Judy Waters: On river, Du Bois ahead of his time

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PITTSFIELD >> Earth Day 2016, a global day of environmental attention, arrives Friday at a challenging time in Berkshire County. General Electric has rejected a final EPA PCB clean-up proposal (Eagle, March 17). With the plan rejected, leaving the status of the Housatonic River in question, an inspirational voice from the past resonates today.

Returning to his home town as speaker for the 1930 annual meeting of the alumni of Searles High School, great social thinker, author, philosopher, and civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois, a native of Great Barrington, addressed the audience.

"Some of you may have thought it as a joke," he remarked of his chosen topic: the condition of the Housatonic River. "In the earlier days... this valley must have been a magnificent sight" he started, "...the Housatonic River rolling in great flood... winding here and there hurrying always on towards the sea."

Today, following decades of PCB river contamination, the speech conveys important meaning and is worth attention.

Angry despair

Du Bois recalled playing near a stream by his house in Great Barrington as a boy, delighted by its "murmurs" and "little waterfalls." But emphatically he turned his attention to the degraded condition of the Housatonic River:

"The town, the whole valley has turned its back on the river, neglected it, used it as a sewer, a drain, a place for throwing waste, poured dirt and refuse into it, turned it into something ugly." He referred to the childhood stream, now with "angry despair of its murmurs hidden by walls and culverts, and suppressed, until like a crippled pale and living thing, it disappeared."

More uplifting, he challenged his audience to think progressively and to envision centering the town around the river to encourage a more engaging cultural center. He described a central place of natural beauty, "a great natural highway," that could encourage a new spirit of aspiration. A "tiny" playground, barely noticed near the river, had come to his attention: "...yet that tiny bit foreshadows a whole park system."

Berkshire residents may be more receptive to Du Bois' words today than they were in 1930, as his speech has taken on new meaning within the PCB context.

It is not difficult to confirm that ancient, timeless Housatonic Valley beauty that Du Bois revered. As light filters through tall pines and casts changing color on Berkshire hills and waterways this spring, there is no question of the unique, graceful appeal of the Berkshire landscape.

At the same time, citizens know critically that the very topics Du Bois cited, "health, recreation, and beauty" are the resources most vulnerable to contamination. Protecting the Housatonic River, which Du Bois links with the thriving of the entire valley, tells why his speech remains so appropriate.

Change comes slowly. In an Eagle letter to the editor of May 10, 1960, a student at Searles School wrote of receiving a letter from Du Bois. Referring to his 1930 speech, Du Bois wrote to the student that little heed was given to his words. "You might renew the reminder," Du Bois suggested. It was 1960: In Pittsfield, the Housatonic River often had a stench and was filled with debris. It was too early to know the fruits of Du Bois' speech.

Today, if able to return to his Housatonic Valley, Du Bois would discover a gracious river walk, a tradition of river clean-up, and memorial river parks (www.gbriverwalk.org/site). His discoveries would include tons of river debris removed by volunteers as well as citizen involvement and advocacy that help and support the progress he envisioned.

There is an expression of Native American origin: the farther back we go in history, the clearer we see into the future. On Earth Day 2016, a visionary speech from the past becomes a beacon for future generations.

Du Bois noted in his speech, "We are judged by what we neglect." In the journey of cleaning the river, the practical and steady Berkshire character has an important role. In the impending PCB challenge, attention, character, and history will inform the path forward.

Rescue the river

A final quote from the 1930 speech resounds:

"We should rescue the Housatonic and clean it as we have never in all the years thought before of cleaning it, and seek to restore its ancient beauty; making it the center of a town, of a valley, and perhaps — who knows? — of a new measure of civilized life."

In Du Bois, we have an inspiration, a light to show the way to the future of the flowing, murmuring Housatonic.

For the full text of the speech, readers can go to: http://gbriverwalk.org/images/DuBoisRiverSpeech1930.pdf

A teacher of English to Speakers of Other Languages, the writer is a Pittsfield native writing from Pittsfield, a former resident of Richmond, and a current resident of Fitchburg.


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