This year we lost three brilliant lights who will be remembered long after their time, both for their natural gifts and their passion for nature, social and environmental justice, and the fate of the world – Pete Seeger, Peter Matthiessen and Jonathan Schell.
Pete Seeger: Mentor, Performer, Truth Teller
The Hudson River played a leading role in Pete Seeger’s life, starting in the late 1940s when he bought land overlooking the water (in Beacon NY) and built a rustic log cabin for his young family – minus indoor plumbing and electricity.
Seeger (who died January 27 at age 94) was an environmental activist, civil rights champion, truth-teller, composer/performer, mentor to musicians, legendary man of conscience. Songs he wrote or co-wrote – and brought forward into the modern folk music idiom– say volumes about his sense of ethics, war, justice, environmental and civil rights. If I Had a Hammer and Where Have All the Flowers Gone? became antiwar and protest standards. Turn! Turn! Turn! was his interpretation from the Book of Ecclesiastes and became a folk-rock hit. He revised and introduced the anthem We Shall Overcome to the civil rights movement. Listen to the music
Increasingly concerned about water quality and pollution, Pete devised his own scheme– some would say improbable – building the 120-foot sloop Clearwater, piloted by a crew of musicians, that cruised to festivals and events to crusade for cleaner water on the Hudson.
His nonprofit organization, Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, spent years in activism and litigation with General Electric for the pollution it dumped into the Hudson. Finally in May 2009 GE took responsibility for the damage by dredging the polluted sediment it had dumped. Learn about the Clearwater Sloop and nonprofit
The annual Clearwater Festival he founded 49 years ago, takes place June 21-22 and will honor the legacy of Pete and his wife Toshi Seeger at Croton Point Park in Croton-On-Hudson NY. Music headliners includ Lucinda Williams, Norah Jones, and Rufus Wainwright
Peter Matthiessen: A Man of Many Parts
Writer, diarist, adventurer, naturalist, even a professional fisherman (for a time), Peter Matthiessen, who died April 5, channeled travel, life, experience and his inward realm as a Zen Buddhist into more than 30 books (both fiction and nonfiction) as well as years as a writer for The New Yorker. The late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould called him “our greatest modern nature writer in the lyrical tradition.” He won the 1978 National Book Award for The Snow Leopard.
If you travel through his books, the journey will take you to wilds of Asia, Australia, South America, Africa, New Guinea, the Florida swamps and the ocean realm. And the companions he adventured with: the late Michael Rockefeller to New Guinea, biologist George Schaller to Nepal in deeply spiritual search of the snow leopard they never saw (The Snow Leopard), farmworker rights advocate Cesar Chavez in the fields of California.
Matthiessen shared with readers, whether through nonfiction or his preferred medium of fiction, a world that most of us could never experience firsthand – and given a half-century of deforestation, habitat loss and extinction since he first ventured forth – a world that may never exist again. Read his last interview (New York Times Magazine 4/6/2014)
Read Part 1 of The Cloud Forest in The New Yorker
Jonathan Schell: Disarm the World
Like Peter Matthiessen, Schell, who died March 26, was a prolific nonfiction writer for The New Yorker, where several of his most important books began as pieces for the magazine. His breakout book in 1982– The Fate of the Earth –spoke eloquently of ridding the world of nuclear armaments and the perils of failing to doing so. The book was a major inspiration for the 1983 TV movie drama, The Day After, which looked at the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
The Times obituary notes, “ In 1999, a panel of experts convened by New York University chose The Fate of the Earth as one of the 20th century’s 100 best works of journalism, alongside John Hersey’s Hiroshima and Ida M. Tarbell’s History of the Standard Oil Company.”
An early book on The Village of Ben Suc was his firsthand account of a U.S. aerial campaign to level the Vietnamese village 30 miles from Saigon. Schell’s other books include The Gift of Time: The Case for Abolishing Nuclear Weapons Now, The Unfinished Twentieth Century and The Seventh Decade: The New Shape of Nuclear Danger. Given our geopolitical uncertainties with Pakistan, Russia, Iran and North Korea, his writings on a nuclear weapons-free world seems more current than ever. Learn more about The Fate of the Earth
Watch a video with Jonathan Schell, Frankie Fitzgerald and Chris Hedges (78 mins) in 2013 (panel at The New School)