(Addendum to “Gas Drilling Reps Grilled in Sullivan County.” Feeling out of the loop? Didn’t know about the meeting in Rock Hill? Don’t feel bad. Supervisors James Scheutzow and Linda Babicz were there and they echoed a pervasive complaint from other attendees about how little advertising preceded the meeting, “We have flooding problems. We have revenue questions. We need to know what’s going on.”)
On September 6, 2009, the afternoon of The Light Up The Delaware River Party, a few of us were watching the Big Eddy Regatta from the Narrowsburg Bridge. We had Martin Springetti’s “Don’t Frak/Drain Our River” posters and were taking a break from showing them off to passing cars.
“Has anyone heard from Hancock?” Nope.
“Philadelphia?” I shook my head. “No cell service.”
I scooted into the Cafe bathroom to hold my head; nobody else needed to know I was flipping out. What had I done? What was I thinking? How could I hang us all so far out on a limb and not even know whether people were actually gathering in our other river towns? “This is why my children warn strangers about me,” I thought.
Before our Granny-something road trip, Leni and I were brand new friends. We’d known of each other for years, but before we climbed into the car and headed for Philadelphia, we’d spent very little time in one another’s company. How deluded were we to spend three days in a car — on a mission akin to searching for Shangrila — trying to speak with people who knew little or nothing about hydraulic fracturing — to invite them to a 330-mile River Basin Party?
The bathroom walls were closing in. I couldn’t breathe.
It was very like the night before we left for Philadelphia. I’d sent a desperate plea from Breathing: we needed a Light Up The Delaware River Party website or else the people we met along the road wouldn’t take us seriously. Panic had started to set in.
The next morning, as we headed out the door, Tanyette Colon emailed to say she’d just sent the new Light Up The Delaware River site live. I was speechless. Our few conversations had been via email and yet, she’d worked into the wee hours for the sake of an idea.
Leni and I had a silent agreement not to think or talk much about the things that could go wrong. We didn’t worry about disappearing like Amelia Earhart. We didn’t think about people slamming doors in our faces. We were leaping into a great well of faith: people would understand the threat of hydraulic fracturing and our urgency if we could just look them in the eye.
For the sake of an idea, Mark Barbash invited us — two complete strangers — into his home and drove us all over Philadelphia. Nancy Janyszeski opened her study (a thoroughly impressive place, btw) and showed us that The Party was already displayed prominently at Nockamixon.us. When Leni & I returned from a fracking pond site, Nancy and her husband gave us towels, sent us off to use their bathroom and invited us to spend the night.
When there were no motel rooms from Matamoras, PA to BethelWoods because it was the 40th Anniversary of Woodstock, three bikers invited us to share their room when they learned what we were doing. (Although we didn’t take them up on their generosity, it warmed our hearts and thirty years earlier neither of us would have hesitated.)
It was like that the entire 330 miles: people read the invitation, snatched the idea and began hatching plans for Parties in their towns. When we got home, our inboxes were filled with plans from Nockamixon to Damascus.
The next three days were spent hunched over the computer searching for national, state and local environmental groups and harvesting email addresses. By the end, over 200 groups and many more individuals knew The Delaware River Basin was on the move.
Fred Pecora — who’s spent the last two years writing letters, doing interviews and researching, researching, researching — heard Leni on WJFF and called WBAI so the Party and its message could start percolating in New York City.
Emails arrived from the Wyoming front lines. They were watching and hoping. Some of my high school buddies near fracking sites in Ohio taped the WBAI interview and cheered us on.
In the Upper Basin, the media was told to meet us in Narrowsburg. It wasn’t until the afternoon of the Party that I realized nobody had organized a Light Up event in Narrowsburg. At 6:45 pm, fifteen minutes before we were to begin pouring water into the River, Bernie Handler* wondered if we had any. OMG! Only a very few people would be able to negotiate the steep bank from the Gazebo to the River. All I could think as I grabbed containers and headed down over the rocks was, “Please don’t let me fall in!”
Moments later, none of it mattered. Nearly 300 people had arrived. Janet Burgan’s rich, sure anthems blended with the dusk and as we munched Dan Brinkerhof’s old-fashioned popcorn, Skip Mendler juggled and made us laugh.
Below us, the River darkened and at 7:00, we poured our borrowed water back into it. At 7:30, as a few small boats lit up, candles were set out along the Bridge. The light spread in an oval to the crowd around the Gazebo and to the boatmen beyond. (Later that evening, as photos and stories began to arrive via email, we learned it had spread from Starlight, PA to Hancock, Fremont, Long Eddy, Equinunk, Callicoon, Damascus-Cochecton, Milanville, Narrowsburg, Pond Eddy, Milford-Shohola, Washington’s Crossing, Bridgetown, Dunfield Creek and Philadelphia.
In the sky above us, Dan Desmond piloted his plane with Ted Waddell in the passenger seat snapping photo after photo — recording a single moment in the 400 million-year history of the River.
Along with the pictures, have come words, some of which I’ve included here:
From Nyssa Calkin – Light Up’s Roving Photographer: “I came across some private and semi-private parties in the Equinunk and Long Eddy areas. At one location… The entire group broke out into spur of the moment River songs. Very moving. Most of the images I took were of the bustling river life throughout the day.”
From Washington’s Crossing: “Wanted you to know we were there with our ‘pure water’ and lights on the NJ side…. My dog likes to clean branches out of the water, or maybe he thinks he is saving them from drowning. Anyway, he did it while we had our candles lit. He always tosses his head, though, so we got splattered with mud. Pretty funny.”
From the Narrowsburg Regatta: “We read poetry, held a regatta, carried signs, barbecued, sang songs, saw puppets, poured water, lit candles, ate popcorn, watched movies…!”
From Hancock: Just wanted to let you know our party was quite successful — except we never saw the plane! (Editor’s Note: This was entirely my fault and something that needs much better planning for the 2nd Annual Light Up The Delaware River Party!)
We had between 50 and 60 people…and we did connect with the campers who had posted the other Hancock event. They joined us, and at the appropriate hour floated their beautiful, candle-carrying minature rafts from our candle-lit beach.
Thank you so much for all your efforts in creating this! The river was incredibly serene and gorgeous at dusk as we poured our cups of water and lit our candles. Laurie of the CDOG (Chenango-Delaware-Otsego Gas) group spoke eloquently about the river and our mission to preserve water and land. Lisa, an organic farmer, activist and poet, read two of her own poems inspired by the gas drilling threat.
We were thrilled that quite a few townspeople who had seen notices about the party joined those of us who are already committed. We enjoyed live music…and recorded music…and lots of conversation and information sharing (even dancing!!). It was a fun, inspiring occasion, and I think we all left feeling more connected to the river, one another, and our intentions to preserve the beauty and health of our environment. How did the other parties go?
From Matamoras: I was at a private party earlier on Sunday just up the River in Matamoras and I will try to get some photos from that.
It would certainly be great to make this an annual event on Sunday of Labor Day Weekend sort of a Delaware River Appreciation Day (DRAD) something I believe would receive much support up and down the River. A little appreciation for all the River provides, including a source of clean drinking water and the many recreational opportunities from its source to the bay.
Great job by everyone…the River Thanks You All!
As I stared from the Bridge into the heart of it all — inexpressible joy mixed with sorrow.
Only a part of my community had come to the River. The farmers I’d worked beside were absent. They’d sold their cows and land or been foreclosed years before — but there are memories that bind people forever: pulling a calf from a straining cow in a warm barn as a spring snowstorm howls outside; the sound of a tractor rolling backward down a hill and pinning a man beneath it; the calluses at the base of our fingers from tossing bales and hauling shingles and sheetrock.
Many of the people I’ve worked beside didn’t come to The Party because they’ve already moved from the land their families tilled for a century or more. Some were absent because, after long weeks of painful weighing, they’d signed leases. They weren’t sure if the Party was for them, too. Some weren’t with us because they’re angry at us — believing that our defense of the River signifies a willful disregard for what gentrification, the economic downturn, factory farms and the loss of industrial jobs have done to them and their children. Some believe that our stance as defenders of the water and land is a denigration of their long years of stewardship.
Every ten years or so during the thirty that I’ve lived in Sullivan County, NY, a wave of “newcomers” has arrived in the Basin because something feels “wrong” or “out-of balance” in their lives. Some of them weather the storms and stay. Many maintain two residences. Too often — to the jaded eye of those who’ve seen it all before and who struggle to pay one mortgage or rent — those second homes look like get-away options in case things go sour. Too often to recount, many newcomers discover how hard it is to live here…to raise a family here…to pay the mortgage here…. and after they’ve used their greater resources to rent Main Street shops and charge prices many “locals” can’t afford, they move away. Those whose families have worked and lived in the Basin for centuries and who rarely have a wealth of choices, watch them go, their communities upended in the wake.
But what of those, like myself, who’ve stayed? They were all around me on the Bridge or chatting in front of Dan Brinkerhoff’s Amazing Mobile Movie Theater Truck waiting for the film to begin. I saw farmers who work dawn to midnight creating community sustainable agriculture and librarians who supervise after-school programs. There were teachers who share their skills in our literacy centers and community programs, carpenters, artists, weavers & spinners, labor organizers, shopkeepers, nurses, writers, construction workers, house cleaners — all of them working with every fiber to stay; to lend their vigor to an old world and its traditions.
Just as some old-timers fear that gentrification will leave them behind, their neighbors who gathered along the River from Hancock to Philadelphia also fear abandonment. They watch the River through exhausted, angry and frightened eyes and see the specter of gas companies descending like locusts, despoiling our Basin and leaving us to clean up or give up.
No matter on which side of the issue we stand, it’s not enough to say, “You can’t talk to those people. They’re selfish/greedy/arrogant/ignorant/dilettantes.” How does it benefit the River for us to squabble over who the “true stewards of the land” are — especially when livelihoods, college educations, farms & family businesses, land and water are all at stake? To paraphrase the President, diplomacy isn’t for people who agree with each other; it’s for those locked in conflict.
Those of us who’ve been here long enough, remember the hate-filled words that led to acts of violence during the NPS war and the twenty year embroglio over school consolidation. Perhaps the vile odors of a house and barn burning have left us unreasonably anxious when the same ugly words and frustrated rage surface today.
Or perhaps, we’re struggling to learn from our past.
We hear that a movie’s being planned about the gas strife here in the Basin. Let’s give them a truly different story to tell — one in which we find ways to preserve the things we love in common.
Incredible amounts of good have come from the Party already. A friend who just signed a lease has asked that we join forces to support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act and a severance tax on the gas industry. As I mentioned yesterday, a column will always be available to her here at Breathing. (More on that after September 20th.) River communities throughout the Basin have renewed our joint commitment to preserve and protect and we are in daily contact. Several people who saw Josh Fox’ film, “Water Under Attack,” were in Rock Hill two days later demanding answers of gas drilling representatives (IOGA-NY). Efforts are being renewed to create a national database of groups engaged in struggles akin to our own. Ideas for internet videos and guerilla theater are free-floating everywhere. Meetings are being held by phone and over the internet to discuss a possible Basin summit. And integral to everything is this question, “How do we save the Basin for all of us?”
*I’ve already nominated Bernie Handler for The Prince Valiant-Iron Man Award. Not only did he save me from looking like a total ditz, he also rescued Kalika and her kayak during the afternoon Regatta.)
Note to readers: Breathing Is Political, CottageWorks and Light Up The Delaware River Party! locked me in a family meeting last night. They kept their promise to let me plan The Light Up Party without nagging, but now they need me to find a job. So for their sake, and mine, if you know of a community-vested enterprise that’s looking for a nurse-paralegal with a writing demon and native organizing skills enhanced by sheer dumb luck, please let me know.
Best hopes for us all,