on that almost 200-year-old stone wall or on the shore of the stream, felt a distant rumbling through our bodies, imagining that explosion 160 years ago. There was a deep sadness as well as a quiet beauty in these woods, twisted pine trees growing through, on, and under the crumbling walls, some of them exhibiting mysterious holes and tunnels through themselves.
After about 45 minutes we returned to our circle, bringing with us found objects that had intrigued us on our walk. Out of these objects we collaboratively constructed a bird, the signature artwork Radical Joy encourages. We made our standing bird out of decaying bark, pine cones, daisies, rocks, bones, mushrooms, and berries, and then took out our phones to photograph the bird and ourselves behind it. One of these photos was sent to the Radical Joy website, where it has joined the stories of the 60 other ceremonies happening across the globe on that same day. We drummed and sang, offered our bird as a gift to this land, and then slowly made our way back to the road.
We came home with a renewed respect for the capacity of Earth to regenerate, to heal its old wounds, and yet at the same time to hold and reveal the secrets of what human beings have done to it. We acknowledged the implicit violence of our industrial civilization and vowed we would continue working to build a new society that honors and protects all life forms.