Delaware River Soundings 1994
By Cecelia Vicuna
Before being contaminated, the river would like to be heard
River Sounding began as a collaboration between Norman Lowrey and Cynthia Poten, then Delaware River Keeper, based on conversations they had centering on the need to listen in quietude and in ceremony to what the river has to say when human dominance is set aside. The initial concept quickly grew into a collaboration among several artists, who formed a planning team funded by a grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation in the spring of 1994. The planners included Pauline Oliveros, John Bromberg, Allan Gusow, David Dunn, Poten and Lowrey. Following is material from the original River Sounding 1994 Guidbook:
In asking people to come to the Delaware River to listen communally and later, after assimilating the experience, to put what was heard into form and share these creative works in celebration exhibits, we are performing a ritual for the River. By ritual we mean the process described by biologist Lyall Watson in Lightening Bird, his remarkable book about shamanism in South Africa: "Dramatic ritual is a procedure for grasping the unknown, a way of binding what is grasped into a system of belief. It is a method of incorporating into daily life what is thus grasped and bound. Such a process makes use of all the resources of the culture in which it occurs - everything from instinctive behavior at one end of the scale to language, song, dance, and art at the other."
The unknown we are grasping for, our purpose in coordinating the Soundings, is how to restore a human relationship to the River that fosters and protects the diversity of life. A belief that the River and other natural forces have consciousness and information we can receive is central to our purpose. So is a strong commitment to active listening.
Listening is the opening of River Sounding, which is a two-year project. Following this exercise in communal receptivity will be a period of individual reflection that we hope will result in the creation and exhibition of art. We are asking artists of all disciplines to translate the River's message into symbolic language, into dance, music and visual images that can be perceived by the collective, intuitive mind of humanity and forged into a new vision of human purpose. Art in the broadest context is needed. The prosaic language of progress and development is outmoded and irrelevant to the planet's environmental crisis. Democracy's regulatory, judicial and public participation forms have failed to prevent ecosystems from crumbling all around us. Yet even the most frightening problems we face - nuclear waste, climate change and the hole in the ozone - demonstrate the immense power of human creativity, a power that has been used without awareness and sensitivity for far too long. We need to use our creative power with humility and reverence and redirect it toward working in cooperation with Nature's forces, so that human power serves life instead of death.
Coordinating River Sounding has entailed an extensive outreach to artists. But our call for artists does not mean we want only artists to come and listen to the River. On the contrary, River Sounding is an experiment in communal listening. If only artists participate in this reception of the River's intelligence, we may have succeeded in attracting a lot of talent but we will have failed in our goal of crating a communal mind. Listening itself is a creative process and creativity is inherent in everyone. We believe that the River is calling for the receptive and creative powers of all its people. Our outreach to the larger community of the Delaware Valley has been equally extensive.
River Sounding affirms the necessity of aligning our communal consciousness with the consciousness of the life pool in which we are immersed, and which the constructs of our mind are impacting with such negative force. To quote Lyall Watson again, "It is no longer possible to deny that our thoughts and desires influence our environment. The most recent cosmologies all include consciousness as an active participating factor in reality. The new explanations of how the world works are strangely like the old beliefs of non-literate people everywhere. Un-dogmatic minds are much concerned with magic, and arrive, as a result, at descriptions of reality which...in the final analysis prove to be more meaningful than those we contrive by the elaborate exercise of logic and contingent mathematics. It seems that merely by admitting the possibility of unlikely events, you increase the probability of their occurrence."
We hope that the readers of the Guidebook will join us at one or more of the Delaware's seven Soundings in the coming months. Your presence will increase the probability of success for our communal experiment to find a way to balance human needs and aspirations with the River's life. In the Soundings, we are going to the source of that life, where we believe we can begin to find information we need. We believe that it is not only possible to learn from Nature, it is necessary. William Ruckelshaus, former Director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, describes this necessity very simply: "In creating the consciousness of advanced sustainability, we shall have to redefine our concepts of political and economic feasibility. These are, after all, simply human constructs; they were different in the past, and they will surely change in the future. But the earth is real, and we are obliged by the fact of our utter dependence on it to listen more closely than we have to its messages."
A final note. In agreeing to come together at seven sites along the River and hold a silence for as long as we can sustain it, we are moving beyond the confines of Western civilization's centuries-long dominance of Nature. I believe we will find hope and renewal on the other side of the barrier we have erected.
River Sounding is a conceptual art project designed to bring communal, creative listening to the Delaware River to gather from the mind of the River guidance on how human communities can restore the River's integrity and live within its ecological limits. The two-year Sounding project involves two series of community gatherings and a phase of individual meditations and creative work.
Phase I of River Sounding is comprised of seven gatherings, called Soundings, along the length of the Delaware River in the Summer and Fall of 1994. At each Sounding, participants will be encouraged to listen to the River and hold a silence for as long as it is possible to hold it. Sounding participants will first gather at a parking area away from the Sounding site, tehn proceed as a group to the Sounding site, accompanied by drumming. At the site there will be an invocation. Then, at the sounding a a conch shell, the silence will begin. During the communal silence participants will be encouraged to explore the River and its banks. While wading and swimming are not recommended at all the sites, it is appropriate for the cleaner, safer waters. When the silence is broken, stories will be told and an opportunity for questions and discussion provided.
Meditating and Creating
This phase of River Sounding will determine what we do with what we've heard. Participants will be asked to think about what was learned by listening to the River and, in the months following the Soundings, to create expressions of the Sounding experience. These expressions can be in any form and any medium. Anyone planning to work on a River Sounding piece should register with Delaware Riverkeeper Network so that we can organize for the celebration exhibits.
Celebrating and Exhibiting
The final pahse of River Sounding will be held in the Summer and Fall of 1996. There will be a final celebration Sounding Event in Philadelphia where a selection of artwork and performances will be presented.
its multiple meanings:
Vibration, the vibratory nature of
all that we experience;
light and sound;
the Indo-European roots svar and svara.
The distance over which something can be heard; earshot.
To present a particular impression.
To make known; celebrate.
Free from disease; helathy, whole.
Deep and unbroken; undisturbed.
To measure depth.
To try to learn the attitudes or opinions of...
To dive swiftly downward. (Used of a whale or fish).
To investigate; look into.
Sound, sounds, sounding, sounded...
Norman Lowrey, Boonton, NJ June, 1994
"The house that we live in is made of sound and life is a house of sound and the people are made from that sound.
"Since people are made of sound, listening is important. It is through listening that you become a true human, and a true human is a listener who is constantly attuned by working with everything that is happening.
"To become a true human, one must become conscious of listening and hearing the voice of the Great Mystery speaking through everything, through the sound of a tree, or the bird flying overhead, or the wind in the room, or someone breathing, or someone talking, or a moment of silence. The activity of sound is what made the people. It is, therefore, simply through listening, and using that listening and paying attention, that one finds the guidance of the Great Mystery along the path of life."
Joseph Rael, Being and Vibration
A simple way to hear the inner voice of the River directly and intimately is to find a stick that's shaped so that one end can be placed gently in an ear and the other end positioned in the water. The stick will act as a conductor of the sound, and when placed where water is gurgling over rocks is especially effective for discerning the multitude of sounds that are being made. Short sticks will require kneeling or bending over, placing one even closer to the source. Long sticks can be used standing up and provide greater reach. The best sticks for listening are solid and dense. Each stick will have its own acoustic properties, reinforcing different frequencies of the aquatic vibrations. Sticks can be decorated to your own liking, "conversed" with, or otherwise interacted with in order to transform them for ceremonial use, although even without such procedures, a listening stick may simply provide a means of hearing that is different enough from common experience to awaken new connections with the River.
When we were exploring Biscuit Brook as a possible Sounding site, I tried out my listening stick in one of the springs feeding the stream. I was startled by the similarity of the spring's bubbling sounds to recordings I'd heard of stellar activity - pulsars and quasars. Here, at an origin of the Delaware River were sounds like those emanating from the farthest reaches of the heavens. Two lines from Cecelia Vicuna's poetry flickered through my mind: Origin from Oriri: the coming out of the stars
Trenton Falls is the place where the River descends from the Piedmont into the Coastal Plain, and becomes subject to the ocean's tidal effects, even though it still has 135 miles to flow to the ocean. The "Falls," now more a series of rapids than a true waterfall, is the effective head of commercial navigation and the beginning of the estuary.
The Falls at Trenton are a true representation of the maturity of the River, marking a major shift in the geology of the region find the point where the tide is stopped by the altitude of the Piedmont terrain. In seeking the appropriate site for the Trenton Sounding, we discovered no easy access to the Falls from the shores of the Delaware at Trenton. This shoreline stretch of river is a major thoroughfare, supporting several major highways, railroads, and bridges. In addition, the shoreline is used by treatment plants and industrial facilities.
Before the River's shipping channel was deeply dredged in the 1940's the tide at Trenton Falls rose and fell only 4 feet; today the tidal range is 8 feet showing how much more the River here is now open to the power of the ocean.
Above the Falls the River is a flowing repository of fresh water from rain which falls on 6,780 square miles of land, carrying all that it rinses from roads, parking lots, farms and lawns. The mud, silt, oils, salts, metals, pesticides and fertilizers it delivers to the tidal estuary stay for a long time, sloshing back and forth with each tide. Many pollutants drop to the bottom and accumulate as toxic sediments.
Clearly, the Delaware River is subject to many detrimental attacks at this point in its life - dredging, navigation, and high levels of pollution. It is here especially that we must provide the River high levels of protection. This is the height of the River's reproductive cycle. In the estuary millions of fish, aquatic organisms, and plant life live and reproduce annually. If we do not bring heightened protection to the estuary, we will be irreparably damaging the River and the aquatic and human life which are dependent upon it.
Three forts line up at this point on the River -- Fort Mott in New Jersey, Fort Delaware on Peapatch Island, and Fort DuPont on the Delaware Shore. Fort Delaware was originally built protect to the ports of Wilmington and Philadelphia. Fort Delaware later became a union fortress and served as a prison for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. In August of 1863, the
The presence of these forts, emblems of conquest, make this reach of the River a fitting, site for expressing the diversity stage of Man's relationship to the River. Nearby are the cooling towers of a nuclear generating station, producing nuclear waste that, as yet, has no safe disposal site and posing to the region an ever present threat of an accidental release of radiation. The Salem
Peapatch Island is also a wildlife preserve. Partially made up of marshes, it provides habitat for one of the largest. nesting sites for wading birds on the East coast and is a summer home for herons, egrets, and ibis. This ironic juxtaposition of an old fort prison and a wildlife preserve is an apt metaphor of our civilization's adverse relationship to Nature. On the one hand we conquer and despoil, imposing deplorable and lethal conditions upon resident populations. Then we put fences around areas that can serve as refuges to protect threatened populations from the continuing conquest. Necessary as these fences are at this point in our relationship to Nature, they are yet another manifestation of our alienation.
The Delaware River reaches fulfillment in Delaware Bay, which is thirteen miles across at its widest point. The Bay is a source of fish, shellfish, and aquatic life for sustenance and recreational fishermen. At one time there was a thriving oyster industry, but the oyster native to Delaware Bay has been vanquished by viruses.
The Bay is unique in that it does not have major cities at its mouth such as the Hudson and Chesapeake Bays have. Cape Henlopen, DE is a wealth of natural habitat, comprised of a saltwater lagoon, a salt marsh, dunes, and pine forests which make the Cape a valuable home to birds, including the threatened piping plover, reptiles and mammals. Cape May is an important fishing area and miles of shoreline North of Cape May is an important stop-over for migratory shorebirds.
Although there are no ports on the Bay, it is a busy place, full! of shipping vessels, recreational boats and major cargo vessels, including oil transport ships. The Delaware Bay marks the beginning of the shipping channel which allows ships to reach ports in Wilmington, Philadelphia, and Trenton: The channel must be continually dredged and dredge spoils sites can be found in
Deepening the shipping channel will cause permanent impact on the tidal portion of the Delaware River, allowing more salt water to travel further up the estuary. As with any major engineered alteration of a water body, the impacts must be addressed through other engineered solutions, like building another reservoir so that stored fresh water may be available up stream. This fresh water is needed to protect salinity levels in the estuary. The metaphor of fulfillment poses the central question facing our relationship to the River – will we continue on the course of ever more elaborate engineering, altering the salinity, climate and hydrology of the River fulfilling a destiny of directions? Or will we commit to working in harmony with natural forces?
River Sounding is seeking creative inspiration for a communal weaving of people and the River back into the timeless fabric of being that colonial, industrial peoples tore asunder. We're not advocating the impossible idea of going back to an earlier time in history, but we are suggesting that using our inherent ability to receive information from the wild, or what is left of it, can help us restore dying ecosystems and find a way to live that sustains the interconnected community of life on earth.
We are mindful that creative imagination is not limited to artists, although they are practiced in its cultivation and skilled in transforming perception into language and material form. The art we hope the Soundings generate reflects the premise that everybody is potentially an artist because art depends upon human perception, not a particular body of skills or an individual aesthetic.
We are also mindful that the technological extension of our senses can add another dimension to the Soundings. We are planning scientific readings of the river, including recording sounds from various strata of the river. The results of these soundings can be made available to anyone interested in incorporating the data into art forms. Data gathered by Riverkeeper volunteers over the past three years will also be available for incorporation into art projects. Exhibiting and allowing for the performance of River Sounding art is central to our goal of achieving communal mind.
River Sounding began in the Fall of 1993 with a planning grant from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. Working over several months, the following people evolved the design for the Delaware River's Soundings.
Doug and July Alderfer-Abbot of Willow, NY, are a husband and wife team who grew up in the Delaware River watershed and studied art in Philadelphia. Their work is unique because they work together on all of their paintings. Alderfer-Abbott paintings have been exhibited throughout the northeastern United States, in the midwest and Arizona.
David Dunn works in a variety of sonic media, including traditional instruments, tape music, film and live electronic-acoustic performance, as well as developing a variety of interactive environmental structures. His writings and compositions have appeared in international forums, concerts, broadcasts, exhibitions and publications.
Alan Gussow, a visual and conceptual artist who is known around the world for his creation of the 1984 International Shadow Project. Twenty years ago Mr. Gussow curated the exhibit, "A Sense of Place," an exhibit with an accompanying book that put this concept into the environmentalist lexicon. In January, 1994, Mr. Gussow curated, "The Artist as Native: Reinventing Regionalism," and exhibit now traveling to museums around the nation.
Norman Lowrey, a composer and mask-maker, brought the idea of listening ceremonies to Cynthia Poten, the Delaware Riverkeeper, and together they initiated River Sounding. Lowrey has created numerous performance ceremonies using his masks, which have also been exhibited in East Coast museums and galleries. His compositions for orchestra have been performed throughout the United States and broadcast in Canada and Europe.
Pauline Oliveros of Kingston, NY, has worked at the forefront of new music composition since the fifties. She has served on the composer/librettist panel for the National Endowment for the Arts and has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship as well as several international prizes. Her Sonic Meditations and Deep Listening Pieces are improvisational works based on prose guidelines for achieving particular states of awareness and inclusive, creative involvement. Many of these have evolved into ritual environmental pieces.
Nura Petrov is a visual and conceptual artist who has collaborated on multi-media projects with poets, playwrights and film makers in London, U.S. and Canada. Her paintings can be found in numerous private and corporate collections in America and Europe. Her sculptural art projects are designed to provoke participation rather than remaining static, material entities.
Cynthia Poten has been the Delaware Riverkeeper since 1988 and is committed to bringing people together to work creatively for the River. She initiated a water quality monitoring program for the Delaware River that now has 87 sites tested twice a month by volunteers. Formerly a writer, garden designer, puppeteer and mask maker, she was funded to create collaborative theatre pieces in Hunterdon County, NJ.
Cecelia Vicuna is a native Chilean living in New York City who is considered one of the most creative artists of Latin America. She is a poet, film maker, performance artist and sculptor. Working in the tradition of the oral poetry of the High Andes, she brings forth a poetic universe of ancient resonance and new forms. She has published seven books and performs her works throughout the Americas.
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