By Trebbe Johnson

Lisa Chipkin loved the ocean—and for years she had been avoiding it. Although her California home was just a few miles from the Pacific coast, the ocean made her sad. She had stopped eating fish after she learned about the mercury and other contaminants they carried. She mourned the whales, fish, and sea birds whose digestive systems were clogged with plastic waste, and she was all too familiar with the scientific data about how the oceans of the world were being damaged by climate change. But when a friend casually invited her to spend a day at the beach, she realized that her sorrow had led her to reject the very thing she loved. “If I, a person who cares deeply for the magnificence, mystery, and beauty of all the planet’s oceans, could turn away from them in disgust,” she said, “then there really was no hope for a better future. I knew it was important for me to address it.” The way Lisa addressed her sadness was to go to the ocean with her friend and their children, face the sadness, and make a gift of beauty for the ocean.

Like Lisa, many of us unconsciously turn our backs on a place we’re loath to confront. When pollution, extreme weather, human carelessness, or other acts hurt a place we care about, we often feel as if it has abandoned us, so we, in turn, may abandon it.Writer and educator Adrian Ivakhiv, who has studied the affects of the Chernobyl meltdown, refers to those broken, neglected places as “taboo.” In themselves they are not taboo, of course; they become taboo in our minds. By revisiting them and looking upon them as hurt or orphaned instead of merely ugly, sick, or toxic, we revive them in our minds and our spirits.

The organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, and its simple practice of mindful beauty-making for wounded places offers a path for rebuilding our bond with loved places and discovering creativity, community, and personal empowerment in the process. The RadJoy Practice consists of five suggested steps:

  1. Go to a wounded place
  2. Sit awhile and share your stories
  3. Get to know the place as it is now
  4. Share what you discovered
  5. Make a gift of beauty for the place

Only the first and last steps are essential. We must go to the place in person (or as close as possible if it’s toxic or off limits), because we can’t truly face our grief and anger about what has happened there until we meet the place in its current, physical state. The middle steps of the ceremony may be elaborated on or eliminated altogether, depending on the group and the circumstances. The last step, making a gift of beauty, is the key. It’s where the “radical joy” comes bursting forth. This is the act that reminds us that we can not only face hurt places, we can take a simple action to remind them—and us—of their beauty. Often the gift is a mandala or a bird, the RadJoy Bird, made out of twigs, stones, or even trash that the place itself provides.

Every year in June, around the time of the Summer Solstice, RadJoy holds an event called the Global Earth Exchange, in which people go to wounded places they love, reconnect with them, and make beauty for them. Since the first event in 2010, many people have chosen waters as the source of their grief and the recipient their gifts, honoring brooks, streams, lakes, rivers, and oceans around the world. Some, like Lisa, attend to a body of water that is under assault. When she went to the ocean with her friend and their children, she did a meditation in which she breathed in synchrony with the waves, breathing in the numbness she felt and breathing out gratitude for the ocean, until the gratitude prevailed. A scientist in Antarctica did her Global Earth Exchange for water undergoing a fearsome metamorphosis—a glacier that she sees retreating farther and farther each year from the research station where she works. Not just environmental, but social crises as well, have been the impetus for water observances. For example, a group of friends in South Africa made beauty for a beach with a troubled history of racism and violence. In Arizona a young man participated in our yearly event by joining a group of volunteers to stash water in the Sonoran Desert for exhausted immigrants trying to cross the border.

Although being on the lookout for beauty in a hurt place is an important part of the practice, it’s important to remember that beauty doesn’t necessarily reveal itself when we are first getting reacquainted with a wounded place. Meredith Little, co-founder of the School of Lost Borders, did a ceremony for the formerly lush and fertile, now desiccated, Owens Valley, whose water theft in the early 20th century was the inspiration for Walking Water’s pilgrimage. Although Meredith searched for beauty shortly after her arrival at the former lake, she was so filled with sorrow and anger that any trace of loveliness eluded her. She created a RadJoy Bird, but her mood darkened when a Department of Public Works truck arrived, and a man began checking the water pipes that had been installed to cut down on dust pollution. When the truck turned in her direction, she wondered how she would respond. And then she surprised both herself and the man by waving at him as he drove past. “His face transforms into a very big smile and a very big wave,” she wrote. “We share this wound and this wounded area. I think how loud a wounded area speaks. I wonder why I have avoided walking here before.” Meredith’s gift of beauty for Owens Lake was twofold: a bird for the place and a compassionate greeting for a stranger who represented all the trouble the place was suffering.

Water can be the subject of attention and ceremony not just when it’s hurt, but also when it arrives in such excess that it is itself responsible for hurting land and people. In Doniphan, Missouri, where many homes and businesses suffered damage after extreme flooding, Sasha Daucus convinced town authorities to let her transform an old wall at the ball park into a Mural of Hope. Several people, including the sheriff, showed up on the day of the Global Earth Exchange to paint a colorful scene of trees, flowers, and animals as a testament to their determination to survive together and return beauty to their community. And in Osaka, Japan, a coaching group made origami birds for the region of Tohoku, where many people, including school children, had lost their lives in the devastating 2011 tsunami. Hide Enomoto, who led the ceremony, later wrote, “I’m sure the world has gotten more beautiful because of this wonderful event.”

Water has also been a gift for hurt places. James Samanen, who lives near Philadelphia, offered clean water from his well to a sewage outflow system that was dumping effluent into the Schuykill River. Liz Gold and Debbie Dennison in New Mexico did an elaborate two-day ceremony that entailed bringing water from the small church at Chimayó, famous as a site of healing miracles, and giving it to land made toxic by the chemical waste from a dry cleaning business. Liz wrote of their event, “We circled the building where the containment is being managed, pouring out droplets of the spring water as we went. I also sang a song to the water.”

We deliberately kept the guidelines for this ceremony simple and flexible, so that it could be adapted by and relevant to many different groups of people. The scientist in Antarctica was probably not inclined to gather a group of colleagues together to make a bird or mandala for the diminishing glaciers. Her contribution was a beautiful photo of the glacier. Balinese farmers and staff at a small hotel would have found it bizarre to sit around talking about their feelings, but for twelve years they have joined the Global Earth Exchange by making beauty, often in conjunction with traditional ceremonies. In recent years, their focus has been on water in excess. The rainy season, which used to last from November through February, now inundates the land for months, pelting the clove and coffee buds off the trees, so there is no harvest.

Finding and making beauty for wounded waters and other hurt places is a simple ceremony, yet it has a profound impact on people. Although we cannot replaced bleached and dying coral reefs, make rivers run clear, or gather up all the bits of microplastic trash from lakes, we can give gifts of consolation and gratitude to all these places. In the process we ourselves are changed. we discover that we have more courage than we might have imagined to face what is sick and spoiled. We realize that we are capable of bold acts of generosity and creativity. We experience firsthand how the people in our community, no matter how different they may be racially, ethnically, or socially, all share a deep love of place and a great sadness when something happens to that place. Like Lisa, who returned to the wounded Pacific Ocean, we remember that nothing can truly sever our emotional and spiritual bond with a beloved place. Beauty comes in many forms, and it is given and received abundantly when we do this practice. “I didn’t even want to go to the place,” one woman wrote after doing the ceremony with friends for a polluted lake in Missouri, “and I ended up falling in love with it.”

Trebbe Johnson is the author of “The World Is a Waiting Lover: Desire and the Quest for the Beloved”, and of many articles that explore the relationship between people, nature, and myth. She is the founder of Radical Joy for Hard Times, a global community of people dedicated to finding and making beauty in wounded places.