Friday, June 1, 2018

Frontline Arts Exhibit of Veterans' Images

Veteran artists Ron Erickson and Sarah Mess
at Barron Arts Center (photo/Jan Barry)

An exhibition of artwork by military veterans is on view until June 17 at the Barron Arts Center, 582 Rahway Avenue in Woodbridge, NJ. Gallery hours are Monday thru Friday, 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 2 p.m.-4 p.m.

Sponsored by Frontline Arts (formerly known as Combat Paper NJ), which operates the Printmaking Center of New Jersey in Branchburg, these works were created in programs that offer artistic tools and training for novices and practicing artists, providing an opportunity to use art to explore personal experiences and artistic visions.

The Barron Arts Center is in a Romanesque re-purposed library building donated to the town of Woodbridge by the Barron family, including Dr. John Conner Barron, a surgeon with the 69th New York Volunteers during the Civil War.

The show highlights work by veterans and active duty soldiers painted or printed on handmade paper from recycled military uniforms. Much of this art was done in workshops in New Jersey and the Washington, DC area that Frontline Arts provided for veterans and soldiers in various locales including military hospital recovery programs.

Much of the work on display is raw-edged, unpolished, drawn from war experiences, nightmares and worries about living in a world of seemingly endless wars. Some of it is drawn from seeking peaceful times communing with Nature. Some of it is drawn from witnessing the brute impact of war’s assault on Nature.

Included in the show is a rough-hewn piece I did titled “Atom Man,” which incorporates a silkscreened image of Da Vinci’s perfectly proportioned man set in a circle with his arms and legs in various poses. I transformed this image into a facsimile of a handmade military patch that reads “Nuclear War Exercise Survivor.”

When I joined the Army in May 1962, I heard a hushed story of soldiers sent to Nevada to participate in nuclear explosion field exercises. Years later, as a news reporter, I wrote about how many of the “peacetime” atomic explosion participants died of cancer. Other unsettling memories include being in the Army during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, when the threat of nuclear war with the Soviet Union was exceedingly real.

Art by other vets explores war images from the First World War to Vietnam and more recent warfare in Afghanistan, Somalia and the Middle East. Other themes are Veterans Affairs health care treatment and horror stories. Some of the art—particularly, startling pieces by Vietnam vets Jim Fallon and Frank Wagner—won VA art contest awards. Some of the bitterest work, listed as done by “Anonymous,” is by active duty soldiers in military health care treatment programs.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Ode to My Mother Who Just Missed the Flowers of Mothers Day

Virginia Graham Crumb, 1945 

For Mom

Virginia Graham Crumb

A lot of life—
93-plus years—
A great lot of life—
Born on an August day in 1924
In Ithaca, lakeside city you loved
And returned to
For high school (Class of ’42)
And delivery of 4 kids
Doctor appointments
Dentist appointments
Christmas shopping
Departure on trains
To places where Jack
Was stationed in the Navy—
Memphis, Tennessee
Chincoteague, Virginia
Charlestown, Rhode Island—
Raising a rambunctious baby
In cramped quarters—
I was that wild thing
Running amok
Amid sailors and teen brides—
And then raising two kids
In a rented house
On an isolated farm road—
And then three kids
In the new house
That Jack built
In Jacksonville—
And then four kids
In a bigger house
In Interlaken—
Where you planted roots
For sixty-five years—
Playing piano at the church,
Singing with the Hot Flashes,
Lunching with friends
And crossing kids at school,
Bookkeeping for Jack’s businesses
And for the church—
Hosting an open house
For constant streams of neighbors,
Friends, travel-weary relatives
And strangers—
Who knew the last stop
Would be a hospital in Rome, NY
With a broken hip,
Pneumonia and baffled confusion,
Where you told a nurse
You were home in Interlaken

--Jan Barry

Monday, February 5, 2018

Singing and Sailing to Save a River

When folk singer Pete Seeger and some friends launched the Clearwater sloop nearly 50 years ago, the Hudson River was a fish-killing open sewer from industries and municipalities along most of its majestic sweep from the Adirondack Mountains past Catskills views immortalized by the Hudson River school of painters. Raw sewage sloshed with the tides lapping against former swimming beaches below the towering Palisades cliffs in New Jersey, decimating a declining shad fishing industry. It sloshed and bobbed amid the ocean liner piers framed by Manhattan’s postcard scenic skyscrapers. The massive flow of pollution continued into New York Bay, sloshing in wind-tossed waves rocking Staten Island ferries, churning past the Statue of Liberty and out to sea, slimming the striped bass fishing areas off Coney Island’s amusement park and ocean-view beaches.

But then, the sight of a full-sail sloop tacking up and down the tainted river with a crew of excited kids and adults picked up at docks from Albany to Jersey City sparked outbursts of activism that produced cleanups of major sources of pollution.

The inspiration for this hearty environmental activism was a beanpole-thin, blue-jeaned guy who tramped around with a banjo singing old-fashioned folk songs. For decades, Pete Seeger energized hand-clapping, standing-room-only audiences of all ages in jam-packed high school auditoriums from White Plains to Montclair, in throngs at the annual Clearwater Festival/Great Hudson River Revival in Croton Point Park, and in a star-studded crowd at a 90th birthday bash cum Clearwater fundraiser in Madison Square Garden. Seeger’s career as the pied piper of environmental activism was capped by leading a television-watching nation in singing “This Land Is Your Land” at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. during the first inauguration celebration for President Obama.

“I’m more optimistic than I’ve ever been before,” Seeger said at an Earth Day fair at Columbia University’s Teachers College in April 2009, where he was the keynote speaker. His optimism was fueled by the computer-generated “information revolution,” he said, which has sped up the process of exchanging good ideas. “I now speak with people I never used to speak with—some on the left, some on the right. I think, I believe, we will see more miraculous things happen,” Seeger said. And then he launched into his trademark patter of story-telling songs with an activism hook. Among these chestnuts was Seeger’s infectious channeling of Martin Luther King Jr. and the hymn-based anthems of the civil rights movement. The refrain of a favorite tune goes:
Don’t say it can’t be done
The battle’s just begun

Another of Seeger’s infectious songs was inspired by a zero waste campaign in Berkeley, California, which led to this memorable lyric:
If it can't be reduced, reused, repaired
Rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold
Recycled or composted
Then it should be restricted, redesigned
Or removed from production

Cheerfully singing even as his health declined, Pete Seeger died at 94 in January 2014. A World War II army veteran, he was an ardent peace activist as well as environmentalist. In his view, the two issues were connected. When the Clearwater campaign began, a major polluter was the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, which flushed raw sewage into the Hudson River at its picturesque, historic site in the Hudson Highlands. In his war protest songs, Seeger prodded the Pentagon to clean up its contamination acts—bombing, shelling, napalming and use of Agent Orange and other chemical warfare—in Vietnam. Among other accomplishments, the innovative Clearwater campaign provided potent, popular incentive for Congress and President Richard Nixon to pass the 1972 Clean Water Act, which forced West Point and Hudson River cities, including New York City, to build upgraded sewage treatment facilities.

Singing and sailing up and down the Hudson, Pete Seeger encouraged people to enjoy working to change things for the better. He invited diverse people—rural people, city people, young people, older folks—to join him in an exciting project: Build and launch a replica of a 19th-century river sloop. Take volunteer crews and groups of school kids and community leaders out on the river and show them the pollution and where it’s coming from. Raise funds to hire scientific experts to testify at public hearings. Mobilize crowds of well-informed citizens to attend and speak at public meetings. Organize festivals where musicians, activists and audiences energize each other.

At Clearwater Festivals, concertgoers happily tramp through mud and rain to hear a Woodstock-style weekend of musical acts—including Arlo Guthrie, Richie Havens, Taj Mahal,  the Hudson River Ramblers—and to check out the wares at scores of tents set up by activist organizations, handicraft makers and solar energy merchants. At a Clearwater Festival a few years ago, a group of New York City high school students proudly showed their newly learned skills in boat building and offered tours on the river in hand-made wood reproductions of classic sailboat tenders. Nearby, a spritely, eighty-ish Pete Seeger slipped into a rain-drenched tent with a banjo and joined in a round of sea shanties with a motley crew of bearded old salts, one of whom was wearing a battered Vietnam Veterans Against the War cap. With a tip of his hat to the activist vet, Pete Seeger was off to his next networking gathering, joining a stage full of folk song luminaries and belting out some more of his favorite tunes.

Behind the scenes, the famous folk singer also oversaw a continuous array of outreach expansions of evermore extensive Clearwater campaigns. These included, in recent years, its Next Generation Legacy Project and the Clearwater Center for Environmental Leadership, a youth education camping program in Beacon, NY, the riverside town where Pete Seeger lived with his wife, Toshi, his partner in organizing and in life since their marriage in 1943. Toshi Seeger died at 91 in 2013. Under their leadership, the Clearwater festivals, sloop sail rides and other outreach activities challenged people in the Hudson Valley to find solutions to seemingly intractable pollution.

The group’s stance in opposing a license renewal for the Indian Point nuclear power plant--its cooling towers and radiation chambers sucking in millions of gallons of Hudson River water and fish looming just upriver from the music festival site—sparked an investigative project by environmental students at Ramapo College of New Jersey, for instance. The student report concluded that an energetic energy conservation program combined with increased wind and solar power could replace the aging nuclear power plant and negate its potential dangers of radioactive contamination of the river and the region. Riding an increasingly popular environmental wave, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo successfully pressed last year for the closing of Indian Point’s two reactors by 2021. “The plant has grappled with 40 safety and operational events and unit shutdowns in the past five years,” The New York Times dryly noted.

Despite all the activism stirred up by Clearwater campaigns, there’s still a New York State advisory warning about eating fish from the Hudson River. But a major source of contamination was greatly reduced when General Electric dredged tons of PCBs from a heavily polluted stretch of the river north of Albany, a reluctant clean up done due to a decades-long battle by environmentalists. Manna Jo Greene, Clearwater’s environmental director during much of that battle, noted the campaign to clean up hazardous PCB pollution was “a classic grassroots effort, achieved in large part due to the tireless and scientifically-based work of past and present Clearwater staff members and volunteers, our collaborative partners in the Friends of the Clean Hudson Coalition, and the hundreds of thousands of people who wrote letters, signed petitions and cared enough to take action.”

Pete Seeger’s obituary in The New York Times channeled the spirit of this down to earth folk singer: “Through the years, Mr. Seeger remained determinedly optimistic. ‘The key to the future of the world,’ he said in 1994, ‘is finding the optimistic stories and letting them be known.’ ”

This essay originally appeared in Narrative Northeast (

Thursday, January 25, 2018

Community Green Organizing

One town’s action plan addressing climate change and other environmental issues began nearly a decade ago in a community event at the high school on a wintry Saturday morning. The “Bedford Environmental Summit” was called by the town’s garden club and its energy advisory panel. One thousand people showed up.

The latest step in moving the town environmental action plan along is the Bedford 2020 Climate Action Summit scheduled for Saturday, Feb. 3, 2018 at Fox Lane High School in Bedford, NY. Even for people who can't attend this event, the innovative eco-group has provided lots of useful information on its Facebook page and website. 

The civic group’s mission “is to lead, organize and promote a community wide effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020 and to create a sustainable community that conserves its natural resources,” the local environmental organization states on its website, which features a cornucopia of community activities information and organizing tips.

The Bedford 2020 Coalition has plugged into and in some cases energized a network of like minded organizations in Westchester County and elsewhere in the Hudson Valley region. Notable residents of the New York City exurban commuter town have included Donald Trump and a movie marque-ful of famous actors and actresses. Organizers of the environmental action group, however, are “over 90 community volunteers, many of whom are professionals and experts with deep experience and credentials in our action areas.”

One of the most useful items on the Bedford 2020 website is a “Summit in a Box,” which provides an online manual for creating a community environmental action plan.

“Global warming and environmental issues are the central challenge of our times. The goal of the Bedford Environmental Summit (BES) was to find a way to educate our community about the most pressing environmental issues of the day, to create a ‘community of advocates’ who would take actions to solve these problems on a local level,” the executive summary for the manual states. “We believe that the BES is a worthy model for any community or organization whose goal is to encourage grass roots, local actions to mitigate the challenges presented by greenhouse gas emissions and diminishing natural resources.”

The first step in Bedford was holding the community event at the high school in January 2009, which drew 1000 people in a town of 17,000 residents. More than 240 volunteers, including 88 students, organized the event, which offered 85 speakers presenting key information on 28 topics. In the hallways, 78 Expo tables with information on environmental issues and organizations were set up and a locavore breakfast and lunch were provided, the organizing manual noted.

The community summit led to creation of the nonprofit Bedford 2020 Coalition, “whose mandate is to implement over 70 projects recommended in BEAP’s Climate Action Plan to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 20% by 2020; the creation of a ‘sustainable school district’ and many individual and collaborative projects emanating from the networking that occurred at the Summit,” the manual summary continued.

“The key elements to the success of the BES were an effective public/private partnership in co-sponsoring the event; a comprehensive and appealing program of lectures, workshops and Expo exhibits that provided multiple points of entry for individuals in the community to get engaged; extensive community involvement in the form of local organizations who were enlisted as ‘partners’ to assist in the planning and implementation of the Summit; and the focus by Summit organizers on ‘what happens next’ to motivate participants to think beyond the day of the Summit.”

What happened next were volunteer-organized programs to involve residents in energy conservation and installing solar panels on homes and businesses, composting food waste, reducing use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on lawns, boosting recycling of plastic, metal, glass and paper products, switching to a hybrid or electric car, and participating in Meatless Mondays to help reduce the amount of fossil fuel that goes into feeding and transporting beef cattle for hamburgers, chili con carne and steaks. Restaurants throughout town signed on as partners.

Local actions over the next several years helped create a county-wide network that by 2017 enlisted Westchester County and 20 town governments in Sustainable Westchester, “a consortium of local governments that facilitates green initiatives like Solarize Westchester, Community Choice Aggregation and the Municipal Solar Buyers Group.” A New York state program enables municipalities to choose getting 100 per cent of their electricity from solar, wind and hydro and “save money by negotiating bulk pricing for their supply.” The Town of Bedford is one of the municipalities participating in the state program.

“Bedford 2020 harnesses the power of community and drives action. This year, we have inspired thousands of people to reduce waste, increase efficiency, take on big green solutions and address climate change,” the group’s leaders stated in an October 2017 progress report. “Together we are reducing greenhouse gas emissions and protecting natural resources in Bedford and beyond.”

In an addendum to the progress report, the elected town supervisor, Chris Burdick, states: “We are proud that our Town has pledged a commitment to the Paris Climate Accord goals, with Bedford 2020 leading the way.”

For more information:

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Happening: A Renewable Energy Action Film

Stepping from behind the camera, documentary filmmaker James Redford invites viewers to join him on a cross-country trip to explore notable milestones in the renewable energy transformation of America.

Redford, the son of actor and environmental activist Robert Redford and an accomplished documentary director on a variety of topical issues, debuted as an on-camera host before a national audience when Happening: A Clean Energy Revolution opened recently on HBO. That attracted the serious attention of cable TV program reviewers. 

“Cities like Buffalo, NY, a former manufacturing hub, are being revitalized by the clean energy revolution,” Broadway World reported in the no-nonsense style of business news reports. “There, Redford visits the site of the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the western world, which will employ more people than the former steel plants that once sustained the community. …

“Even big business recognizes the benefits,” the Broadway World report continued. “All of Apple's U.S. facilities are now 100% renewable-powered. During a visit to an Apple data center [in Oregon], Redford learns that the company built its own solar farm in order to control its energy source.” 

Summarizing another newsworthy story that Redford films in Texas, Broadway World informs its readers that “Dale Ross, the conservative mayor of Georgetown, Tex., also maintains that clean energy is cost-effective, and goes beyond partisan politics. Offered a lucrative long-term deal by wind and solar companies, Georgetown became the second U.S. city to run on 100% renewable energy. Soon, solar energy will be as affordable as, or more affordable than, fossil fuels in 47 states, according to Emily Kirsch, a CEO who funds solar startups. Kirsch stresses that the clean energy industry can ‘democratize energy production and consumption,’ and already employs more people than Google, Apple, Facebook and Twitter combined.”

A reviewer on the Bill Moyers program, documentary filmmaker Titi Yu, was impressed. In an interview with Redford, she said “it was very effective to have you in the film” talking with clean energy innovators across the nation, including civic activists in Nevada who convinced the state legislature and Republican governor to enact clean energy bills into law.

Redford replied: “I just decided to open up my own process of discovery. I decided to take everyone along on the ride. I think there is an inherent resistance to the topic of clean energy and renewable energy. It sounds kind of boring. I thought, well, maybe this might make it a little interesting. Also, I didn’t major in science or technology so I thought if I can understand this, so can everyone else.”

“You started the journey in your own home,” Yu continued, citing a scene in Redford’s house in northern California, where he decides to install solar panels on the roof. “You tracked your own power line to an ugly power plant that was across the bay from a wind farm. I thought it really brought it home how we all have a stake in this green energy revolution and there are many things we can all do, starting with ourselves.”

Redford expands on that point in his directors’ statement on the documentary website. “During the journey of making ‘happening’, I met many inspiring citizens, business leaders and politicians leading the clean energy revolution, but the most significant journey involved my own heart and mind,” he wrote. “At the start of ‘Happening’, I was feeling pretty cynical about the value of political engagement. Three years later, I have witnessed first-hand the enduring value of politically engaged citizenry.

“In spite of the turbulent political divides we are currently enduring,” he continued, “I feel more hopeful today than ever about our ability as Americans to combat climate change, and I am excited to share this with audiences so that they may feel this way as well.”

For more information:

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Poetry of Transformation

There’s a place in New Jersey, hemmed in by highways and humongous landfills, where a paddler can disappear into winding waterways lined by tall reeds and be immersed in a garden of eden blessed with choruses of bird songs, skim around a swishing grove of cattails and abruptly stare up at the Empire State Building, looming in the Manhattan skyline.

This is the Hackensack Meadowlands, a place where Pamela Hughes grew up playing in the dumps and falling in love with wildlife in marshland. Returning as a creative writing professor, she discovered the poetry of transformation. 

“How does a meadow move you?” Hughes writes in Meadowland Take My Hand, her eco-poetry collection published by Three Mile Harbor Press. “I rustle and glide/ like a low swooping bird,/ seeking nothing but the welcome of distance,/ wild streaks and strands/ of phragmites and birch boughs,/ the unbowed salve of green.”

Spend some time in this place, walking on the duckboards or a wildlife trail near the Meadowlands Environment Center in Lyndhurst, and nature reclaims you.

“And you are revised/ like the sky after a thunderstorm—/ slim summer segment of newly rinsed air/ or the thread of a rainbow … When you turn to glow,/ you are revised/ on the edge of the suburban wilderness,“ Hughes observed in a recent reading sponsored by the Teaneck Creek Conservancy at the Puffin Cultural Center in Teaneck.

In an interview in Huffington Post, Hughes said “As a poet, I’ve found that the environment has been my best muse so far. Being grounded in place helped me create my poetry collection … I had no intention to write a book of poems about the meadowlands, but when I immersed myself in the actual place—the physical landscape of the Meadowlands—the book began to write itself.”

Lamenting the loss of so much of this natural wonder to suburban housing developments, shopping centers, industrial hubs, a massive sports complex and malodorous mountains of trash, Hughes notes in the preface to her poetry collection: “As a poet I ask, what palliative grace can be summoned with poetry? What medicine to heal? This narrative and lyric hike asks: how do we honor the land instead of turning it into another strip mall?”

Besides deploying poetry as conservation campaign banners, Hughes invites adventuresome folks to explore the infamously polluted, glorious remains of the Meadowlands.

An engaging place to start is Overpeck County Park, a reclaimed landfill transformed into a refreshing playground, rowing center and bird sanctuary just off the NJ Turnpike exit for Teaneck and Leonia. Bald eagles sometimes hang out there in the cottonwoods. Another memorable experience is to join a kayaking, canoeing or pontoon boat trek through the Meadowlands organized by the Hackensack Riverkeeper out of Laurel Hill County Park in Secaucus.

“If I had a wish,” Hughes writes, “there would be mandatory play-in-nature programs for adults and teens where they would have to roll in it, lie in it, leap over it, run their palms over blades of grass, bark and stone. It’s hard, as kids know, not to appreciate and like the one you’ve played well with.”

Friday, November 24, 2017

Give the Gift of a Better Future

Earth from space (NASA photo)

The threat of severe world-wide climate change is not theoretical, but horrifically real, thousands of scientists warned in a recent letter to humanity. Averting global disaster, they assert, will take an historic culture change.

“[A] great change in our stewardship of the Earth and the life on it is required, if vast human misery is to be avoided,” the open letter published November 13 in Bioscience maintained, reiterating a stark warning from scientists issued twenty-five years ago. 

“Since 1992, with the exception of stabilizing the stratospheric ozone layer, humanity has failed to make sufficient progress in generally solving these foreseen environmental challenges, and alarmingly, most of them are getting far worse,” the updated evaluation signed by more than 15,000 scientists concluded.  

“With a groundswell of organized grassroots efforts, dogged opposition can be overcome and political leaders compelled to do the right thing,” the scientists’ call to action stated. “It is also time to re-examine and change our individual behaviors, including limiting our own reproduction (ideally to replacement level at most) and drastically diminishing our per capita ­consumption of fossil fuels, meat, and other resources.”

Civic campaigns can change the course of human events. Grassroots movements in the past century gained women the right to vote, extended civil rights to disenfranchised descendants of slavery, halted atmospheric tests of nuclear explosions, and convinced the governments of the US and USSR to negotiate an end to the Nuclear Age and its suicidal strategy of “Mutual Assured Destruction.”

A good start would be to create an action plan to guide us at home, at work, in schools, in religious and social groups and in government. Here are some suggestions, which hopefully spark additional practical ideas.

Climate Change Action List

1. Reduce eating beef.
About 18% of greenhouse-gas emissions worldwide comes from cattle, sheep and goat manure, meat production and shipping, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. Meatless Mondays, fish on Fridays, more veggies, chicken, turkey.

2. Reduce vehicle impacts.
Nearly 20 percent of US emissions comes from cars and trucks, the Union of Concerned Scientists reports. Walk more, drive less, drive more efficiently, take a bus, take a train, carpool, ride a bike, get electric or hybrid car.

3. Reduce electricity impacts.
Nearly 30 percent of US emissions comes from electricity generation, the USEPA notes. Turn off lights that are not needed, turn off computers when not in use, choose energy efficient replacements of light bulbs, washers, dryers, refrigerators, air conditioning units, boost use of solar and wind power.

4. Reduce use of plastic bags, bottles and wrapping.
About 6 percent of world oil production is used to make plastic items, according to the World Economic Forum, with a projected increase of more than three times if current trends continue. Switch from plastic shopping bags to reusable bags, reduce use of plastic wrapping, reduce use of, recycle and replace plastic water bottles.

5. Recycle reusable materials.
Recycling and composting programs in Washington, Oregon and California reduce emissions equivalent to taking more than 6 million vehicles off the roads, a study by the West Coast Climate and Materials Management Forum found. Key areas are: carpets, cans, bottles, paper, lumber and food scraps.

6. Increase tree cover.
About 12 percent of US emissions in 2015 were offset by carbon accumulation in woodlands, the USEPA reports. Plant trees, stop clear cutting of forests, reduce forest fires.

7. Increase family planning.
Our “global population – projected to rise from around 6.8 billion people today to 9.2 billion by 2050 – will inevitably lead to a significant increase of greenhouse gas emissions,” the World Health Organization reports. This touchy topic needs to be sensibly addressed, the newly formed Alliance of World Scientists argues.

8. Help prevent nuclear war.
Nuclear winter “would produce climate change unprecedented in recorded human history,” Dr. Alan Robock of Rutgers University wrote in the journal Nature. Sunlight dimmed by long-lasting layers of smoke from a limited exchange of nuclear explosions, he stated, would drop temperatures below the “‘Little Ice Age’ (1400-1850), during which famine killed millions.” Speaking at a symposium on The Dynamics of Possible Nuclear Extinction at the New York Academy of Medicine in 2015, Dr. Robock said the best solution to such a threat is to greatly reduce the number of nuclear weapons, while working to eliminate them altogether. 

--Jan Barry, author of A Citizen’s Guide to Grassroots Campaigns and The Great Challenge: How You Can Help Prevent Nuclear War.