Monday, April 22, 2019

Earth Era

A flock of phlox  ( photo/Jan Barry)

This Great, Green Earth

How often we forget the debt we owe
This great, green Earth:
The land, the food, the water, the air…
The mysterious, solitary parent of our birth.

From whatever speck of wet in the universe
Life may have come at first,
It is Earth that cradles us and sustains us,
To whom we are joined for better or for worse.

Let us walk this great Earth once again as guests,
Not as conquerors or even hosts—
For we are no more immortal
Than bluebirds or the continents’ coasts.

--Jan Barry
From Earth Songs II: Poems of Love, Loss and Life

Monday, March 18, 2019

Warrior Writers in Action

Sarah N. Mess and Jan Barry at Wild Project, NYC
 (photo/Omar Columbus)

It was a reunion of sorts. Veterans of various wars getting together and catching up. Instead of a bar, in this case the reunion was on a stage in New York City. Many of the vets have been getting together for years in Warrior Writers writing workshops, Combat Paper art workshops, theater workshops, stage performances. In many ways, it was like jazz musicians getting together to jam in a public place.

“Veteran Voices 2019” at the Wild Project theater in the East Village also included newcomers attracted to this eclectic bootstrap-art collective. The theme of a weekend of performances by five diverse groups was “Resilience.” The March 16 gathering of veterans provided just enough time for a rehearsal that blended into the 3 pm performance and an after-party in a fusion cuisine Chinese restaurant.

Produced and hosted by Jeremy Karafin of Poetic Theater Productions, the event was co-curated by J.A. Moad II and Jenny Pacanowski.  Moad, a former Air Force pilot, created the Veterans’ Voices Initiative in Minnesota. He performed his play “Outside Paduch—The Wars at Home” as part of “Veteran Voices 2017” at the Wild Project.  Pacanowski, a former Army combat medic, founded and is the Director of Women Veterans Empowered & Thriving and directs plays and poetry performances in Pennsylvania and New York.

On Saturday, men and women in street clothes stepped out of the audience in seemingly random sequence. Abruptly, in ones and twos, they delivered dramatic commentaries, poems, songs and a radio play, conveying stories ranging from World War One to Vietnam to Somalia to current battlefields that filled what had been a virtually bare stage.

Omar Columbus performed a poem, “White Marker,” about writing messages on bombs to be dropped on Baghdad. With photos of himself when he was a grinning Airman posing beside hand-marked bombs flashing on the wall behind him, Columbus recalled being haunted that his mother’s name was on a bomb that obliterated a palace building used as a military barracks and who knew what else.

Donna Zepherine quietly reeled off a litany of adversities in her life, including two Army tours in Iraq, the husband who left, and a baby who died on Veterans Day. Then she listed the veterans’ groups, college advisors, writing and theater groups who helped her regroup and build a career in social work.

“She’s Gone” is the title of a performance by Monique Arrucci on the experience of coming home from war in Iraq and being told by family members that the happy-go-lucky girl who joined the Army after 9/11 didn’t come home. Arrucci spun that stunning story into a song that tried to piece together her missing old self.

In “Veterans Highway,” a poem I collaborated with Sarah Mess on, Sarah did a rap on vets’ home front experiences, weaving in her interactions with other vets forming informal support networks:

No Yellow Ribbon Brigade on the 9th floor East Orange VA cancer ward
No Star Spangled red, white and football field blue cheers
For a little boy of 19 contaminated by war for almost 50 years
Lonely old vet rotting in a VA hospital…
Pick line feeding tube, chemo on drip…
Final days spent alone in an abandonment haze…

my mind on mefloquine
mefloquine on my mind
left behind…left behind…no veteran left behind…
the flags flying in Uncle Sam’s yard can’t cover
up the lies
steaming with burn pits, depleted uranium, agent orange,
toxic degreaser dirty water, lariam poisoning, anthrax shots…
where are the forget me nots for
vets losing body and mind…
called crazy to cover the lies…
old vet motto is “deny till we die”
support the troops but leave the vets behind

I read selections from my new poetry collection, Earth Songs II: Poems of Love, Loss and Life. One poem had particular significance for me to read at that location. It was about memories of a fellow member of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, Jeff Sharlet, who died young, not long after the last time I saw him when I lived in an East Village apartment near this theater.

Invisible Wounds

For Jeff Sharlet, 1942-1969
Editor, Vietnam GI

I still see
You striding, urgently
Looking for me that day,
Pushing through the
Crowd on East Seventh Street
Milling at the park full of hippies
And squads of cops—
My first instinct was to duck
And escape your intensity,
I was already burning out
Protesting that damn war
We fought in—what more
Did you want of me—
What more could I say
About that sucker?

Was that the last time
I saw you? Spring 1968?
Cancer took you not long after,
At age 27,
I read in a daze
Far from the clashing crowds
Of hippies, cops and war protesters,
Trying yet again to make a new life—
I had no idea, Jeff,
The war was literally burning
You up inside.

The wrap up piece was an ensemble presentation of segments of a play titled “Porch Sessions: The Girls of Iraq,” written by Jenny Pacanowski, spoken with descriptive stage directions as though on the radio. It conveys the thoughts of a young woman, a war-whiplashed Army medic, who goes to a fancy salon and has flashbacks to events in Iraq, including convoy duty where she was the driver of a medical vehicle and, with other female soldiers and an inexperienced male captain, a frontline fighter when the convey came under attack.

Over the years, I’ve interacted with many of the veterans who staged this memorable event in various writing, art and theater workshops and previous performances. The creativity and camaraderie are always amazing. Their resilience is inspiring.

For more information:

Friday, March 15, 2019

Renewal Energy Sierra Club Campaign

Across the United States, dozens of municipalities have officially set a goal of transitioning to 100 percent renewable energy. These include Atlanta, Georgia; Kansas City, Missouri; and Washington, DC. Nearly a dozen counties in several states have taken this action, as well as the states of Hawaii and California.

Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania is the latest community to sign up for the 100 percent renewable energy campaign, promoted by the Sierra Club. The board of supervisors voted unanimously last night to support a Ready for 100 resolution, local activists Lou Ann Merkle and Michael Gillen reported on Facebook.

“Congratulations to our Whitemarsh Township for joining 100 other U.S. cities and towns resolved to transition to 100% Renewable Energy!” Merkle, an artist and teacher, wrote. “It was exhilarating to work with so many wonderful, skilled colleagues/friends on our Whitemarsh Township Environmental Advisory Board and staff, and in the Montco Ready for 100 leaders group.”

Gillen, a retired history professor and author, lauded Merkle’s skills in presenting the proposed plan to the governing body. “Lou Ann Merkle made the pitch. The unanimous vote for approval by the supervisors was followed [by] cheering and hugs, understanding of work ahead, and hope for the future.”

Despite Facebook’s notable negative impact on American society of enabling nasty concocted rumors, deliberate misinformation, political hack attacks, and creepy personally targeted ads, activists have found it quite useful for organizing local to national campaigns.

The Sierra Club and its state and local chapters have Facebook pages followed by substantial numbers of people. The national Sierra Club Facebook page is currently congratulating Monona, Wisconsin for joining the Ready for 100 campaign.  

“On Monday, March 4, Monona City Council unanimously passed a resolution to commit the City to 100% clean, renewable electricity community-wide by 2040 and for all energy sectors, including heat and transportation, by 2050,” the Sierra Club page announced. “Monona joins Madison, Eau Claire, and Middleton as the 4th #ReadyFor100 city in Wisconsin, and is the 3rd city powered by Madison Gas & Electric to commit to 100% clean, renewable energy!”

And in case you missed it on the missing-in-action mainstream news, the Sierra Club Facebook page reported that New Mexico’s legislature recently passed “a historic bill that will transition all electricity generation 100% carbon-free by 2045! Pending Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham's signature on the bill, New Mexico will join California and Hawaii as the 3rd state in the U.S. to set a 100% carbon-free electricity mandate.”

More than 22,000 people liked that post and more than 500 Facebook readers shared it. Besides sharing photos of babies, pets and smiley selfies, many activists throw into the mix notices of campaigning so babies, pets and life on Earth have a better shot at a healthy future.

For more information:

Monday, February 25, 2019

Warrior Writers at Stockton

Somalia vet Sarah Mess reads poetry at Stockton University
(photo/Jan Barry)

A Warrior Writers workshop at Stockton University in Galloway, NJ on Saturday drew more than a dozen diverse participants to write and talk about often harsh experiences in the military and beyond, including brushes with death, survivor guilt, sexual assault, and hidden impacts on family members.

The multi-ethnic group included a wife who attended with her husband, a sister who came with her brother in memory of another brother who died young after serving in Vietnam, men and women veterans of the Air Force, Army, Navy and Marine Corps who served in war zones from Vietnam to Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a wide variety of other duty stations including Germany and Guantanamo Bay.

Several workshop participants then presented selections of their poetry or prose in a performance in the college theater. The writing workshop and performance were adroitly guided by Valerie Stemac, an Air Force veteran whose transition from PTSD patient to poet is conveyed in a new HBO documentary, “We Are Not Done Yet.”

The film is about a group of combat veterans and otherwise severely injured soldiers who create a collaborative poem in writing workshops at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Maryland, which they perform together at a theater in Washington, DC, under the direction of actor Jeffrey Wright. Warrior Writers has helped facilitate workshops and performances at military bases and art centers in the Washington area, in collaboration with Seema Reza, co-founder of Community Building Art Works.

Formed in 2007 in Philadelphia, PA, Warrior Writers has fostered workshops and public performances in cities and towns across the U.S., embracing veterans of all eras. In New Jersey, monthly writing workshops are hosted at the VA Vet Center in Secaucus and at Frontline Arts in Branchburg. Public performances have included appearances at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in Newark, Puffin Cultural Forum in Teaneck, art galleries in Jersey City, Montclair and Somerville, and the New York City Poetry Festival.

For more information, see:

Tuesday, February 19, 2019

Saving the Meadowlands

Meadowlands, Richard W. DeKorte Park, Lyndhurst  (photo/Jan Barry)

Imagine the Grand Canyon sliced and diced by highways lined with billboards, power plants, warehouses, shopping malls, sports stadiums, trash landfills and housing tracts. That’s the state of the New Jersey Meadowlands. 

What’s left of the once extensive wetlands that stretched from Newark Bay deep into Bergen County are a few parcels of cattails, phragmites and cottonwood trees scattered along the Hackensack River corridor. These hemmed in spots are home to bald eagles, great blue herons and a profusion of wildlife.

These endangered natural areas precariously exist next to the relentless roar of trucks and cars on the New Jersey Turnpike and North Jersey’s dense network of state and local highways. Recently, environmentalists and local officials scored a hopeful victory in blocking a Bergen County plan to pave over a small parcel of wetlands bordered by the Turnpike to create a dinosaur amusement park.

Meadowlands protest, Ridgefield
(photo/Jan Barry)

Yet the green teams were unable to stop developers’ plans to build a shopping center one exit south on the Turnpike, next to a grove of cottonwoods that house an eagle nest.

The latest environmental battle in the Meadowlands is over a proposed fracked gas power plant that would be sited on the edge of a strip of wetlands bordered by the Turnpike and Route 1 & 9, barely a mile from a PSE&G natural gas-powered electricity generating plant on the Hackensack River. The existing power plant is near the endangered eagle nest.

The proposed plant in North Bergen would sent electricity to New York City. It “would emit more carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases than any existing power plant in New Jersey,” according to the North Jersey Record, citing a review of federal data.

The power plant plan, which quietly received some preliminary permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection, set off alarm bells in Meadowlands communities and beyond. Mayors and councils in more than 40 North Jersey towns have signed onto resolutions opposing the proposed project. They are calling on Governor Phil Murphy to stop the project.

Power plant protest, Ridgefield Park
(photo/Jan Barry)

"We cannot afford to power New York City on the backs of the environmental health and safety of the Meadowlands and New Jersey residents," Westwood Mayor John Birkner Jr. said at a rally last week attended by several mayors of Bergen County towns who joined environmentalists at a protest highway billboard in Ridgefield Park. The proposed plant is in neighboring Hudson County, where it is supported by local officials and construction unions.

“This plant would be a major blow to air quality, in a region that already has some of the worst air pollution in the entire country,” the Sierra Club’s New Jersey chapter stated. “Bergen and Hudson Counties already have an F rating by the American Lung Association for ozone pollution. Our ozone levels are so high that it may put sensitive individuals at risk, including children, the elderly and people suffering from asthma, heart disease and other lung ailments.”

Opponents of the proposed power plant have organized petitions, town meetings, roadside rallies and a billboard campaign asking passersby to call Governor Murphy to reject the project. Murphy maintains that the proposal is under DEP review and not his call. Citing a variety of studies and reports on environmental hazards of gas-fired power plants, the Bergen County League of Municipalities sent Murphy and the DEP a resolution opposing the proposed plant. These hazards include increased flooding in the Meadowlands due to global climate change fueled by burning fossil fuels.

The county organization of mayors proposed “an alternative approach to producing electricity from solar panels [which] would avoid all of the environmental and health issues noted in this resolution while still providing new jobs and other financial benefits to local towns and would be in conformance with Governor Murphy’s goal to increase the use of renewable energy.”

Bergen County officials took similar heat from environmentalists and local officials over a plan to rent out a 35-acre wetlands parcel off the Teaneck exit of the Turnpike to a private company that runs a dinosaur amusement park in a DPW parking lot in another section of Overpeck County Park. Earlier this month, County Executive James Tedesco’s office announced it is dropping that plan.

“It’s a victory for wildlife, it’s a victory for nature,” Don Torino, the head of the Bergen County Audubon Society, told the North Jersey Record. “The people of Bergen County didn’t need something else to pay for … they need nature. Especially in that part of the county.”

The Record article on the issue noted that opponents suggested alternative ideas.
“‘I don’t want to see another inch of Overpeck Park developed,’ said Diane Koszarski, a retired librarian and puppeteer who stuck a sign in front of her Teaneck home after she learned of the county’s plans. ‘There must be another way to work with the dinosaur park people so kids can enjoy it without impinging on a really fragile and important part of our ecosystem.’ ”

Overpeck County Park is largely a reclaimed landfill and lake in the northern reaches of the Meadowlands. The 811-acre site was donated by the towns of Teaneck, Leonia, Ridgefield Park and Palisades Park in the 1950s to be a county park. County officials allowed extensive landfill dumping until a state judge ordered the county to create the park that was planned for the area. 

The 35-acre parcel in Teaneck was isolated by construction of the Turnpike and intersection with I-80. That parcel is connected by Teaneck Creek with a 46-acre wetlands that was restored by volunteer groups that created Teaneck Creek Conservancy to maintain hiking trails and outdoors education programs. Bergen County has promised for years to clean up contamination from illegal dumping on both parcels.

Town by town, that’s the story of the Meadowlands: official promises to maintain open space undercut by deals with developers and dumpers.

And yet, bald eagles are drawn to fish in the Hackensack River and nearby ponds, especially in winter when water bodies further north are frozen. An Audubon Society birder last month reported 21 eagles settled into trees along a pond in Little Ferry, where aerators keep ice from freezing the center of the former brick-making quarry.

Eagle nest area, Ridgefield (photo/Jan Barry)

A mile or so away, the Bergen County Audubon Society fought to save a 10-acre preserve around an eagle nest off Overpeck Creek in Ridgefield. “That’s a grassroots victory,” Don Torino told a crowd of supporters at a recent celebration in an industrial park that provides spectacular views of bald eagles swooping and soaring about the nest. The bulk of the eagle nest area off the Turnpike intersection with Route 46 has been bulldozed for a shopping center.      

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Sharleen Leahey: Singing Out for Activists

photo: Left Forum 2015

Sharleen Leahey is a movement troubadour. She sings Pete Seeger songs, Woody Guthrie songs, her own songs about timeless issues and issues of the day. Her latest CD collection is titled “For the 99.” The first verse of the title song pulls listeners into the middle of a demonstration, whether in New York or New Brunswick, Washington or Newark:

We are gathered here in the people’s square
So we can have our say
We have come today to protest the way
Our rulers have behaved

A Somerville, NJ resident, Leahey ranges around the world in addressing war and peace issues, social justice issues, human rights issues. Here’s two verses of “Good People”:

Drone over Afghanistan
A village laid waste
The pilot can’t get hurt ten thousand miles away
Nintendo death the modern military way
Brought by the good people
Homeless on the street
An old woman stripped of pride
Half a block from the new boutiques
She’s standing on a church breadline
This ain’t the ‘30s
It’s the new millennium time
Where are the good people?

For more words and music, CD ordering information and concert schedule, go to:

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Fire and Ice: Views of Climate Change

"La Tuna Fire," by Jeff Frost 

“Receding lines of ice…advancing lines of fire.”
That’s Tim Blunk’s view of the art show he’s curated at Gallery Bergen at Bergen Community College in Paramus, NJ.

“Artists have historically served as the conscience of humanity; now they may serve as the conscience of the earth itself,” Blunk noted in a curator’s statement for the show, which opened January 24 and runs through March 30. The artists in this show, he added, “hope to instill in the viewer a perceptual shift where the environment ceases to be conceived as a place separate from us…”

Jeff Frost pulls visitors’ eyes to stare across the room at a life-size photo of a Los Angeles freeway closed by a smoke-swirling wildfire blazing up a mountainside. The La Tuna Canyon fire in September 2017 endangered homes in Burbank, Glendale and neighboring parts of Los Angeles. It was one of numerous wildfires that have blazed up in southern California communities in recent years.

"Flag (wildfire 08)" by Peter Alan 

Peter Alan pulls viewers close to look at burnt remnants of his home and studio, destroyed in the wine country wildfires in northern California in October 2017. Alan fashioned charred pieces of wood and other objects into a series based on the shape of the American flag as part of a defiant survivor’s body of work entitled “Wildfire: an assault on humanity, hitting home.”

James Balog reveals the breathtaking melting of a glacier in Alaska captured in time-lapse photos taken between 2007-20017. Videos set at high speed pull viewers closer to contemplate the climate change in the past decade that relentlessly shrunk ice packs near the north pole. Balog’s photography work for the Extreme Ice Survey aims “to give a ‘visual voice’ to the planet’s changing ecosystems,” states his website,

Marie McCrary tells a more subtle story in a photo of a lake in Norway, just starting to freeze over last October. “The fastest warming region in the world is the Arctic,” notes McCrary, a physics professor at Bergen Community College. She is researching the physical process of rising temperatures in the Arctic and impacts globally.

Other artists in the show—Helena Donzelli, Andrea Geller, Karen Lynn Ingalls, Mitsuko Nakagawa, Jaanika Peerna and Carleen Sheenhan—offer insightful variations on the theme of people and nature intertwined.

Gallery Bergen is in West Hall at Bergen Community College, 400 Paramus Road, Paramus, NJ. It is open Monday-Friday, 11 am to 5 pm.