Radical Joy for Hard Times: An Excerpt

In a world devastated by human interaction and natural disaster—from clearcutting and fracking to extreme weather and urban sprawl—creating art, ritual, and even joy in wounded places is essential to our collective healing. When a beloved place is decimated by physical damage, many may hit the donate button or call their congressperson. But award-winning author Trebbe Johnson argues that we need new methods for coping with these losses and invites readers to reconsider what constitutes “worthwhile action.” She discusses real wounded places ranging from weapons-testing grounds at Eglin Air Force Base, to Appalachian mountain tops destroyed by mining. These stories, along with tools for community engagement—ceremony, vigil, apology, and the creation of art with on-site materials—show us how we can find beauty in these places and discover new sources of meaning and community.” — North Atlantic Books

Trebbe Johnson is an Orion contributor, author, and speaker on the relationship between people and nature. Here’s an excerpt from her latest book, Radical Joy for Hard Times:

I thought I was prepared. I expected an embattled shade of green in the grasses and bushes, probably a few dead trees, and perhaps, in the distance, an old relic of a building exiled behind a fence. However, as we walked around the curve of the trail that contoured Blue Mountain high above the Lehigh River, we stopped short.

“Oh, my God,” gasped my friend, Liz Brensinger. What we had never expected was an entire vast, gray, dead hillside plunging all the way down to the river.

Only a few sparse patches of grass managed to survive on the bare soil, so depleted by erosion that the stony substrate of the land was exposed like a body wounded to the bone. Trees lay strewn on the ground, their spindly trunks offering clear evidence that they had died long before they reached maturity. The few leafless, skeletal trees that did remain upright stood only a few feet high. Everything about the place looked so abused and hopeless, it was as if all life had given up even attempting to root there.

The only thing my imagined picture had gotten right was the old relic. Behind a chain-link fence on the slope across the river stood the zinc smelter that had been shut down decades earlier, a long brick box of a building with four or five stories of broken windows and a rusting metal roof. The place was silent, and there was no sign of birds.

But we had chosen this patch of the Appalachian Trail on purpose. I had begun to feel that something was missing from the way the environmental movement thought about and addressed the problems it encountered. I witnessed lots of efforts to protect pristine, endangered wilderness areas and clean up places that were already damaged. But there was another kind of place that nobody seemed to be paying attention to, and that encompassed the ones that were neither currently beautiful nor slated to receive remediation to restore their former beauty. Paved over, broken down, polluted, drained, they were often nothing but eyesores, useful to none and despised by many, including those who had once cherished them.

It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were.

What about those places, I wondered, those sad, decrepit, onceloved places? I had been mulling over this question for a few years, so when Liz learned about the Palmerton Zinc plant, she suggested we go for a visit. But now that we were here, it turned out we had no idea what to do.

We couldn’t think of anything. We stared. We looked at each other. 

We left in silence, feeling almost as hurt by our helplessness as by the condition of the land.

Psychology reminds us that we can’t be whole and healthy until we confront old secrets and shames and accept them as part of who we are. Surely acceptance and reconciliation were also needed to heal the relationship between people and places. It seemed to me that there must be a way to coax those hurt and neglected places out of oblivion and confront them, mourn them, see them for what they now were. Then I wanted to be able to pull out some tool that would help me and the place and others who cared about it to live with it in its current state and even to find new meaning and value in it. This tool had to be so handy and convenient that anyone could use it at any time, without having to go to a meeting, get training, phone a stranger at dinnertime, yell at somebody in power, get arrested, or give money. It also had to be serviceable enough, even pleasurable enough to use, that those who tried it would want to pick it up again and again.

(Excerpt from Radical Joy for Hard Times by Trebbe Johnson, published by North Atlantic Books, copyright © 2018 by Trebbe Johnson. Reprinted by permission of publisher.)

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Trebbe Johnson is an author and frequent speaker on the relationship between people and nature. Her previous books are The World Is a Waiting Lover; 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty, and she has won many awards, including the John Masefield Award from the Poetry Society of America and a Telly Award for a video made for the UN on the 20th anniversary of Earth Day. She has led workshops, retreats, and rites of passage programs internationally since 1995, such as a retreat in an old-growth clear-cut forest, a ceremony at Ground Zero after September 11, and a walk in weapons testing grounds at Eglin Air Force Base.

In 2009, Johnson founded the non-profit organization Radical Joy for Hard Times, dedicated to finding and making beauty in wounded places. She regularly speaks at a variety of events, from the Stephens College Commencement to the Parliament of the World’s Religions to the Sierra Club. Johnson is a contributing editor at Parabola Magazine and an active member of the Wilderness Guides Council, the Florence Shelly Stewardship Committee, and SCAN (Susquehanna Clean Air Network). She is married to Andrew Gardner, an artist, and lives in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.