After•Word Trebbe Johson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth’s Broken Places (North Atlantic Books, 2018)

Just before running out the door on the morning of September 27th, my eye was caught by a brief article in the paper announcing that a Trump Company proposal to build a 550–unit luxury housing development on Scotland’s untouched Northeast coastline had been approved by the Aberdeenshire Council. It was the day of our climate march here in Montreal and I was heading out early to get a glimpse of Greta Thunberg herself. The march was huge beyond anyone’s expectations, half a million strong (so no, I didn’t get the glimpse), more children and young people gathered in one place than I’d ever seen before, by turns angry and hopeful as they brandished signs reading “Make the planet great (or alternatively GRETA) again.” It was uplifting, energizing, but it did not dislodge the lump of bad news in my gut. I have never been to those Scottish shores, but they are a lot like the Norwegian shoreline I know and love from summers spent there with family. The idea of a Trump makeover in that place, on that scale, was not something I wanted to have to imagine.

The question that animates Trebbe Johnson’s Radical Joy for Hard Times is this: “When a place we love is harmed—how are we to be?” Note the question is not “what are we to do.” The places Johnson has in mind are harmed beyond repair. They will never be great again. (Think Chernobyl, Deep Water Horizon.) This is NOT, as its title might lead you to expect, a feel–good book. Like Metzger in “Extinction Illness,” Johnson is asking us how we are to meet situations “for which there is no discoverable cure.”

“When the place you love is harmed, you feel many things, and amid them all reigns the recognition that not only the place itself, but your relationship with it, has changed. You can no longer depend on what you believed would hold you securely… The ground beneath your feet—the ground beneath your heart—can no longer be trusted because it has ceased to support you the way it once did…” Environmental devastation, Johnson explains, is the worst kind because there is “no hope, no chance to relax, no sense of reassurance.” And yet, she insists, devastated places continue to deserve our love.

When a human we love has been injured beyond repair, it does not, at least for the most part, occur to us to just leave. But let’s face it, when the places we love are badly harmed, the temptation is to stay as far away as possible. Who wants to be reminded of the suburb that replaced the desert vista? The strip mall that replaced the freshmeadow? In 2012 I was part of a group of activists who came together in the hopes of saving one of Quebec’s last great free–flowing rivers from a Hydro–Quebec megadam. We made two trips up north, fifteen hours each way. The first trip was to map out our strategy, but also to spend time in the pristine woods that lined the banks of the Romaine River and to climb the rocks beside the mighty falls that were to be sacrificed to the dam. On our second trip, we managed to block access to the construction site for a good five hours. Our efforts resulted in a long line of angry truckers—and in our being carted away in handcuffs in police vans. Since that date two more phases of the project have been completed, the second flooding 85.8 square kilometres of land. A giant reservoir now sits where the river used to run its wild course and a complex of concrete spillways and turbines has replaced the falls—the Grandes Chutes as they were called. I don’t think it ever occurred to any one of us who loved that river, who paddled it, who put many long hours into trying to save it, to make the long trip back there to witness these changes in person, to be with the river as it is now. Reading Johnson’s book has made me ask myself: why? If we love a place, then how do we justify abandoning it because it has been rendered unrecognizable?

It’s a question that Trebbe Johnson has lived from the inside. In 2008 her rural Pennsylvania neighbors were talked into selling off acreage for fracking operations. The result was a personal nightmare. “Stuck behind fracking trucks on a narrow, hilly road, I would scream obscenities at the top of my lungs. Looking out at night at the bleach stains of white light that the drilling sites spilled over the dark, rippling hills we call the Endless Mountains, I felt sick, beaten up, betrayed.” Today, over twenty years later, Johnson has not abandoned her home; she still lives in the heart of fracking country. From this book we learn how she came to make peace with the scarred land, the trucks, the gas pads.

Johnson would say that a turning point in her life was her 1987 encounter with David Powliss, an Oneida Nations man who had been given a grant by the National Science Foundation to find a way to recycle steel waste. His efforts went nowhere until he had an epiphany: “Waste is not an enemy, but an orphan from the circle of life.” His job, he realized, was to bring the waste back into that circle from which it had been separated. Inspired by Powliss, Johnson, living in New York at the time, began to see orphans everywhere, from the garbage bags lining her street on collection day to the rivers that bordered Manhattan. “As I walked among the city looking for such environmental waifs, my attitude toward them began to change. I began to feel a kind of tenderness toward them.”

Fostering such changes in attitude would become Johnson’s life work. As a rites of passage wilderness guide, she had already been in the habit of releasing groups of people into the wild, including scenes of devastation, to have their own experiences of intimacy—and “disarrangement,” as she puts it, borrowing from French poet Francis Ponge. In 2008, inspired by a vision quest of her own, she founded a non–profit organization called Radical Joy for Hard Times, whose focus has been on sponsoring events in wounded places, offering gratitude and creating beauty there.

Johnson is a compelling storyteller and the stories she tells of the gifts people offer and the changes they go through, both on the trips she guides and at these events, are the heart of this book. By paying deep attention to what they encounter in orphaned places, people often make important discoveries about themselves. Scott, tripped by a piece of barbed wire in the forest, sits down with it and the feelings it brings up and eventually comes to an understanding of the traps he has created in his love life. Rob, whose daughter has attempted suicide, visits a Colorado forest ravaged by both wildfires and the pine bark beetle and receives the message that nature has no judgment about either of these misfortunes, which helps him to accept what has happened in his own family. In another burned forest, Carolyn is drawn to a charred sapling and breaks down in grief for her sister who is undergoing radiation and chemotherapy.

A woman in fracking country in Western Pennsylvania has a story much like Johnson’s. “(S)urrounded on all sides by rigs, flares and the sounds of heavy industry,” she was feeling sick and miserable until she began to stop her car at fracking sites to truly witness what was there. Her testimony: “It takes courage to go to that torn–apart land and stay with it. I’ve gotten better. When I first moved here I would witness a well pad and get sick to my stomach and drive on. Now I stop the car and offer a moment of silence, reverence. The land is not offering, we’re taking. I feel that that’s the best I can do: acknowledge the taking and just witness that.”

Radical Joy for Hard Times is among other things a deeply philosophical book with references that range from Plotinus and Horace to David Abram and Susan Griffin. The writing throughout is beautiful and rich in poetic references. But for me, what is most valuable about it is the wise counsel it offers. From this book we learn how to be with broken places, both inside and out. How to gaze without staring. To listen without asking. To attend without trying to fix. Acceptance is key here, but Johnson makes it very clear that by acceptance she does not mean capitulation. Far from it. “Acceptance means I am finally available to the entire spectrum of creative response.” Acceptance liberates us to act from our deepest most playful impulses. And this is where joy comes in.

The story Johnson tells at the very end of the book, a personal one, is a glorious case in point. It’s an instance of pure joy— involving a spontaneous dance on a gas–drilling pad. Because it seizes us in the most unlikely moments, Johnson writes, joy can feel “illogical,” even “outrageous.” But we must nonetheless offer ourselves to it completely, as she does in this moment on the pad, because joy is “a sudden full–bodied epiphany that you are part of the murky, marvelous, ceaseless surge of life…”

I could not have imagined ever wanting to go back up north to the site of the Grandes Chutes (now known as the Complexe Romaine), but Johnson’s book has forced me to rethink that. It’s a long haul, yes, but I feel now that I owe it to that river; all of us who ever loved it and protested on its behalf owe it to that river to return to it now, to sit on the banks of the giant reservoir, or perhaps even at the edge of the spillway that’s replaced those majestic falls…. to settle in there and gaze, and listen, and wait… And not to resist should life surprise us by surging through in some heretofore unimaginable way.

About the Author

Lise Weil, editor of Dark Matter: Women Witnessing, was founder and editor of the US feminist review Trivia: A Journal of Ideas (1982-1991) and co-founder of its online offshoot Trivia: Voices of Feminism, which she edited through 2011 ( Her memoir, In Search of Pure Lust (She Writes Press, U.S., Inanna Press, Canada) is a finalist for an International Book Award. She lives in Montreal and teaches in Goddard College’s Graduate Institute, where she recently helped found a concentration in Embodiment Studies.

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