Walk for a New Spring/Walking for Peace
Saturday was cold, gray and rainy; the kind of day for a good book, hot soup, and a wood burning stove. Which was exactly where I was until a phone call that changed the course of the afternoon and sent me out into the elements. Driving along County Road in Cataumet, my job was to find and photograph a group of “peace walkers” from western Massachusetts who had crossed the Bourne bridge that morning and were headed for West Falmouth by evening. Thinking they would be slower than they were and not finding them within a few miles of the bridge, I was about to give up when I came upon a small group in bright colors walking single-file, chanting and drumming, banner held high, approaching the Cataumet Methodist Church where they would stop for lunch. “We are about ten people right now, but the number fluctuates,” says organizer Tim Bullock, a man who has dedicated his life to peace activism since his first (year-long) walk to retrace the route and history of the trans-Atlantic slave trade fifteen years ago. “We invite everyone to join us. On the weekend our group gets larger; people come and people go.”
This is the 12th annual Walk for a New Spring, initiated by the Buddhist order Nipponzan Myohoji of the New England Peace Pagoda in Leverett, Massachusetts. Walking, beating a hand drum and chanting the sacred eternal prayer, Na Mu Myo Ho Ren Ge Ko, are essential practices of this order. The prayer is believed to hold within it all the healing power and all the teachings of Buddha. As “engaged Buddhists,” they are connected to circles of progressive political and social change, which include Native Americans and African Americans, as well as many of the major movements for peace and social justice in the United States.
“They’re active monks. They do these walks all around the world and build depots for peace,” says 21-year old Vanessa Lynch-Zorlu, who has been walking for peace for three years and plans to write a book that will be part memoir and part documentation of the peace and disarmament movement. “Walking is a simple action; it’s something that all of us do everyday. But when you do it together with focused intention, it becomes something so powerful,” she says. “Each night we reach a community and stop and have a potluck dinner, but as we’re walking down the road we see thousands of people. Sometimes they give us the peace sign; sometimes they are screaming at us in their cars, but either way, it’s creating dialogue in the community; it’s creating space for discussion.”
Photographing the walkers in their hats and winter gear and noticing wind burned faces, I wondered why they walk in winter. “The founder of this order believed in using the energy of the earth at mid-winter, a time when the earth begins to thaw, to open up, to spring to a time of new beginnings, new ideas, new birth,” Mr. Bullock explained. “And so we walk at this time, meeting with people in their communities to talk about issues that affect us all.” The Walks for a New Spring started in response to the terrorist attacks of 911, he explained, when communities became gripped with fear. “We felt that if we could just walk around and talk to people, that it would somehow help us all get over this fear.” The peace group is walking from Leverett to Washington, D.C., where they should arrive in early April. Along the way, they will visit communities that have nuclear power plants and those that have been affected by “super storms.” They will talk with people about how to create a more sustainable way of living and how to disarm nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction. “We have the answers,” says Bullock,” we all have the answers. We just have to come together in community and work it out.”
I caught up with the group again Saturday evening at the West Falmouth Quaker Meeting House for the potluck and talk co-sponsored by Occupy Falmouth and the Friends’ Peace and Social Order Committee. Tables overflowed with food, the walkers offered their chant and the peacefulness of their presence in thanks, and community members had a chance to mingle, ask questions and engage in dialogue.
The speaker for the evening was Charmaine White Face, a member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe of South Dakota and founder of Defenders of the Black Hills, who has joined the peace walkers for the New England portion of the walk. This is her first visit to Massachusetts, and she seemed surprised by the warm reception she has received at each stop. “People really listen. No one has shouted me down,” she said, reminding the audience that her home state of South Dakota is the most racist state in the nation. An activist, writer, and former college instructor, Ms. White Face is here to talk about the devastation wrought by the mining of uranium in the 1868 Fort Laramie Treaty Territory in the American states of Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. She spoke for over an hour to a hushed audience about the thousands of abandoned open-pit uranium mines and prospects that continue to spread the radioactive dust and water runoff that poison rivers, wildlife, and residents, and the tens of thousands of exploratory wells (left unmarked and uncapped) that have damaged and destroyed Native American burial sites, sacred sites, and aquifers in the Black Hills.
She talked about cancer rates far above the national average in the Native people of South Dakota, of rivers devoid of fish or life of any kind, of aquifers cross-contaminated with radioactivity, and communities unable to get adequate health care. At almost sixty six years old, Ms. White Face is considered an elder in her community. The “new” elders are in their forties because the true elders have all died. Despite the content of her message, Ms. White Face spoke softly, sometimes with humor, and without bitterness. She believes that the mess left by uranium mining can be cleaned up before the Great Sioux Nation is gone forever. It would take upholding the Articles of the Fort Laramie Treaty of 1868, and enacting a bill (yet to find a sponsor in Congress) created by the Defenders of the Black Hills called the Uranium Exploration and Mining Accountability Act. This bill calls for a moratorium on Uranium mining until all of the open, abandoned mines have been cleaned up. “We’re a spiritual people,” she said. “We believe in miracles.”
Ending her talk, Ms. White Face suggested a ritual that her people use after a “heavy” topic has been discussed. She and the other peace walkers stood at the front of the room, and each of us walked forward to shake their hands one by one. It took a long time. As one Friend said, “the love in that room could have saved the world.”
Please note: For more information on the New England Peace Pagoda, go to: www.newenglandpeacepagoda.org. For more information on Defenders of the Black Hills and ways to help, go to www.defendblackhills.org or write to: firstname.lastname@example.org