Like many in my generation I learned about folk music from Pete Seeger. He taught us to sing in concert halls and auditoriums, but more often in the open air, at our rallies and protest marches. Crowds at protests in Central Park during the Vietnam years sometimes numbered in the hundreds of thousands of people. When I recall those enormous rallies, I remember a tall, lanky figure with a banjo slung around his neck and a strong, clear voice, who somehow seemed to be at the center of it all. When he raised a long arm to signal that it was our turn to sing, there were few in the vast throng filling the park that refused his call. And among all the songs we sang with Pete in those days, “Down by the Riverside” rings perhaps loudest in my memory and connects most strongly with the mission Pete Seeger chose to pursue later in his long and fruitful life, that of cleaning up the Hudson River.
And so it was down by the riverside that I most wanted to be on this last of a long string of fiercely cold days. The sun shone brightly when I arrived at Long Dock Park in Beacon, and for a blessed hour or two that afternoon the wind calmed enough for me to stand awhile on the park’s pier to take in the sights and sounds of the frozen river. And what a spectacle it was — that vast plain of ice, broken up into floes of every conceivable size and shape, piled up into ridges, or jostling against one another as the restless river stirred beneath them. A constant crashing sound rose from the river, as if panes of glass were being shattered and the dazzling sunlight made the shards, fins and shelves of ice gleam like a vast abstract sculpture. I met a woman there who was returning to work at the nearby Dia Center after having spent her lunch break perched on a rock off the pier, and we agreed that there was a kind of family resemblance between some of the artwork housed in the museum and the river today. But the river’s glittering masterpiece of ice and sky blue water was so much wilder and grander than any art made by mere human beings that it ought to be the standard by which all such work is measured.
It is true that John Burroughs, writing from his house on the opposite shore of the Hudson at West Park, complained that the river’s grandeur was too overwhelming at times “for one’s daily or hourly view.” The Hudson River was a scene of such magnificent desolation that day that as I stood before it, I could see his point. Yet, this very Beacon waterfront has been the site of many strawberry, corn and pumpkin festivals put on by the Beacon Sloop Club. I always saw Pete Seeger walking among the exhibits between performances, including mine for the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation, and sometimes he stopped to talk with me about wildlife or environmental issues. The Sloop Clearwater was often docked there for those festivals, taking folks out onto the river for sails just as Pete had envisioned it would when he founded the organization and got the boat built 45 years ago. So in a way I feel closer to this big, powerful “river that flows both ways,” whose force I felt firsthand during my Two Row Wampum kayak journey this summer, through the humanizing influence of Pete Seeger’s life and work here.
Pete always said it was the little things people did that would save the world. Governments and big money people might collaborate to shut down high profile enterprises and organizations, but how could they stop the millions of small projects that individuals and groups were carrying on without their knowledge or approval? As I strolled the riverfront paths and boardwalks of Scenic Hudson’s Long Dock Park, where cattails and red-osier dogwood, among other native plant species, have been reestablished and Phragmites and Japanese knotweed, among other invasives, have been removed, I was reminded of Pete’s principle. Here was a place literally reclaimed from the industrial wasteland of old tires, scrap metal and concrete slabs that had dominated the Hudson River waterfront in many places, restored through the effort of its citizens. Wetlands were flourishing and the shoreline was walkable again, just as the river was swimmable due to the work of Clearwater, Scenic Hudson, Riverkeeper and many other groups and individuals.
Before I left the Beacon riverfront, I noticed a single upright triangle of ice, projecting straight up out of the river, shaped just like a sail. For me it was an image of the Sloop Clearwater, and I stood transfixed, watching it, until I became aware that beneath its ice the river was on the move. Announced by much groaning and cracking of the ice, the tide had begun to turn and the floe ice to drift. The ice sloop began to sail off, slowly, down the river.