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Trebbe Johnson

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Radical Joy for Hard Times

February 29th, 2013

Juliana Schneider

An interview with Trebbe Johnson by Juliana Schneider

JS: Could you tell me about the course you are teaching at Schumacher College in May and your non-profit organisation Radical Joy for Hard Times?

TJ: People are deeply connected to the places where they live and that they love to visit. When those places are damaged, there is no way in our culture to deal with the grief, anger, fear, and sense of complicity that arise in us in response. So what do we tend to do? We tend to ignore those places because we’re afraid that facing them will be too painful. We drive around them, we go somewhere else to hike or have picnics. Many people think there’s something wrong with them if they feel grief for a lake or a honeybee or an ash tree.

Radical Joy for Hard Times says: Yes, we are connected to these places, and when they are hurt, we hurt too. And we can’t truly change the way we live on Earth until we have a way of reconnecting with these places and reaffirming our vital relationship with them. By bringing attention and beauty to what we call “wounded places,” we empower ourselves to confront what’s difficult, gain courage to deal with problems in new ways, discover sources of creativity in ourselves and our community, and recognize that all places on Earth, no matter what has happened to them, are part of the whole web of life.

JS: Could you share how this work came into being in your life?

TJ: I like the way you phrase this. I really do feel that the work “came into being in my life,” rather than that I invented it in some way. The seed of the idea actually started to grow in 1987. I was living in New York City and writing multimedia shows. For one of them I interviewed an Oneida Indian man named David Powless. A few years earlier he had received a very prestigious grant to recycle steel waste. He told me that he was very excited when he received this news, and he drove out to an enormous mound of steel waste. He climbed to the top of the mound with two buckets that he planned to fill with samples to take back to his laboratory for analysis. When he got to the top, he exclaimed to the steel waste, “I will conquer you!” Then he realized that, according to his Native American traditions, this was an entirely wrong attitude. He told me, “I realized that the waste was an orphan from the circle of life, and that my job was to bring it back into the circle”.

I was very touched by this idea. It seemed to me a new and beautiful way of thinking about what is damaged, what is waste, what has been cut down, polluted, spoiled, broken. That waste is not bad, it is simply lost. Over the next few years, I became more and more drawn to this concept. I began to think about what an ordinary person could do when confronted with waste and waste places. Most of us can’t recycle steel waste. But we can bring attention and compassion and beauty to places that have been damaged and ignored. I’ve been a vision quest guide for many years, and it was on a fast of my own in the mountains of western California in 2008 that it came to me to create Radical Joy for Hard Times as a non-profit organization.

JS: And how can this act of healing people’s relationship with the earth reach more people?

TJ: A colleague of mine says of Radical Joy for Hard Times, that it is a path with a very deep philosophy and very simple practice. Our primary, most basic event is the Earth Exchange. Every group, every individual does the Earth Exchange in their own way, but we have five simple steps that we suggest:

1. Go with friends to a wounded place. The place can be anything that you consider wounded. If your heart aches when you think of what’s happened to it, it’s wounded. We insist that people do not risk the health or safety of themselves or anyone in the group, and do not break laws, but if you use your imagination you can find ways of doing the Earth Exchange for any place.

2. Sit a while and share your stories. During this part of the practice, people talk about what the place has meant to them, both before and after it was damaged.

3. Spend time getting to know the land as it is now. Take about 20-30 minutes to sit or walk on the land, see what you notice. Find the life, find instances of beauty, resilience, adaptation.

4. Share with the group what you discovered. Everyone has a story and it’s often by telling it that you realise what it is!

5. And finally, make an act of beauty. The act of beauty must be created by everyone present. This is a way of affirming that, no matter what has happened to a place, it has within it absolutely everything necessary to make beauty. It also affirms that, no matter who is present, everyone is an essential part of the creative process. Everyone contributes to the wellbeing of the land. The act could be a dance, a song, a prayer. But we do ask every group to make a bird out of materials they find on site. That’s important because it affirms that all places, like all people, are complete and whole and beautiful unto themselves.

In June of every year we do an international event called the Global Earth Exchange, when people all over the world make beauty at wounded places. In 2012 people made beauty at wounded places in 19 countries and on all seven continents. You can see the slide show on our website:

JS: Do you get to hear the earth’s responses to this healing? Could you give any examples?

TJ: Many people say they definitely feel the Earth respond after they have given it attention and beauty. In fact, one of the things people most often say is that they feel great love for this damaged place after just a short time being with it in this mindful, open, personal way. People have even said this about what we call in the United States “Superfund sites,” places that have been designated by the government as the most toxic places; places that are top priorities for cleaning and restoring.

Is this sense of love coming from the Earth or is it coming from the individual or from the group working in harmony together? I don’t have the answer to that, and I’m not sure at this point that it matters.

We call our event an Earth “Exchange” because we are giving back to places that have given so much to us. And what is so extraordinary is that, as a result of this attention, people feel the Earth giving back to them yet again, and in a new way!

JS: When you say wounded places do you mean areas which have been exploited by man?

TJ: Most of the places people go to were wounded because of human acts, but not all. For example, for our Global Earth Exchange a group in Japan made beautiful origami birds in honor of people who were victims of the 2011 tsunami and nuclear crisis. A man in America went to a Civil War battlefield and made beauty. We have been in contact with people in Israel and Palestine and hope to do an event there in a place where there has been so much wounding of people and place over a very long time.

JS: As I was listening to you I thought of my country, Brazil, and the Amazon forest - of how many places there must be deeply wounded. Have you heard of anyone that has tried this in the ‘Brazilian part’ of the Amazon?

TJ: Thank you for asking this. As far as I know, no one has yet done an Earth Exchange for the rain forest. It would be wonderful if that would happen next year for our Global Earth Exchange on June 22. People all over the world are aware of the plight of the rain forest, and that beautiful, beneficial, endangered place could really use some attention, compassion, and direct acts of beauty.

Trebbe Johnson teaches on the forthcoming short course: Finding Beauty and Power in Wounded Places - Earth Action for our times, 13-17 May, 2013 at Schumacher College for more details visit:




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