A Conversation with Trebbe Johnson
by Richard Whittaker, Feb 9, 2012
An edited version of this interview first appeared in the Fall issue of Parabola magazine, 2012
On a recent visit to the Bay Area, I had the pleasure of meeting Trebbe Johnson and found her a passionate advocate for the healing we need both individually and in a global sense. In 1997 she founded Vision Arrow, a program that combines wilderness exploration and the search for meaning. A few years later, she founded a second program, Radical Joy for Hard Times, which evolved naturally from the first. The two programs complement each other. In her notes for Vision Quest she writes, “I don’t know anyone whose life hasn’t been an incredible journey of ups and downs, sorrow in the midst of great joy and, even more amazing, joy in the midst of the deepest chasms of sorrow.” How to make sense of it all? At some point, it’s necessary to realize that one’s own health is intimately connected to the health of the world we live in—thus her second program. And since our feelings of grief and despair about damaged nature may be mirrored by our own wounds, it’s not such a leap to see how personal healing and attending to damaged nature—to grieving what is lost and discovering nature’s hidden resilience—could resonate in profound ways.
Richard Whittaker: You have two basic platforms, so to speak, Radical Joy for Hard Times and Vision Arrow, something where you go on wilderness rites of passage journeys.
Trebbe Johnson: Yes. And then there’s my writing. That’s the thing I’ve done longer than any other thing.
RW: Vision quests and your program Radical Joy for Hard Times are both grounded in going out into nature. And I’m wondering if you’d talk a little about your own history with nature. I imagine that’s been pretty significant for you, probably going way back.
Trebbe: Yes, definitely. I grew up in the Midwest, mostly in Omaha, and I had backyards. You could say back yards were my native landscape. I never got to wilderness until was 14 or 15 and went to Wyoming.
RW: That must have been quite an experience.
Trebbe: It was exhilarating. My best friend’s grandfather had a big ranch in Wyoming. She and I went out there two summers in a row. We would leave every day after breakfast and ride bareback all over, drinking water right out of streams and exploring, cantering our horses across great big green meadows with black mountains rising up in the distance.
RW: Water right out of the steams!
Trebbe: Yes. And I can still taste it.
RW: What were your first memorable experiences of nature?
Trebbe: My first experiences were in back yards. My backyards were these magical realms. I had several of them and each one made a different kind of magic.
RW: Would you say something about that?
Trebbe: Well, there was one in Springfield, Illinois in a new housing development and there was a field behind our house. I was six or seven. I remember lying in that field late one afternoon in the fall and it came to me that if I could stare at the sky until daytime turned into night-time that I would know something about God. I would understand something about the mystery of the universe. I couldn’t do it, but there was that magic, just that connection, that there was something beyond the world of the everyday. And the way to get there was through nature. The birds knew how to do it. The ice on the puddles knew how to do it. The trees knew how to do it. And I thought that if I could just sort of soften myself that I, too, would be able to enter that world, speak that language, yet be able to come back to this world with wisdom and a story.
RW: Was there ever something bad that happened in one of your backyard sanctuaries?
Trebbe: Well, actually, I remember one thing happened that was baffling. I went into our garage in Omaha one day and there was this bird, a sparrow I think, that had gotten trapped and was hitting itself against a window trying to get out. I opened the big door for it and stood there waiting for it to notice that here was an escape route. But it just kept hitting itself against the window. It was a glimpse into an inability; it was like nature was suddenly not as able to see and perceive everything in the way I had imagined it could. In other words, nature was still as close as one could get to God, but it wasn’t infallible. It made mistakes.
RW: That’s an interesting example. Stuck in that garage, the bird’s life in nature has been taken away from it.
Trebbe: Yes. And following that analogy, it’s going in the only direction it recognizes, toward the one thing that looks like nature.
RW: What was that experience like? You were pretty young, I take it.
Trebbe: I was eight, nine. It was appalling, but it was also kind of fascinating. I remember finding things that adults would consider kind of disgusting like a mouse with its head chewed off or soft spots in the ground that weren’t supposed to be soft that you might find with your fingers. There was something just fascinating about that. It was real. It was life. Two of the great lessons I learned from my back yards was that nature doesn’t lie and it has room for everything—life, death, mutation, disintegration, blooming, hatching. Everything.
RW: Yes. And nature is there, even in a backyard. Now I wanted to ask you about Radical Joy For Hard Times. Tell me about that name. What is beneath the choice of those words?
Trebbe: The concept is much older than the name. It preceded it by twenty years. I lived in New York for many years and for most of that time I was a freelance writer and soundtrack producer for multi-media presentations. At that time, I was very engaged with Native American issues and was spending a lot of time on the Navajo and Hopi reservations writing about a land dispute that was forcing many traditional people off their land. And I read in an American Indian magazine about an Oneida man named David Powless, an engineer who’d received a National Science Foundation grant to recycle steel waste. I ended up interviewing him for a multimedia production. He told me how he’d gone to the place in California where there was this enormous mound of steel waste. He climbed up to the top of it with his buckets to get samples of it and when he reached the top, it he said, “I will conquer you!” Then he realized, he told me, that was the wrong approach. The steel scrap was orphaned from the circle of life and his job was not to conquer it, but to bring it back into the circle of life. I was so struck by that. It just struck a chord in me, that waste was part of a natural process. And the concept of waste as an orphan was very powerful. It implied that what had been used up and tossed away, something that was reviled, was somehow innocent and still alive and worthy of respect.
RW: Yes. I’ve understood that in Native American culture the things that have been part of life, let’s say a television set, when it’s no longer working, it’s still kept around and allowed to continue on its way back into the earth. The whole cycle is respected.
Trebbe: A Hopi man told me that when he parks his truck he likes to find another one from the same manufacturer and park next to it because then the metals would recognize each other. [laughs]
RW: I did want to bring up the question of anthropomorphizing things, like “the land has been wounded.”
Trebbe: I think that saying some aspect of nature is wounded is different from anthropomorphizing, which is thinking that the non-human is suddenly behaving in a way that’s human, that the non-human has human emotions.
RW: I understand having a problem there. For instance, I have a feeling, but a place couldn’t have a feeling.
Trebbe: Yeah, but I think people take that too far. They use the word “anthropomorphizing” when they’re not even close to saying the place is sad. What they’re saying is, “I feel sad. I feel sad that the dogwood is gone. I’m heartbroken that the frogs aren’t there in my pond anymore.” It’s okay to admit you love a place! Several years ago I wrote an article for Sierra Magazine about the link between ecology and religion. I interviewed Carl Pope, who at the time was the president of the Sierra Club. He said, “One of the words we don’t hear much in environmental literature is ‘love.’”
RW: Aren’t these personal responses that happen when people go out into damaged places one of the most important things?
Trebbe: Yes. Especially in our culture, because just as we have very few practices to cope with the illness or death of a person we love, we have no way to deal with the demise of places we love. Radical Joy for Hard Times acknowledges the love we have for places and our helplessness and sorrow when they are lost. That place has played a role in who you are and what you know of the world. And the love, the relationship is still there, even though the place is damaged or even destroyed.
RW: This feels like something we really need. So how does this all work then, with your programs?
Trebbe: Well, here’s where my two kinds of programs merge. The Vision Arrow programs are based on [the mythic quest--could this phrase be deleted? It rings kind of grandiloquent to me] and on expanding and deepening people’s natural way of responding to nature, with a few hints and tips given by us guides. It’s a very simple process. It’s about noticing what’s around you in the natural world and noting your own response to it, and exploring that.
What the Vision Arrow programs do, is they invite people to go into a wilderness area and to heighten their awareness of this perception of the outside and their response on the inside. Very often people will react to places that are burned or mined or somehow damaged and it will trigger something in their own psyche that has been damaged and needs to be repaired, needs to be healed. And they’ll spend a lot of time on that. The coalmine or the tree struck by lightning issues an invitation to examine their own life in a way that’s very different from therapy or reading a book or thinking rationally. And that will be part of their journey.
On the other hand, the experience with a Radical Joy for Hard Times program, which we call the Earth Exchange, is that the focus is less about someone’s personal inner journey—though of course that will be part of it—than it is on giving back to a place you love and that has become damaged, or “wounded.” What Radical Joy For Hard Times does that’s different from [a Vision Arrow program] is it says this is very likely to come up for you, AND this is about the relation between the person and the place. It’s less about having personal revelations than it is about giving back to the world that has given so much to us.
RW: Okay. So when you give back to the world, what are you giving back?
Trebbe: Well, we give back attention, compassion, and beauty with Radical Joy For Hard Times.
RW: Can you give some examples of giving beauty back?
Trebbe: Different groups will do it in different ways. The most basic way, actually, is simply to give attention to a place that people have typically ignored, whether it’s a clearcut forest or the polluted river that runs through your hometown or the lot around the incinerator that’s puffing away at the end of your block. Simply taking time to sit quietly for a while and see what’s there without needing to “fix” it is a new experience for most people. The other way of giving beauty back is to create something there at the place, made from elements of the place, that you will leave behind. What we recommend is for people to make a design on the earth in that place, usually of the bird that’s our symbol. This bird goes flying into the troubled areas, singing. If you go to our website you can see examples of the amazingly beautiful and creative birds that people all over the world have made out of wood and ashes and plastic bottles and trash and tires and stones that have been dug up from the earth for gas drilling.
RW: Okay. And making the birds is giving back beauty to the earth?
Trebbe: Yes. That’s giving back beauty to the earth. It’s the visible, tangible manifestation of giving compassion, curiosity, and love.
RW: Do you think the earth knows it’s receiving all this?
Trebbe: I have no idea. Some of the people who go on our trips and do these Earth Exchanges say they feel the earth is receiving. In northern Bali, where a group of Balinese farmers have participated in our annual Global Earth Exchanges each year, they would probably say that the spirits are receiving the offerings. David Powless, the Oneida man I talked about earlier and who is now on our Council of Advisors, told me recently that the Earth knows that it’s being respected and cared for. As a white person with a mystical bent, I would say the Earth on some level knows it’s receiving beauty.
But what’s really important is that the people who go there know they are giving beauty. They are reaching beyond an old attitude toward this place and striking up a renewed relationship with it. When a place is damaged most people want to shut it out of their consciousness.
RW: Could you share a story as an example?
Trebbe: A friend of mine who grew up in Tucson was really distraught because of the housing developments that were climbing up into the desert foothills where she had loved hiking. She was so distressed about that. So for our Global Earth Exchange, the annual event when people all over the world go to make beauty at wounded places, she went out to one of those housing developments and drove around slowly. She saw people taking care of their gardens and children playing. She realized that for the people living out there, this was nature. She drove a little higher up into the mountains and sat by a small church and looked down over the city and those housing developments swarming up the hills. People in the church were getting ready for a wedding and someone was playing the organ. Her willingness to see differently filled her with a sense of peace and compassion. She’s still not thrilled with the urban sprawl of Tucson, but she says she’s no longer filled with bitterness and resentment.
Radical Joy for Hard Times invites people to come into relationship with a place they love, acknowledging how much it means to them then It’s looking at the place in a new way. So instead of pretending it doesn’t exist, it’s actually going to a damaged place and seeing it with new eyes. Simply being willing to look is the first step—being willing to acknowledge what this place means to you. Then, to make that attention and love tangible, they create the act of beauty. It’s a simple act and we recommend using materials that are already on hand, because it’s like saying: The place is damaged, but it’s still an integral part of the Earth and of the community. All the elements of beauty are already here.
And there’s something about that creative act, which people participate in together, of simply creating a bird—and sometimes people drum or sing or pray or have a ceremony—there’s something about doing a creative act on behalf of a place that’s transforming.
RW: It sounds so simple, but I can easily imagine these things opening up some deep places.
Trebbe: Yes, and we have guidelines. For example, the first one is: go to a wounded place. The second one is: sit awhile and share your stories. What did the place mean to you? What was your relationship with it? What happened to it? —whether it was clear-cut or paved, or whatever.
RW: When you share the story, you mean coming back at the end of the day to share the story?
Trebbe: We’re with one another. Usually people begin the event by sharing the stories of what the place has meant to them, both before and after it was damaged. Later, after they’ve had some time to spend alone sitting or walking reflectively, they usually share what they saw or discovered or what occurred to them. For example, a small group of us went to a forest that had been burned in a fire. One of the women sat by a charred sapling. It made her think of her sister, who was undergoing radiation treatments for cancer, and she sat with that small, helpless tree and wept, and then she sang it a lullaby. A man followed an emaciated buck through the lifeless forest, amazed at how determined it was to survive. Somebody else found a little green shoot growing out of the ashes and gave it his water to nourish it. It is likely that none of these people would have thought previously about going to spend some reflective time in a burned forest, yet all had revelations that were quite profound. And yes, though their attention was on the place, it was also mirrored in their own lives.
RW: Do people always go with others?
Trebbe: Well, you don’t have to. You can also go by yourself and, if you’re alone, you sit and reflect on it. The third step is just be there. Get to know the place as it is now. And that’s hard because we have this idea that it’s ruined, damaged beyond repair and it will simply make us too sad to face that, or else that, Hey, it’s broken, so that must mean I need to fix it. The fourth step is making beauty.
The third step is where the unknown often comes in. It’s about being willing to be there face to face with a place the same way you would with a person who’s ill or dying, your dear friend. Their life is different than it was when they were healthy. You can’t fix them. Yet the love remains. So are you willing to just sit there and find out what they are like now? To attend to them, to bear witness?
RW: That could be powerful.
RW: You mention the unknown coming in. How do you see the role of the unknown in all of this?
Trebbe: First, the future of the natural systems of Planet Earth is unknown. We know we’re in an emergency situation, but how it will unfold is a mystery. How will we live with this unknown? A lot of urgent and essential work is being done to stave off trouble, but we also have to have a way of coping with the wounded places that are in our lives now. In learning how to live with the current-now, we develop practices and attitudes that will help us live with the future-now, which—let’s be realistic—is going to bring destruction to more and more of the places we love.
Another aspect of the unknown is that we do these acts of attention and beauty on behalf of what we love in a way that’s ephemeral and almost anonymous. The act of beauty stays at the place. It will disintegrate with the weather or perhaps it will be dismantled and taken away. No one takes it home to display as art. No one signs their name as the artist. It’s not meant to transform the place in a lasting ecological way. Projects like reforesting or picking up litter are vital acts that have intended consequences. But by simply giving beauty, you are not invested in the consequences of your act. The consequences are unknown. You do it and let it go because the act itself is worth doing.
Finally, on the most basic level, when you go to a wounded place, or any place for that matter, with a sense of openness and curiosity and the willingness to see what’s there without tampering with it, you have no idea what’s going to occur. Years ago, when I was still trying to figure out the path that would become Radical Joy for Hard Times, I went with a friend, a former Air Force pilot, to an abandoned bombing range near Pensacola, Florida. Swallows were using the artillery holes blown into the sides of the cliff to make their nests. A sight like that pierces you with a radical joy you never expected to feel under such circumstances.
Trebbe Johnson is the author of three books, including Radical Joy for Hard Times: Finding Meaning and Making Beauty in Earth's Broken Places and The World Is a Waiting Lover and many articles and essays that explore the human bond with nature. She is also the founder and director of the global community Radical Joy for Hard Times, devoted to finding and making beauty in wounded places. Trebbe has led contemplative journeys in a clear-cut forest in British Columbia, Ground Zero in New York, the Sahara Desert, and other places. She lives in rural northeastern Pennsylvania.