A Man, a Boat, a River, a Dream by Jack Hope
The Clearwater is a handsome ship. From the delicacy of the small stained-glass windows in her cabin to the clean lines of her varnished mast and spars to the strong smooth sweep of her freshly painted hull, she is attractive and finely made and seaworthy. She has a 76-foot hull and a 106-foot mast, a 66-foot boom and a total sail area of more than 4,300 square feet. Running downriver before a good wind, with her crisp white sails fully bellied, she can make a speed often knots.
A full-size replica of a Hudson River sloopthose sailing vessels that served as the primary means of transporting passengers and commercial cargo along the navigable length of the Hudson from the seventeenth century to the mid-nineteenth centurythe Clearwater was designed by naval architect Cyrus Hamlin of Kennebunk, Maine, and was constructed by shipbuilder Harvey Gamadge of South Bristol, Maine. Today, from June to October, she regularly sails the 142 river miles between New York City and the state capital at Albany.
She is not a commercial vessel or a pleasure craft the Clearwater, but a work boat of a sort, seeking a socio-environmental reformation along the Hudson River Valley.
For nearly 300 years, from the time of the first Dutch settlement at New Amsterdam in 1625 on into the early twentieth century, the Hudson River Valley furnished esthetic, recreational, and economic sustenance for its residents. The majesty of the valley and its wooded highlands inspired the magical tales of Washington Irving and the paintings of Thomas Cole and other artists of the Hudson River School. The air and water were clean. Wildlife and fish were abundant. Farmers, merchants, and shippers prospered andwith the aid of their sloopscarried out a brisk trade along the river. The population grew rapidly and the valley attracted new business enterprises.
But without care and foresight, the forces that bring growth and prosperity eventually turn upon themselves. And today, each new increment of growth along the Hudson River is offset by a corresponding increment of decay and destruction. While 70 or so northern river miles within the Adirondack Park are relatively unmarred, the remaining 250 miles, their scenery deteriorating, now serve primarily as a repository for the wastes from our bodies, and from our economy.
At its mouth the Hudson is gripped between the steel and concrete thumb of Manhattan and the projecting industrial fingers of New Jersey, between the six car-clogged lanes of the West Side Highway and the rotting oil-soaked piers of Hobo-ken and Jersey City. The river is unswimmable, at times unsmellable, usually undescribable. Overhead, a gray-brown mantle of auto exhaust, industrial gases, and oil-burner fumes creates a set of breathing conditions that are alternately described by New York Citys air pollution index as "unhealthy" or "unsatisfactory" for a pair of human lungs. Moving upriver, past the garish splash of lights and tangle of metal at Palisades "Amusement" Park, past the boxy high-rise apartment houses of Fort Lee, New Jersey, past the sprawling riverside garbage dump ("sanitary landfill") in the Piermont marsh and the monotonous mechanical span of the Tappan Zee Bridge, past the heated outfall at Consolidated Edisons Indian Point nuclear powerplant and the abandoned waterfronts of Newburgh and Beacon, on up to the thick untreated discharge of the Albany sewage system and the toxic effluent of the Glens Falls paper mills, the Hudson is blighted biologically, scenically, culturally, even economically.
The blight imposed upon the Hudson has another dimension, for recreational use of the river is severely limited by physical, financial, and legal barriers. And understandably, what the public cannot use, the public has little interest in.
Highways and railroads parallel the Hudson, cutting off the river from inland access, and most of the shoreline is decorated with "no trespassing" posters that define the potential river-user as a lawbreaker if he crosses a waterfront boundary line. There are parks, to be sure, but only a few. Their beaches are po1-luted, moreover, and most places are closed to swimming because of the health hazard posed by the wastes piped into the river by industrial and municipal sewers.
Boating is possible, of course, and there are a number of marinas on the banks of the Hudson, but their use is restricted to those who can pay a steep annual fee and whose income permits them to own a sailing craft or motorboat. In the New York City area, where manyperhaps most potential river-users cannot afford automobiles to transport themselves northward to less polluted and more scenic portions of the Hudson, riverside park space is limited to a few square inches per capita. Then, too, several million members of the species Rattus norvegicus have already staked a claim to all parks within city boundaries.
In this light, it seems strange for a Hudson River craft to bear the name Clearwater. The implied optimism of the title belies the conditions within the river valley, or for that matter, within the country as a whole.
But the Clearwater is a hopeful ship. She is manned by a hopeful crew and owned by 3,000 hopeful members of a nonprofit corporation known as the Hudson River Sloop Restoration, Inc. Commonly, the ship is associated with the name of folksinger Pete Seeger, who first conceived of the boat and her mission, and whose own life could legitimately be cited as a classic study in hopefulness, in patient optimism, and concern for human welfare.
It was in 1965 that Seeger and Vic Schwarz, a Hudson Valley guitar-player and authority on river history, began an informal series of discussions that eventually gave rise to the creation of a Hudson River sloop. Seeger lives in Beacon, New York, on the east side of the Hudson, and has witnessed the deterioration of the river valley over the years. He hoped that a reawakening of popular enthusiasm for the Hudsons romantic pastsymbolized by an authentic and publicly owned working model of the historic sloopswould help create a corresponding concern for its future.
As with most of us, Seegers concern over the planets widespread environmental deterioration was sharpened by the recent abundance of conservation literature. As he became more involved with the sloop project, his concept of the appropriate mission for the sailing boat assumed a strong environmental dimension, integrated with the several social problems whose roots are enmeshed with those of the ecological crisis.
Seegers concertswhich normally center around the related themes of social equality and universal brotherhoodbegan to serve as a podium for environmental philosophy. And in 1965 he recorded an album, God Bless the Grass, titled after the song by Malvina Reynolds, that provided a lyrical description of the environmental dilemma. Since that time, Seeger has earned a reputation as one of the most effective spokesmen for the environmental cause.
Beginning in the winter of 1965-66, Seeger devoted most of his time and energy to promoting the mission of the Clearwater. He and a handful of others who had become enthused over the sloops possibilities formed a public corporation, printed leaflets, took hundreds of applications for volunteer crew positions, and offered $10 memberships ($5 for students) in the Hudson River Sloop Restoration.
Over a four-year period, Seeger donated his services to a series of "sloop concerts," earning $60,000 for the sloop organization. Several members of the group spent months conferring with biologists, ship-builders, and historians, with corporate executives, museum directors, and officers of boating clubs. And in 1968, after three years of gathering information, members, money, pub-tic support, and technical assistance, the sloop organization engaged the services of naval architect Hamlin and shipbuilder Camadge. One year later, the Clearwater was sailing the Hudson with a 12-man volunteer crew and a paid professional sea captain.
Today, about to begin her third season on the Hudson, the Clear-water is a popular bearer of the environmental banner and is probably the best-known sailing vessel in the country. In addition to her regular schedule up and down the Hudson, the ship has visited a number of locations along the East Coast and sailed to Washington, D.C., in April of 1970, where she played an important role in the 1970 Earth Day observance. The reputation of the boat and her mission have been spread nationwide by the press, by network television, and by word of mouth.
But despite her national popularity the Clearwater approaches her mission in a distinctly soft-sell fashionby sailing the Hudson and docking at waterfront communities to stage "sloop festivals," riverside celebrations that have something of the do-it-yourself flavor of rural county fairs. There, she conveys environmental and cultural and social messages and serves as a sort of a catalyst for local communication. Local groups, ranging from police departments to church auxiliaries to merchants associations to local chapters of the 4-H, Audubon Society, and League of Women Voters, gather at the waterfront, giving talks on drug addiction, ecology, handicrafts, and organic gardening, erecting information booths and environmental displays, selling fried chicken and Girl Scout cookies and nonpolluting detergents. The Clearwater gives free rides on the river (preference given to children), the sloop captain and crew hold informal discussions on environmental problems, and local citizens spend hours, sometimes days, in waterfront beautification.
Generally, there are local guitarists and banjo-pickers at the festivals usually young peoplesinging songs about pollution and peace and freedom. Sometimes there are evening concertsslightly more formal affairsgiven by the Hudson Valley Philharmonic. Toshi Seeger (Mrs. Pete Seeger) is there from dawn to dusk, selling sloop buttons, taking photographs, feeding musicians, sewing the ripped trousers of a crewmember.
In the larger towns, newspapermen attend the festivals, scribbling notes, attempting to get a "slant" on the activities for ten inches of copy in the evening edition. Upon occasion, local politicians come to the waterfront, shake hands, listen dutifully to the talks on ecology, and have their pictures taken aboard the boat. When the Clearwater is in or near New York City, smartly dressed TV people with made-up faces and a look of well-planned casualness haul their cameras aboard the ship, hastily conduct three-minute interviews with the sloops captain, shoot "candid" footage of the Clearwater and her crew, become impatient when the talk turns to methods of secondary sewage treatment, then hurry off to repeat the process in another setting, on another topic, in another part of town.
As with any human gathering, there is some superficiality and self-interest, a certain amount of wasted time and effort. But there is a great deal of shared work and discussion among the festivals participants and visitors. There is a certain informal feeling of unity and cooperation among local residents of all ages, colors, hair lengths, economic classes, and political leanings. Information and interests and points of view are exchanged, and contacts are made that extend beyond the mutual interest in the success of the festival.
And always, there is Pete Seeger, somewhat distracted, pacing, chew-ins on an apple, carrying boxes of food aboard the Clearwater, picking up hits of discarded paper, avoiding cameras, moving quickly, stopping only to talk to a five-year-old who asks for a whistling lesson. At the microphone, he sings My Dirty Stream and America the Beautiful and Little Boxes, holds up "pie charts" showing that the federal government is spending only one-half of one percent of its budget on the "all-out war on pollution," speaks of industrial pollution and striped bass, urges the audience to take pride in their waterfront, to write their congressman, to band together to form citizen environment groups:
"Whos going to clean up this river of ours? No polluter, no politician, is going to lift a finger unless we insist on it. So we have to make ourselves heard. Were all in this environmental thing together. Not even a millionaire can escape it. Every breast-feeding baby in the countryfrom rich and poor families alikeis drinking DDT in its mothers milk. All urban dwellers are breathing bad air. Weve got to take action right now. Weve got to solve this problem before it solves us.
"We may have to start small, but each of us can do something. First, we can all do some reading. Get copies of the books we have here on the ship. Find out the facts about the environmental crisis. Then talk it up.
"But dont talk to your friends; thats too easy. Talk to people you dont normally talk to. You young people, write letters to your newspaper. Talk to the city council. And we older folks, lets talk to the youth. We can learn something from them.
"They want to change things, and we all know that things need changing. Then get involved. Maybe you can get together and build a little waterfront park right here. It could be a beautiful spot if we just picked up the litter and cleared away some of those old junk cars. And maybe some high-school students could paint bright designs on those ugly oil tanks over there. Of course, the water still wont be clean enough to swim in. But we can fix that too, if we want to.
"We have the technology to do it. And we have the money. The experts say it will take $100 billion to clean up all of Americas lakes and rivers. Thats a lot of money, but over a five-year period it would only cost each of us 30 cents a day. Weve still got the most beautiful country in the world, right here under our feet. But we wont have it much longer unless we wake up and do something about it.
"The scientists say we have to cut down on our consumption. Well have to stop building big houses and buying big cars and dishwashers and fancy clothes and all those other things we dont really need. Were hurting the whole world when we do that. Each American consumes something like thirty times as many resources as people on other parts of the globe. We need to do more for these other people. We have to do more than buy their oil and sugar and aluminum; were just draining away the worlds resources.
"We have to ask ourselves some honest questions: What do we need more, a new highway or clean air? Do we need a new factory or a new park? Do we need to be afraid of the Russians and other people we think are our enemies, or do we need to talk to these people so we can all work together to make this planet a decent place to live on? They may live under different governments than we do, but ifs not governments that count, its people! Theyre all living, breathing, human beings, just like you and me, and they have the same problems we do.
"But the most important thing is to get together. Because we just wont make it unless we can talk to one another and agree on what we have to do. All of us. Young and old, black and white, rich and poor, longhair and crewcut. Lets all get together and make this thing work! We can do it. Dont let anyone tell you we cant. But we have to want to do it!"
If you were to analyze one of Pete Seegers talks, trying to isolate and identify the various elements of his world view, you might come to the conclusion that his approach to the problems of the Hudson, the problems of the planet, has been shaped by the work of a number of contemporary social thinkers, ranging from such people as the late Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to biologist Paul Ehrlich, who drew public attention to the global environmental role of the United States as the worlds leading consumer and polluter. But on the other hand, perhaps Seegers world view is simply the predictable philosophical outcome of a lifetime devoted to human welfare. None of his talks deals exclusively with environment, or with world peace, or with the Hudson River, or with equality. In truth, it is impossible to talk about any one of these topics in isolation; as biologist Barry Commoner points out, in any socio-politico-biological system, all things are related to all things.
Seeger is good with audiences. Whether he is on stage at Carnegie Hall or leading a peace rally at the Washington Monument or perched atop a pier along the Hudson, the spirit and simplicity and straightforwardness of his words tend to be contagious.
And probably the fundamental appeal of Peter Seegers relatively homespun messages has something to do with the fact that his words are an accurate reflection of his own lifestyle. The great majority of his singing and guitar-playing engagements are benefit appearances, given without remuneration. Seeger and his family give freely of their time and income and personal privacy in order to aid a wide variety of social and philanthropic causes, and adhere to a day-to-day set of living arrangements that are as socially generous and non-consumptive as is possible. Their household is a warm and open and communal sort of place, where the guestssloop crewmembers, entertainers, students, media people, and neighbors who drop in for coffeegenerally outnumber family members.
The Seegers live in a small and unpretentious homea two-room homemade log cabin, furnished with homemade furniture, decorated with homemade pottery, environmental posters, peace signs, and sprouting avocado pits. They drive a small and inexpensive auto, answer their letters on recycled paper mailed in reused envelopes, do not use paper toweling, and do not possess motorized and resource-consuming toys such as snowmobiles or motorcycles.
Unhappily, this form of life-style is a relative rarity within our society. Somehow, even those of us who pontificate upon environmental preservation and upon social conscience seem to find it all too easy to overlook the logical connections between national socio-environmental problems and the manner in which we conduct our own lives. We often seem to overlook the fact that social unrest and environmental deterioration are related results of the same set of underlying causes.
earth thoughts on this topic, and we talked about it one gray day last fall. The leaves were off the trees and looking out through the Seegers west-facing window, you could see the cluster of large fuel oil storage tanks and the big auto graveyard on the Newburgh waterfront.
Seeger nodded toward the oil tanks and junk cars. "When Toshi and I first came here," he said, "none of that stuff was over there." He looked downriver, toward Storm King Mountain.
"But maybe I shouldnt complain so much," he continued. "After all, Toshi and I probably use some of the oil from those storage tanks. And maybe an old car of ours is lying somewhere in that junkyard. And certainly we use the power from those electric plants that Con Ed builds along the river. So were responsible, too."
I guess its all of us," I said.
"Well," Seeger said, "it is and it isnt. Sure, were all guilty for creating this environmental mess, but some of us are a lot more responsible than others. Think for a minute of all the people who are playing a part in ruining this river, and then you tell me who is most guilty. Is it some black man from Harlem? Or is it someone like the president of Consolidated Edison or General Motors? After all, the man from Harlem is probably demoralized, unable to get a job. And its simply unrealistic to expect people to be concerned over the environment when theyre having trouble holding their own lives together. For that matter, anyone who is poor isnt much of a drain on the environment, because he isnt consuming many resources."
"But the officers of these big industrial concerns are personally wealthy. Theyre educated and influential. And they head up companies that are wholesale polluters. Now, if they would speak up for the sake of the environment, people would listen. But they dont speak up. Sometimes they even try to make us believe that the environmental problem is mainly a matter of litter. Well, the best thing you can say for that kind of talk is that its socially irresponsible.
"I guess its smart politics," I said.
"Sure it is," Seeger said, "Because if the big polluters and resource-consumers can make up their own definitions of the environmental problem, then they can go around saying, Oh, we dont destroy the environment. We just produce cars and nuclear reactors and harmless things like that. And some people will believe them."
Seeger walked to the kitchen stove and returned with a teapot and two cups.
"1 swear," he said, "it seems like a conspiracy to destroy the country. A subconscious conspiracy, maybe, but a conspiracy just the same. And the Madison Avenue people are right in the forefront of it, telling us that their clients are doing wonders for the environment by selling lead-free gasoline and cars with better mufflers and by devoting a tiny fraction of their income to ecological research. But thats just tokenism. Theyre still using up the steel and oil and wood and water and space faster than ever before, because thats what theyre in business for, to sell. To sell more non-returnable bottles and fur coats and electric power and cosmetics and autos. To sell faster and faster, more than their competitors, and to create more artificial demands in the consumers mind.
"Of course," Seeger continued, "I realize that the leaders of these big firms are trapped in their roles. But theyre not trapped by poverty and ignorance. Theyre trapped by wealth and power and the drive to get more of it. Theyre trapped by competition. What firm is going to spend a big chunk of its money cleaning up the Hudson River when its competitors sit back and do nothing? Nobodyll do that unless he gets some governmental direction and assurance that hell be reimbursed for the money spent on cleanup. But the government is busy spending its money on sending men to the moon and building bombs and supersonic transport planes. And thats another kind of competition, international competitiona very fearful type of rivalry and a big waste of money. We could employ just as many people putting the world back together as we now employ tearing it apart. We could be building mass-transit systems and parks and a lot of good things, if our money wasnt tied up by fear."
Seeger took his banjo from the corner and picked a few notes on it. On the head of the banjo, these words are written: "This instrument surrounds hate and forces it to surrender."
I believe theres still a chance," Seeger continued after a few moments, "because each year more people will see that the only way to survive is to stop being afraid of one another. Thats why we built the Clearwater. To show people they could make something work, if they learned to love their river more, learned to love each other more. And I feel good about it because people can do great things when they understand one another. But we have to get together first. All of us. Young and old. . .
I interrupted. "Black and white," I said, "rich and poor, crewcut and longhair. . .
Seeger laughed. "I guess I say that pretty often, dont I?" he asked.
"Yes," I said. "But its worth repeating."
We talked for a while longer. Seeger described one of his many tongue-in-cheek solutions for solving environmental problems. This one had something to do with printing the words "Caution, this vehicle may be hazardous to your health" on the side of every new automobile. The sky had cleared a bit and a chickadee came and perched on one of the three bird-feeders hung outside the window. We watched while we drank our tea.
Its difficult to measure the success or failure of something like the Clearwater. For as with any environmental organization, she serves primarily as a shaper of public opinion. In this sense, the fact that the ship and her mission have attracted widespread attention and have drawn financial contributions from across the nation and from several other countries seems to indicate that the Clearwater is working well. Then too, the popularity of Seeger, his enthusiasm and sincerity and idealism, all have helped to draw support to the environmental cause and have created some of the optimism and hopefulness that have been traditionally lacking from the voice of the environmental movement.
On a more local scale, the Clear-water has brought about a social and environmental awareness along the Hudson by drawing together a diverse group of people to participate in the sloops activities. In addition to the contact and communication arising from the sloop festivals, the boats volunteer rotating crews, its 21-member board of directors, and its 3,000 member-owners congregate to discuss the sloops finances, to work out its schedule, and decide its policy. They are a motley collection of housewives, longhaired students, businessmen, folksingers, sailors, civil rights workers, schoolteachers, veterans, war-protesters, real estate developers and commune-dwellers. They do not always agree. Far from it. They spend a part of their time in argument. But even in disagreement, there is communication. And without the Clearwater, most members of the group would not have come into personal contact, might not even be aware of one anothers existence.
Making something work by group effortwhether that something is a 76-foot sailboat or the environmental movementis a slow and painful process. It takes patience. It takes persistence. And perhaps more important, it takes a philosophy that is consistent with reality. The sloop Clearwater, in its symbolic retreat from machine-age technology, in its quest for social unity, in its placing of the environmental dilemma within the context of other social problems, displays that consistency.
This is an important contribution. For while "environment," "conservation," and "ecology" have become American household words, our concepts of "progress, success," and "security" are still defined in highly materialistic terms. Our economic system still provides a mandate for self-interestat the expense of others, at the expense of environmental integrity. In a way, it seems that our society has too rapidly adjusted itself to an abstract concept of something called an "environmental crisis" without ever bothering to discover what that crisis consists of.
Probably it would be a good idea to find out.
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