Saturday, May 2, 2009

Parallel Pilgrimages

On April 25, from 10:00 to 11:00 AM Eastern Daylight Time, eleven people from western California to London, England went to places that had been ecologically damaged and did a short vigil there.

The point of this pilgrimage was simply to be present in a place that is usually avoided: those waste places or generators of waste, those hidden places under bridges or behind industrial sites. Where we chose to go ranged from a coal plant in Colorado to a quarry in upstate New York, from a beach in California to a bay filled with lovely, bobbing boats in Annapolis, Maryland.

A few days later, we checked in with one another via a telephone conference call. The woman who visited the coal plant said she was surprised by her own reaction. She had expected to feel despair as she contemplated how this gigantic generator of energy was poisoning the land and air. Instead, considering the town’s recycling plant, which is situated right across the street, she was struck by the ways that we humans are at least making an effort to clean up our messes and change our ways. The man who visited the California beach with three of his friends said that by the end of the hour, the place had become so personalized to each of them that they didn’t want to leave.

I myself sat by the Susquehanna River, nine miles from my home in northeastern Pennsylvania. In 2005 the Susquehanna was designated the Most Endangered River in America. Where I live, about fifty miles from the river’s source in Cooperstown, NY, it is relatively clear. Mallards were swimming peaceably, and several Canada geese came in for a landing. But, like so much of the wounded environment all over the world, the damage remains largely hidden. As the Susquehanna continues along its path, past Binghamton, Scranton, and Harrisburg, it picks up industrial, farm, and domestic waste and pollutants and is filled with toxins by the time it empties into Chesapeake Bay.

At the end of the hour, I made an altar to the Susquehanna using trash washed up in one area. The altar was inspired by a small cloth doll covered in sand and mud and that happened to be made of eco-green felt. It now stands on a piece of driftwood: the beaming Guardian of the Susquehanna River.

When we step outside the boundaries of the familiar, we are amazed at what we encounter. As one of the pilgrims said of her experience the other day, “Now I want to visit more wounded places to see what they have to tell me.”

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