Earth Day author conversation: Radical Joy for Hard Times
As we approach Earth Day 2018, many of us here at NAB have environmental issues on the brain and are in the midst of planning our own Earth Day agendas. Whether picking up trash at a beach, volunteering at a local farm or even visiting a place affected by climate change, there are so many ways to show up for the environment. Writer and activist Trebbe Johnson, author of the upcoming book Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places, took a moment to talk about her work using art and ritual to honor Earth’s wounded places.
What is your definition of a “wounded place” and why do you think it is so important that we spend time with them?
A wounded place is any place we feel attached to and that is now damaged or endangered. A wounded place might be a wilderness trail you hiked once that was littered with trash, or it might be the ash tree in your own backyard that had to be cut down because it was infested with the emerald ash borer. It might be a farm that’s been industrialized by the gas fracking industry or an urban community where a hazardous waste incinerator is about to be built. We have a deep emotional connection to the places in our lives. As the Australian philosopher Freya Mathews writes, these places “hold” us. When something happens to them, we feel grief, outrage, fear, stress. Often, the tendency is to hide those feelings, because, “Is it even appropriate to cry over a place?” Or we begin to ignore them. Deep down, we feel that this beloved place has abandoned us, and so we, in turn, abandon it. But a deep emotional connection remains with this place, and by actually going to visit it, as we would to a sick friend—which is what the places we love are—we discover that—surprise!—we strengthen the connection in a new, more creative way. Giving attention and beauty to wounded places is especially important now, when we are all dealing with both local ecological assaults and the huge threat of climate change. There are many ways of resisting and of working to develop important, sustainable ways of living under these challenges. But ultimately, what better way is there to assure not only our survival, but what I like to call our thrival, than to cultivate new relationships with these places that have given so much to us, as well as with ourselves and one another, than by giving back to them our creativity, attention, and sense of play and adventure?
When people think about a decimated forest or a former zinc smelter, “beauty” is often not what comes to mind. How do people create beauty in a devastated place that is so different from the place they originally fell in love with?
In my new book, I talk about different kinds of beauty. And, actually, the quest to find beauty in devastated places is a whole new kind of practice, a whole new discipline. Often, our judgment gets in the way of our ability to see beauty, like: “This is an old-growth clear-cut forest! What’s wrong with me that I am finding the silvery color of the stumps beautiful?” Sometimes, too, the damage itself is weirdly lovely, for example the luminous colors of the toxic water in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP oil spill in 2010. A wounded place teaches us about beauty in a whole new way. It forces us to question our assumptions. We see that the place we loved—and maybe failed to adequately appreciate until it had been destroyed—survives still in some form. Sometimes we see humans or animals doing their touching best to thrive under difficult conditions, and that is beautiful. And when we actually make beauty for the place—that’s when we feel truly uplifted and, yes, joyful.
You discuss the importance of accepting places how they are now, not just remembering them for what they once were. Why is this acceptance so crucial to your work and in what way is it radical?
This question of acceptance has been a controversial aspect of the work! Some people claim that to accept a damaged place for what it is is to take a passive stance in the face of all that’s happening in the world. But really, it’s just the opposite. You have to accept the reality of any situation before you can truly be in a vital, engaged relationship with it—or act to change it. That’s true of accepting a scary medical diagnosis or the end of a love affair or the decreased beauty and vitality of the place you love. When I accept a place as it is, looking for the beauty it holds even now, and then express my consolation or gratitude by giving back some physical token of appreciation, several things happen. I realize what I can change and what I can’t change. I see the place for what it is, not what I wish it were or how I remember it. And, to go back again to the comparison with a sick friend—when your friend is ill, you don’t (hopefully you don’t) turn away from her. You go and sit with her, find out what her life is like now, and tell her about your life, hold her hand, just be with her. We can do the same kind of thing for places that are ailing. This approach is radical because it’s such a departure from how much of modern culture has been dealing with environmental damage over the past 50 years. We’ve concentrated on cleaning up the messes and staving off even worse situations, and we have not been attentive to the living places among us and our living relationships with them. Even as we work to change our current circumstances into something better, we can always find and make beauty in the here and now.
In the book you talk about holding Earth Exchanges. Can you explain what these are? Who can hold them?
An Earth Exchange is a simple way of exchanging gifts with a place. The place reveals itself to us in its current state—clearcut, polluted, overdeveloped—and we give back to it through sharing our stories with friends while we’re there and creating a simple gift for the place. The great thing about an Earth Exchange is that you can do it alone or with a large group. You can do it spontaneously or plan it for weeks in advance. You don’t need any kind of expertise, and you don’t have to haul in a lot of equipment. Plus, the place itself provides all the materials you need for your gift: sticks, stones, flowers, sand, driftwood. Many people make beauty out of trash which they then remove from the site. As I mentioned earlier, on June 16, we’ll have our annual Global Earth Exchange, when people all over the world do this practice, each in their own way. In Kabul, Afghanistan, a group of young peace activists take care of their permaculture garden. In Bali, members of a mountain village do a road clean-up or hold a traditional ceremony. In Oregon a group visits a clear-cut forest, in Missouri they make a mural for a town that was damaged by floods, in Texas a woman makes beauty for a neighborhood bordered by a lot of refineries. It’s a very inspiring, empowering event.
You lead workshops internationally. Is there a particular “wounded place” that inspires your work?
Our organization empowers and encourages others to go to the hurt places they love and give them gifts of spontaneous creativity. I myself live in a rural, conservative county in northeastern Pennsylvania, where there is a lot of gas drilling activity. But I am constantly noticing wounded places wherever I go, and my heart always goes out to them. And I find that, when I pause long enough to give them even the least little bit of attention and some simple offering, that I fall in love with the place. People all over the world—people with very diverse backgrounds, religions, cultures—have written us the same thing, that they tend to love their place even more when they’ve attended to it a bit. Every year in June—this year it’s June 16—we hold the Global Earth Exchange, a day when people around the world go to places that have fallen on hard times and make simple gifts of beauty for them. We put the stories and photos on the website and social media, and there’s a tremendous sense of camaraderie among all these diverse people who have taken some time to express their love for a place in fun, collaborative ways. There’s more information on our website—radicaljoyforhardtimes.org.
Do you think your work mourning environmentally devastated places is aligned with the broader environmental activism movement? Radical Joy for Hard Times is not directly about fighting carbon emissions, per se, but are the efforts at all interrelated?
Well, I want to emphasize that mourning is only part of what we do, and that may not even be a response for every person or in every circumstance. What we’re focused on is getting reacquainted with these loved, hurt places, spending time with them without busily trying to fix them, listening to them and to our own responses to them. The human relationship with nature is very rich, textured, ever unfolding. It’s emotional and physical and spiritual and practical. Radical Joy for Hard Times takes into account all these many aspects of our relationship to places. Personally, I think that all efforts to protect, love, and serve the Earth are aligned. I also think it’s possible to practice finding and making beauty for a place no matter what your particular focus or approach is. A large demonstration at an open-pit coal mine, for example, could include all the participants joining together in a song for the land or working together to create a mandala out of natural objects.
How are you celebrating Earth Day 2018?
This year I’ll be participating in Stephen Blackmer’s Earth Day service at his Church of the Woods in Canterbury, New Hampshire. Stephen was named “Priest of the Trees” in an article in Harper’s a couple of years ago. His congregation meets not in a building but in the woods and wetlands, the natural places that were the very first temples of all our ancestors and that continue to evoke awe and a sense of interconnectedness for so many of us. I’ve written about the link between spirituality and nature in the past, so I’m very excited about this opportunity to do a service with Stephen’s congregation. For the past few Earth Days, we’ve been having a clean-up in my little village of just under 300 people, so we’ll probably keep up that good tradition sometime during the week before the official Earth Day.
Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places by Trebbe Johnson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Trebbe Johnson. Pre-order your copy here.