I was walking down the street thinking about ways to engage kids during my upcoming presentation about What On Earth Can We Do? at Newtonville Books when I found myself thinking about Pete Seeger and realized the roots of my book go back to my childhood in Croton-on-Hudson, NY. I’ll still ask questions: Do you take your own bag to the supermarket? Does your family have a compost bin? Who wants to join me for lunch at the Worm Café? But, there’s more to tell.
The dedication to What On Earth Can We Do? reads: Dedicated in loving memory to my parents, Rose and Roy Sper, who chose to bring me up in a house surrounded by trees. When I wrote these words, I was thinking how wandering in the woods on the hill behind my house gave me a strong connection to nature. Perched on my favorite rock, when the trees were bare, I could see a sliver of the Hudson. Deer roamed the hill and were common sight in our backyard. Birds were plentiful. Hedgehogs, too.
My house was a mile from the Croton Reservoir, which at one time was the main source of New York City’s drinking water. Everyday, my school bus drove over the Croton Dam. When the reservoir was low, we’d watch the water inch up to the top of the spillway until it crashed down over the massive stone steps of the spillway. We’d rush to the right side of the bus to see the dam overflowing.
The water that didn’t travel the aqueduct to New York City flowed down the Croton River. The village swimming hole, Silver Lake, was on the river below the dam. There we swam in water that made ice cubes feel warm. The early Tarzan movies were filmed a bit farther down the river, which eventually empties into the Hudson River.
Nobody swam in the Hudson. The river was polluted. I couldn’t see the toxins in the river or the striped bass full of PCBs, but when we had picnics at Croton Point Park, there were small dead fish washed up on shore. It turned out that some people not only put a toe in, but their whole bodies. In middle school, I was invited out on my friend Nancy’s motorboat. If I wanted to water ski, there was no way around jumping in. It was scary. The incentive to stay up was huge.
Pete Seeger believed we could bring the Hudson back to life and set out to bring people, up and down the river, together to take action. I remember Pete at the New York Boat Show, where he sat at an information table talking to people about building a sloop to sail the Hudson, educating people of all ages about the river. Those of us living along the river helped fundraising efforts by attending Hudson River Sloop festivals from Irvington to Poughkeepsie. Performers ranged from Pete and Arlo to counselors from Camp Trywoodie performing a Croation folk dance. When enough money was raised, the Clearwater was built. We felt a part of it.
The small festivals consolidated into one big annual festival at Croton Point with multiple stages and famous (and some local) musicians. Today’s Clearwater Festival takes place along a river where swimming, fishing, and boating are not horror film material. And today the Croton Dump is landfill. In the early years, when the festival abutted the dump, every now and then a breeze filled my nostrils with a putrid smell. “If you get lost anywhere in the county,” a friend’s mother said, “get on a dump truck.”
For an eighth grade English project, I wrote the screenplay for a film set at the Croton Dump. Nobody stopped us from climbing onto the piles of garbage.
Black-and-white: A girl is walking in the dump with a fishing pole made out of the garbage, a pole and string. She sits down on a pile of garbage and casts her line.
Cut to color: The girl is sitting on a rock at Silver Lake. She catches a fish (bought at the Grand Union supermarket) and is about to grab it.
Cut to black-and-white: The girl is back in the dump and grabs a piece of garbage. Disgusted, she throws it down and walks away.
I realize now that middle school was a time of environmental action. I was among a group of students who, with our science teacher, Mrs. Kaplan, attended an environmental hearing against building the second Indian Point Nuclear Power Plant. I remember learning how hot water discharged from the plant’s cooling system into the Hudson killed fish.
It was at a school-wide assembly in 1970 that we heard about the first Earth Day. The seventh graders cleared out garbage from the woods next to our school. A friend remembers some sort of play. After we graduated from middle school, our film was shown on Earth Day.
The highlight of seventh grade was the week we spent at Camp Rainbow, a local camp for city kids during the summer. A whole week without regular classes! We learned about tadpoles, turtles, and the natural world. There was even a hike up Bear Mountain.
And, yes, I was a Girl Scout. The draw was camping at the tip of Croton Point, where we explored the red clay banks, learned to make teepee-log cabin fires, and slept in tents. During the summer at Camp Trywoodie, camping meant dragging our S & H Green Stamps sleeping bags up a hill, building a campfire over which we cooked dinner and roasted marshmallows, singing songs, and sleeping under the stars. At Camp Med-o-Lark, I learned how to sail on Washington Pond. Then in high school I sailed on the Hudson in a program offered by the Croton Recreation Department. I loved to move with the wind over the water.
We also swam in lakes and ponds, and when they froze, we skated. Teatown Lake was the best because, even with kids playing hockey, there was still plenty of free ice. And there were islands around which to skate. I’ve never adapted to skating circles in a rink. Where are the islands? Where are the trees? Where are the birds? When I took up cross-country skiing, I skied the hiking trails around the lake. Just last weekend, on my way to New York City, I detoured to Teatown Lake Reservation. A walk around Teatown Lake is different from hiking in the White Mountains, the Blue Hills, or Middlesex Fells. It’s home.