Noni Brynjolson is a writer and curator from Winnipeg who is interested in public and socially engaged art. She is a recent graduate of the Master’s program in Art History at Concordia University in Montreal and currently works as the Distribution Coordinator at the Winnipeg Film Group. She writes art reviews for Akimbo, and can be followed @NoniBrynjolson on Twitter.

(Stories) Funeral for the Don River

@ Water's Edge

@ Water’s Edge

In 1969, a funeral was held for the Don River in Toronto. The river had been dying a slow death for a long time, and according to the Toronto Telegram, the funeral was long overdue. The river was contaminated by raw sewage, effluents from heavy industry, and high levels of nutrients and E. coli. From the late eighteenth century onwards, factories, tanneries, breweries and mills began to line the Don river. They used it as a source of power and as a quick way to dispose of waste. In 1886, parts of the riverbank underwent a massive reconstruction that involved straightening the course of the river to reduce flooding, improve rail access and increase the value of surrounding land. This was referred to by the city as an ‘improvement,’ although all that was improved was the human ability to exploit the waterway more efficiently.

People treated the Don as a dumping ground and sewer. It was valued for its ability to enhance business and industry, not for its natural qualities. It was not just heavy industry that was to blame for the death of the Don, though, but the everyday actions of Torontonians over more than a century. Like many urban rivers, it became a cesspool of contaminants from pesticides, detergents and other products. It was muddy brown some days, and bright colours other days, when dyes from the paper mill were dumped into the water.

In 1969, a group called Pollution Probe formed in Toronto. Environmental action groups were forming across North America, and Pollution Probe was the first of its kind in Canada. One of their first actions was a funeral for the Don River. They put up posters which said “Pollution Probe regrets to announce the untimely passing of the Don River and invites all grief stricken parties to weep and gnash their teeth at a funeral.” Many of the group’s members were students at the University of Toronto. Among them was Peter Love, who would go on to be Ontario’s Chief Energy Conservation Officer. Several hundred people attended the funeral. A cavalcade of cars made its way from the University of Toronto, to the Prince Edward viaduct along the Don River. Love’s station wagon led the unusual group of mourners and served as the hearse, carrying pails of dirty river water instead of a body.

A funeral service was then held on the banks of the Don. Several members of Pollution Probe wore 18th century period costumes, and told stories about the days when the river was clean and healthy. Meredith Ware was dressed as Elizabeth Simcoe, who was the wife of John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada. In the 1790s, Elizabeth Simcoe had written in her diary about the beauty of the river, and its abundant supply of salmon. She also made drawings and sketches that captured a very different scenery from the current Toronto landscape. Ware read from Simcoe’s diary about the beauty of the river, and her speech served to remind those in attendance that the Don had not always been sick. Another Pollution Probe member was dressed up as “Sir Simon Greed,” a wealthy industrialist who spoke about the necessity of polluting the river in order to further the development of industry and commerce. Near the end of the funeral, Greed was pied in the face, drawing cheers and applause from the crowd.

Pollution Probe’s funeral for the Don River was an action borrowed from the tradition of street theatre, which became a popular mode of protest in the 1960s. The environmental movement was new in Canada at that time, and for many people, the funeral for the Don River would have been an introduction. Pollution Probe succeeded in drawing attention to the issue, and the event was covered by newspapers and media stations across the country. Pollution Probe could have used other means to deliver their message – they could have published a study or lobbied city politicians. Instead, they chose an unorthodox method that was meant to turn heads and get people to take notice. Their artistic action was, in part, a well calculated attempt to gain media attention, but it was also a symbolic gesture meant to stir emotions and emphasize the gravity of the issue. The performance took place in public space, and suggested to those in attendance that while the demise of the river had been caused by political will bending to economic interests, the will of the people could generate change and perhaps turn things around for the Don.

I Tried to Move

I Tried to Move

This is exactly what happened in the decades following the funeral. The Don River has seen a partial rebirth, with wetlands surrounding the river now in the process of being restored, and millions of trees having been planted along the river. Thousands of people use the river for leisure purposes, walking, cycling or runnings along its banks. Canoeing and kayaking is becoming more popular. The diversity of plant species lining the banks has increased, and there are sections along the river where it is difficult to believe that one is actually still in Toronto. Parts of the Don now look like they did when Elizabeth Simcoe painted her watercolours more than two hundred years ago.

While the water quality has improved, it could still be much better. It is not safe to swim in the Don, since there are high levels of E. coli, phosphorus and chloride, which leak into the river through urban runoff. However, thanks to the cumulative actions of individuals and groups like Pollution Probe, there is more public awareness about the pollution issues that affect the Don River. There is also a stronger public understanding of what needs to be done immediately and in the long term in order to improve water quality. Environmental groups have significantly helped to influence public opinion, making the restoration of the Don River an issue to which governments have been forced to respond. As an example of this, the City of Toronto implemented a 25 year plan in 2003 that aims to deal with flooding, and would greatly reduce the level of contaminants that make their way into the river system.

Pollution Probe’s mock funeral helped to bring attention to a polluted river. The action they performed was humorous, poignant, and engaging. It was an interruption in the everyday lives of urban dwellers, and it encouraged Torontonians to reconsider the relationship between themselves and their natural environment. The Don River still needs rehabilitation, but thanks to actions like this one, it now has a pulse.

Further Reading

 

Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

(Stories) Pete Seeger & the Hudson River Sloop

For Pete Seeger, music and political protest have always gone hand in hand. The folk singer and activist has worked tirelessly for different causes throughout his career. He has sung in labour marches, protested the war in Vietnam, and performed at civil rights events, always with banjo in hand. Seeger loved to bring people together, and always wanted the audience to sing with him and struggle with him to make a more just world. There could be no sweeter sound for Seeger than thousands of people harmonizing to the lyrics: “Oh, deep in my heart, I do believe, We shall overcome, some day.”

Warning

Warning

Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955. He was sentenced to a year in jail for his evasive answers, since he refused to give details about where he had performed, or incriminate anyone he had associated with. Seeger appealed the case successfully and managed to avoid jail time, but he was blacklisted and banned from the airwaves, many public performance venues and college campuses until the late 1960s. The incident was a reminder of how threatening words and songs can be to those in power, and how far they will go to prevent oppositional viewpoints from gaining momentum.

In the late 1960s, Seeger began to focus his efforts on the burgeoning environmental movement in the United States. This came from reassessing his place in the world, and thinking about the issues that affected him personally. Seeger had always been interested in the outdoors, and had built his own house on a hilltop in Beacon, New York, where he and his wife, Toshi Seeger, still live. All Pete had to do was step out into his backyard and stare into the polluted sludge that was the Hudson River, and he found a cause. At the turn of the 20th century the river was much clearer. One could swim without worrying about swallowing raw sewage, and eat fish from the river without worrying about mercury poisoning. Decades of PCB contamination from General Electric and other companies in the region had poisoned the river, as had pesticide use, heavy metals, and dioxins. It got to the point where most people in New York thought it was beyond saving; a toxic chemical dumping ground instead of a river.

Luckily, Seeger was used to people telling him it was pointless to try to change things. He dreamed up an idea that seemed harebrained to many of his friends: he would build a replica of a Dutch sailing sloop – a ship that was common to the Hudson in the 18th and 19th centuries. Perhaps, he thought, something majestic and unexpected would bring people to the river, and would inspire them to help save it. It was around this time that Seeger wrote My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song):

Sailing down my dirty stream
Still I love it and I’ll keep the dream
That some day, though maybe not this year
My Hudson River will once again run clear.

With the support of friends and environmentalists from the region, the Clearwater sloop was built and launched in 1969. It was 106 feet long, with a wood frame and massive 3,000 square-foot sail. It looked like it was from another era. The ship became a site for environmental advocacy and public education about the Hudson River. Since it first set sail, hundreds of thousands of people have boarded the Clearwater to learn about the fragile ecosystem surrounding the Hudson.

Seeger was a constant thorn in the side of the establishment, and he was labeled a communist and brought before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1955.

Seeger’s initial idea gave way to Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., a nonprofit organization run by environmentalists, educators, and a sailing crew. The group organizes sailing trips onboard the Clearwater geared towards a variety of different audiences. It hosts schools, community outreach programs, corporate groups and aspiring environmentalists. Its main program is the “Sailing Classroom,” which was designed for school groups. A typical outing might involve kids being introduced to the history of the Hudson River, the Clearwater sloop, and the modern environmental movement. Each sailing trip can be designed around a theme, including history, anthropology, geography, biology, art, music and poetry. Different stations are set up on the boat by volunteers, and students have the chance to visit five of them during a three hour sail. At one station, students get hands-on experience learning about fish of the Hudson River. At another, students learn how to monitor the quality of the river water, and perform simple tests to measure salinity, dissolved oxygen, pH and turbidity. An art station encourages students to learn about painters of the Hudson River school, and make their own artworks onboard that are inspired by the river. The idea behind the stations is to get students actively involved in learning about the Hudson. Through creative ways of teaching, the Clearwater continues to spread knowledge and awareness about cleanup efforts. Their work over the past several decades is a reminder that when people work together, small actions add up and can lead to real, measurable changes.

Since it first set sail, the Clearwater has played a major role in environmental advocacy in New York, and has helped to put pressure on governments to change laws. The Clean Water Act was passed by the the federal government in 1972, three years after the Clearwater set sail. PCBs were banned in 1977, and GE was forced to spend millions of dollars to dredge up PCB-contaminated sludge from the Hudson. The river is slowing getting cleaner, and mercury levels in fish have decreased considerably. The Clearwater continues to spread awareness about the river and the role that humans play in shaping the ecosystem around them. The clean up act continues, and the sloop that Pete Seeger dreamed into being has been a big part of the movement. The ship was meant to pique curiosity and inspire action. Like one of Seeger’s songs, it started with one voice, and then grew into a chorus of folks united in their desire for change:

Come along with me
Upon this broad old river.
We will see what we can do.
For when we work together
In all kinds of weather
There’s no telling what the power of the people and the river can do.
(Broad Old River by Pete Seeger, Dan Einbender, Travis Jeffrey, Al Nejmeh, and Steve Stanne)

Sources:

  • Dunaway, David King. How Can I Keep from Singing? The Ballad of Pete Seeger. New  York: Villard, 2008.

Songs:

  • “Broad Old River,” on the album Fast Folk Musical Magazine (Vol. 1, No. 2), released by Folkways Records in 1984.
  • “My Dirty Stream (The Hudson River Song),” on the album God Bless the Grass, released by Folkways Records in 1982.
  • “We Shall Overcome Someday,” on the album We Shall Overcome, released by Columbia Records in 1963.

Talking Water Project|Noni Brynjolson (2013)

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