Guerrilla Beauty

5,969 total words    

24 minutes of reading

When the levees breached and New Orleans waters started surging under the front door of their home, Delores Ossevaito and her husband didn’t have time to grab anything except their two dogs before dashing outside, unmooring their boat, and jumping in. For four days and nights, as the detritus of Hurricane Katrina slurped around them, they had nothing to eat and no idea what was going to happen to them once the waters receded. It was tough, Ossevaito told a reporter. Then she added, “It was fun sleeping in the boat, though, because we could look out and look at all the stars.”[1]How extraordinary that a person could be seized with wonder while floating on a city-wide cesspool of waste, death, and loss; that she could, in fact, label any part of that experience as “fun” and admit that a gift of stars and a rocking boat for a bed had helped.

Moments of beauty, awe, gratitude, or grace can pierce even the most tragic of circumstances, offering the unthinkable proposition that relief, if not imminent, is at least imaginable. Sometimes, when those moments do occur, the inclination is to try to shove them away. We dismiss them as inappropriate, as though grief and grief alone has the right to claim this stage in our life and must be allowed right now its full, uninterrupted soliloquy. We fear that by permitting ourselves that brief ascent to delight, we are being disloyal to other suffering people. Or we worry that by falling, even for a moment, into the arms of happiness, we’ll lose our credibility as a suffering person, along with the expressions of sympathy that accompany it.

But those instants of capture by rapture aren’t wrong or rude or selfish, they’re medicine from the ineffable. They remind us that our human sensibility is so much quirkier and more complex than we assume. Moments of beauty jog our consciousness into that old truth we knew as children—that we are, each of us, endowed with a mysterious, easily accessible, and intimate connection with this world, and that magic can pop up and amaze us at any time. Grabbing the beauty that shoots through brokenness and taking the risk to pass it on just might save the Earth—or at least our life on Earth.

The scale of awareness about the immediacy of climate change has tipped. A study by Yale Program on Climate Change Communication in 2018 found that 49 percent of the public was certain that global warming is a threat, up from 37 percent just three years earlier.[2] Regularly now we witness our planet burning, flooding, drying up, melting, and sinking as human beings desperately seek refuge. Climate change is massive, unpredictable, and immune to nothing. It is invisible itself, though its manifestations show up all too graphically as the ruined places that once were homes and habitats. All over the world it’s happening, everywhere different, everywhere unpreventable, and all we know is that those treasured, reliable elements that used to compose our own particular seasons have been let loose, like wild deer fleeing a forest as the whapping blades of a helicopter shadow overhead. We hope it won’t be too bad where we live. We desperately hope our children will still have some refuge of nature to play in and marvel at. And when we consider the lives, the ecology, the very meaning of “nature” that our grandchildren will inherit, well, that’s something we can hardly bear to do. Even the most stubborn optimists, who hoped a warmer climate might mean something pleasant like orange groves in Vermont, are worried now. We recognize, too, that climate change is not just about a long spate of really bad weather. It’s also about homelessness, the collapse of cities, disease, mass migrations of desperate people, the demise of millions of animals and plants, hoarding, fear, and anxiety. We have much to mourn.

The Australian philosopher and activist Glenn Albrecht coined a term, solastalgia, for this particular brand of geographical mourning: the pain one feels when the place one lives in and loves is under assault. He also defines it as “the homesickness you feel when you’re still at home.” The pain of solastalgia is likely to afflict just about every human on Earth within the next decades because of climate change and other ecological crises. How, then, will we cope? How will we prepare? What kinds of thinking and behavior can we patch together to help us manage? I’m not talking about driving less, writing a check to save the polar bears, or converting your home to solar energy. I mean: How will you, how will I, how will any of us not just survive, but live in a way that generates some modicum of meaning, compassion, and creativity in the midst of hard times? How will we preserve not just our sanity but our sense of wonder, generosity, and creativity in the midst of chaos and loss? Where will we find the inner, personal motivation to keep taking the actions we believe in, even if we doubt that they’ll make one whit of difference to the fate of the Earth or even our own community? Will we ever laugh again? Will we love? How, in other words, will we thrive?

When I consider an immense and complex problem, I tend to assume that any solution must be equally immense and complex. This solution, whatever it ends up being, is likely to be in somebody else’s hands. I may have an opinion of what ought to happen, but I consider myself powerless to affect it in any way. If I try to imagine the solving process, I picture a team of people with impressive resumes, frowning and debating as they draw up blueprints. I picture the process as strategic, expensive, and involving months, maybe years, of work. Yet massive, complex problems also require small and simple solutions. They demand actions and responses that will preserve, and even nurture, our sanity, our humanity, and our sense of wonder while those experts—including, perhaps, ourselves—are working out more enduring solutions. We need temporal, intangible gifts we can grasp as we’re filling out yet another FEMA form, staring out the window at the thick black skyscape of a wildfire, or turning on fans and music throughout the house to muffle the thumps of gas fracking. We need actions we can take at any time without having to consult an expert, volunteer for a charity, write a check, or mobilize other people. We need something that doesn’t cost a cent and that anyone of any race or religion or politics can do at any time, no matter how young or old, able or disabled. We need actions that will offer a dose of courage, a conviction that change is possible, and the motivation to pass that moment of kindness, beauty, or awe along to others, even if these actions don’t have a direct impact on the huge physical reality pressing down on us.

I’m talking about ushering in a shift in practice along the lines of the Keep America Beautiful program. Founded in 1953, this initiative made Americans aware of all the careless ways in which they were in the habit of letting go of the stuff they were finished with and no longer wanted. Keep America Beautiful reports that people’s behavior has shifted significantly, and that littering decreased by 61 percent between 1968 and 2009.[3] In considering how we live and even thrive on a challenged planet, I’m also talking about a shift in perspective, like the one that’s flipped thinking on same-sex marriage. A poll conducted by NBC News and the Wall Street Journal in March 2015 showed that 60 percent of Americans favored marriage between people of the same sex, whereas just twelve years earlier, only 33 percent of those who answered that question considered gay marriage acceptable.[4] In that relatively short time—considering the stagnant pace of racial equality—the formerly odd and uncomfortable had morphed into the perfectly logical and unremarkable. Something like that needs to happen to the way we respond to the places and situations that are filling us with solastalgia, powerlessness, and despair. A moment of finding and making beauty can soothe the mind, bring a little joy to someone else, exercise creative faculties for other solutions, and remind us that we are not, after all, powerless to change our circumstances.

On Christmas night the year I was twenty-six, my mother was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. In the four months that scraped along between our discovery of her illness and her death, I used will power, work, and a lot of scotch to medicate a grief so deep it felt like my own metastasizing tumor. During the week, I lived and worked in New York City, and on weekends I took the train to Connecticut to help my younger brother take care of our mother. One gray late Sunday afternoon, as the train back to Grand Central stopped briefly at one of the towns along Long Island Sound, I caught a glimpse out the window of the shoreline beyond the station. Waves were crashing against the rocks and sliding back to sea. Back and forth they went, in and out, in and out, because they were waves and unstoppable. The sight of them, the awareness that they cared nothing for human sorrow and would continue their rhythmic mission no matter what I or my mother lived through, sliced right through my sorrow. I knew at that moment that I would survive, survive even this, and also that there would be more grief at some future time in my life and I would survive that, too, because the waves would keep doing what they had to do. Many times since then I have called upon those waves to get me through a difficult time, and they have never failed me. 

When such moments of rapture seize us in the midst of suffering and despair, they do not eradicate sorrow. But they are to be grasped and cherished, for they bring grace and a brief but urgently needed caress. They are gifts you can accept with gratitude, as Delores Ossevaito did, and be beholden to no one in particular. Even in the midst of crisis, the moon rises at night, birds sing in the morning, and wildflowers bloom in the midst of rubble. Those birds will sing anyway, and the flowers will bloom—but anyone who takes a moment both to notice this wonder and to relish it as well is doubly rewarded. When I’m broken open to the depths of my being, my defenses fall. When I am helpless, scared, on edge, barely able to stand, then I’m also no longer capable of dashing through my ordinary routes and preoccupations while scarcely noticing anything that’s not of immediate relevance to my agenda. My familiar territory, emotional as well as physical, has collapsed into rubble, my old way of perceiving gone with it. Those moments of beauty, if I’m open to them, remind me that something else is possible, that beauty exists in the world and that it can arise, even for me, even now. “There is a crack in everything,” Leonard Cohen sang. “That’s how the light gets in.”

Of course, I’m not proposing that we gather the family and head out to ogle a sunset the color of tropical fruits and pretend it’s unrelated to the calamity of wildfires burning half a continent away. This is not about feeling good when another Appalachian mountain has been leveled by a coal corporation or telling yourself that, well, there must be some tigers still living somewhere when you hear that the last white rhino has been killed. To open to beauty is not to deny the enormity of the problems that plague us, nor is it to lounge about in a smiley fugue state while the world around us shudders. The beauty we need does not deceive us. It doesn’t whitewash dark reality; it just pierces that darkness with a bright shaft of wonder. Nor is an instant of beauty an augur from some higher realm that things are about to change and go our way. It will decidedly not replace the many actions that will be ever more vital to live and survive and make change. It can and should, however, fit into and accompany any of those actions, whether they are political, educational, artistic, legal, domestic, or social. Practical actions change circumstances; beauty changes the way we bear up for those actions.

If it takes effort for me to accept that light can momentarily illuminate the dark, it takes more effort still to risk sowing some light of my own into the dark places around me. Suffering paralyzes. Disaster, when it grabs us personally, upends our ability to think rationally and act sensibly. In fact, in times of stress, the actual physiology of the brain undergoes a change. Ordinarily, the prefrontal cortex, located behind the forehead and responsible for planning, rational thought, and problem solving, and the anterior cingulate cortex, which is deeper in the brain and moderates strong emotions, work well together. Another part of the brain, the amygdala, deeper still within the skull, is sometimes called “the fear center.” Its job is to determine what in our environment is a threat and to warn us away from it. If the three functions are in sync, as they normally are, they steady us and prevent us from reacting in harmful ways when our emotions are on edge. If they’re not, we do things we later regret, like cutting too close to a car whose highway behavior affronts us. In a traumatized person the whole tripartite system goes out of whack. The prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex become underactive, while the fear response amps up.[5] A person who was already having trouble coping gets confused, disoriented, and edgy. The depth and breadth of what must somehow be dealt with seem so vast that anything else in the world—including people—that isn’t immediately relatable to your own distress and its possible relief can look like mere annoyance that must be tolerated, not engaged. Tempers flare. Patience wears thin, especially when the emergency situation keeps demanding attention and effort and enduring long lines, food and gas shortages, and difficult living conditions. A woman whose little beachside home on the Florida coast was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in 2017 told me that she and her friends referred to the mental condition they found themselves suffering as “Hurricane Brain.” In those weeks after the storm, she would walk into a grocery store only to discover that she had no idea what she ought to buy. Every time she returned to the site of her house, she would pick through the scattered debris without any sense of what was worth saving and what she really ought to start thinking of as scrap.

Yet if calamity stuns the senses and triggers outbursts, it also compels some people to act with courage and compassion. In the spring of 2019, for example, a young Kansas woman purchased every last pair of shoes from a local Payless store that was going out of business and donated them to people in Nebraska who had lost their homes and farms to the spring floods. When Hurricane Harvey left many Houstonians homeless, a man who owned a chain of mattress stores turned his showrooms into shelters for those needing a place to stay. After Hurricane Sandy doused the power grid in New York City, young people trooped up and down flights of stairs in their apartment buildings, checking on elderly neighbors. The news media can be relied upon to ferret out these stories of courage and self-sacrifice, not only because they tell us that there’s light in the darkness, but also because they imbue us with a spark of hope or intention that we, too, will demonstrate efficacious acts of beauty in hard times. Writing in Forbes magazine, Jean Case argues that such instances of compassion and generosity give all of us reason to believe that Americans will behave compassionately as ecological crises mount.[6] They indicate that people aren’t as divided as we think, that humans are very inventive, and that both the public and private sectors will respond.

In the thick of an emergency it is the stuff of survival that people need: food, water, medicine, clothes, a place to sleep. As the crisis itself begins to fade and survivors start to patch together the components of a new life, acts of beauty—and beautiful acts—can have a profound impact. When former residents of the Coffey Park section of Santa Rosa, California, spotted a Christmas tree splashing its colored lights over a patch of charred ground littered with the remains of burnt trees and burnt houses, they got excited. Then they got motivated. The battery-lit tree that Tricia Woods and her family had put up on what had been their front lawn before the entire community was consumed by wildfire three months earlier instantly became a beacon of stubborn determination to prevail. Soon other former neighbors were putting up trees of their own. Some added fanciful touches, such as a sign leaning against a charred mailbox directing Santa Claus to the family’s temporary home. A twelve-year-old girl did a dance around the tree her family trimmed.

At the Za’atari Refugee Camp in Jordan making beauty has become not just an occasional response to a grim situation but a survival tool. Artist Joel Bergner (a.k.a. Joel Artista) works with residents of all ages to transform this second-largest refugee camp in the world, current home to around one hundred thousand displaced Syrians, into an exuberant practice of defiance against despair. Under his guidance, the residents have turned a dusty, plantless environment into a kind of makeshift fantasy land, with large, brilliantly colored murals on walls, in washrooms, and on tents. Painted baby strollers, wheelbarrows, and tools keep whimsy and creativity on the move. Artista and his team also teach non-violent communication and lead conversations with the youth about what they miss about their home country and what they want for their own future.[7]

Directly addressing grief over the loss of home or even a revered feature of an entire homeland can also be an act of beauty. After the Valley Fire in Northern California in 2015, artist Sage Abella offered art classes to help people cope with the losses. Her goal was to encourage people to express their experience of both the burned land around them and the emotional landscape within. The classes were loosely organized, and people could come and go at any time, a schedule easy on those who were so traumatized they often found it hard to concentrate. And yet the invitation to tune in to their individual reality and, in their own way, express it proved strong medicine. One woman was so distraught at first that she sat sobbing while others painted. Finally she picked up a piece of paper and went into the garden, where she devoted her attention to trying to recreate the color of a rare lotus that had bloomed in her own garden just before the fire. A woman who barely spoke made a painting eight feet high. A war veteran from San Francisco filled his truck with art supplies and brought them to the class, then stayed to share his own experiences with post-traumatic stress. The ash is the medicine, Abella realized one day as she picked up a chunk of charred gray pine. She added chunks of cinder to the paint and pastels as a medium for the artworks.

In 2019, Iceland held a funeral for a glacier. The former Okjökull is now simply a mountain called Ok, since scientists have bisected it from the second part of its name, which means glacier in Icelandic. To mark the passing of this important natural feature, which once spanned twenty-four square miles, Iceland’s prime minister, along with other officials, scientists, and members of the public, climbed the bare, stony slopes to a place where a bronze plaque had been affixed to a rock. The plaque contained information about the glacier and a message written by author Andri Snaer Magnason to future generations: “This monument is to acknowledge what is happening and what needs to be done. Only you know if we did it.”

A ceremony for a land form that is no more, seasonal festivity where it’s least expected, art in and for a bleak place—you could think of these combinations of defiant art making and madcap confrontation of despair as “guerrilla beauty.” The Spanish term guerrilla warfare refers to a kind of fighting, like that in Nicaragua and El Salvador during the 1980s, when small, independent groups of local combatants launched quick, stealthy attacks against large, institutionalized armies. Guerrilla beauty likewise aims at making bold, often anonymous strikes in order to reclaim territory in hostile hands. In this case, however, the enemy is not the military but an environmental siege, as well as the human neglect, denial, and helplessness that so often accompany it. Like guerrilla warriors, purveyors of guerrilla beauty tend to consist of a casual alliance of untrained but dedicated agents. Unlike guerrilla warriors, their aim is not to destroy but to create—wherever and whenever they can.

As we brace for the ramifications of climate change and ask ourselves how we will cope, we must also begin the practice of bringing guerrilla beauty more deliberately into our daily lives. We will need to deliver these spontaneous, good-for-nothing-measurable acts in order to pierce gloom and worry with color, connection, acceptance, and joy, both for ourselves and for others. Although it may seem at first contradictory, even absurd, to suggest that cultivating beauty in hard times is an act of survival, just the opposite is true. In times of stress and grief, it is common to feel that I’m bricked up behind a great wall of isolation, helplessness, and a future that will drag on and on without relief. I feel isolated, sure that the depth of my suffering can never be understood. And yet, when I dare to push just a little way through that seemingly impenetrable wall of enisled misery, I discover that it is permeable. The problem itself doesn’t budge, but a soft, fragrant breeze of possibility wafts in. Suddenly I am, yes, still in the grip of sorrow but also able to grasp and bestow a larger consciousness that is full of surprises. I am, in a sense, empowered, for I see that there is something I can do, not just in the future, but right now, in this very minute. I may not be able to change the course of events, at least not immediately, but I can dramatically change the course of a moment.

If receiving beauty is an inhalation, an absorption of some slim but impactful instance of grace that I take into myself, then giving beauty is an exhalation, a form I express outward into the world. Making something whimsical, symbolic, public, or deeply personal out of chaos, brokenness, and sadness is how I and my companion guerrilla beautifiers shift reality in a way we can immediately feel. Both the offering itself and the making of it make the difference. Together they defy destruction, powerlessness, and despair. Subtly but poignantly they inform me that I am still, despite everything, an agent of my life in the world and an influencer of the lives of others. Both the act and the action meet deconstructionist Jacques Derrida’s definition of the gift: “the extraordinary, the unusual, the strange, the extravagant, the absurd, the mad.”[8] And it doesn’t take a crisis to begin the practice. Any ordinary day offers an opportunity. You stop and listen to all the sounds you can hear right then and there without judging good and bad. You decide to pause every few steps on a walk through a place you know well and at each stop pick something beautiful to acknowledge. You tie ribbons on an ash or piñon tree that’s been killed by insect predation. You visit a place that’s been cut down or paved over and spend some time there, getting to know it as it is now. You meditate or sing, kiss the ground or let your tears fall to the ground as you stand before a gas fracking or coal mining site. You bow your head to the dead animals you pass on the highway. You let a friend know how much you appreciate her. You inhale, exhale, take, give, take, give. Sometimes you’re not sure whether you’re giving or taking.

Guerrilla beauty, like other expressions of compassion and creative collaboration, has been shown to shift feelings and motivate actions in givers and receivers alike. A 2008 study by Michael Norton and colleagues at Harvard Business School found that of all the people who received bonuses at a Boston-based company, those who reported feeling happier were those who had spent their money on others rather than those who had spent it on themselves.[9] Beautiful acts also tend to stimulate further beautiful acts, as is evinced in the ways homeless neighbors of Coffey Park transformed their cindered lawns into a festive park, as if the burnt lands themselves were reinvigorated by a new kind of beauty that in turn invigorated the humans who grieved them. Studies suggest that acts of generosity inspire others in ways that may never be evident to the first giver, a kind of “pay it forward” ripple effect. Moreover, in his 2016 study Stanford University psychologist Jamil Zaki showed that empathy—and by extension the actions that arise from it—is not a fixed trait that one is born with but is actually more like a muscle that we can strengthen with practice. Zaki’s team of researchers gave participants a one dollar “bonus” in addition to the fee they received for completing the study and asked them to look over a list of charitable organizations and decide if they would like to contribute to any of them. Those who believed that other people had contributed generously tended to make higher donations themselves. “We find that people imitate not only the particulars of positive actions, but also the spirit underlying them,” Zaki said. “This implies that kindness itself is contagious, and that that it can cascade across people, taking on new forms along the way.”[10] This spirit of positive action inspired a group of young student activists in Colorado at the annual Global Earth Exchange sponsored by the organization I founded, Radical Joy for Hard Times, a day when people are invited to go to “wounded places” and make gifts of beauty for them. For several years, Naropa University faculty member Christi Strickland took her students to Boulder’s Valmont Coal Plant to reflect on the impact of coal in the United States, to find some beauty around the gargantuan plant, and then to make a bird out of found materials. One year the group was in the midst of their event when a coal train came chugging through, stopping a line of cars. The students realized that the mood of appreciation and creativity they were bringing to the plant that day differed greatly from the protest about coal-fired power plants many of them had attended angrily just a few weeks earlier. They started walking among the cars, waving and smiling at people, who responded in kind.

Beauty alone won’t save the Earth, of course. Action is crucial and must include legislative, educational, judicial, agricultural, spiritual, and many other kinds of responses. The making of beauty, however, can be part of any other branch of redress for the Earth’s great problems. We must make our communities as lovely and welcoming as possible, even when they are faltering under the assaults of climate change and other ecological challenges. We must offer funeral ceremonies for decapitated mountains, the sick soil of brownfields, and vanishing bats and honeybees. We must teach our children to look up from the glowing screens of their devices into the night sky and delight in even a few pale stars piercing the bleach of city lights. Instead of avoiding clearcut forests, we must visit them and reflect awhile on the decades of their growth and the mere seconds of our use of the products for which they’ve been sacrificed. We must develop active compassion and beautiful acts for people who are suffering, even when those people adhere to religious or political beliefs different from our own. We must take time within the framework of our passionate activism to share the stories of what the river or canyon or historic neighborhood means to those of us who are working so hard to save it. We must appreciate one another whenever we can, not just inwardly but with words. And we must seek the beauty of the natural world many times every day, no matter where we are—and whenever we find it, we have absolutely got to pause for a moment to drink in the gift it’s offering.

When I’ve suggested to people that beauty just might save the Earth, I often encounter raised eyebrows or even guffaws. Environmental activists tell me that focusing on beauty when a gigantic chemical plant is going up on the banks of the river where they used to kayak is a waste of time and energy. They want to fight, and their passion tells them that the chemical make-up of a fighting attitude must vaporize any tendencies toward sorrow or love. Others believe that calling attention to beauty, given and received, in bad situations is a form of passivity, that to “accept” current circumstances in any way is to capitulate to everything that’s wrong. There are those, too—including those who would not consider themselves religious—who feel that opening up to appreciation, surprise, play, or even humor in a scene of ugliness and loss is somehow akin to sacrilege or just morally off-kilter.

However, survival—and what I call “thrival”—depends both on working for change in the future and taking right action in the present. On one level, your entire body and your mind as best as it’s able are taking in the total picture of your predicament. You’ve got a desperate situation, and you can’t pretend otherwise. Of course, you want things to be different and, depending upon what kind of person you are, you may be trying to bring that difference into form through protest, volunteering, prayer, art, or counseling. Or you may be going to a movie to forget it all. At the same time, embedded in each and every moment of the larger reality like seeds in the ground of a vast field, are opportunities for those “extraordinary, unusual, strange” gift-acts. Rather than making beauty as a way to forget a hard predicament, we do so as a way of acknowledging that predicament and the deep affect it has on our lives, as well as reminding ourselves that we wield some power over it. We make beauty in the moment in order to bear up for the hour or day or week. Having done so, we feel renewed energy to continue with other expressions of activism and a revitalized sense of camaraderie with the people we’re working beside.

Some people want to know how they can create the kind of beauty that will replace grief. It’s not possible, of course. Beauty and generosity cannot overcome the pervasive sense of loss and sorrow we feel for our living Earth. But if we are open to the possibility of giving and receiving such simple offerings of bounty, a feeling of astonishment will often shoot through us like a bolt of lightning illuminating a dark sky and throwing a sudden, brief reveal of a world that, though it may fade quickly back to black, has imprinted itself on our consciousness by the very fact that it did, indeed, shoot and illumine. 

In October 2010, six months after BP’s Deep Water Horizon rig exploded and began spewing oil into the Gulf of Mexico, and three months after the well had been capped, Radical Joy for Hard Times organized an event called Gulf Coast Rising, inviting people in areas hit by the oil spill to devote a day to giving beauty and generosity to friends and to the land and water of the Gulf. In Alabama, a group of friends gathered for dinner and storytelling. At the annual Voodoo Festival in New Orleans, the renowned Treme Brass Band dedicated a song to Gulf Coast Rising and entreated the audience to raise their arms aloft in solidarity. In Florida, a woman drummed and sang for endangered oysters. I drove out to Grand Isle with my collaborator on the project, Margaret Saizan of Baton Rouge, for our event. The southern shore of this long, pencil-shaped island just south of the Louisiana mainland faces the open water of the Gulf, so it was directly in line of the surge of oil and the chemical dispersants meant to break it up. The fishing businesses of families on the island had been destroyed, and vast numbers of wildlife had died from the oil that greased their feathers, clogged their digestive tracts, and spurted through their blowholes.

But on that October morning, to an eye unhindered by the brain’s knowledge of what had occurred, the day was beautiful. The sun was shining, and the water was midnight blue. Before us, over the seawall, the Gulf gave no indication that a full-scale emergency had rolled in for weeks, although in the bayous off to the west we could see enormous clawed vehicles getting on with the beach clean-up. We turned inland and began our project. Over the years Margaret and her friends had created several labyrinths in public places, and our plan was to make a large one here in the sand and fill it with birdseed as a gift for the wildlife.

We were just finishing when we noticed that a pod of dolphins had swum up no more than fifteen feet from the seawall. We hopped out of the labyrinth and dashed over to watch. The dolphins dove and rose, dove and rose, stitching together water and air with those arcing leaps called “porpoising.” Our first, shared reaction was utter delight. Those dolphins seemed nothing less than a visitation, a gift, a token of life and possibility at a dark time. For a few minutes we stood together on the wall exulting as we watched them. Soon, though, a cloud of foreboding passed over us, as awareness arose that every time the dolphins quit the clear blue air and rejoined the water, they were returning to a lethal habitat. Although the well had been capped, the Gulf was still toxic. The dolphins were at the top of the food chain, and that chain of nourishment was poisoned all the way down the line. We fell silent. These animals could not possibly survive long. They were playful and exuberant and right before us, and they were likely doomed. It was difficult to balance that knowing, but it was the only possible response to the moment. All we could do was stand on this fragile, frightening edge: taking in the worst and the best in one moment.

Now and in the years to come, we will need both acts of beauty and beautiful acts to get us through our planet’s great challenges. It won’t be easy. There will be times when making an outrageous, collaborative mural at a flooded school or offering a coat to a stranger is, given our own dire predicament at the moment, the very last thing we feel inclined to do. That’s all right. We don’t have to be heroes. Yet stretching beyond the comfortable and personal to the unknown and shared is in itself an act of heroism, and what we touch in that mysterious beyond is, more often than not, amazement. Beauty might just save the Earth—or at least our life on Earth.

Photo credits: Trebbe Johnson.


[1] G. Allen, “Escaping New Orleans by Water,” Weekend Edition, National Public Radio, September 3, 2005.

[2] A. Leiserowitz, E. Maibach, C. Roser-Renouf, et al., “Climate Change in the American Mind: March 2018,” Yale Program on Climate Change Communication, April 17, 2018,

[3] P. Wesley Schultz and S.R. Stein, “Executive Summary: Litter in America: 2009 National Litter Research Findings and Recommendations,” Keep American Beautiful, 2009,

[4] C. Dann, “Attitudes Toward Gay Marriage Shifted Significantly over Past 12 Years,”, April 28, 2015,

[5] J. Sweeton,”How to Heal the Traumatized Brain,” Psychology Today, March 13, 2017,

[6] J. Case, “Five Signs For Hope After Harvey And Irma,” Forbes, September 12, 2017,

[7] J. Artista, “The Syrian Refugee Art Initiative,”,

[8] Quoted in A. Primavesi, “The Preoriginal Gift—and Our Response to It,” in Ecospirit: Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, ed. L. Kearns and C. Keller (New York: Fordham University Press, 2007), 230.

[9] C. Walsh, “Money Spent on Others Can Buy Happiness,” Harvard News Office, The Harvard Gazette, April 17, 2008,

[10] J. Zaki, “Kindness Contagion,” Scientific American, July 26, 2016,

  • Trebbe Johnson

    Trebbe Johnson’s books include 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty and Radical Joy for Hard Times. She is the founder and director of Radical Joy for Hard Times, a non-profit organization devoted to finding and making beauty in wounded places.

Scroll to Top