The Hudson River is poorly named, not only for the common fault of naming whole ecosystems after the first white man of questionable character who stumbles upon them, but also because it is not technically a river. Muhheakunnuk (“the river that flows both ways”) as it is known to its original inhabitants, is a tidal estuary – more a fjord than the proper river. Twice a day the brackish waters of the Atlantic are pulled by the moon 153 miles up her shimmering surface all the way to Troy, New York – where our journey began.
Early one July morning, a small group of artists gathered where the Mohawk River meets the Hudson. It was an appropriate place for our journey to begin, for our project itself was itself a modern convergence of Mohawks, Europeans and their descendants. We were the SeaChange Voyage, and had come to travel Muhheakunnuk together, weaving together stories of resistance and resilience in the age of the climate crisis.
We were a mixed crew: 3 Mohawks, 2 Spaniards, 3 locals, 1 Persian and the 13th lineal descendent of Pocahontas. The very composition of our crew seemed to reflect the journey we were embarking upon, a look backwards to the colonial history of the river in an attempt to build something new and heal some of the ongoing damage left behind by the meeting of the “old world” (Europe) and “new world” (America), or told from the other perspective, the meeting of “older brother” (Native Americans) and “younger brother” (Europeans).
Our small crew would be journeying together aboard “Solar Sal”, a 40-foot 100% solar-powered handmade boat that would be our home for the next 10 days. Before we departed, we bathed the boat and ourselves in sage-smoke and asked permission from two Mohawk elders to travel through their traditional lands and waters. The gave us four words of advice for our journey: “Learn from each other.” With that gift we pushed off from land as one elder raised a conch shell to his lips and sounded our departure to the four directions, calling them in to guide us. We watched the riverbank recede with them, and pushed off into the colliding currents of the Mohawk and Hudson. We would not return the same.
The waters carried us away, past the otters and egrets that dove under the bowing trees folding over the riverbanks. From the water one sees the backside of the American empire. We were on the same river that had seen the world’s first steamship – the first fossil-fuel transport – and whole cities had grown up along her industrial banks. Yet, as the young nation’s river-bound infrastructure was quickly replaced by the world’s largest highway system, the wind of sailships was replaced by the exhaust of tailpipes, and the cities turned their backs on the water.
In a quick century the wood pylons sank tilting into the mud, the steel turned to rust and the economies of the cities along the river that flows both ways dried up. Shutters fell off house windows as their owners followed the factories that had shuttered their doors. But where a nation’s back is turned, the invisible hand comes in, swinging. The river was changed from a transport hub into an open sewer, with GE, Ford and countless other companies pouring their toxic wastes directly into her once pristine waters.
In its youthful arrogance, America destroyed even its own symbols. Along the river that flows both ways DDT thinned the Bald Eagles eggs and numbers until they were gone – the Bald Eagles we saw circling the skies are not the original inhabitants of those waters, rather descendants of eagles imported from Alaska. The PCBs from General Electric settled onto the river bottom where the Atlantic Sturgeon – a living relic from the age of the dinosaurs – feeds, accumulating toxins into its now inedible fat. We were told of a time you could tell what color Ford was painting its cars by the color of the water. Mercury, lead, cadmium and chromium danced with the fish in Muhheakunnuk’s once pristine waters.
Oil started flowing down the river, in barges and railcars – turning the river into an unregulated fossil fuel highway. As the quantities of oil grew so did the risks. One spill. One crash. One loose rail-pylon. One sleepy ship-captain. One mistake could have covered these once sacred waters in a blanket of fire. Global Partners L.P., Buckeye Partners and other oil companies were collectivizing great risks as they privatized great profits. Any spill would destroy something that no amount of money could replace.
Along the journey we learned that fossil fuel transport is a double-edged sword: what spills is a disaster for the local ecosystem; but what doesn’t spill is burned, adding new fuel to the fire of the global climate crisis and adding more CO2 to the wave of greenhouse gasses already drowning our shared sky. Recent hurricanes had hit these communities hard, and as a tidal estuary, every city we visited was on the frontline of sea level rise.
Shortly before our trip began local groups had won an important victory to protect the river. A radical proposal to add 43 new oil-barge “parking spots” along the River had been overturned. Gazing at the waters off of Newburgh where one of these barges would have been, a rowing instructor told me: “I grew up in Florida. I’ve seen these things. People have no idea how big these are. They aren’t like the oil barges we’ve got now, they are bigger than aircraft carriers.” Thanks to unprecedented public participation, the proposal had been overturned, but it showed the level of risks the industry was willing to dispense upon the Muhheakunnuk and the 250,000 people who depend on her for their drinking water.
But ecological victories are never really won, they require constant vigilance, and oil barges continue to slink up and down the river each week. Additionally, unknown quantities of fracked crude oil snake their way down the river in dark railcars. Rail workers call them “Bomb Trains”, for the explosive crude is pumped into train cars never designed to hold combustible material, and sent rattling down America’s neglected rail infrastructure. “Bomb Trains” have been causing explosions all across North America as they derail. Lac Megantic, Galena, Lynchburg, Gogama, Mount Carbon, Casselton. Kingston, the first capital of New York State, could be the next city added to the growing list of towns literally blown apart by the deep greed of irresponsible negligence.
Between Kingston and Newburgh we were always on the west side of the river, and always within the blast radius of these explosives. Additionally, countless new fossil fuel infrastructure projects, such as the Pilgrim Pipelines are rearing their heads as the US empire digs its heels into its addiction to finite energy sources, threatening to increase the amount of “bomb trains” rattling across our country in order to keep new proposed oil pipelines full of flowing oil. Our work as protectors is an ongoing and constant process.
Our voyage rolled onwards, between the shining river that cradled us and the blazing sun that powered our boat. Hudson, Tivoli, Kingston, Newburgh. At each town we organized public performances and community meetings, and heard how community was organizing to resist the many-headed threats assailing each community; and at each town we shared stories from the cold months the Mohawks in our crew had spent on the front lines of Standing Rock. We were hoping to connect the story of those dedicated water protectors of Standing Rock to this populous valley – it is, after all, the same water that cycles down the Cannonball River as runs through Muhheakunnuk; the same waters that run through our own veins. But it was also the same oil. The fracked crude oil that stalked us on our journey is just another head of the black snake that curls its way across the great plains from the Bakken fields of the Dakotas, along a series of railways and pipelines towards the coasts.
Those at Standing Rock had been told to “carry the embers from Standing Rock, to ignite a thousand fires.” Each story they told was a brave seed they sowed into the soul of whoever heard it, they watered the dreams with their songs and drums. Their stories wrapped around us like the tattoos they got their final night at camp, before all their belongings were burned, to bide their time awaiting the final police raid. Something had cracked open in each of them in their long cold months in the sacred hills, and now light was pouring out from those cracks. The embers they carried were their words and songs.
One day, as Solar Sal slipped silently downstream, Jayohcee – a mohawk hip-hop artist who can’t help but rhyme when he talks – was speaking of the replica Colombus ship that was at the same time sailing upstream on the same waters. He took it as a personal offense; they had not asked permission before entering this land. Neither in 1492, neither today. “They rode up this river in their ships painted black.” He stared out at the water. “We understand everything to be metaphor – what is the metaphor of an uninvited black ship?.” The SeaChange Voyage had chosen to work with artists because of their skill as communicators. But this simple reflection: “we understand everything to be metaphor” spoke to why artists have a crucial role to play in social transformation. Artists are familiar with the world of metaphor; it is the very substance we inhabit. Nothing is just an object; everything has meaning. Perhaps it is this understanding of a world imbued with agency and magic that may work as an antidote to the loneliness of materialism. Nothing is as simple as what it seems.
Jayohcee tickled the water with his fingers; it laughed.
As we wove our journey downstream we gathered stories. Our journey, our tales and our performances acted as a magnet, and people of all passions emerged to share their own skills, thoughts and ideas. For every shareholder apathetically or ignorantly bankrolling tragedies there is someone working to restore the river. Their passionate stories wove our sorrows and plights together, to form a tapestry of community as wide and long as the Muhheakunnuk herself. Just as the countless tributaries that somehow trickle their way together to form her massive waters, so too the countless factories, fracking rigs, and pipelines release their invisible emissions into our swelling sky. But behind each smokestack and each proposed pipeline are the invisible threads of the community that wove themselves together to stop it, and those connections will remain long after the project has been stopped. For every problem there is community forming around it.
The SeaChange Voyage focused its sights on the intersection of problems and solutions – where the way we oppose becomes itself transformative; where resistance becomes resilience. This may just be the gift the climate crisis has bestowed upon these troubled times. Our shared problems are bringing us out of the isolation of the American dream and bringing us together; these problems are bigger than anyone than anyone one person. We cannot do this alone. All rivers flow to the ocean; we all live downstream.