As we walk through our day-to-day lives, many of us regularly step past places that have been damaged, either by humans or by natural events. Trebbe Johnson—the founder and director of Radical Joy for Hard Times—calls these “wounded places,” and she is dedicated to creating a global network devoted to finding and making beauty in those places. It’s her way of connecting with, and giving thanks to, the places that surround us. Johnson’s book 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty (CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017) is centered on this concept, giving readers practical advice for how to recognize and appreciate oft-overlooked spaces. The following is an excerpt from the chapter “Meet With Friends at a Wounded Place.”
The first step of an Earth Exchange is to go to the wounded place. Being there in person, on the land or by the water, grounding yourself in the place that has fallen on hard times is very important. It’s fine to meditate on a hurt place from afar, but that’s not an Earth Exchange. Focusing on the place in your mind—or even in your heart—just maintains your separation from it. And of course, all too often, distancing is exactly the response so many of us revert to when a place is damaged or destroyed. It’s no longer what it used to be or what we wish it were, so we ignore it. It becomes, in the words of Middlebury College professor and author Adrian Ivakhiv, “taboo.” It’s off limits, officially or in the minds of people or both.
So the point of the Earth Exchange is to move out of our comfort zone and actually make a visit to this place. Think of it as a pilgrimage, a spiritual journey made with a mission. Your mission on this Earth Exchange pilgrimage is to become reacquainted with a place that is being neglected, ignored, forgotten. You go there to find out how it’s doing in its current state and also to be open to how you’re doing. You don’t have to fix anything. You don’t have to convert anyone. Your mission is not to heal either the place or the people. You’re simply there to find and make a little beauty.
Don’t worry if you feel anxiety or trepidation before you set out. Whatever you feel when you begin is likely to change into something else. You will be surprised. You will notice things you did not expect to notice and feel things you did not expect to feel.
Although this step says to “meet with friends,” it’s also fine if you go to a wounded place alone. A big part of why the Earth Exchange works is that any person can do it at any time in any place. You can plan weeks ahead for your event or you can do it on the spur of the moment whenever the need of a place and your own inclination seize you.
No matter where you go or with how many people, it is essential that you insure the health and safety of yourself and everyone else. Avoid places where the land is unstable, such as the sites of explosions, earthquakes, or rock slides. Do not expose yourself and your group to toxic waste or pollution. Don’t break laws or trespass.
The following suggestions will guide you into your first few moments of being at a wounded place.
When you come to a wounded place that makes you feel sad, don’t just walk or drive on. Risk the encounter! If you’re driving, get out of the car. If you’re walking, pause. Face the place and take it in. Note the details. What are the boundaries of this wounded place? Is there an epicenter, where the situation looks and feels worse than in other places? Note how you are feeling about witnessing what has happened or is happening. Acknowledge that your feelings confirm your connection with this place. Even if you pause for just a moment or two, you have begun to bridge the gap between a place that has fallen on hard times and the humans who can care for it.
When you are ready to enter your wounded place, step over a “threshold.” Before you and those who are with you step onto the grounds of the place you’ve chosen, make a simple threshold. It can be a line drawn in the soil, a stick, a row of stones, a branch, or other clear boundary line. Stepping mindfully over a demarcation between the world you typically inhabit and this place that has become separate from other, healthier places transforms your presence there from a mere visit into an event filled with meaning and import. The place becomes what the Greeks called a temenos, a space set aside from common use and dedicated to sacred activities. Stepping over a threshold also enables you to regard your own presence there as sacred and meaningful.
When your Earth Exchange is complete, step back over the threshold.
Move more slowly than you think you need to. When you first arrive at this wounded place, you may be tempted to proceed quickly through the steps of the Earth Exchange in order to get it over with quickly, so you can leave. Acknowledge this impulse—and then do your best to resist it. You are here to visit this place as if it were a sick friend (which it is), get to know it, and let it get to know you. So, instead of hurrying, try moving with exaggerated slowness.
Don’t run away—from the place or yourself. Whatever you feel, it will shift in a moment. Your feelings won’t destroy you. What usually happens, in fact, is that opening up to them has just the opposite effect: after a moment of intensity, the first burst of feeling passes and shifts into something else. You may even feel a sense of relief. You have faced what you did not want to face, and now you are available to new feelings such as compassion, courage, and a greater sense of connection to all life.
Practice balance. If you find that conflicting emotions are swirling within you, don’t try to choose between them. Acknowledge these opposites. They may be sorrow and fascination, anger and admiration, delight and despair, anger and hopelessness, or anything else. Imagine that you can hold these emotions gently in each of your hands. Recognizing that both are true for you in this instant means that you are able to open up to the widest possible state of presence within yourself.
Have fun. The place, the community, the nation, the world— there is plenty of sadness all around. Making a gift of beauty for a place you love and getting reacquainted with it in the process ought to provide some joy. Stephen Duncombe, founder of Creative Activism and author of Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, writes: “If progressives hope to appeal to anyone outside of a small group of self-flagellants and the terminally self-righteous, we need to cultivate and articulate positive associations with progressive politics.” So let yourself have fun.
This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from 101 Ways to Make Guerrilla Beauty by Trebbe Johnson, published by CreateSpace Independent Publishing, 2017.