I wake up from a light doze and search out the window for a mighty 19th century sloop looming out of the dark. But the wide Hudson River appears empty of sailing craft, with the wooded hills on the far banks disappearing into mist on this winter afternoon. Days of rain have welled the river’s strength, with the water lapping at its banks. Our train is moving north – against the rush of water downstream from Lake Tear in the Clouds, high in the Adirondacks, down towards the Atlantic. My cross-continental Amtrak train to California has just left New York, and is heading north first, before bending west.
Once the local environmentalists were Iroquois and Algonquin living on the banks, fishing – the river was full of bass, clams, shad, oysters. A local indigenous legend of the Hudson tells of a river that went to hear a fountain sing. The song was so beautiful that the river decided to sing it to the ocean. All the way to the shores of the ocean, the river sang. Soon, the mountains heard of the river’s song and came from all over the land to listen. And because the song was so beautiful the mountains settled down and stayed to listen forever.
Anger with the raw sewage, toxic chemicals and oil pollution filling the Hudson pushed protest folk singer Pete Seeger to build a replica 19th century sloop as a focal point for a grassroots movement to reclaim the river.
Seeger had been involved in class struffle, disarmament, civil rights & anti-war movements. After reading Carson’s Silent Spring in 1961, he became more involved in the newly emerging “environmental movement”. Of course, movements with environmentalist values had existed for centuries, including much of the local indigenous resistance to colonialism.
Seeger had been sailing since 1959, when he bought a seventeen-footer to sail with his kids on the river. Then on tour in England in the same year, he was inspired by the local plans to build a flotilla on the Thames to block nuclear submarine production. Over the years, Toshi (Seeger’s partner) and Seeger formed a plan to build a sloop as a community boat, to challenge the destruction of river by creating local power to fix it, rather than appealing to government.
In his biography on Seeger, David King Dunaway writes that “implicit in Seeger’s hopes for restoring the river was a notion of environmental memory. Each generation risks having its sons and daughters forget the taste of woods-scented water, the sight of a shimmering mountain lake, just as succeeding waves of people arriving at a lawn concert cannot imagine what it was like to be surrounded by empty space.”
After years of fundraising, the 106 foot Clearwater (with a 108 foot mast of Douglas fir) was launched in June 1969, with a crew of musicians. The Clearwater sailed the Hudson – cleaning up shorelines, hosting performances and bringing community together around the river. With the boat a reality, tensions increased with more conservative backers and board members over Seeger’s insistence on connecting the government’s failure to take care of the river with the ongoing war in Vietnam and resistance to the KKK. The boat was also criticised by many of Seeger & Toshi’s friends for distracting from the anti-war and black liberation struggles.
The boat still sails today, taking 15,000 school students out every year to educate them on environmental justice and ecology.